Concept Maps are not Mind Maps

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POSTED: July 22, 2006

The idea of representing ideas or thoughts diagrammatically is not a recent one. As early as the third century, Porphyry of Tyros produced map-like images to demonstrate the structure and workings of Aristotle’s philosophical concepts.

However the current usages of the terms “mind mapping” and “concept mapping” are relatively recent. Both terms have known inventors, who have spent many years developing their ideas, and both terms arise from theoretical assumptions or research. Despite the apparent similarity of the terms, and despite the fact that both describe methods of representing ideas diagrammatically, they have completely different aims, and work in very different ways.

Mind mapping

Tony Buzan, variously described as a popular psychologist, a self-help guru and a business consultant, invented mind mapping in the late 1960s “as a way of helping students make notes that used only key words and images”. Since then he has developed it as a central technique in his international “brain friendly” management consultancy business.

Buzan contrasts mindmaps with other, traditional, forms of note taking and brainstorming: bulleted lists; hierarchical lists; numbered points, all of which are found wanting. Buzan claims that these forms of brainstroming put people into “a semi-hypnotic trance” that actually prevents them thinking. He also claims that the mind map utilizes the full range of left and right human cortical skills, balances the brain, taps into the 99% of your unused mental potential, and taps into deep-level intuition (which he calls “superlogic”).

HIs use of the term “mind maps” is not accidental then. He intends it to imply that the technique he is selling reaches parts of the human mind that remain inaccessible to other forms of thinking and planning. His evidence for this claim appears to be secondhand at best, but you are free to believe him.

The language and tone of his website is decidely upbeat and life affirming; and presents a collection of decontextualsed facts that (it suggests) Tony has noticed fit together in a way that you haven’t. On the basis of this, and a series of testimonials about the effectiveness of his “brain friendly” seminars, mind mapping is presented as a breakthrough in harnessing the power of human thought.

Mind mapping is a simple technique, but in The Mind Map Book (1991), Buzan lays down ten clear rules for making a mind map:

  1. Start in the centre with an image of the topic, using at least 3 colours.
  2. Use images, symbols, codes and dimensions throughout your Mind Map.
  3. Select key words and print using upper or lower case letters.
  4. Each word/image must be alone and sitting on its own line.
  5. The lines must be connected, starting from the central image.
  6. The central lines are thicker, organic and flowing, becoming thinner as they radiate out from the centre.
  7. Make the lines the same length as the word/image.
  8. Use colours “your own code” throughout the Mind Map.
  9. Develop your own personal style of Mind Mapping.Use emphasis and show associations in your Mind Map.
  10. Keep the Mind Map clear by using Radiant hierarchy, numerical order or outlines to embrace your branches.

Mind maps are supposed to use the normally unused 99% of the brain, and the technique allegedly makes use of both the left and right cortex. The website makes no reference to any research demonstrating the truth of this. I have read allegations that academic studies have disproved many of the claims Buzan has made for mind maps, and thrown serious doubts on the rest, but I have yet to find details of these alleged studies themselves.

Peter Russell worked alongside Tony Buzan during the 1970s and 1980s, developing the business applications of mindmapping and, in his words, teaching “mind-mapping skills in a variety of international corporations and educational institutions”. He has added to the rules above, with some further suggestions:

  1. Use just key words, or wherever possible images.
  2. Start from the center of the page and work out.
  3. Make the center a clear and strong visual image that depicts the general theme of the map.
  4. Create sub-centers for sub-themes.
  5. Put key words on lines. This reinforces structure of notes.
  6. Print rather than write in script. It makes them more readable and memorable. Lower case is more visually distinctive (and better remembered) than upper case.
  7. Use color to depict themes, associations and to make things stand out.
  8. Anything that stands out on the page will stand out in your mind.
  9. Think three-dimensionally.
  10. Use arrows, icons or other visual aids to show links between different elements.
  11. Don’t get stuck in one area. If you dry up in one area go to another branch.
  12. Put ideas down as they occur, wherever they fit. Don’t judge or hold back.
  13. Break boundaries. If you run out of space, don’t start a new sheet; paste more paper onto the map. (Break the 8×11 mentality.)
  14. Be creative. Creativity aids memory.
  15. Get involved. Have fun.

Because mind maps are a form of brainstorming, they cannot be right or wrong, they can only be useful or not useful. They canot be judged, since the purpose of any mind map that I make is to reveal my thought processes to me in order that my future thoughts and actions can proceed more clearly. If your mind map does not make sense to me, then that simply does not matter. All that matters is that it makes sense to you, and proves useful in helping you clarify and plan.

Peter Russell’s web site uses a mind map as a navigational tool. This is the mind map that he uses:

a mind map made by Peter Russell

Although this is a diagram, and one that shows relationships, it is not clear (to me at least) why the relationships are as they are. I have no objection to this, since I assume that the purpose of this mind map is to give us a glimpse into Peter Russell’s mind, not to provide a standard taxonomy of the content of his site. The very fact that we might have ordered the map differently serves to point out to us that we are not Peter Russell and, in that very limited sense, the map might be said to be completely successful.

Concept mapping

In a paper entitled The Origins of the Concept Mapping Tool and the Continuing Evolution of the Tool, Professor Joseph D Novak wrote that a “research program at Cornell University that sought to study the ability of first and second grade children to acquire basic science concepts and the effect of this learning on later schooling led to the need for a new tool to describe explicit changes in children?s conceptual understanding. Concept mapping was invented in 1972 to meet this need, and subsequently numerous other uses have been found for this tool.”

His work had been aimed at questioning Piaget’s then-dominant theories of cognitive operational stages (which suggested that children under the age of eleven could not benefit from instruction in abstract thought). His primary question was: “Are these claimed cognitive operational limitations of children the result of brain development, or are they at least partly an artifact of the kind of schooling and socialization characteristic of Piaget?s subjects, and those commonly tested in US and other schools?” In pursuing this he was contrasting Piaget’s work with the work of DP Ausubel, who said, in Educational Psychology: a Cognitive View (1968), that “If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly.”

Ausubel believed that the key principles of learning included progressive differentiation, integrative reconciliation, and overcoming misconceptions. Progressive differentiation describes the process in which learners build on what they already know, elaborating upon previously understood concepts. Integrative reconciliation refers to the process of clarifying ideas that may previously have seemed confusing or have been partially misunderstood. Overcoming misconceptions involves remediating faulty ideas and clarifying their position within a scheme of concepts.

Novak’s team originally began their research with interviews, and began looking for another tool when the interviews came to seem too unwieldy, and too difficult to interpret objectively. Initially they used concept maps to codify the responses in interviews, and then later realised that they could be used to replace interviews as a method for studying understanding.

In Novak’s words, the concept maps that they developed “show the specific label (usually a word or two) for one concept in a node or box, with lines showing linking words that create a meaningful statement or proposition. We define concepts as perceived regularities or patterns in events or objects, or records of events or objects, designated by a label. Concepts are arranged hierarchically with the most general, most inclusive concept at the top, and the most specific, least general concepts toward the bottom. Propositions are statements about some event or object that shows a relationship between two or more concepts. There may also be cross-links showing relationships between concepts in two different areas of the concept map. Identifying a new crosslink may sometimes lead to a creative insight. Concept maps are also based on an explicit cognitive psychology of learning, and constructivist epistemology”.

Subsequently, realising the power of a concept map to distil thinking into clear and objective hierarchical structures, Novak and others have consciously sought to develop concept mapping as a wider knowledge representation tool. They have developed a range strategies for using concept mapping as a teaching method, and as a method of assessment.

These include the “parking lot”, in which students are given a concept map in which a set of related concepts (about the rain cycle, magnetism, or whatever) are parked down the left hand side of the map. The students have to arrange these concepts into a map, using as many of them as possible. A variation of this is the “Expert Skeleton Map” in which students are provided with a concept map that has been started by an expert in the field, but with many of the concepts still parked. The students’ task is to finish the map.

I have constructed a concept map for the Rich Media Technology course I am teaching next year. It aims to answer the focus question: what is the logical structure of the Adobe Flash application? I made this because I have found that many students who approach Flash for the first time get hopelessly confused about how it all fits together, since when the program is opened it appears as a mess of disconnected windows, whose functions can sometimes seem very unclear.

a concept map made by me

This map does not show how I intend thinking about this problem. Rather it shows the results of my thinking. Successfully or not, this is supposed to be a pedagogically useful representation of the different aspects of the application, mapped so that the relationship between them is clear. It is intended to serve as a reference point for students who are lost, but it will also serve as a map to enable students to make sense of the course itself. Each lesson will be related back to the map, enabling students to see where that day’s topic fits into the overall course.

The concept map was made with CmapTools, a free software created by the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, with whom Novak has been associated since 1987. Used in conjunction with CmapServer this provides a collaborative online mapping tool that can house stored or linked materials for display in the maps, and can be used to build multi-level nested maps. Using CmapServer, links in any concept map can point to another concept map.


Mind mapping and concept mapping aim to assist in very different tasks.

Mind mapping aims to enable users to break free of their habits and to think creatively. It is a tool that aims to assist in the opening parts of a mental process. If I wanted to write an essay on symbolic forms and was confused by my reading and uncertain where to start then I could, conceivably, begin by making a mind map. Out of this would come some arrangements and links, and I might begin to see how I could fit various ideas together. Tony Buzan would argue that this would be a more efficient way of proceeding than making lists or notes, and would be more likely to lead to original and creative thinking.

In some ways mind mapping finishes where concept mapping begins. By making mind maps I would allegedly get to understand how the various different strands of my thinking fitted together. At the end of this I would be in a position to know what the question was that I wanted to address. Did I, for example, want to answer the question “How are symbolic forms transmitted through history?”, or did I want to ask “Is the notion of symbolic forms flawed?”

Once I had this focus question I would be in the position to begin making a concept map. This point would naturally arise near the end of the thinking process. When I had my ideas sorted out, when I knew the concepts involved in the construction and transmission of historical forms, I could begin to map their relationships. Whereas the mind map was deeply personal, and addressed only to myself, the concept map should be an attempt to produce an objective mapping of the ideas in my essay and should, in some circumstances, be able to stand in place of the essay. At the very least it should provide a visual abstract of the essay.

More general uses of the terms

In researching this paper, I realised that mind mapping and concept mapping are sometimes used as general terms. I read articles that made claims such as “the way we use mind mapping works very differently”. This seems to me to be problematic. Not only do both the terms have clear long-standing definitions, but Tony Buzan has even registered “mind map” as a trade mark. To use these terms to describe any attempt to scribble ideas down on a piece of paper and join them with lines and circles simply serves to devalue the two terms, and makes it difficult to discuss their uses and effectiveness.

If people can say that “the way we use mind mapping works very differently”, and demonstrate that this is so, then whatever they are doing, they are doing something else – something that Tony Buzan would not recognise as mind mapping.

If there are other working approaches to the process of rendering ideas and thoughts diagrammatically, with a rationale of their own (and there are), then it is logical for them to be given other names, so that they can be discussed alongside these two long-standing techniques. On the other hand, where people are simply jotting ideas down on paper, then it would be better for them to admit that this is what they are doing – and possibly seek out a more structured approach.


Both mind mapping and concept mapping have official histories, which offer theoretical justifications for their use. Both terms therefore have specific meanings, however genuine or specious the claims behind them might be.

Mind maps are intended to be subjective, and users are explicitly exhorted to “develop your own personal style of Mind Mapping”. Concept maps are intended to be an objective presentation of the logical relationships between related and understood ideas or events.

Mind maps are intended to help develop strategies, as a technique for brainstorming. Concept maps are intended to have a pedagogical function, and to serve as a method for presenting information and for assessing students’ understanding of information.

Mind maps appear to be based on second-hand evidence, and are presented as an innovation in thinking able to help international corporations gain a competitive edge. In this they call to mind the style and content of Edward de Bono and others. Concept maps are the result of long-term pedagogically based research and have been directly tested , with the results written up in peer-reviewed papers.

Concept maps, and the related tool CmapTools, would seem to be ideally suited to the development of strategies for distance learning and epedagogy.


Having written this I went back to the concept map that was at the heart of the Learning Object that Camilla Lindeberg and I made about perception in Rosario, and completely remade it. In the process of this I recast the Learning Object, and I will put the new version online as soon as I have had a chance to talk to Camie about it.

More interestingly, though, I uncovered the heart of the problem that we had been experiencing in trying to conceive our learning object in the first place.

Second Life, where Rosario is housed, presents information in four ways, and the consequences of this became clear to me when I had made a better concept map. Information is presented as 3D rendered graphics using central perspective; as views into a database; as text overlays and as 2D overhead map projections.

The map projections have as valid a claim to be a symbolic form as central perspective or database. Arguably maps, not central perspective, can be seen as the symbolic form that dominated European culture for the past two or three centuries. If central perspective creates the individual ?I? who demands to be taken account of, maps create the ?imperial we? who have the right to colonise the mapless, and to rule empires.

I have been researching this and I will post something about it when the time is right.

Online References

Wikipedia on Mind Maps∞

Buzan International∞

The Spirit of Now – Peter Russell∞

Wikipedia on Concept Maps∞

The Origins of the Concept Mapping Tool by Joseph D Novak and Alberto D Canas∞

The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct Them by Joseph D Novak and Alberto D Canas∞

Visual Learning∞