Representing, Running, and Revising Mental Models: A Computational Model

Scott Friedman*, Kenneth D Forbus, Bruce L Sherin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


People use commonsense science knowledge to flexibly explain, predict, and manipulate the world around them, yet we lack computational models of how this commonsense science knowledge is represented, acquired, utilized, and revised. This is an important challenge for cognitive science: Building higher order computational models in this area will help characterize one of the hallmarks of human reasoning, and it will allow us to build more robust reasoning systems. This paper presents a novel assembled coherence (AC) theory of human conceptual change, whereby people revise beliefs and mental models by constructing and evaluating explanations using fragmentary, globally inconsistent knowledge. We implement AC theory with Timber, a computational model of conceptual change that revises its beliefs and generates human-like explanations in commonsense science. Timber represents domain knowledge using predicate calculus and qualitative model fragments, and uses an abductive model formulation algorithm to construct competing explanations for phenomena. Timber then (a) scores competing explanations with respect to previously accepted beliefs, using a cost function based on simplicity and credibility, (b) identifies a low-cost, preferred explanation and accepts its constituent beliefs, and then (c) greedily alters previous explanation preferences to reduce global cost and thereby revise beliefs. Consistency is a soft constraint in Timber; it is biased to select explanations that share consistent beliefs, assumptions, and causal structure with its other, preferred explanations. In this paper, we use Timber to simulate the belief changes of students during clinical interviews about how the seasons change. We show that Timber produces and revises a sequence of explanations similar to those of the students, which supports the psychological plausibility of AC theory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1110-1145
Number of pages36
JournalCognitive Science
Issue number4
StatePublished - May 2018


  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Belief revision
  • Cognitive modeling
  • Commonsense science
  • Conceptual change
  • Explanation
  • Qualitative reasoning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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