Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

The waning of mind-maps

Published on 24 August 2013
Updated on 06 March 2023


(with a footnote in the key of evolutionary biology)

In order to survive, a hunter-gatherer of yore (or his contemporaries today) needed a mind map of his range, with information on game, water, berries, roots, whatever – 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 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 internalized 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 – or if one prefers, resonant – information, and to recognize distant patterns we can bring into the reasoning by analogy. We are over-awed by this capacity to “connect” intuitively – we call it “wisdom” or even “genius”.

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 indiscriminately “mind-map” 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 term 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 verbalizing 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.)

Complexification of society and division of labor 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 replacement for his mind-map.

As consumers, users of social places, and citizens we encounter embedded “choice architectures”. 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 my convenience). Similar goods are stacked vertically (they are sorted by profitability – the profitable plums at eye level, the less profitable relegated either high up or way down). Classes of goods go in a pack, or they are even located at 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 process, rather than images. It favored abstract thinking. In many situations it 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 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. But this transfer process retained our Bayesian improvement capacity. We could mix mental maps from different authors, insert experience, or adapt it to change social conditions.

Enter the electronic age. Electronic memories allow storage and manipulation of all kinds of mind-maps. Their greatest asset is mobility and inter-activity. 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 to 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 imposing on us their mind-map. Taken together, we are overwhelmed by external or artificial maps which make our own mind-maps obsolete. We no longer are in a pro-active (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. Personal meaning is replaced by situational meaning. We no longer measure success by how well we realize our goal, but how well we navigated a preset 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 down-side 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. Who has grown up with a GPS, and consistently relied on it, is lost when it fails. He can’t reason himself of 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.[1] Professionalizing 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 Artic. Sure, we are everywhere now: but is it a good thing to shrink our adaptive capability?[2]

Who knows? May be that’s the way to slow technological change…

[1] For an overview of mind-mapping in the state-citizen space, see Cass R. SUNSTEIN (2013): Simpler. The future of government. Simon & Schuster, New York.

[2] For the last 50’000 years the selfish mind-mapping gene was 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 chose the boy who is best at working the smartphone.

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