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What is the Difference Between Concept Maps and Mind Maps?

Lars-Thorsten Sudmann
Feb 17, 2020 6:24:00 PM

The human brain absorbs visually displayed content faster and more efficiently than textual representations. Mind maps and concept maps are two suitable candidates for this job.

  • Mind maps are intuitive thought webs that work well for transcripts or collections of ideas.
  • Concept maps are better suited for the systematic representation of complex contexts.
  • Mind maps and concept maps represent two different views on human memory formation and modes of thinking.

Information can be processed much faster through the visual presentation of topics as it is not possible to take in content at a glance using texts. Two convenient ways of visualising content are mind maps and concept maps. Mind maps support a more spontaneous and associative approach, whereby a centred headline is used to describe related topics.

Mind Maps: Associative Brainstorming

In the 1970s, the English author and coach Tony Buzan developed the technique of mind mapping. Mind maps serve as transcripts or planning purposes for their inventors, whereby the principle of free association should help to generate ideas.

Mind maps always start from a central concept and have a tree-like structure with further branches. These are labelled with subheadings. Ideally, the main branches are boldened, and their words capitalised. The branching also expresses the relative importance of the respective idea or topic. The more terms a branch has, the more intensely contributors have already thought about this section. Branches without further branching show knowledge gaps or topics that have been less developed so far.

Concept maps, however, are more organised and hierarchical. They are developed piecemeal and redesigned, depending on how the cognitive process unfolds. Unlike mind-maps, they consciously record and illustrate relationships between sub-concepts.

Concept maps: systematic development

Unlike mind maps, concept maps do not have a clear central headline, but rather several interconnected terms. The terms are usually rectangularly framed and connected with labelled arrows. By pointing in a specific direction, an arrow creates a unique connection in which "the cat eats the mouse" and not the other way around.

Concept maps are hierarchically ordered from top to bottom, but still, allow cross-connections between the individual headings. Visually, they are reminiscent of pedigrees or line networks of metropolitan subways. Concept maps are often used in academia due to their more organised structure and the ability to represent crosslinks. They are well suited for the support of learning processes and the presentation of complex issues, such as e.g. scientific theories.

Two Methods That Complement Each Other

Mind maps and concept maps are each suitable for different modes of thinking and address different views and assumptions of how human memory works. The technique of mind-mapping assumes that the brain is an associative network, while concept maps postulate that human memory consists of a hierarchical network of concepts.

These two views are not mutually exclusive but can very well complement each other when combined. Mind maps are especially useful for more informal, creative processes where achieving associative results is desired, whereas concept maps support analytical thinking. The latter visualise structures and visualise connections.

The relationships between concepts shown in concept maps often are linked by terms such as "is generic term" or "is an example of". Therefore, creating concept maps takes much more time than mind maps.


Digital tools for mind maps and concept maps

While mind maps can easily be created on a (sufficiently large) white sheet, digital tools have sprung up to create them. German-language software "Mindmeister" (, for example, also allows for the collaborative creation of digital mind maps. In addition to the free version, business subscriptions are available. XMind is another free mind mapping tool suitable for businesses and has been available for a decade ( The English tool MindMup ( is even compatible with Google Drive.

The Florida-based Institute for Human and Machine Cognition offers a downloadable selection of concept map tools ( The online graphics tool "", on the other hand, is the preferred choice for the free and easy creation of concept maps. EdrawSoft is another pick for creating concept maps (


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