Tony Buzan is widely considered the “father” of Mind Maps – a revolutionary way of representing ideas and their interrelations – so I thought it fit for SynapseBurning.com to discuss this powerful tool by exploring his beautifully illustrated book, The Ultimate Book of Mind Maps. I am particularly passionate about the subject since I’ve used mind maps for over 10 years, and they have helped me enormously in writing, planning and problem solving (as a matter of fact, rarely does a week pass without me having the urge to produce a mind map for one reason or another).
Mind maps are extremely simple: starting from a central concept in the middle of the page, you branch out by drawing all the related ideas that come to mind. Each idea, which is represented by not more than a few words, is linked to others through a parent-child relation or through a sibling relation (take a look at the mind map I generated to create this post!).
The creation of a mind map typically consists of two phases: the brainstorming phase, when a very large number of ideas is generated; and the organizing phase, when these ideas are grouped into logical units. Each phase activates a distinct part of the brain (the principle of synergy): in the brainstorming phase, it’s the right side – the creative, intuitive, holistic, imaginative one; in the organizing phase, it’s the left side – the logical, analytical, relational one. This distinction is however mostly theoretical, since in practice brainstorming and organizing occur in rapid sequence or even simultaneously (i.e. organizing as you brainstorm). I personally prefer to keep them as distinct as possible, to free the brainstorming from the constraint of having to organize, which tends to stifle the process (it’s called “going wild”!).
There are three main uses for mind maps.
1. Creating. Whether our endeavor is writing or speaking, mind maps can assist us much better than the most common tool, the linear outline, which narrowly focuses on the organizational aspect and is thus less conducive to brainstorming, which requires absolute freedom to write down ideas without any type of constriction. The productivity guru David Allen said it best when he described his anguish as a child: during a writing assignment in class, he stared at “roman numeral number one” of his outline, without knowing what to put down first! He was waiting for a truly great idea to come… The truth is that at the beginning of any creative endeavor we probably don’t know what is to come first; good ideas won’t jump at us immediately, but that shouldn’t keep us from moving on. The only way to get good ideas is to have many ideas, and mind maps are the most powerful idea-generators. They are also remarkably effective in helping the writer discover connections between the ideas he has generated; he can then “move” them around until he is able to fashion them into a (hopefully) coherent stream of thought. This flexibility is amazing and… truly liberating!
2. Planning/problem solving. If an event or a project needs to happen, we have to find solutions that address all the possible “moving parts” so as to avoid the embarrassing “oops factor” (i.e. “I planned every thing but I forgot to consider x”). Again, thanks to their twofold nature, mind maps can help us dig out heaps of ideas and organize them into logical units that can be in turn broken down into manageable tasks.
3. Learning. When we are confronted with new material, the key is to understand the main ideas and separate them from the details. Mind maps help us do just that. The main branches represent the key points of a book, chapter, lesson etc, while the smaller branches contain less important information, which should be assimilated in relation to the central ideas. There is nothing like seeing both the big picture and the details, all in one. This “juggling” between ideas and their interrelation favours retention thanks to its innate reinforcing mechanism and the activation of both parts of the brain. That’s why it’s so much easier to learn something from a mind map that you’ve created than from flipping back and forth through a book you’ve underlined or notes you’ve scribbled.
Apart from explaining what mind maps are, their uses and why they work, Buzan provides some very useful complementary tips for boosting creativity, learning ability and for being successful, which I discuss in my next post.