Mapping to get an overview

Card's author : Jean-Michel Cornu
Card's type of licence : Creative Commons BY-SA
Description : 1

Long live antagonisms !

Whether during a collective discussion with different points of view, or moreover during an argument, everyone defends his idea and keeps repeating it to be sure it will be taken into account - or more - impose itself to others. This quirk usually prevents everybody from having an overview on the proposed ideas : each one looks for what justifies his position and possibly what discredits the other's. The discussion goes round and round.

If we look closer, they are two things in these exchanges : members try to reach altogether a truth or a solution, but often replacing the rational approach by a late justification of the chosen positions 2 ; and besides there is an often unconscious game going on where every member tries not to be caught out but rather to be held in high esteem by the others. Very often, there is a presupposition that only one solution is true or at least is the best. This situation frequently prevents members from looking for other proposals than those given by them at the beginning . Techniques of creativity enables to break this vicious circle but keeping all that is said and proposing new issues to members.

An antagonism is a "situation where two phenomenons or their consequences have opposite effects 3". In the tale of the blind men and an elephant 4 , each blind persons touches a different part of the animal and draws a different conclusion which seems opposite to the others. But an opposite is not a contrary, which is completely incompatible with the proposal of the beginning. So, we often oppose success and failure. But these two opposites are not as incompatible as they seem at first sight. Those who have carried out projects are well aware that during a lifetime one comes across both success and failures... unless one doesn't do anything which enables neither to succeed nor fail5

It is then important in a discussion not to exclude proposals from the start, but on the contrary to look for new ideas in order to sketch the "map" of possibilities before trying to choose. 6

Limits of the speech

Let's illustrate a speech. It has a point of departure – often a question – a progression and an arrival, the conclusion. It looks like a walk in a forest for instance , with its point of departure, its progression and its arrival. But if we try to walk altogether without accepting to follow one and only one person, then things get bad. The conflict may be shown as a common departure point and two opposite progressions. How can we depict this conflict as only one speech ? We can depict each progression, but we can't depict only one departure point, only one progression and only one arrival as when we argue... Similarly collective intelligence can be represented as several departure points (several points of view) for the same arrival (the topic to keep in mind) . As in the story with the blind men and an elephant, it's not possible to have only one speech. Creation consists in linking two ideas to create a new one. Here too a unique speech cannot enable to leave from several potential towards numerous arrivals. The speech is therefore limited in its ability to show some domains 7. Sometimes we even turn round and round ! Jacques Monod 8 showed that it is our symbolic language and our capacity to build up speeches which makes up our intelligence. So, we humans have an intelligence allowing us sometimes to make rational speeches. It has enabled to develop civilizations and even to send men on the Moon. But this kind of intelligence is of no help neither for solving conflicts nor dealing with collective intelligence or to apply creativity ! That is surely why we are the only animals smart enough to master nuclear power but stupid enough to use it to shatter the Planet in thousands pieces...

A map to avoid turning round and round

Fortunately, classical language and speeches are not the only things we have to develop our intelligence. Cognitive sciences have shown that we have several working memories 9 enabling us to keep these concepts in mind. Yet, thinking means linking ideas. We do this with ideas we have in mind, in our working memories. "The phonological loop" is a working memory interested in linked ideas as in our speech or, to get back to our analogy, as the different steps of our walk. We also have at disposal a visio-spatial sketchpad, another working memory interested in different unconnected concepts. If we go back to our walk-in-the-forest analogy, this memory allows the sketching of a map with different items to find directions. In that case, it is possible to keep in mind several opposite or just different ideas. As well as the disposal of a map four our collective walk allows to locate us and the others, it is possible to make a map of ideas to locate ourselves in the debate. We have named this way of thinking, particularly adapted to conflict-solving, to collective intelligence or to creativity, "thinking-2" taking up Edward de Bono's words 10. The map enables to see all the paths simultaneously and to find some new and unexplored ones. We can co-build it with the ideas and progressions of every one during an exchange of views. Such tools as mind maps (mind mapping en anglais) exactly allows to map debates very efficiently.

But contrary to our long term memories, our working memories are very limited. The phonological loop which allows the chain of ideas only allows to keep in mind three concepts 11. This limit appears when we try to remember the thread of a recent conversation. We easily find the three last ideas but it's difficult to go any further. With this limit, we shouldn't be able to build up a speech of more than three ideas. It's in case the fact in animal language. But we humans have managed to go beyond that barrier thanks to a... cultural increase. Invention of symbolic language has allowed us to stock in our long-term memory 12 several thousands of concepts under the shape of symbolic words. We dig in this memory to feed our small short-term memory chaining words one after another to constitute speeches. So, thanks to this continuous feeding of concepts wrapped in words, we can constitute endless speeches. We are so proud of this major progress that we don't stop talking... Even our unconscious talks as Jacques Lacan says !

Our second working memory, the visio-spatial sketchpad allowing us to draw mind maps that we can try to link later on, is also limited. Its "memory span", the size of what we can keep in mind at a given time, is between five and nine 13. We can have an idea of this limit when looking at a picture with several persons on it and once the picture is away, we are asked how many people there were. If the number is rather low, up to seven, we can find from the mental image that we have kept of the picture. But if the number is higher, we can't count them afterward. Once more, we have a common limit most animals. But without cognitive tools enabling us to overtake it, we can't remember more than five to nine ideas in an exchange and we loose the richness of the debate. The human being of the XXIst century is even disadvantaged because of the continuous requests and the need to keep in mind several things. Very often in a debate, we only react to one or two ideas which have marked us forgetting all the others...

Increasing our ability to map debates

As well as we have been able to increase our capacity to build up speeches by stocking symbolic words in our long term memory, we can increase our ability to make mind maps. "the Method of Loci" means to stock symbolic places – here called loci - in one's long term memory and then to associate them with ideas appearing in exchanges ( in the long run it's easier to memorize territories than ideas). We can keep then in our long term memory enough concepts to overtake the limits of our short term memory

Method of Loci14

In the case of thinking-2, we saw we were limited by the size of our short term working memory. To overtake this fact, we could use a map already kept in our long term memory (for example, a city map) to stock different concepts which will be linked to a place on our map.

That's exactly how the Method of Loci works 15 which goes back to the Greeks according to Cicero 16. He says that during a banquet, the poet Simonide de Ceos was invited to praise the master of the house, a custom peculiar to those times. But he included some praises to Castor and Pollux. Scopas, the master, then said to Simonide that he would only pay half what he owed him and that he could ask the twin gods for the balance. A little later during the meal, someone called Simonide to tell him two youngsters were waiting for him outside. As soon as he was out of the house, the roof collapsed on the whole of the guests. Bodies were so squashed that they could not be recognized by their family. But the poet was able to remember the whole of the victims by the places they occupied during the deadly banquet.

Progressively, from a simple mnemonic system, the Method of Loci turned into a system willing to categorize the whole of human thinking on a spatial map. Well over a simple mnemonic process, this system was drawing an art of creating thinking 17. But the use itself of the expression "art of memory" has undoubtedly forced to forget these techniques when printing, then computers substituted themselves to our memory capacities. Nevertheless this kind of method, used since the Middle Ages by monks, allows to think with a great number of concept simply by associating them with parts of a known places, itself being kept in the long term .

Traces of these methods combining concepts and symbolic places – not always real spots but also learnt and memorized maps -are often found in numerous domains : in the use of psalms 18, spoken tales 19, African griots, Yi King, Chinese calligraphy...

Which map for which collective intelligence ?

To enable the development of collective intelligence in the writing of a collective document or in the solving of conflicts for instance, maps can be used to show the different progressions of members and discover some new ones. The use of mind maps (mind mapping) is particularly powerful. During face-to-face meetings, maps can be cast on a wall so that everyone has an overview. Thus it changes completely the way people propose new ideas rather than repeating those they remember... generally theirs.

But there are limits to this approach : mind map soon becomes complex. Someone who arrives along the way will find it difficult to understand. Those who were there from the start can use it rather effectively... until the projector is switched off. The amount of ideas on the map often exceed our working memory's limits and soon after the work session we stop thinking and remember only a few conclusions that poorly illustrate the richness of the discussion. We have successfully tested the superimposition of a mind map on a territory according to the «method of Loci» method. The metaverse francophone library has created a virtual island 20 hosting the different concepts of our book Prospectic 21 on emerging sciences and technologies (Nanotechnologies, Biotechnologies, Complex systems theory, IT, Neurosciences, Cognition...). Besides, in the framework of a 6-sessions public debate on synthesic biology set up by Vivagora, we have mapped real time ideas and opinions about an imaginary city 22.

This method using mind maps proved to be particularly powerful during face-to-face sessions or else during online meetings (synchronous meetings). It's different with asynchronous online meetings, when each member reacts in the debate when he chooses to. Indeed, in this case, the level of member's attention fluctuates from pro-activity to episodic observation 23. Co-mapping step-by-step with everyone's attention becomes difficult. Besides, it's hard to find spots known by all and which can we can use as bases to locate one or two hundreds concepts. Our houses and our environment are well memorized and they can be a media for the method of Loci. But they are different for each member and can only be used individually. The world map could possibly be used as a base because we have all already memorized a part of it, but it's tricky to locate ideas-most of the time subjective- on inhabited countries or territories. For example where would be located the notion of deviance? The best applicant seems to be the human body where even a uneducated person can locate dozens of different spots. Vivian Labrie has experimented this approach with human sculptures composed of several members during debates about poverty in Quebec 24. Besides, during an online debate, reactive participants which are ten times more numerous than proactive ones, get information and summaries through a tool rather geared to text (mail, Facebook, Twitter) 25 which they read regularly and don't really make the effort to look at a graphical mind map on a specific web page. Asking to click on a link in a sent text will reduce by half the number of potentially reactive persons.

Therefore during online debates, it is more interesting to have a mind map exclusively built with (even if with Twitter there is still the need to click on link to propose more than 144 characters). When formatted, the text enables that kind of possibilities with item-structured lists (which make an arborescence as mind maps) and different artifacts allowing to browse a text just like a map, reading an exhaustive reading needless (bold, underlined...). By keeping short the "textual mind map", the size of an average computer screen, we enable participants to have an overview of exchanges and to use Thinking-2 to produce collective intelligence.

  • 1 Thes ideas are originally presented in : CORNU, Jean-Michel. Modes de pensée et conflit d’intérêt. In : Nouvelles technologies, nouvelles pensées ? [online]. Limoges, France : FYP éditions, 2008. Innovation, ISSN 1961-8328. ISBN 978-2-916571-03-4. Available from :
Available from article : Nous avons non pas un mais deux modes de pensée. Le blog de Jean-Michel Cornu [online]. [Accessed 4 February 2014]. Available from:
  • 2 The rational reasoning process is to put forward an hypothesis and then to try to refute it. Since Aristotle we actually know that it is not possible to demonstrate that a global theory - Aristotle talks of " universal proposal" -is true (a sentence like all rabbits have a tail cannot be completely checked because how can we be sure we have seen all the rabbits...). The rational reasoning process is then to demonstrate that the theory is wrong. If it can't be done, the theory is considered sufficiently good to be provisionally true... until a refutation invalidates it. The scientific reasoning process is based on the rational reasoning process but it attempt tempting to draw checkable forecasts from the theory which allow a refutation... or not.
  • 3 Antagonisme. Wikipédia [online]. [Accessed 4 February 2014]. Available from :
  • 4 See How to produce a text when you are several hundred persons - La parabole des aveugles et de l'éléphant
  • 5 get to know more, see the square of opposition : Le carré Sémiotique. Le blog de Jean-Michel Cornu [online]. [Accessed 4 February 2014]. Available from :
  • 6 Voir The post factum choice
  • 7 It is because of the use of spoken or written language which unrolls sequentially. Other forms of language could allow to translate simultaneously two or more notions. Like in dance for instance. Bees use that form of language (yet without having an elaborated symbolic language as ours). As well as the language of signs for deaf and hearing-impaired enables things which are not possible with spoken language, for example telling one thing with the left hand and something else even contrary with the right one !
  • 8 MONOD, Jacques. Le hasard et la nécessité: essai sur la philosophie naturelle de la biologie moderne. Paris, France : Éd. du Seuil, 1970. Points. Série Essais, ISSN 1264-5524, 43. ISBN 978-2-02-000618-7.
  • 9 BADDELEY, Alan D. and HITCH, G. J. Working memory. In : BOWER, G. H. (ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation : Advances in research and theory Volume 8. New York : Academic Press, 1974. p. 47–90. ISBN 9780080863597 0080863590 0125433085 9780125433082.
  • 10 DE BONO, Edward. Conflits: comment les résoudre. Paris, France : Eyrolles, 2007. ISBN 978-2-212-53952-3.
  • 11 BADDELEY, Alan D. and HITCH, G. J.ibid.
  • 12 Called "semantic memory"
  • 13 MILLER, George A. The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological review [online]. 1956. Vol. 63, no. 2, p. 81. [Accessed 4 February 2014]. Available from :
  • 14 CORNU, Jean-Michel. Nouvelles technologies, nouvelles pensées ? Limoges, France : FYP éditions, 2008. Innovation (Limoges), ISSN 1961-8328. ISBN 978-2-916571-03-4.
  • 15 YATES, Frances Amelia. L’art de la mémoire. Paris, France : Gallimard, 1987. Bibliothèque des histoires, ISSN 0768-0724. ISBN 2-07-070982-5, 978-2-07-070982-3.
  • 16 CICÉRON. De l’orateur. Paris, France : Les Belles Lettres, 1966. Collection des universités de France, ISSN 0184-7155.
  • 17 CARRUTHERS, Mary J. Machina memorialis : méditation, rhétorique et fabrication des images au Moyen Age. Paris, France : Gallimard, 2002. Bibliothèque des histoires, ISSN 0768-0724. ISBN 2-07-075746-3.
  • 18 CARRUTHERS, Mary J.ibid.
  • 19 Des cartes pour décrire des contes : rencontre avec Vivian Labrie. Le blog de Jean-Michel Cornu [online]. [Accessed 4 February 2014]. Available from :
  • 20 ile Prospectic. ProspecTIC [online]. [Accessed 4 February 2014]. Available from :
  • 21 CORNU, Jean-Michel. Nouvelles technologies, nouvelles pensées ? Limoges, France : FYP éditions, 2008. Innovation (Limoges), ISSN 1961-8328. ISBN 978-2-916571-03-4.
  • 22 Biosynth-ville : la ville de la biologie synthétique. Vivagora [online]. [Accessed 4 February 2014]. Available from :
  • 23 Voir Size of groups and parts of members
  • 24 Collectif pour un Québec sans pauvreté. [online]. [Accessed 4 February 2014]. Available from :
  • 25 Voir Size of groups and parts of members

To sum up

In a debate with several people, and even more in a confrontation, each one tends to defend his idea and to repeat it constantly so it is taken into account. In practice it's often seen that different points of view don 't rule each other out but on the contrary complement each other to give altogether an overview. To go past the facts, me must take into account the two ways of thinking that are each using a different working memory.

The first, based on speech consist in sayings ideas one after the other, just as we make a step after another to progress from a starting point until an arrival. This way of thinking especially allows a rational approach but it hardly takes into account conflict (a starting point, two directions), collective intelligence (several points of view on the same arrival) or else creativity (finding new ways between several starting points and several arrivals) which are all three using another complementary way.

The second way of thinking is based on mapping. It consists in arranging on the same mind map ideas according to their proximity, without trying to select them offhand, to get the more complete vision on ideas and possible progressions. Mind maps (mind mapping in English) which are co-built and projected to all during sessions are very efficient to give a global vision to the whole group and allow therefore to look for new ideas and new points of view rather than having each member focusing on one or two former ideas.
To go further, two possible approaches :
  • the Method of Loci : During synchronous meetings (online or face-to-face), a map of idea can be coupled with another map, often of territories that each one can keep in his long term memory. It can be a place known to all (their cathedral for monks in the Middle Ages)or failing that a co-built place (in the long term a place is easier to remember than ideas) ;
  • Textual maps : in asynchronous online exchanges, people who behave reactively (ten times more numerous than proactive) and the observers (even more numerous) use tools which cannot stand graphics mode very well (mail, Facebook, Twitter). Therefore proposing a drawn map needs to share a link to a web page where the map is hosted. But then only a half of participants will see the map. The possible use of text laying out can then be used to allow the drawing of a textual map which won't need to be read in its whole as a text but can be read as a map : lists of bullet points, formulation of short ideas in one line maximum, bold, underlined and italics to enhance some keywords.

Mot clé : #cartographier

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