Wednesday, May 4

The many uses of the mind map

A mind map is an image with words or pictures connected by lines.  The technique of drawing up a mind map is commonly used for idea generation or planning, and the maps themselves are sometimes used for revision/memorisation.  They are generally brightly coloured, and are supposed to represent the connections our minds make as we think.

An example of a mind map - image from mythoughtsformac
How is it done?

The technique's main proponent is Tony Buzan, author of The Mind Map Book (Buzan, 1996).  He suggests that to be effective, mapping has to be done in a specific way, including:

  • Using a single, central image
  • Writing words along lines rather than connecting them with lines
  • Keeping all lines the same length
  • Using a variety of colours
  • Using images where possible
  • Making the overall map visually distinctive

Peculiarly, Buzan states that mind mapping is a very different thing from a spider diagram - I'm still not too sure why!

Fact or pseudoscience?

The technique seems to originate from the undoubted fact that the brain forms associations between different words and concepts, which in the 1960s and 1970s began to be drawn as semantic maps:

However, a mind map uses one central image or word which every other item links to, forming a hierarchy.  It is pretty clear that the brain doesn't process ideas on the basis of hierarchies.  For example, when we see a fork, we don't process it via a clunky list of categories:
  • It's an object -> kitchen implement -> item of cutlery -> fork
Indeed, we don't even think in words at all.

Buzan has made a successful career out of mind maps, but can only feed the skeptics with dubious statements like the following in a 2009 interview:

"It is my firm belief that every brain is, by nature, a mind mapper! The fact that a baby learns a language is evidence confirming that it must learn by multi-sensual images and their radiating associations."

He also places great store by the visual similarity of a mind map to the connections of a brain's neurons.  By this logic, we will all work better using from brain-shaped paper!  So, is there any scientific support?

Efficacy of mind-mapping

Perhaps the most important question about mind maps is 'do they work?' Researchers Farrand et al. (2002) compared the effectiveness of mind-mapping with a free choice of study technique to learn a 600-word essay. Participants were medical students, and they were tested straight away after a distraction task, and again a week later.

Farrand et al used medical students in
their study.  Image from TulanePublicRelations
A significant improvement was found in both groups, but only the mind-mapping group maintained their improvement after one week.  Motivation was lower in the mind-map group compared to free choice of technique.  Researchers concluded that mind-maps improved recall, and would have done so even more strongly had motivation to use them been higher.


For writers and other professionals, a mind map is most likely to be used for planning or brainstorming (although unlike brainstorming, mind mapping is primarily an individual rather than group technique).  My first ever mind map a plan for a novel (as yet unwritten, ten years on!)  A mind map provides a structure to idea generation, and is supposedly less linear than simply listing ideas.

In research with executives, Mento et al. (1999) found it useful for capturing ideas and planning.  As with the Farrand et al. study, success may depend heavily on users' opinions of the technique and motivation to use it - it is unlikely to work well with people who are unenthusiastic, or simply have other methods that they prefer.

Mind mapping can be time consuming, but if nothing else, it's very easy to do, and can be much better than staring at a blank sheet of paper, waiting for ideas to come.

Buzan, T. (1996).  The Mind Map Book.  London: Penguin.
Farrand, P., Hussain, F., and Hennessy, E. (2002).  The efficacy of the 'mind map' study technique.  Medical Education, 36(5), 426-431.
Mento, A.J., Martinelli, P. and Jones, R.J. (1999). Mind mapping in executive education: applications and outcomes.  Journal of Management Development, 18(4), 390-416.

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