Literacy and “orality” of maps

The difference between Mindmaps and Concept Maps was still confusing for me because some people just point to different formal properties (like tree, web, arcs, nodes) while others vehemently claim the superiority of their favorite species (see e. g. this wiki page, via D. Grey). I normally prefer concept maps but had to admit a certain appeal of mindmaps that I could only insufficiently explain. I felt that it might come from their radial topology as opposed to the top-down layout of their competitor (see my #64). Now I think I know why radial looks more appealing than top-down: it suggests more openness, which is essential in the spontaneous process of a certain creative stage.

While both mindmaps and concept maps serve very similar goals, like untangling messy thoughts about complex situations, structuring ideas and notes to yourself or overviews for others in a holistic, nonlinear (right-brained?) way, the two visual tools have a similarly different slant as the two language modes of literacy and orality:

  • Like literal mode, Concept Maps are ideally suited for extensive rearrangement and revision of thoughts that were in one’s head and need to be transformed to an artefact so that they can asynchronously later be understood by others or by self;
  • Like oral mode, Mindmaps are ideally suited for stimulating new thoughts in a synchronous process of dialog (with the emerging artefact or/and) with others, which needs to be less formal/ explicit/ analytic, and more spontaneous and (inter)action-heavy.

In the following picture, the asynchronous mode (top) and synchronous mode (bottom) are contrasted both in their visual (left) and language (right) instances.

  • In the upper part, the dotted lightbulb shall depict a thought that is being incrementally transformed on its way from the originator’s head across the revisions of the artefact (visual concept map left side, literal language right side), 81
  • in the lower part, the lightbulb symbolizes a thought created during the interaction with the visual artifact (mindmap left side) or during the human language conversation (oral, right side).

The two modes happen at different stages and employ different kinds of creativity: while the phase of collecting and restructuring present thoughts, often creates insights by joining concepts or reviewing them from different angles, the preceding phase of finding ideas employs the sort of creativity necessary to make inventions occurring to oneself (which may be seen as brainstorming in a very narrow sense).

This latter sort of creativity is subtly fostered by many characteristics of the typical mindmaps: They have to look open, unfinished, a little bit messy, organic (arcs look like branches of a natural tree), colorful. And although it is anachronistic in a way, they look better if handwritten and even scribbled on paper, plenty of paper. The occasionally heard strange requirement of a strict tree-topology but, OTOH, ban of hierarchical relations, comes from this overriding requirement of letting the mind stroll free, while fanning-in leaves from one branch to another, might inhibit the flow of thinking, and the mere question whether the association at hand is a partonymic hierarchical relation or not, would destroy the freeflow to invent ideas.

I think these properties make up the appealing look: It is pretty and invites to engage with and add to the open and unfinished, radial and messy shape. As soon as it looks closed by a lid of top-down layout, and as soon as the connector lines are straight ones drawn by a graphic program, this inviting effect is gone. Mindmaps put emphasis on pleasant creation, while it may be slower to absorb them, i. e., slower to read them (because the normal top-left to bottom-right order is violated). Again, this distinction matches the orality/ literacy divide, where speaking ist faster than writing, but listening is slower than reading. But the tradeoff is up the individual depending on their cognitive styles and preference for more revisability and rearrangeability or more spontaneity and interactivity.

A wide range of diagrams is nicely covered in these lessons of the Open University (via OLDaily). They include mindmaps called

  • spray diagrams and
  • rich pictures,

and concept maps with various relationships between concepts:

  • system mapss (part-of relations expressed via nested blobs),
  • influence diagrams and
  • multiple cause diagrams (unidirectional arrows), and finally:
  • signed graphs (above arrows annotated with plus or minus signs).

Most interesting are the “rich pictures” which employ more efforts than anything I’ve seen before to foster the “occur-to” type creativity, in that they urge to draw concepts even if they are apparently easier to express with words. With their visual language they also remind to R. Horn (see my #14), just that his figures look more alive than their flying severed fingers.

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