Wardley Maps and a Thousand Brains

Why Maps Are Effective Tools

Photo by N. on Unsplash

I made a claim on Twitter recently that Jeff Hawkins’ new book: “A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence”, explains why a map is an effective tool for the human brain.

Reference Frames

The key insight of the Thousand Brains theory is that the primary purpose of the neocortex is to process reference frames.

Each column in the neocortex—whether it represents visual input, tactile input, auditory input, language, or high-level thought—must have neurons that represent reference frames and locations. 

Up to that point, most neuroscientists, including me, thought that the neocortex primarily processed sensory input. What I realized that day is that we need to think of the neocortex as primarily processing reference frames. Most of the circuitry is there to create reference frames and track locations. Sensory input is of course essential. As I will explain in coming chapters, the brain builds models of the world by associating sensory input with locations in reference frames.

Hawkins, Jeff. A Thousand Brains (p. 50). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Recall that a reference frame is like the grid of a map.

Hawkins, (p. 59).

This has implications for what thinking actually is. All knowledge is stored in reference frames and thinking is a form of moving.

The hypothesis I explore in this chapter is that the brain arranges all knowledge using reference frames, and that thinking is a form of moving. Thinking occurs when we activate successive locations in reference frames.

Hawkins, (p. 71)

If everything we know is stored in reference frames, then to recall stored knowledge we have to activate the appropriate locations in the appropriate reference frames. Thinking occurs when the neurons invoke location after location in a reference frame, bringing to mind what was stored in each location. The succession of thoughts that we experience when thinking is analogous to the (…) succession of things we see when we walk about a town.

Hawkins, (p. 73)

The process of thinking is described as movement on a map!


Simon Wardley articulates exactly what is needed for an abstract map. He captures the map’s essence.

Maps are visual and context specific. The position of components has meaning based on the anchor. There is movement.1

To be an expert in any domain requires having a good reference frame, a good map.

Hawkins, (p. 87)

I believe that the reason why Wardley Maps are effective is that they are a reference frame for business. They are effective because they are in a form which allows our brains to think most naturally. They also happen to be a useful reference frame.

Beyond Wardley Maps

The reason for my excited tweet was a realization that Simon Wardley’s criteria of what makes something a map can be translated into a criteria of what makes something a good tool for our human brain. 

We have a clear set of constraints for creating really useful tools for the mind!

What Do You Think?

Did you already know how to make useful mind tools, what was your approach? Let me know in the comments.

1 Simon Wardley. Chapter 2: Finding a path. https://medium.com/wardleymaps/finding-a-path-cdb1249078c0. Accessed on 5 Mar 2021.


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