Rhizomatic Mind-Mapping

Rhizomatic Mind-Mapping is a technique/ method that I use to organize thought, and generate connections between sometimes seemingly disparate but intuitively related items. It’s simple, and I’ve found it to be quite effective, and have used it in organizing things as different as how I’m feeling on a particular day, to themes in my thesis.

Here’s a snapshot of one of the mind-maps that I did make while writing my thesis:


To do: first comes the brainstorm. Take the subject material, and simply write every relevant associated word down that you can think of on paper. What’s “relevant?” It depends, but you use your judgment for this, and can also relax: the process leads towards slimming what is not-relevant, and gives lots of opportunities for including what might be and was left out. The subject material, as noted, could be “things that I want to do this year,” “reactions to a movie I just watched,” or “themes from the interview I just conducted” or any other million things that it might be relevant to do a mind-map for.

Step two, which can partially be done while brainstorming, is to draw connections between different elements of the mind-map. If my subject was “things I need to do to learn Dutch,” two elements might be “Read De Morgen (a newspaper) for five minutes every day,” and “Keep a notebook on me with words I see around me that I don’t know.” One possible “connection” or “relationship” between these two elements might be “circle words in De Morgen I don’t recognize and put into notebook.” This can help open up possibilities that I hadn’t at first seen, and can help clarify the overall project or thought-patterning being mapped out.

With a full mess of a page, the third step is to locate which ‘nodes’ (words or phrases) are more and less central, and re-drafting the map to organize them (more) clearly. For a simple map like “Learning Dutch,” there may only be two or three levels of ‘nodes.’ Perhaps “Practice Dutch Everyday” becomes the central node, the new ‘subject’ of the mind-map, while “translate a complete children’s story” becomes a minor node around this major node.

There may be different kinds of nodes that come out as well, which I usually color-code. For example, “buy a Dutch dictionary” (something totally irrelevant today but what the hell) is a discrete and single actionable step, while “memorize verb forms” might have several repeatable actions associated with it, but is nonetheless a completable goal, and further “read De Morgen five minutes a day” is open-ended.

This is a pretty simple example, and the power of doing this may not be apparent with “learning Dutch.” Try to do a mind-map for “what do I want to be doing in a typical week?” “what does Love mean to me?” or “what are the major themes of War and Peace?” and it becomes more apparent, I think.

Why “Rhizomatic?” 

Rhizomes are root systems (ginger is a common example) that grow in a rather interesting, networked way. I am kind of mashing the idea of a rhizome together with mycorrhizae, which are (typically) symbiotic fungi that grow with roots.

What I am most interested in is a pattern of networktivity: think a view of the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. from space at night: (de)centralized hubs, whose connections are composed of the same material as the hubs themselves. (What connects a city to another city, especially in these dense areas, is not only a highway, but other cities.)

Here’s a fascinating article that shares a lot of the same thinking.

What this allows for, as a mind map, is a relationality between the separate elements of the map that is not merely hierarchical, or categorical (like a 6th grade history outline). While verticality (category size) and horizontality (degree) are one-dimensional in a traditional mind-map, a rhizomatic mind-map allows for these important dimensions to be fluid: relationships can be multi-directional, networked connections between one or two nodes can become their own node, and relationships can simultaneously become horizontal and vertical. This process, then, allows for a much more surprising and dynamic creativity than traditional mind-maps, at least in my experience. (Though I do not think that I am the only one to experience mind as cluttered and also unproblematic.)

And trees can still grow from the roots. 

2 thoughts on “Rhizomatic Mind-Mapping

  1. Reminds me of a discussion we are having in another group around the distinction between society of distributed networks, versus Christopher Alexander’s notion of designing around living centers. In a distributed network, resource flows are essential for life, and network “hubs” form around translational intersections (basically the number of steps it takes to move from here to there in a connected way). So in your mind map, some of the ideas are translational — but even if they are hubs, they may not be generative, living centers. A generative living center, in a mind map, would be an idea like an insight, out of which all kinds of relational, second-order ideas cascade. A living center, is always already whole, and depending upon its “generative capacity” gives rise to multiplicity of forms radiating or cascading out. Does a rhizome have a center?

    Generative centers can also give rise to other living centers (through budding processes). IF rhyzomes are more like distributed networks, rather than a complex intra and inter dynamic of living centers, then they are horribly fragile — think of the whole system depending upon the weakest link like the electricity grid. Distributed systems can have more resilience than a purely hierarchical form — depending on the design. But, most importantly, because in truly generative design, where each living center is always already whole, then the system is maximally decomposable down to the origin — which makes it more than resilient– it makes it anti-fragile!

    Thanks for the post. Interesting ideas for interesting times!

    • Yes- awesome, and said very well!

      That is exactly what I’m trying to get at– that the intersections of what come out originally in brainstorming can themselves become a re-focusing and re-organizing entity for the entire thrust of what was being mind-mapped in the first place. Not simply a distributed network (or a house of cards), but a singularly multiple organism(s) strong together and able to thrive apart. Aspen trees are like this–and this is totally what I’m trying to express, and represent in and through this kind of mind-mapping. Population centers and shifts seem like this as well.

      The example I gave of Dutch Practice (pulled from thin air) is probably then not as good of an example as the actual method I used for my thesis- where connections and relationships themselves became prominent themes and helped me further think and understand the research object.

      Rhizomes do and don’t have a center- I think of the center like the Aspen tree itself (what we think of as a tree)– or rather the *growth* that takes the form of a tree, while underneath there’s an underlying and dynamic connectivity.

      Where is this other conversation taking place?

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