Cogito Ergo Sum. I Think Therefore I Am.

June 6, 2008
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From Descartes to James Burke: Breaking Things Down and Building Connections in your Brain.

In last month’s big thinker Web event, we were all blown away by the depth and vastness of James Burke’s Brain. But beyond connecting generations of Western innovation and history, his view of knowledge and philosophy for learning represents a move from Cartesian reductionism predominant in Western developed nations to what James Burke calls a “Connections” approach. This approach is also key to TheBrain’s philosophy of knowledge management and mind mapping.

Reductionism and Information Hierarchies

In our drive to understand the world we break everything down into discrete categories. This is essential for analysis but can lead to an overly focused view on the subject matter that may fail to address the big picture.

One of the key themes James Burke talked about is knowledge scarcity. His point is relevant: In our world of specialization and “getting things done” coupled with the reductionist approaches to education for the past century, we have created a world of cultivated specialists where knowledge runs deep and narrow. This view has existed and been cultivated since the invention of the anvil. This is knowledge scarcity, the inability of the knowledge supply to effectively meet the needs of society. Those who have knowledge have the power. Those who don’t want to take it, or are dependent on others.

The drive for knowledge and power has been ongoing since human origins. However, Descartes developed a paradigm of analysis for methodological doubt and reductionism. This paradigm played a key influence on modern science and drove innovation and discovery for the next millennium.  Essential to reductionism is the notion that one must reduce every problem down to its elemental small indivisible parts.  So in effect, in James Burke’s words we can “learn more and more about less and less”. This view of knowledge results in many specialists and niche expertise develops. This model has fuelled much of the success of the Western nations but leaves us to rely on these experts and in the process has created silos of knowledge that are inaccessible to all but a select few.  Moreover, even though specialization leads to certain efficiencies it can also lead to many problems for organizations and individuals.

This reductionist approach is also ingrained in the way we organize our data with folders and subfolders, dividing information down into its smallest parts. Even with conventional mind maps, the approach is to branch and sub-branch, reducing your topics until you reach an end node. As noted in my previous blog post, moving beyond information hierarchies this results in scalability issues and fails to represent real world relationships.

In companies this often results in duplication of efforts or not leveraging the vast array of expertise that an organization may collectively possess. Moreover, silos can often result in a failure of imagination of the collective or lack of foresight regarding critical trends. This was a key criticism of the FBI and CIA after the September 11 attacks according to the 9/11 Commission Report. It’s difficult to predict the future without the ability to see ripple effects and nonlinear relationships.

The silo effect is a phrase that is currently popular in the business and organizational communities to describe a lack of communication and common goals between departments in an organization. It is the opposite of systems thinking in an organization and contrary to the connections approach.

James Burke’s Knowledge Web Project

With technologies like TheBrain we can gain a deeper understanding of our world, creating vast and broad-reaching knowledge maps by linking things together rather than dividing and separating knowledge into little parts. Perhaps with this broader perspective and method we can become more explicitly conscious of the interdependencies that drive our world.

According to James Burke, “Watch the news, and every day you see proof that the world is increasingly interlinked. Nowhere is too far away to matter. More than ever, we need to understand how other people and events across the world affect the way we live. Technologies like TheBrain are essential to help us do this. We use TheBrain’s BrainEKP and TheBrain because they are the only mind-mapping products that offer the extreme flexibility and scalability necessary to represent the vast interconnections that exist between historical and scientific knowledge.”

James Burke’s Knowledge Web, is an activity rather than just a Web site—an expedition in time, space, and technology to map the interior landscape of human thought and experience. The Knowledge Web will be an interactive space on the Web where students, teachers, and other knowledge seekers can explore information in a highly interconnected, holistic way that allows for an almost infinite number of paths of exploration. Visitors will be able to click through thousands of interconnected “nodes” and “Thoughts” that link together people, places, things and events.  From their current Thought users can see all relevant connections and will be able to travel to other concepts that are connected to the original node via a historical relationship and visual link.


In terms of its information architecture and mind mapping principles, I found it very interesting that James Burke’s Brain has no directionality whatsoever in terms of the usage of relationship types. Everything that is linked is linked. He does not distinguish between parent, child or jump relationships. His Brain is completely non-linear. So if you wanted to create a Brain like James, you wouldn’t worry whether something goes below or above your active thought. You would simply make a connection and the link exists. While I don’t advocate this approach for everyone it does make me wonder if in my own TheBrain I spend too much time pondering Thought relationships. Maybe it’s the connection itself that is most valuable.
Bring the Reductionist and Connections Approaches in TheBrain

But are the reductionist and the connections approaches incompatible? Definitely not. James Burke is not disputing the need for analytic thought or reductionism. As he noted in our Web event Q&A he is simply advocating a view of knowledge that entails more than the sum of its parts. This also holds true for TheBrain. TheBrain Technologies is not dismissing the idea that you need to subcategorize data. We simply offer a technology that lets you further interrelate it and get to your ideas instantly.

In TheBrain and BrainEKP we can represent both hierarchical (subcategories) and networked oriented data. In fact, for new users it’s very helpful to start with a reductionist approach, creating major categories for your life and then creating Thoughts below those which yield a visual hierarchy. Once you have this basic structure you can then start linking things together. Thoughts that are currently located in separate Thought branches can be connected. Something at the bottom of one node can be at the top of another.

So given these two models of data management, how can you take the best of both views for your TheBrain? Here are some information patterns in that you can create in your own TheBrain where information hierarchies and non-linear relationships meet.

  • Creating Interlocking Hierarchies and Multiple Parents.

You might have a set of Thoughts on people in your company and another branching of Thoughts for company departments. You can connect these two information hierarchies together in TheBrain so the people are also linked to their corresponding department. This is called interlocking hierarchies. You create two distinct information branches and have them interlinked at various points in the hierarchy.


In the above example there are two interlocking hierarchies one for company departments and the other of a employee reporting structure. However employees are still linked to their department thereby interconnecting the two information structures.

  • Using Jump Thoughts

You might have groupings of Thoughts where you have a piece of information that is related but not necessarily a parent or subcategory of your central topic. In this case you can use TheBrain’s jump Thought to make a lateral connection and thereby illustrate a relationship to the information group. Jump Thoughts are displayed to the left of the active Thought.


In the above example Dan link to the left as a jump Thought since he not a diving site but goes diving with this Brain user.

  • Multi-Dimensional Categorization

If you like thinking top down in the same way Descartes or any other reductionist would you can still do this in TheBrain, but remember that you can have more than one category for each Thought in your Brain. In other words, you are not limited because one Thought can be linked under as many categories as you like. For instance, if I am organizing client data, I can have a Thought or section for every industry that I have clients in, as well as organize my clients by project type or job size. Now each of my clients would then inevitably fall under multiple categories. For instance, one client might be both in the telecommunications industry and a large job. This means it would then have two or more Parent Thoughts.


This helps you gain a complete context of the topic because you can now classify it in many ways. The leads to the “ripple effect”: all relationships radiate out from each topic. This helps you see necessary relationships, contingencies and even predict future problems or results


To be effective, knowledge management software must capture human meaning, those otherwise invisible, non-linear relationships and associations that impact all aspects of our lives. The reason James Burke’s approach and TheBrain are so novel is because for the past decade information management has followed a reductionist approach. But the connections approach offers a more complete picture of our knowledge.

The time has come to bridge the gap created by a purely reductionist approach and start making connections. We see this happening with the rising popularity of social networking sites, in the scientific community with systems ecology, with urban scientists who use chaos theory to predict traffic, and of course with government analysts who map out networks to fight terrorism and organized crime. Now you can see it happen in your own view of information within TheBrain. The immediate effect can be described as simply relief!  “Relief” because our connections give us clarity –from the fog of folders and search results, there emerges a coherent and meaningful view of our thinking that is greater than the sum of its parts. What James Burke might call your very own Knowledge Web… I link therefore I am.

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Filed under: Mind Mapping and Information Visualization, Most Popular Articles | Posted on June 6th, 2008 by Shelley Hayduk

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