The science of mind mapping: a visual way to make sense of the world

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Have you ever struggled to put your thoughts on paper and create connections between concepts? Mind mapping is one of the most effective ways to capture and connect various thoughts.

Mind mapping - a mind map about educational technology
A mind map about educational technology

A mind map is a visual diagram that helps you connect information around a central concept. You start from the centre, and then use branches to connect new concepts together. There is great mind mapping software out there, but the beauty of mind mapping is that it only requires a pen and paper.

While the term mind map was popularised by Tony Buzan, an English author and psychology consultant, the use of diagrams that visually map information using branching traces back centuries.

Tony Buzan died earlier in 2019, but his company still holds trademarks on the phrase “Mind Maps” in the context of self-improvement educational courses in the US, the UK, and Germany.

However, some of the earliest examples of mind maps were developed by Porphyry of Tyros, a philosopher of the 3rd century, who graphically visualised the concepts created by Aristotle.

Contrary to popular opinion, mind mapping is not just a note-taking technique. It can be used for brainstorming, collaboration, and more. It’s an incredibly powerful and flexible thinking tool.

The power of mind mapping

While classic notes are linear, mind mapping forces you to connect old and new concepts together. The flexible layout is akin to brain connections, creating links between thoughts to build a bigger picture, and making information easier to retrieve in various contexts.

  • Better memory and recall. Scientific studies suggest a 10%-15% increase in retention when using mind maps. In this study, participants were asked to complete a short test based on a 600-word passage of text prior to being randomly allocated to form two groups—one where they could pick whatever study technique they wanted, and the other where they had to use mind mapping. The “mind mappers” did much better, especially when testing their long-term memory. Even more interesting: the researchers found lower motivation in the group that had to use mind mapping—probably because selecting your own study method is more motivating—and suggested that higher motivation in using the method would result in yet even better memory recall results.
  • Better creativity. Research with young children shows that mind mapping has a positive impact on creativity. And there’s nothing surprising to these findings: mind mapping allows your mind to jump around and freely make connections, without a rigid structure. It’s great in the exploratory phase of a project, and could be combined with a more restrictive phase later on to get the best of it.
  • Better connections between concepts. Most of the note-taking techniques follow a linear model. Mind mapping allows you to think in a free-form but focused way, while taking advantage of the diffuse thinking mode, where your mind wanders and forms new connections in the background. Almost the best of both worlds.

How to use mind mapping

Mind maps closely resemble the way we think, which is what makes them so powerful. But how do you use them in practice?

Here is the methodology created by Tony Buzan, the psychology consultant who popularised the mind mapping technique. Slightly edited because Tony Buzan was apparently a big fan of exclamation marks.

  1. Start in the centre of a blank page turned sideways. Starting in the center gives your brain freedom to spread out in all directions and to express itself more freely and naturally.
  2. Use an image or picture for your central idea. An image is worth a thousand words and helps you use your imagination. A central image is more interesting, keeps you focused, helps you concentrate, and gives your brain more of a buzz.
  3. Use colours throughout. Colours are as exciting to your brain as are images. Colour adds extra vibrancy and life to your mind map, adds tremendous energy to your creative thinking, and is fun.
  4. Connect your main branches to the central image and connect your second- and third-level branches to the first and second levels, etc. Your brain works by association. It likes to link two (or three, or four) things together. If you connect the branches, you will understand and remember a lot more easily.
  5. Make your branches curved rather than straight-lined. Having nothing but straight lines is boring to your brain.
  6. Use one keyword per line. Single keywords give your mind map more power and flexibility.
  7. Use images throughout. Each image, like the central image, is also worth a thousand words. So if you have only ten images in your mind map, it’s already the equal of 10,000 words of notes.

In case that wasn’t clear, this is a copy-and-paste from the original instructions from Tony Buzan. I don’t agree with everything.

For example, I think that having to use images for every single node in the mind map may actually hinder creativity by forcing people who don’t like to draw to come up with a visual. I think text-only mind maps are fine and help to connect concepts in a very effective way, without the need for additional visuals.

If you do like using illustrations, go for it. Just don’t see it as an obligation to get most of the benefits from mind mapping.

Mind mapping beyond note-taking

Most people use mind maps when taking notes, but there are many other ways you can benefit from this thinking and learning technique.

  • Brainstorming. The reason why lots of brainstorming sessions don’t go so well is because people focus too early on convergent thinking—thinking inside the box to find a solution as quickly as possible. On the other hand, divergent thinking encourages people to think outside the box—to make new connections between seemingly very different ideas and concepts. And this is what mind mapping is all about. Mapping out the ideas can help notice interesting patterns and foster a dynamic of collaboration between participants.
  • To-do list. Need to organise an event? Build a web application? Mind mapping will help you map everything you need to do in a flexible and creative way. You can then bring all the action items into a more traditional and linear to-do list based on priority. Mind maps are actually a great way to get things done.
  • Book summary. Taking linear notes when reading a book is easy. But you will remember the content better if you take the time to design a mind map as you go. Not only will this allow you to create unique connections between the various concepts you read about in the book, but it will help you remember the overall thesis better. Feel free to include quotes, interesting facts, as well as your own thoughts and connections to other readings.
  • Problem solving. Mind mapping can be used to map the various aspects of a specific problem. Start with the problem in the centre of the map, and add questions. When you have what looks like an answer, add it to the map. If that answer creates more questions, add them to the map, and so on and so forth. It’s a great way to consolidate your thinking process and hopefully come up with a solution.
  • Project management. Finally, mind mapping can be used to map the process of bringing a project to life, from the outline of an article to the exact steps you need to take to organise an event or build an app or a community. You can then bring these items into a more traditional project management software, but mind mapping will ensure you explore most corners of the project before getting started.

If you have never tried it, make sure to experiment with mind mapping next time you need to brainstorm or plan for a project.