A Journey to the Centre of the Universe

There has been debate for millenia amongst philosophers as to where the centre of the universe lies.

There is a possibility that I may have found it.  Please note the classic use of hedging.  There is a reason for this.  If the media should get the wrong idea, they might want photographs of the exact location.  For reasons which should become self-evident, we would all find an intrusion by the paparazzi extremely problematic.

Mental Models.

A model is merely a representation of a reality.  A model can be physical.  Indeed in an earlier age, naval architects would make a model of a hull in order to work out the shape of the timbers for a real ship.  A more complex mechanical model such, as an orrery, is needed for complex systems.  Today, most of our models are simply programs running in computer memory.  Alan Turing famously conjectured that a computer might one day become intelligent.  Less famously, Kenneth Craik beat him to the punch by about seven years.

It was Kenneth Craik who first suggested the idea of mental models.  A mental model is the mind's way of storing information about the environment as a psychological representation.  There has been little development of the basic idea since Kenneth Craik wrote The Nature of Explanation in 1943.  The mental model idea has been seized on by managers and marketers, but there has certainly been little research or even speculation as to how a psychological model might be implemented in a real human brain.

Most books on psychology and linguistics treat mental models as primarily visual phenomena.  Indeed, it is a rare book, article or paper that even mentions the importance of haptic sensory modalities.  I would give the haptic modalities primacy in explaining the mind's formation and manipulation of mental models.

Modeling the Universe.

I suggest that the categories of mental model to be found will follow a simple scheme.  A mental model of any object will be found as a set of simpler component models.  The components will comprise elements, gestalts if you like, from the emotional, haptic, visual, auditory, olfactory and gustatory senses in that order of priority.   For the sake of brevity, I include all aspects of body and location sensing in the term 'haptic'.  Each model in the brain has a token attached, with rich connections to other tokens.  For each model of which we have any conscious sensation, we attempt to create a label, a word or phrase in language.    The label may be linked to, or may perhaps replace the token.  The label is called to conscious or unconscious mind when we access the model.  The model is called to conscious or unconscious mind when we access the label.

A representation of physical reality can be very simple.  I give the example of a triangle for illustration.  A triangle can be thought of as three apexes or apices, three lines, three points etc. or visualised as a vague shape, a gestalt.  Additionally, using our much overlooked haptic senses, we can haptualize a triangle.  That is to say, we can imagine or remember handling, drawing or cutting out a triangle.  In the imagination, using visualisation and / or haptualization, thinking of three dots is enough, I would say, to trigger the triangle concept.

Much has been made in semantics, perhaps too much, of the idea that all content words must ultimately refer to a referent external to the mind in order to have meaning.  From this perspective, terms such as 'unicorn', 'centaur', 'the present king of the U.S.A.',  etc. are considered to have no true meaning, and are called 'empty nouns'.

I suggest, rather, that the ultimate referent of such words is the mental model of the related concept in the mind of the person using the word or phrase.  I further suggest that when using words in speaking, hearing or thinking, the immediate referent of each content word can never be anything more than a mental model.  The ultimate referent of 'President Obama' is the man himself, but for millions of people, the only possible access is to a model, the mental model as an immediate referent.  A presidential aide who has just left the president's presence is in no better position.  The aide's immediate recall is the immediate referent of 'President Obama'.  It is only in the actual presence of an ultimate referent that the mind can link a content word directly to the perception of its referent.

The Art of Navigation.

Thanks to the brain's remarkable abilities, a pedestrian running across a road can outrun a Ferrari.  I should remark that the brain is not perfect.  Our evolutionary ancestors never had to cope with animals faster than the big cats, antelopes, ostriches etc.  For this reason it is not advisable to stand in a road, or on a railroad track, and play dares.  The distortion of apparent speed due to parallax is a real killer.

In our everyday lives we move through crowds of people, walk over ground rough and smooth, weave our way around obstacles and never give it a moment's thought.  We can walk around on autopilot because we have an auto-navigator.  Navigation is simply the art of determining the safest route, using the least energy and avoiding obstacles, between any two points in space.  The adult brain is a remarkably proficient navigation computer - so proficient that we only notice when it fails to operate automatically, producing a 'how did I get here?' moment.

No navigator is ever truly lost on planet Earth.  Just knowing where we started from, how long we have travelled and at what maximum possible speed allows us to draw a circle of uncertainty within which we must be.  Further facts help to reduce the size of that circle.  The more often we plot a circle of uncertainty, the more certain we can be about where we are after a long journey.  It doesn't matter if a ship's navigator plots lines, triangles or circles, the basic principle holds true.

The method of navigating without landmarks, radio signals, star sights or other external aid to accuracy is called 'dead reckoning'.  The ship navigator is always hoping to 'shoot the sun' or a star, or spot a coastline or other navigational aid in order to refine the circle of uncertainty.  This is what we do when we walk around in the dark or with our eyes shut, or play party games.  When we bump into and recognise an object we can refine our circle of uncertainty.

I think it is beyond dispute that we, like so many animals, have a mental model of our environment, a navigator's map, so to speak.  The mental map, however, is unlike any other map.  It models our environment in three dimensions.  It models objects in that environment in three dimensions.  Most remarkable of all is the way our mental map is being updated constantly so that it is never out of date, and we can never find ourselves located 'off the map'.

The reason we are never 'off the map' is that we constantly adjust the frame of reference.  For every person on this planet there is an intricate three-dimensional model of that person's entire known universe, with the origin of the frame of reference, Ox,Oy,Oz centred firmly between the ears.


Now that you all know where to find the centre of the universe you can get back to your daily routine, confident of always knowing where you are, confident of never being lost in space.  But if you like the idea of strangers focusing their instruments on the centre of the universe -

you really do need to have your head examined.

Haptualize: verb - to imagine or recall an object being handled.
I chose to use the -ize spelling since this is gradually overtaking the -ise form in British English.  To try to enforce the -ise spelling is like trying to hold back a hurricane with a feather.

Further reading:
Haptics, the Secret Senses free pdf.

For a more psychological slant to mental models, I recommend
Knowledge and Mental Models in HCI
For a website designer's perspective, I recommend
What's Your Idea of a Mental Model.