Could you think more productively?

Musician Lee Sankey says that if you are planning a project, playing piano or writing software you probably use a ‘mental model’ – and being more aware of it can boost your thinking.

Musician and businessman Lee Sankey has been conducting his own research: interviewing jazz musicians about what's going on in their head while they're improvising.

He believes people who display expertise with an instrument have an accomplished ‘mental model’ - their thought process behind how something works. Lee’s idea is that as someone becomes more accomplished they “stop playing the physical instrument and interact with their mental model of that object”.

“When I’m playing the harmonica and I’m thinking about playing a phrase, I see it as a shape, a physical form.” – Lee Sankey

His music and the neuroscience project Brainstruments explore the mental models of accomplished musicians to discover if they see what he does when playing the harmonica: “a spatial representation of all the notes”.

More than 50 jazz musicians were interviewed including Gregory Porter, Brian Blade and singer Claire Martin who presents Jazz Line-Up on BBC Radio 3 and features in this podcast.

Imagining the sound, Claire sees a shoe-rack in her head and places different notes in boxes. Notes can be long or short, fat or thin - they even have weight. And when she hears herself she knows when a note “is in the wrong box”.

Claire’s mental model is her safe place when something isn’t quite right. It also helps her to warm up before a performance and test her range.

She says that before a performance she does wonder “Can I get that lovely ‘C’ in its place? Is it going to stay in its place?” She describes the process as being like “patting butter into shape”.

Ninety-five per cent of the professional musicians Lee interviewed could describe mental models with three mental dimensions:

  • Sound
  • Physical sensation of playing
  • Spatial arrangement - where the notes were

The ‘spatial arrangement’ of notes and the idea of them having weight, for instance, was something that only 25% of amateurs reported.

But I’m not a musician…

Lee thinks the idea of mental models is transferable to other fields such as software development. To try to discover if this is the case, Kris Bramwell from the BBC Academy tries to get inside the head of software developer Ashley Taylor - so what does he see when he’s coding?

Lee Sankey was a keynote speaker at { develop: BBC } 2016