Barry Mapp introduces the capabilities of Mind Mapping and explains some of the features that make it unique

Mind Mapping is a powerful accelerated learning technique, available to both teacher and student. Its inherent simplicity and power come from its design and rules. Other types of visual-association-tools (VATs for short), such as spider diagrams and bubble diagrams are not as effective as Mind Mapping in assisting thinking, learning and remembering.

Once a student or teacher becomes competent in the use of the technique, it usually becomes their preferred way of organising thoughts, planning, preparation and delivery of talks, making notes and communicating information to themselves and others. It is important that anyone who teaches Mind Mapping understands the unique capabilities of this specific technique, and has practical ‘hands-on’ experience in its use, so that they can coach the student in how to use the tool to its full effectivess. The aim of this article is to explain the unique features of Mind Mapping – and why these features matter.

The tree diagram principle

Tree diagrams are commonly used in many different walks of life, from the categorisation of fauna and flora, to business organisational charts. The way in which a  tree diagram organises information (from higher level of abstraction to a lower level of abstraction) appears to be an exceedingly effective way for the mind to ‘grasp’ the big picture and the key relationships between varying objects.

However, there are several disadvantages to the ordinary tree diagram, including its inefficiency in managing the paper ‘space’. A tree diagarm is sparse at its apex and cluttered at its ‘roots’. One key principle for memorising information is to maintain associations (which the tree diagram does), but another important principle is to avoid cramming things together. The tree diagram can be modified to form other VATs that make better use of the space.

There are various ways to modify a tree diagram, but all begin with the topic being placed at the centre, with a number of trees or branches radiating from the topic and each separate branch linking together components or ideas associated with the topic. All branches should retain complete connectivity to the main topic. This helps the brain assimilate the information given (lists and bullet points are woeful in this regard, as most of the important connections get lost in their organisation).

Mind Maps differ from other organisational techniques. Mind Maps write on the connecting branches rather than at the ends of branches. Mind Maps are more compact and the font size of the words themselves can be bigger – and therefore they stand out more, which aids memory. When colour is added, it does little to enhance a spider diagram and although bubble diagrams look pretty in colour outline, in practice bubbles of colour tend to distract the eye from the content. Colour on a Mind Map enhances the map and underscores the map’s key points.

Specific benefits of Mind Mapping

So far, we have noted that visual maps are better than straight lists or notes. Now let’s look at how and why Mind Maps have considerable advantages over the other VATs. Where Mind Mapping excels is in its features that are designed to help learning and recall.

Learning and remembering

Simple memory exercises with groups of people consistently demonstrate that the key factors for aiding memory are:

  1. Making connections – the brain remembers new material when we make strong connections to what we already know. We remember things that are personal.
  2. Triggers – the brain likes to have prompts or triggers in order to find the ‘needles’ that are buried in its infinite ‘haystack’.
  3. Pictures – regardless of any preferred ‘learning style’, the brain always finds it easier to use and remember ‘pictures’ than words or sentences.
  4. Chunking – the brain likes information to be broken down into small chunks. The mind can hold about six (plus or minus three) pieces of information consciously at any one time – three to nine pieces.

Mind Mapping taps into the memory ‘magic’ of the above features. it enhances the effectievness and speed with which we put information into our heads and then retrieve it. The technique organises information in such a way that it:

  • keeps all of the connections
  • consists only of ‘trigger’ words made by the brain, linked together
  • good trigger words help to create pictures in the mind – and Mind Maps use symbols and images as well
  • is stored as small chunks – a Mind Map rarely has more than nine main branches and rarely more than five sub-branches flow from each main branch and, therefore, ideas flow from the high level of abstraction to the low.

It is true that spider diagrams and bubble diagrams also maintain connections and break the ‘whole’ down into chunks, but only Mind Mapping is consistent in the way that it uses trigger words, imagery and colour. The key to this is the use of single words. Only the Mind Mapping principles specify that each branch supports just one word. All of theother techniques tend to use phrases not single words in the structure. For long-term recall, Mind Mapping needs to be combined with an effective but brief review strategy.

Make your own connections

You remember something new far more clearly when you have made connections to it yourself. I often demonstrate to groups how I can actually make it less easy for them to remember something when I give them the fullest picture possible and leave no ‘space’ for them to make their own mental imagery or connections.

Every time you read someone else’s Mind Map, you make your own connections with the words and pictures (when you read your own Maps also!). You hae to do this because the Mind Map  never contains all the information needed (only trigger words), so you have to fill in the spaces from your own mental database, thereby automatically making your own connections with the material as you go along. Herein lies the hidden learning and the power of Mind Maps. The more mental ‘processing’ you do, in order to read or create the Map, the more you will remember.

One reason why computer-generated Mind Maps are not as good for learning as hand-drawn ones is that they make it too easy for people to put whole phrases onto branches. This reduces the amount of processing that needs to be done to ‘re-read’ the map. Less processing means ‘less memorable’. Phrases written on branches (rather than single words) also result in a reduced memory-triggering effect.

Tips for reading a Mind Map

You read a Mind Map from the centre outwards, so that on the right side you will read one main branch at a time, from left to right and on the left side, from right to left (you may find this a bit strange at first). Attempt to read the map in grammatical sentences – you will need to imagine and embellish it a little from your own personal experiences and add your own adverbs and adjectives etc.

Once you have read the Mind Map get some paper and a pen. First, just reflect on the reading exercise. How easy or difficult was it for you to read the Map? How much information was contained on it? Next, take your eyes away from the Mind Map and write down as much detail as you can remember.

Start by sketching out as much of the centre picture as you can recall, together with any writing that was included in the picture (the central image acts as a trigger for the rest of the Map).

Now see if you can recall any of the key words that were associated with the main branches that grew out of the central image and their approximate relative positions. As you recall a main heading, this will then trigger some of the sub-branch detail. So have a go and see how much of the Map you can recall. If you struggle, take a quick look at the whole Map and try again.

You may well have read your first Mind Map and you may be amazed at how much information it actually contained and how much you remembered! (You will be even more amazed if you text yourself again one hour’s time.) Hopefully this exercise will have whetted your appetite to learn more about Mind Maps.

Barry Mapp trained with Tony Buzan in Mental Literacy and Mind Mapping and runs his own courses in schools, colleges and business. He is a visiting Lecturer at Birmingham University and Morley College and a consultant for Dudley Regional Staff College, where he runs modular workshops for teachers and trainers on Mind Mapping and thinking skills. Barry has worked with primary schools integrating the Mind Map technique across the whole school.

Mind Map is a trademark of the Buzan Organisation.