Finding Neutral
January 27, 2017
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Emergent Categories: a Step Beyond Mind-Mapping

A new article by Chuck Frey introduces a concept with the potential to revolutionize mind-mapping. But that concept needs a bit more development before it can set your thinking free.

Chuck’s chosen term is “emergent structure” and he makes this powerful statement:

“The idea behind emergent structure is simple: the ideas themselves should suggest their structure, which should emerge gradually. Forcing ideas into a rigid classification system too early stunts their growth and forces you to view them within a single, narrow context. This limits your ability to improve or build upon them.”

He points to a couple of mind-mapping tools that allow you to group ideas, rather than driving them prematurely under headings you’ve established early on: Xmind 8 and Coreldraw Mindmap 9.  (Incidentally, iMindMap 10 also has a version with its “Brainstorming” function).

Emergent structure is a fabulous concept, with rich possibilities that I’d like to begin unpacking here.  You’ll see from my title that I’m going to shift the focus a little from “structure” to “categories”.  Not that structure is unimportant—far from it. But we have to master the categories before we can reach the structure.

Two Mental Functions—Not One

Let’s identify two essential functions of the human mind: (1) association and (2) pattern-seeking. Association is simple enough: I think of an object, a name, an idea, whatever… and something related springs to mind. Then something linked to that shows up, and so on in a chain of mental connections. Association is the engine that drives all conventional mind-mapping. You place your starting idea in the middle and then think of a few related things. This creates the first branches of the map. Each branch triggers further associations, and so the map grows.

Now let’s consider pattern-seeking. This is the function of the mind that groups objects (or ideas, or names, or whatever) by noticing some affinity between them. You walk into a conference, scan the hundreds of faces, and notice there’s a certain number of young people, or men, or people of color, etc. This is a fundamental operation that makes language possible. Categories give us a shorthand way to think about large volumes of data points. We can talk about “transport” without naming ships, planes, cars, trucks, trains, etc. We can think about “ships” without naming every ship on the planet. Categories gather masses of similar details into single containers. Those containers make ideas “portable”—we can move them around in our minds quickly and easily.

The analogy I like to use for categories is moving house. Imagine you take all your possessions from your old house, one by one, and dump them higgledy-piggledy into a truck. Then at the other end you empty them all out again, piece by piece, and throw them into the new house. What a nightmare! Of course, in reality you pack similar things into boxes, which get labeled “Books,” “Clothes,” “Toys,” etc. The boxes make it easy to both carry and organize your possessions. That’s how categories work.

A Rewarding Effort

Deciding what category to place things in is often easy—but not always. Pattern-seeking can make for a bracing uphill climb. While it’s (mostly) obvious in a room full of people who is young and who is old, it may not be clear who is rich and who is poor. More importantly, there may be useful ways of grouping those faces that only transpire when you look at each of them quite carefully. This is the mental labor of forming categories.

Go back to moving house for a moment. To pack your stuff, you have to pick up each object and ask yourself: “What kind of thing is this?” so you know what box to put it in. And while the answer may be mostly clear, you’ll sometimes need to think about it. If your life has a few eccentricities (whose doesn’t?) you’ll need a number of labeled boxes that are unique to you.

Those unique boxes (in my house-moving analogy) are “emergent categories.” They arise because you’ve examined each detail and asked, “What kind of thing is this?” That’s a crucial mental activity, under-represented by conventional mind-mapping. To put this another way: The limitation of conventional mind-mapping is that it over-uses association and under-uses pattern-seeking. I believe there’s a simple reason for this: association is easier. It’s like rolling down a cognitive hill. One thing leads to another, without too much effort.

Of course, every mind-map presents a pattern, vividly and attractively. That’s half its charm. But the pattern follows from the downhill motion of association, not the uphill climb of generating categories. There’s all the difference in the world between a pre-set category that gets filled with detail, and an emergent category that arises from a mass of detail. It’s not just a difference in process—it’s a difference in thinking.

Stimulating the uphill climb of category formation—and making it as easy as possible—is the purpose of “reverse mind-mapping,” a technique I’ve been developing at the heart of the Zoom Thinking process.

The Magic of Emergent Structure

So, returning to Chuck Frey’s theme, what about structure?  Well, this is where the magic really happens. Emergent categories, as we’ve seen, are radically different from the accidental categories produced by a chain of associations. They literally emerge from the mass of data—which means you can trust them to represent the details with reasonable accuracy. In other words, you can look at the categories and set the source data aside. This is where the effort of pattern-seeking pays off. After you’ve examined everything, detail by detail, and asked, “What kind of thing is this?” you can narrow your focus to the resulting categories and organize them in relation to each other. You just have a few boxes to move around, instead of piles of stuff. Here’s your emergent structure: it’s the hidden story of the underlying data mass.

Conventional mind-mapping is useful for generating large volumes of conceptual data. But I would be very distrustful of the structures it suggests, because they’re driven by association, not pattern-seeking. Far better, if you have the patience and energy, is to begin with a pile of disorganized data, look at it point by point, and discover the emergent categories. There’s a kind of illumination that occurs when you go this route that can only be grasped by first-hand experience.

It’s the illumination of thought itself: the assembly of uncountable realities into portable ideas.












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