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Concept Mapping and Cognitive Maps

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    A technique which is related to Mind Mapping (and is often confused with it) is Concept Mapping. Mistaking Mind Mapping for Concept Mapping is easy since both emphasize the visual format of spider diagrams whose ideas branch out from one another. The basic difference, though, is that while a mind map is founded on one key central idea on one paper, a concept map may feature several key central ideas all located on the same piece of paper. Thus, the appearance of a mind map takes the form of ‘tree branches’ all connected to the key central idea. A concept map, on the other hand, usually looks like a network representation.

    To make visualizing a concept map simpler, think of Concept Mapping as a way of using downward-branching graphs to present knowledge. A knowledge graph allows concepts to be networked together. Each network is made up of nodes/points/or vertices where concepts can be labeled, which are connected through links – sometimes links are also labeled in some Concept Maps. A link may be bi-, uni-, or non-directional. Both concepts and links can be categorized or they could simply be associative. A link is responsible for showing the relationship between different nodes or concepts.

    Concept Mapping is believed to have been developed by Prof. Joseph D. Novak of Cornell University – also during the 1960s, just like Buzan’s Mind Mapping product. Novak founded his Concept Mapping technique on “Constructivist” theories by David Ausubel who emphasized that pre-absorbed knowledge is necessary for a person to comprehend new concepts. Thus, Novak realized that learning becomes meaningful only when new ideas and assumptions are integrated into the cognitive structures you already possess. This led to Concept Mapping, which was initially aimed at making learning the sciences more meaningful.

    Concept Mapping is useful for brainstorming new ideas, creating a complicated structure for a project, expressing complex ideas during a presentation, supporting continuous learning processes by merging pre-absorbed knowledge with newly-acquired information and determining aspects of processes where a breakdown in comprehension was experienced.

    Cognitive Maps

    The term Cognitive Maps (along with its related terms Mind Maps, Mental Maps, Mental Models, and Cognitive Models) is used to denote the process of cognition or mental processing made up of a sequence of psychological changes. These changes allow a person to absorb, encode, amass, and translate data regarding phenomena as they relate to their real or metaphorical spatial environment, as well as what features that phenomena have under those conditions. This definition shows us that both Mind Mapping and Concept Mapping are founded on the Principle of Cognitive Maps.

    The word “cognition” itself refers to belief systems, or mental models, that people rely on to recognize, contextualize, simplify, and understand problems which would be considered complex otherwise. Cognitive maps have been employed in different scientific fields, including management, geography, planning, archaeology and psychology – thus, cognitive maps may also be recognized as “frames of reference” or “schemata”.


    When we use Cognitive Maps (such as the Mind Maps popularized by Buzan), the cognitive load of the mind is reduced because spatial knowledge is classified and stored by “the mind’s eye.” In addition, Cognitive Maps permit us to remember and absorb more information. Hence the touted effectiveness of Mind Maps. This kind of spatial thinking can encompass even non-spatial activities which rely on memory and imaging. How? Cognitive spaces are perceived as either flat, spatial or abstract representations. When cognitive spaces are merged, they produce a cognitive perspective.

    Students in ancient Rome are believed to have relied on “the method of loci”- which is the earliest known formal technique relying on spatial locations – when they were memorizing speeches. This “method of loci” required the oratory student to first commit to memory a familiar place (such as the number and location of rooms in a building.) The student then mentally placed something which represented the concept to be remembered within a part of that familiar place (like imagining a dog within a room.) When the learner had to remember the list of concepts to be remembered (for example, an entire speech), he mentally took a trip through the rooms so he could remember the concepts in the same sequence.

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