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The waning of mind maps

Published on 07 June 2024

In order to survive, a hunter-gatherer of yore (or his contemporaries today) needed a mind map with information on game, water, berries, roots, at different times of day and season. All this was stored in mind maps in his head.

Mind maps translate scattered information into meaning. We easily remember intentions. Mind maps convert facts into intention through a narrative, allowing us ‘to connect the dots’. Understanding a mind map – giving it intentionality – is a precondition for its use. Otherwise, it is just ‘stamp-collecting’. Geology was ‘rocks for the jocks’ – pure heroic mnemonic effort only alleviated by alliterative jingles. Then, meaning came along in the form of theories explaining the emergence and drift of continents. Suddenly, geology made sense and became interesting and easily remembered.

Such mind maps are continuously improved. Each use matches the map against reality. Attention verifies content. The more details are internalised in the new mind map, the better it operates the next time. This is a Bayesian process. There is also a learning process internal to the mind: over time, our brain develops its predisposition to call up related information (or, if one prefers, resonant) and to recognise distant patterns we can bring into the reasoning by analogy. We are overawed by this capacity to ‘connect’ intuitively – we call it ‘wisdom’ or even ‘genius’.

The image shows Diderot and d'Alembert's 'Map of the System of Human Knowledge', which contains a large number of bubbles with writing inside conected on a large tree.
Much like Diderot and d’Alembert’s ‘Map of the System of Human Knowledge’, mind maps visually represent information in a hierarchical and interconnected manner. Both tools aim to organise complex information into a more comprehensible and structured format, facilitating better understanding and recall (Lehigh University).

Mind maps allow us to manipulate tools. Correct manipulation is a difficult task, hence our predisposition to learn consciously and store the information unconsciously. When we need it, we call it up and use it ‘instinctively’ as when we play a piano piece.

Mind maps are stored in memory. They were often transmitted as myths rather than instructions. Myths are – apologies to Freud and Jung – also mnemonic devices. Matteo Ricci had an incredible memory. He achieved it by inventing a mythical castle with as many rooms as subjects of his knowledge. By entering the appropriate room, he unlocked the pertinent information.

We seem to use ‘mind map’ indiscriminately to refer both to the application and its underlying process; at best, we say ‘mind-mapping’. There seems to be no specific term in common language to describe acquiring and using this ability. That’s why, as youngsters, our parents just tell us to learn mind maps by rote, in the expectation that eventual use validates the effort post factum. (We have difficulties verbalising processes. Bureaucracy is all about setting out processes and how boring it is. I inwardly rejoice whenever I can manipulate a process to my own – rather than the principal’s – ends.)

The complexification of society and division of labour has reduced the scope of our mind-mapping in many areas, beginning with our place of work. An artisan had a mind map for making pins. Each artisan had his own – all yielding pins, but all in subtly different ways. Beginning with Adam Smith, the entrepreneur appropriated the ‘pin-making’ mind map, developed what he thought was ‘best practice’, and imposed it on his workers, through a mix of equipment and on-the-job training. The artisan lost the use of his own mind map and its purpose. The mind map was embodied in the tool – the worker was given a simple, even rudimentary, ‘choice architecture’ to deal with as a replacement for his mind map.

Choice architectures

As consumers, users of social places, and citizens, we encounter embedded ‘choice architectures’. The choice architecture reflects the service provider’s mind map of how we should make use of the device or service. When we enter a supermarket, the choice architecture of the place tells us how best to explore the store (the owner’s profits are closely aligned with our convenience). Similar goods are stacked vertically (they are sorted by profitability – the profitable plums are at eye level, and the less profitable are relegated either high up or way down). Classes of goods go in a pack, or they are even located on different floors. If the choice architecture is well done, we’ll have the vicarious feeling that we ‘know’ the place when, in fact, we are led (by the nose).

Mind maps are stored in memory. Writing transformed the role of memory – in certain domains, memory became obsolete. Mind maps were now embedded in paper. Writing, however, relied on verbal processes rather than images. It favoured abstract thinking. In many situations, verbal expressions are a poor tool. Try explaining how to tie a knot: without an image – a visual mental map – it’s soon hopeless. Nevertheless, writing foregrounded verbal mind maps and transformed the way we approach reality.

Writing confronted people with ‘choice architectures’ on a larger scale. Suddenly, not only the mind maps of the teacher but also the mind maps of people long dead became available. A book proffered the author’s mind map. Reading laboriously transferred the author’s mental map into the reader’s brain – an approximate process. The reader’s mental quirks made it his own – one calls it reception. However, this transfer process retained our Bayesian improvement capacity. We could mix mental maps from different authors, insert experiences, or adapt them to changing social conditions.

The image shows a 'connect the dots' illustration, with numbered dots making the shape of a brain.

Enter the electronic age. Electronic memories allow storage and manipulation of all kinds of mind maps. Their greatest asset is mobility and interactivity. All of a sudden, we have a portable, error-free stack of useful mind maps along with us. We interrogate the memory and use it for local problem-solving. GPS is an exemplary mind map in this respect. The map of a whole city is stored therein: we zoom in on our location and ask for the way forward. We use the mind map without really understanding it. Understanding is no precondition for use. Collaterally, the map-upgrading of the mind map through use is lost. The reception and elaboration function is lost. No matter how often we use the GPS, we remain just as ignorant of the city – unless we inadvertently elaborate a parallel mind map.

We carry more and more artificial mind maps along with us. Objects have choice architecture written all over them and impose on us their mind map. Taken together, we are overwhelmed by external or artificial maps, which make our own mind maps obsolete. We are no longer in a proactive (and learning) mode; we rely on all these mental maps and react situationally.

Admittedly, we need help in mastering complexity, but the help also enslaves us. Personal meaning is replaced by situational meaning. We no longer measure success by how well we realise our goal but by how well we navigate a present situation. Meaning yields to context. Process trumps goal. Like the cliché ‘rat in a maze’, we are happy that we’ve mastered it and got a reward. We do not ask why the maze is there or raise the existential question of whether puzzle-solving is the meaning of life.

The other downside of all this artificial mind-mapping capability is the loss of the ability to construct mind maps. We do have a predisposition for making mind maps, but predispositions need to be culturally activated and nurtured. We need to learn to use it, and we need to exercise it. Those who have grown up with a GPS and consistently relied on it are lost when it fails. They can’t reason their way through the suddenly impenetrable situation. I look at how we have grown dependent on external mind maps and muse that withdrawal will be catastrophic for most.

The world is cleaving into those who design mind maps and those who use them unthinkingly. Mind-map design is becoming a highly sophisticated art (for an overview of mind-mapping in the state-citizen space, see see Simpler: The Future of Government by Cass R. Sunstein). Professionalising will certainly make life ‘simpler’ – but is it better? Mind-mapping has allowed us to adapt, within a few thousand years, from East Africa to the Arctic. Sure, we are everywhere now, but is it a good thing to shrink our adaptive capability?1

Who knows? Maybe that’s the way to slow technological change.

1. For the last 50,000 years, the selfish mind-mapping gene has been king. The girls chose those boys who best knew how to make mind maps and provide better and more regular food. Now, the age of the lateral thumb is dawning: the girls will choose the boy who is best at working the smartphone.

This post was first published on DeepDip.

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