Mind mapping – Tony Buzan’s brainchild

Mind Mapping
Tony Buzan’s ‘eureka’ moment

When Tony Buzan was at university, he went to the library to find out how to study more effectively. What he found astonished him – there simply were no books on how to use the brain! He realised he’d stumbled upon virgin territory. Oh yes, there were books on the structure of the brain, and disorders of the brain, and other aspects of the brain, but as for how to actually use it more effectively … nothing.

In fact, the librarian guided him to the section of the library where he could find books about the anatomy of the brain, medical implications of brain injuries, even books on brain surgery, but when he explained he just wanted to read some books on how to use the brain, he was met with a look of complete mystification!

Tony Buzan studies the brain …
and develops the mind mapping concept

A mind map on Tony Buzan's website showing the uses of mind mapping

A simple mind map from Tony Buzan’s own website, used to navigate through the various parts of the site

That’s when he decided to make a study of the brain, and how it works. The end result of his investigations was mind mapping. The idea behind mind mapping is simple – instead of the traditional route of laboriously taking notes and writing reports and so on, mind mapping constructs an image of the entire process.

The core idea at the beginning of whatever you’re studying goes right at the centre of the page (or sheet, since a bigger area is useful). The main ideas that spring from that central idea are then shown spreading out from that central, core idea. Each of those secondary ideas, in turn, gives rise to further thoughts or ideas.

The result is something that resembles a tree in leaf. There is the main idea (the trunk), with the main dependent ideas branching out from it (the branches), and other, smaller branches spreading out from each of them (the twigs). It can go even further, with each of the ‘twigs’ giving rise to still more dependent thoughts (you could look on these as the leaves). There’s no need to fill the map with lots of text either – a key word here and there can say so much, and together with signs (arrows, etc) and images, the map can reveal an entire story in barely more than a glance.

The physical appearence of a tree isn’t the only thing that a mind map bears a resemblence to – the structure of the brain itself, with all its billions of neurons and dendrites, bears an uncanny resemblance to an enormous mind map. In fact, what Tony Buzan stumbled onto is something that had previously gone largely unnoticed – that the traditional method of storing ideas, or putting them on paper, was missing the point. By writing notes in a linear fashion, one under another, in neatly regimented lines, we were actually trying to describe a ‘blossoming’ of ideas in the form of something completely different, a linear and regulated list.

The natural architecture of the brain

image of neurons in the brain, reminiscent of mind mapping

The natural architecture of the brain closely
resembles a three-dimensional mind map

Mind maps imitate the natural architecture of the brain. We think in a ‘mind map’ sort of way; from one core idea, others spring forth, and spread and multiply, each giving rise to others. This ‘radiant thinking’ is perfectly natural, and the more we embrace it the easier it is to study and learn. When we limit and constrict our thinking by reducing it to lines of neat notes, that’s when we find that our natural inventiveness and creativity tend to suffer.

I suppose we should have seen the signs long ago. Nowhere in the brain is there a filing cabinet, or a folder, or anything that looks even remotely like any of the traditional study methods or storage devices we’re used to using. I’m not suggesting that we might have expected to actually see these things, but perhaps there might have been some sort of structures that brought these things to mind through their appearance – maybe something that hinted at an internal storage system akin to a logical filing system.

The reality is, the brain is an organic thing, like a tree, or a mould, or a lichen – in appearance, it seems to be growing or developing, ever reaching out and spreading. It has the appearance of something that has ‘blossomed’ or expanded. And when we see an image of it through a microscope, we see an incredibly complex three-dimensional, living organism that changes from moment to moment. In this way, it bears an uncanny resemblance to a huge and endlessly complex mind map that is continuously being updated.

We think in mind map-style images

Another way the brain and the mind map are similar is that the brain wants to see a thing complete and whole, rather than in bits. When we hear words in a sequence (one, two, three, four) we almost instantly continue the sequence internally. When an advertiser reminds us that “A Mars a day …” and leaves the phrase hanging, we can’t help but continue it and complete it (did you have any trouble completing it? did you even have the option not to?). Advertisers well know that this is a compulsion, and they use that knowledge to make us think exactly what they want us to think.

With mind mapping, we take the natural functions of the brain and we harness them. Instead of using some unrelated method, we actually use the brain’s natural, inbuilt methods of gathering, analyzing, storing and memorising data. In fact, the first humans that made images on cave walls millennia ago were externalising their thoughts in a way that far more resembles mind maps than note taking. They made images, which of course is what the brain uses all the time in thought processes. Language, and eventually writing, came only comparitively recently. And some languages (e.g. Japanese and Chinese) still maintain a strong link to their image-based ancestry.

The uses of mind mapping

Mind maps can be used for technical and academic subjects, of course, but they can also be used for decision making, for business and professional work, for personal endeavours, and for recording family history. In short, personal development of all kinds can be helped enormously by mind mapping, and by the insights it can give us.

If you’re writing a novel or a play, you can plan it with a mind map. Do you want to keep track of purchases, or product guarantees, or household chores that need to be done on a regular basis? These, and many other things, can easily be handled by mind maps.

Of course, you can make mind maps as simple or as complex as you like. If you only want to include words, that’s okay – the fact that the words are organised in a map-like fashion rather than along dull straight lines will still be effective. Better still if you include images (even if only arrows, or other very basic signs) and various colours. The more visual and the more colourful, the better. These aspects of mind mapping seem to resonate with the brain in some visceral way.

Today, well over 100 million people worldwide are using mind maps. It is a technique practised in every country on earth. These figures alone are enough to validate Tony Buzan’s eureka moment back in the 1970s, when he realised there must be a better way to use the brain, and set about creating it.

Mind mapping software

You can pay for mind mapping software, and you can get free versions as well. Among the most widely used is Tony Buzan’s own iMindMap software, which retails at £149 for the Ultimate Version. But a simpler version, iMindMap Home and Student is just £49.

FreeMind is a (guess what:) completely free mind mapping software. The link opens a download page that has plenty of information on the software.

PersonalBrain 6 is my personal favourite! They have just released a new version, called TheBrain 7. Both versions are free, and (from my experience anyway) PersonalBrain 6 is amazing. I’ll probably be downloading TheBrain 7 and transferring my maps to it, but version 6 is stunning anyway.

“Software that thinks like you do” – The Wall Street Journal

“Quite possibly the most intuitive mind mapping utility on the planet” – PC World

PersonalBrain, mind mapping software

Whatever software you choose, or whether you choose to construct your own mind maps the lo-tech way (on paper, using marker pens), you should definitely look into this innovative method of note-taking and planning.


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