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Understanding Cognitive Maps

I'm a certified Professional Coach (AIPC) and a member of the International Coach Federation. I coach for career and creativity.


I sat there looking at a one-and-a-half-page explanatory email full of technical terms, file locations, historical facts, bullet points within bullet points, specificity mixed with vagueness and all written with an admixture of font decorations—italic, normal and bold. I was sure it provided all of the information the originator of the email wanted to purvey, but to the recipient-cum-quickly-disinterested-onlooker, it was a word salad drizzled with a pungent dressing of tedium.

The email’s purpose was to describe a data transfer process as part of an effort to discover where we were receiving occasional, randomly located errors in a supply chain of approximately 800 stores. Deciphering the content of the email was difficult and holding multiple pieces of information in one’s head whilst trying to connect the dots felt impossible.

To clear up the email’s clutter and gain a gestalt understanding of its content, I decided to create a cognitive map, visually connecting all of the elements mentioned and describing their interwoven relationships with verb phrases like “Transfers files to”, “processes files”, “inserts data into” and so on. The image below (low-res to obscure company detail) shows a 30,000 ft view of the map. Even from this height you can see the breadth of information compressed into the email.


My colleagues appreciated the clarity and simplicity of this cognitive map as they too had problems understanding the email. One colleague commented that he preferred the organic nature of the map over the rigid formality of a flowchart. It’s that feeling of an organic, changing process that makes it so readily accessible to humans in contrast to the austerity of business process diagrams, flowcharts, UI charts and so on that treat us like lab-rat resources confined in a maze of efficiency and dispassionate logic.

How to Draw a Cognitive Map

A Cognitive Map is a form of Mind Map that visually creates relationships between components like processes, people and thoughts but it differs from the commonly known Mind Map form because it can have more than one central theme and it is used for exploring ideas, concepts and knowledge instead of memorising facts.

Cognitive Maps can include many different types of elements: Questions, quotes, your ideas, hyperlinks, word definitions, images, multiple themes, verb phrases defining connections, and if you’re using Mind Mapping software, you can attach documents, sound files that play music or language etc. Like Mind Maps, Cognitive Maps can use colours and images to group or tie information together in a meaningful way.

Below I’ve created an example Cognitive Map exploring the history of the Aztec, Mixteca and Zapoteca peoples of Mexico. All three ethnic groups are separate themes that can be researched independently with intergroup interactions and influences mapped between them.

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For visual clarity, I used three distinctive colours for the three different peoples: orange for Aztecs, green for Mixtecas and purple for Zapotecas. At a glance, I can see which group or theme the information is originating from and how much information I have gathered on each group. It is obvious by looking at this map that I need to gather more information on the Mixtecas and Zapotecas because there are very few purple and green connectors and lots of orange Aztec connectors.

The image below focusses on elements on the left side of the map and displays a definition of theocratic rule with a couple of questions regarding the gods the Aztecs worshipped.


The right side of the map below has information regarding relations between Mixtecas and Zapotecas and a hyperlink to more information on the Zapotec people.


I like to turn the arrow connectors into sentences as per below example. From the question about the Aztec gods “Where did their gods come from?” I drew an orange connector extending to the Mixtecas theme with the phrase “were they borrowed from?” I continue the sentence on another connector from the Mixtecas to the Zapotecas with the phrase “or from”. So the entire sentence reads, “Where did their [Aztecs] gods come from? Were they borrowed from Mixtecas or from Zapotecas?” The continuous nature of the sentence is obvious from the colour of the connectors and even if the connectors were different colours it’s easy to understand.


Start Using Cognitive Maps

One great advantage of a cognitive map is you can mold it to match the way you think, visualise and process information. It is a very liberating style of mind map because it has no structured process to follow like concept maps, system maps or flowcharts and because you are not necessarily memorising the content you don’t need to spend time drawing highly interactive and colourful pictures with metaphors, rhymes, symbols and so on.

I’ve used cognitive maps to understand programming code, complex writing and providing clients I coach with a clear overview of their situations and their future plans. I highly recommend that if you’re reading a difficult text or having problems un-muddling your thoughts on a subject, grab a piece of paper (or mind mapping software) and draw out a cognitive map and experience for yourself how quickly it brings clarity and insight.

Some Uses for Cognitive Mapping

  • Understanding complex reading material such as detailed emails, documentation or manuals.
  • Exploring a concept.
  • Brainstorming.
  • Planning a career transition.
  • Taking an overseas trip.
  • Exploring symbolism in your dreams.
  • Comparing two or more cultures (as our Aztec Cognitive Map did).
  • Comparing the pros and cons of different cars you are thinking of purchasing.
  • Communicating with colleagues and other teams for work and presentations.

© 2019 Duane Hennessy

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