Association Constellation

I like mental models. I think most of us do. In the digital age where we drink from firehoses of streaming data, we are drawn to the powerful simplicity of mental models: “Understand this handful of guidelines and you will understand much more of the world than you would have been able to otherwise”.

I tend to view them as constellations – it’s my mental model for mental models.

Constructing Constellations 🐝

I tend to think of mental models, or any abstraction really, as a sort of constellation: The stars are a collection of data-points – real, observable phenomena in the world. The constellation is the abstraction we use to wrap those observables in meaningful and useful ways. Like actual constellations, abstraction allows us to navigate the world amid a sea of otherwise umanageable data-points – much like how polynesians navigated the actual sea via actual constellations:

“These constellations…described arcs in the sky…could translate into thirty-two different directions around the circle of the horizon…From their own island, [polynesians] could map out the location of all of the islands in their area by locating what stars they should be under at particular moments at night, and they knew how this position would change to another star as they traveled toward their destination. The Islanders had no writing system. Apprentice navigators simply had to memorize this elaborate map, which was in continual motion.”

~ Robert Greene, mastery (Emphasis added)

“Constellation” is an interesting word outside the context of astronomy too. It’s often used to evoke the feeling of instantaneous connection between disparate points in some unseeable, abstract space:

“Your finesse at softball, for example, depends on a constellation of different skills, like your ability to hit the ball, run the bases, and field and throw the ball.”

~ Brown & Roediger & McDaniel, make it stick (Emphasis added)


“This complex constellation of responses occurred quickly, automatically, and effortlessly. You did not will it and you could not stop it. It was an operation of System 1.”

~ Daniel Kahneman, [[thinking-fast-and-slow]] (Emphasis added)

There is an argument to be made that we there is knowledge stored in our behavior, which is slowly made explicit over time. I find this persuasive and the use of the word “constellation” strikes me as one of these semi-verbalized embodiments: Where we describe a physical experience to hint at more specific details anxiously awaiting to be fully explained.12

The Trouble With Connecting Dots 🐝

“What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so”.

~ Mark Twain

As the metaphor goes (in my head), constellations are extraordinarily useful, but can become too bright. When this happens, our view of the actual stars (or facts) can become so obscured that don’t fit neatly into the formation (or theory) we have grown to see.34

Human minds tend toward “[[associative-coherence]]”, which is the tendency to form, and stick to, these constellations, mental models, theories, or stories. It’s the invisible framework we operate in from day to day. It’s the meme you “can’t unsee”. It’s a gravitational force that’s constantly tugging5 our thoughts and interpretations in certain directions.

Because of this, what we see in the sky may prove inaccurate: We do not see stars outside the constellation, or tend to see stars as aligned with a constellation when they don’t fit the pattern. In extreme cases, some can no longer see the stars at all.

Staying Seaworthy 🐝

So the obvious next question is “How does one stay the course?” or “How can one keep their understanding of the world in line with reality?” How can we align our maps with the territory?

A common piece of advice that I find useful is to learn first principles. These are generally abstractions that are fundamental to some discipline and can often be applied to many circumstances to aid in understanding. They are like shapes and patterns that reoccur over and over in the night sky; like tiles in a mosaic. But it’s useful to remember that first principles themselves are also abstractions6 and thus also need to be re-validated from time to time.

Increase the level of granularity. Be specific. Understand the details, especially if it’s in your area of expertise, work, or study. Get to know each individual star within reasonable relation to where you’re going; to what you’re trying to accomplish. The intimate understanding you build with these details can sometimes make or break an entire constellation.

Always be validating your understanding with feedback loops, especially when working in areas of uncertainty. Come up with questions, hypotheses, or mental models and validate them in quick and inexpensive ways to ensure that you current understanding is in line with reality. Perform “sanity-checks” regularly.7

Watching and Wondering 🐝

It takes extra mental energy to maintain scepticism. It requires a mixture of restraint and imagination to not jump to conclusions. Perhaps this is what the mystics meant when they said to keep mind’s eye, or third eye, open. Perhaps it’s what some religions mean when they extol the importance of watching.

After all, how can we navigate our tumultuous lives if we don’t keep watch over the skies for potential storms that might be looming in the dark?

  1. Or maybe it’s very much verbalized – see “constellation theory” in psychology. 

  2. See also 🪴 digital garden

  3. See Kahneman’s “[[theory-induced blindness]]”. 

  4. Perhaps much like how the visual cortex auto-fills our blind spots. 

  5. todo - [[cohere-tilt]]

  6. See “Analogy as the Core of Cognition” by Douglas Hofstadter. 

  7. The books [[the-lean-startup]] and [[the-design-of-everyday-things]], for example. Both talk about feedback loops of this type (“build-measure-learn” and “7 stages of action cycle” respectively).