Mind mapping history – Networked thinking

Who created Mind Maps and why do they help people to think?

When we think about a topic or a problem and structure it, we take pen and paper to hand and write keywords in different areas of a sheet of paper, form categories and divide them into sub-items. We intuitively draw a mind map. But who invented the mind map? How was it developed? And why does digitalisation with context maps offer new possibilities for the mind mapping concept?

A mind map is a map of thoughts, in the truest sense of the word. Starting from a certain topic, we give free rein to our thoughts, form associations and create categories – the process is visualised by a mind map.

Mind maps are used for planning, presenting, organising, getting an overview or collecting ideas. It doesn’t matter whether it’s for private use, at work or at school. Hardly any other method allows thoughts to be documented more quickly and structured at the same time.

So what are concept maps?

The Concept Map is about the relationships and connections between concepts and ideas. This form of map systematically links different subject areas with and among each other. This is not possible with a mind map – connections follow the hierarchical principle of a radial tree structure. It unfolds from the inside out, from the general to the specific. Mind maps and concept maps were developed with the aim of facilitating creative thinking and learning. However, they are based on different scientific theories.

Tony Buzan: Founder of mind mapping

The Briton Tony Buzan was a professor of psychology and a memory trainer. In the 1970s, he developed the mind map as a method for thinking as effectively as possible. Since then, he has published over 82 books: How can we read faster? How can we remember things better – and more? How do we learn better? Buzan’s books are aimed at businesses, creative people, ordinary people like you and me, and of course children.

Tony Buzan 2003, CC 3.0, Wikimedia

Buzan based the mind map method on physiological principles: our brain consists of two halves, the hemispheres. The left hemisphere controls the right side of the body, the right hemisphere the left. The left hemisphere is said to be responsible for abilities such as speaking, reading, writing, and analytical thinking. The right hemisphere, on the other hand, involves taking in, understanding and developing stories, grasping images, patterns and structures, and understanding spatial dimensions.

Hemisphere theory, CC 3.0 Lizenz, Wikimedia

Buzan assumed that our thinking is directed from the inside out (radial). This means that associative thought processes start from a centre point and are connected to each other via this centre point. The mind map is a visual expression of these thought processes. The thesis that our two cerebral hemispheres work strictly separately from each other is now considered outdated. Both halves cooperate fluently with each other, individual processes cannot be extracted exactly. But this has not made the mind map less popular – quite the opposite. Because it helps with practical planning, structuring, learning, i.e. thinking… it is almost ubiquitous.

Further development of networks

Another model influenced Buzan’s development of the mind map: semantic networks. In the 1950s, the linguists Ross Quillian and Alan Collins argued that we store semantic knowledge – i.e. knowledge about the meaning of words and concepts – in categories. These categories are hierarchically connected to each other. Therefore, the relationships between the categories can be represented particularly well as a network, or more precisely: as a tree structure. Thanks to this tree structure, we can quickly grasp the information presented, it is more comprehensible to us. This is how mind-mapping became very popular, especially in education.

Semantic networks relate primarily to language. Buzan built on the model to extend mind maps to other areas. Today, we use mind-mapping to plan holidays, prepare job applications or plan project ideas.

semantic network, CC 3.0, Wikimedia

A 2,300-year-old concept

The form of creative thinking in a tree structure, as described by Buzan, dates back to the 3rd century BC. The philosopher Porphyrios of Tyros is said to have been the first to use the mind-mapping technique. The philosopher was working on an introduction to Aristotle’s work on categories. In order to better develop and formulate his own ideas on Aristotle’s work, Porphyrios of Tyros drew them: as a tree.

Porphyrians and derived trees. Public Domain.

In addition to Porphyrios of Tyros, the Catalan philosopher Ramon Llull (13th century) and the Italian artist and natural scientist Leonardo da Vinci (15th century) were also among the users of mind mapping. Da Vinci used the method mainly to take notes. Students who find it difficult to follow a lecture can try out da Vinci’s example – because experience has shown that mapping is particularly suitable for accompanying lectures and learning.

Raimundus Lullus (Ramon Llull)

Trees of knowledge

At this point it is worthwhile to delve a little deeper into ancient philosophy – into the origins of epistemological systems of order. (In epistemology, philosophers explore how we arrive at knowledge. In this case, it is about the question of how we organise knowledge – and how we can achieve more knowledge). The year is 400 BC. The Sophists, a group of didacticians and rhetoricians, teach politically ambitious young men for high pay. (Sophists counted as rich men at the time). They believed objective knowledge was impossible. Therefore, they mainly developed bogus arguments as rhetorical tricks to wrap the audience around their finger. The Sophists were not concerned with actually being right in an argument – they simply wanted to be win the discussion. The sophist Protagoras is said to have said that through oratory, one can make the weaker cause the stronger. Gorgias von Leontinoi is said to have said that speech is like a poison with which one can poison and charm in equal measure.


One of its greatest critics was Plato: he was particularly offended by the commercialisation of knowledge. In his Dialogues, he describes them as driven by ambition and a desire for power. They would only be interested in oratory and entertainment, but not in knowledge and insight.

Portrait of Plato, public domain

Plato probably developed the so-called Dihairesis as a reaction to the rhetoric of the Sophists. Dihairesis is a logical method of ordering and defining terms in a system. The term “furniture”, for example, is broken down into the sub-concepts “tables”, “chair”, “sofa”, “cupboard”. This also defines what is furniture and what is not – a precise definition of terms is the aim of Dihairesis. The arrangement of the upper and lower terms results in a hierarchically ordered structure.

Trees as models

Plato’s Dihairesis as a system of order can also be represented well visually – in a tree structure. Those who organise knowledge in a tree get closer to the answer they are looking for by asking increasingly specific questions. The trunk leads to each branch and the fruit hanging from it. Porphyrios of Tyros also used this idea to classify philosophical concepts, or Ramon of Llull to systematise sciences. The tree allegory was also the model for medieval encyclopaedias and classical library systems.

Root network instead of tree

However, not all concepts can be ordered into super- and subcategories, as Plato’s Dihairesis envisages. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) argued in his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations that concepts can have blurred, fuzzy boundaries and are therefore not adequately covered by a hierarchical system. Wittgenstein refers to this circumstance as family resemblance. He showed what he exactly meant by this with the concepts of language, play and language game. According to his argumentation, there are no general characteristics for these terms. Let’s take the term “game”: card, board and dice games follow rules, that is a common feature. Football or tennis games also share this characteristic. But what about puzzles or puppet games? Rules are not necessarily part of them, instead they share other characteristics, like being able to play alone.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, public domain

For Wittgenstein, this shows that family-like concepts are not universal, characteristics do not apply to all examples. Instead, he says, there are similar characteristics, and in the case of certain terms they interlock like fibers of a thread. This structure is more reminiscent of a root network than of a tree.

Networked = rhizome

In the 1970s, the idea of the rhizome, i.e. the rootstock, also became established in philosophy. Like the tree, the rhizome serves as a metaphor for a model of knowledge organisation. The philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari consider the hierarchical tree model to be no longer appropriate, because it is not open to possibilities of change. This is because in hierarchically structured models of order, there are no intersections or overlaps – each element is located on one, and only one, level of order, is subordinate to a higher level and superior to one or more.

But this is precisely what seems necessaryin today’s world of knowledge: Cross-connections, intersecting branches.

Rhizome, public domain

A rhizome is an interwoven system that can be broken at any point – it continues to grow. So-called connections link the individual points of the rhizome with each other. In this way, the most diverse circumstances can connect with and among each other. Instead of one unit, many perspectives and approaches can now be freely connected.

Sound familiar? Rightly so! It is the basis for concept maps and our lab Maps – Kontext maps.

Mind mapping with paper and pen?

That’s the classic variant: let your thoughts run free with pen and paper, organise topics, make connections. But nowadays, mind maps can be created directly on the computer. There is a wide range of tools available: free of charge, as an open source variant, with a subscription licence, or cloud-based. Especially the latter variant is not uninteresting at a time when home offices are becoming commonplace and several people want to work on a project at the same time. Some tools create very technical-looking, tidy, clinically clean maps, while others recreate the handmade look we learned mind mapping with: with coloured pens on paper.

Cover picture: howling red