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Creativity Tool: Mind Mapping

December 18th, 2010

I was inspired this week by a set of mind-maps delivered at the end of a course by student Bryan Alvarez, who is a PhD  Psychology student in my UC Berkeley class on Innovation, Creativity & the Entrepreneur.

Bryan sat in each class this past semester, diligently creating little masterpieces of art/notes while the class discussed all matters of creativity,innovative organizations, famous entrepreneurs, design thinking, wicked problems, and  living in the present moment (to name a few topics). Bryan is also using mind maps to create the game-plan for a very ambitious project he’s under-taken at UC Berkeley called the Virtual Human Body.

What is a Mind Map?

Mind maps are writings/drawings that may include words, graphics, notes, tasks, etc…which are arranged around key ideas, words, or thoughts.  A nice overview of Mind Maps is given on MindTools videos by Amy Carlson & James Manktelow.  Mind maps can created with a few simple words connected by lines, or they can be elaborately drawn as near works of art.  Bryan Alvarez had a simple way of putting it:  “A mind map is a precise way to consolidate a lot of information into an organized system that appeals to our perception in an intuitive manner and can fit on a single page. If a picture is worth a thousand words, one good mind map is worth a thousand notes.

How are Mind maps used?

I’ve seen mind maps used for note-taking, speech-giving, list creation, creative problem solving, visualizing concepts, creating to-do lists, organizing information and group brainstorming.  A quick check on Google yields some wonderful and beautiful mind-maps – like works of art.

Since Alvarez has studied the Brain and Cognitive Science, I thought I’d ask him: “In what ways do you feel that mind-mapping correlates to the way that your mind/brain stores and retains information?”

Here’s what he said:

1. There are at least 17 dimensions (different categories of features) that the visual system uses when creating a visual image. These include dimensions like color, shape, size, orientation, texture, luminance, etc. Map mapping takes advantage of many of these to group related objects (or distinguish unrelated objects) by color, borders, textural patterns, branches extending at different orientations, etc.

2. Your brain can hold about 3-4 different things in mind at one time. This is the capacity of the average working memory. If you are shown 10 numbers very briefly (9238547601) and ask to memorize and recite them in the right order, you will likely remember about 3-4 numbers in the correct sequence. However, if the numbers happen to be ordered in a meaningful way with a clear pattern (0123456789) you will remember all of them easily. In this case, you have “subitized” the 10 bits of information into one meaningful concept. Mind mapping works the same way by grouping different branches with different colors, textures, etc., and by nesting the details of a concept (e.g., 10 different numbers) within a broader framework (e.g., numbers ascending 0 to 9).

3. Mind mapping demands a certain level of attention and focus compared to rote copying. Mapping necessitates an understanding of the way things relate and thus challenges the mapper to find the broad structure of an idea and it’s related pieces and organize them in a way that clearly shows this relationship visually. This means a person must pay close attention, think about and absorb the information deeper, and thus understand it better to structure it in a way that is most meaningful. Attention is a critical part of learning and memory — you learn things better that you attend to and you remember things better that you’ve learned

These are just a few of the cognitive benefits I get from mind mapping. I’m sure there are many more!

How does one get started?

Using Mind Maps is easy, and you can start with no training at all, by following a few simple rules:

  1. Place your central idea, problem, focus-area, etc – at the center of your paper within a small balloon or box, allowing space on all sides of the idea.
  2. Consider roughly how many major sub-topics or “tracks” might emanate from the central thought (and add 2, assuming something new will come to mind later).  Then plan your space around the mind-map so there will be room for all the sub-topics.
  3. Starting with sub-topic #1, create a line to a new box or circle.  Label the line to the new concept with the sub-heading topic name.  You can add a drawing depicting the new sub-topic (for example a drawing of a book if the new sub-topic is “information”) at the end of this sub-topic line.
  4. As new ideas come related to sub-topics of sub-topics, you can branch the line from the central thought and create further branches. Think of the way a tree grows (roots or branches). The central trunk represents a sub-topic, and branches coming off it are further descriptions or sub-sub-topics, and minor branches then become even further sub-sub-sub topics. This is the Divergence step.
  5. New information can be added later to your Mind Map, but finding the appropriate spot to add it and simply drawing a new line.  When you are done, the  map may have “branches” coming out of it in all directions.
  6. After you are done with your drawing, you can go back and make new connections between branches, add color to more easily see the sections/sub-sections or add drawings for major topical findings.  This helps the mind map TELL A STORY.
  7. Some find that an important Mind Map can be improved by consolidated and made more crisp by re-drawing it and re-thinking its structure.  (like a “convergence” step)

Technology Tools Available

There are a variety of tools out on the market that you can use with your Windows PC, Mac or iPad.  MindMeister, is an online tool that allows you to create and share mind maps that reside in the cloud. My students tend to use MindMeister because it’s free/low-cost and can be shared and shown from any browser.  MindJet is a software company specializing in software for the Mac and PC – it is more sophisticated that MindMeister, and better suited to business use in my mind.

Resources for Mind Mapping

There are several great books on the market about mind mapping.  The ones I like best are: