What’s the history of mind mapping?

Tony Buzan and mind mapping are often mentioned in the same breath. But there is a paradox here. While, one the one hand, Tony Buzan is branding himself as the “Inventor of Mind Mapping”, as we can see on TonyBuzan.com:

On the other, he’s saying that early greats such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Darwin, and Beethoven were using ”images and associations” – i.e. early forms of mind mapping - hundreds  of years ago. (Source: this video, time-stamp: 4m48). The two statements seem contradictory.

Even though Tony Buzan surely has done great things to advance mind mapping in the late 20th and early 21st century, it would probably be more historically accurate to view his work as just one aspect in the evolution of mind mapping, rather than a ground-breaking, isolated invention.

Buzan, for all he’s done, has been standing on the shoulders of giants.

Now, mainstream mind mapping may be characterised as a technique to

  • hierarchically depict ideas,
  • put these into context through relationships,
  • and associate them with visuals (shapes, colours, lines).

Mind mapping can be seen as an act of identifying and naming our thoughts (and, often, emotions) and arranging these into a hierarchical classification. As such, mind maps can be seen as “popularised taxonomies of our inner world”.

Building taxonomies, though, is a very ancient practice rather than a recent invention. One of the earliest taxonomies comes from China, produced around 5,000 years ago (source), and one could arguably call this a rudimentary form of a mind map.

The ancient Greeks were also keen builders of taxonomies (in fact, the very word “taxonomy” is Greek (from: τάξις taxis “arrangement” and Greek: νομία nomia “method”)).

There’s even a direct reference in the Bible to taxonomy-building:

And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every fowl of the air and brought them unto Adam to see what he would name them, and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

Genesis 2:19

Throughout history there are various examples of mind mapping structures in different cultures and different parts of the world.

This post - (alternatively: click on the image below) – provides a fascinating perspective on what is now colloquially known as “mind mapping” and gives examples of how it manifested itself over time. Well-worth a read.

Also worth a look at is Hans Buskes’ post on the history of mind mapping, see here.

This Amazon book also has a few historical pointers (“Look Inside” under A Historical Overview).

Next post

My next post will address the question: How can mind mapping be used for action management?

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