Image: Emilie Ogez
Mind mapping sparks creativity, aids learning, makes ideas concrete and boosts productivity. By reproducing in visual form the way the brain functions — through a series of ideas linked by relationships of free association — mind maps allow freelancers, entrepreneurs and other creative workers to take a peek inside their skulls and understand what’s on their minds. But does mind mapping work? Can it really help practitioners dream up new ideas and do more faster?
The practice’s evangelists would have us believe that it can, and they’re a big crowd. Look for information about “mind mapping” on Google, and you’ll get almost three million results, almost all of them from people explaining how to do it or offering software that makes adding the text and drawing the links a little easier.
It might not work for learning. Writing on Sketch Perception, a blog about art, design and technology, Brendan Clarke has argued that visual stimulation is often a better way to retain information than laying out the relationships between its parts. He tested his theory by writing each part of the word “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis” in big letters, decorating each syllable with a drawing. He found that he was able “quite quickly” to remember how both to pronounce the word and how to spell it.
“If I made a mind map (and I did make many of them at college), it wouldn’t have worked,” he writes.
And the reason it wouldn’t have worked, he continues, is that mind maps are “unorganised, sporadic, messy, unimaginative and boring.” They don’t follow any recognized learning methods and they do nothing for retention.
Mind Maps Are Messy Because Minds Are Messy
Mind mapping’s followers might argue that the first three of those descriptions are inevitable. If mind maps look unorganized, sporadic and messy it’s because that’s how our minds work. One idea is associated naturally with another even without the application of a neat, pre-existing structure. Mind maps offer a way to replicate those natural links so that we can see them and understand them.
Michael Michalko, author of the best-selling Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques, argues that bubble maps, in which concepts are written on paper and placed in circles, arrange thoughts into workable units. Using three groups of four dots:
●●●● ●●●● ●●●●
as an illustration, he points out that seeing objects grouped together suggests a relationship between them. The spatial arrangement between the dots makes the viewer see three groups rather than twelve dots. The physical grouping reflects visually how the mind already conceives the ideas it holds.
It’s a benefit of mind mapping that’s described again and again by both authors trying to promote books that sell the idea, and software manufacturers offering programs that make the practice easier to perform.
But that function of mind mapping, of representing and visualizing the groups that mental association has already created, only reflects the working of the mind. It’s not a way of generating creativity or of developing new ideas. It’s only a way of depicting the ideas you already have.
The creative aspect of mind mapping doesn’t begin until after the map has represented your thoughts — and this is where mind mapping bumps against productivity.
In theory, putting your ideas on paper and arranging them to form new patterns and identify new associations should always boost productivity. If you know what you’re going to do before you start doing it, you should find that you waste less time stopping to figure out what you need to do next.
In practice, because mind mapping is so messy that the planning process can takes some time. Even Michael Michalko recommends taking a break after creating a mind map to allow time for new concepts to develop.
“If no ideas come after prolonged study, you’ll probably feel uneasy. In that case put the map away for a few days,” he suggests.
Taking your time to think up new ideas is fine if you’re not in a rush but if you’re looking to use a mind map to streamline a creative process and produce more faster, forgetting about work for a couple of days might not be the best strategy.
Getting the Most Out of a Mind Map
So what can you do to squeeze both more creativity and greater productivity out of mind mapping?
- Understand What Mind Mapping is Good for
Mind mapping is largely a visualization tool rather than a learning device, a creativity technique or a productivity enhancer. It lets you see the information you’re holding but the creativity and the productivity don’t begin until after the map has been created.
- Break the Associations
If a mind map depicts the relationships you’ve already created between ideas you hold, then moving the elements around should enable you to see new connections between them. In Michael Michalko’s terms, it creates new groups that allow you to see a problem in an entirely new way.
- Do it Early
Mind mapping isn’t production. It isn’t even planning. It’s thinking about what you’re going to be planning. It will take time to put all of your ideas down on paper. It will take more time to manipulate those ideas to change the way you think about them. And it will take yet more time think of new concepts to fill in the gaps.
And that’s before you’ve even started to think about what you’ll need to do to put those concepts into action — let alone actually doing the work.
If all goes well then mind mapping should make that production phase smoother and more likely to be successful. But don’t expect it to happen quickly, so start mind mapping early — and a long time before you need to complete the work.
Even as Brendan Clarke dismissed mind mapping as way of understanding and retaining information, he did describe it as useful for “brainstorming.” The problem with storms though is that while they can change a landscape, they also create a lot of mess that has to be cleared up before the real work can begin.