The title of Tony Buzan’s first book, mirroring his BBC television series, set a manifesto for the work he has pursued vigorously for over 40 years. If there is one thing that Tony Buzan enjoins us all to do, it is to Use Your Head. And he has become one of the very foremost articulators of a toolset to help us. One of his tools, the Mind Map, is now a part of our culture.
Tony Buzan was born in 1942, in North London. There, he grew up until, in 1954, the family moved to Canada, and he continued his youth in Vancouver. He attended the University of British Columbia, where he took a double first in Psychology, English, Maths and General Sciences. He went on to study for a masters degree at Simon Fraser University, completing his studies in 1966.
From there he returned to England. After a spell as a teacher, he became editor of The International Journal of MENSA (1969-71), and continued a project to develop his understanding of how we can use our minds to best effect. He had already developed techniques that gave him a prodigious memory and an astonishing reading speed.
In 1973, he worked with the BBC to present a ten part series called Use your Head. The spin off book, of the same name was an instant best-seller, quickly going into the first of many reprints. The current (2010) edition of Use Your Head remains a best-seller, but looks very different to my 1982 reprint. This doubtless reflects the huge developments in brain science, and the evolution of Buzan’s thinking. Title aside, this is not the same book!
What has followed is a series of books that must number nearly a hundred by now (no, I haven’t counted), along with constant rounds of speaking and instructing, often with some of the largest and most prestigious companies and institutions. Whilst Buzan’s writing and thinking roams widely over the whole range of learning skills and mental disciplines, there are three topics to which he constantly returns:
Of these, Mind Mapping has a special place. He has written far more about this than anything else, and it is with this technique that his name is virtually synonymous. Indeed, he holds the trademark for the term ‘Mind Map’ in a number of jurisdictions. In more recent years, he has seized the initiative in a crowded market for mind mapping software, creating his own software implementation of the tool he popularised.
Whilst Buzan refined and popularised Mind Maps, the underlying idea of a concept map is old. There are many variants in use, with differing layouts and approaches, from Work Breakdown Structures to Fishbone Diagrams.
In developing his guidelines for producing Mind Maps, Buzan tried to tap into as many modes of thinking as he could, using the best knowledge of how our brains process information, that was available in the early 1970s.
His Mind Mapping approach combines words, images, colour, shapes, spacial organisation, symbols, size cues, sequencing, positional cues and logic. They are therefore a rich representation of a connected set of ideas, which can help our thinking in many ways:
Pattern forming to create connections and insights
Ordering and organising ideas, to build linkages and distinctions
Learning through making connections and seeing relationships
Enhancing memory by tying together multiple visual and spatial modes
(and linking these to the kinaesthetics of drawing the mind map, for the creator)
Harnessing creativity through finding surprising connections
Powerful information storage because note-taking becomes non-linear and multi-modal
Mind maps come in all sorts of shapes and sizes…
How to Create a Mind Map
There are many prescriptions for a creating a Mind Map. Here is my approach
Choose the largest available piece of blank paper and some really nice pens and pencils
The perfect shape paper is a square, but if you use an oblong sheet, start with it in landscape orientation. Feeling good about the quality of the paper and pens will help you savour the process and a blank sheet imposes nothing on your own thought process.
Start with a central image depicting your theme or topic. An image can be much more powerful than words, especially if colourful, witty and bold. If you choose to use words, make these colourful, witty and bold, with interesting, 3D lettering. Use images, symbols and doodles throughout.
From the central theme, draw big branches to the main associated ideas or sub-themes. It is the associations you make and the structuring that you choose that are most important: not the ones from your source. Your source may think differently to you. For the main branches, make them thicker than the lesser branches you will draw later. Curves and colour can add interest and impact. Label these lines with key words and little pictures
From the main branches, split off smaller sub-branches to capture subsidiary ideas and divisions of the subject. Use different fonts and sizes to indicate importance – perhaps UPPER CASE for main branches and lower case for smaller ones. Use colour to group ideas and colour or size can denote importance . Highlighters and boxes can add powerful emphasis, as can pictures and symbols.
Mind Mapping Software
There is an astonishing array of software tools available, for computers, tablets and mobile devices. iMindMap is Buzan’s own, with prices ranging from free to very expensive. Some integrate well with other applications, some stand alone. Some are basic and follow Buzan’s guidelines closely, others are quirky. Some offer exceptionally rich graphics, others have little more than basic symbols and lines. You pays your money (or not – some are free to try, even to use) and you makes your choice.
Mind Mapping Books
There are a huge array and many by Buzan himself, either alone or in collaboration. Two to highlight are:
Memory is an elusive thing. Tennessee Williams described his play, The Glass Menagerie, as a memory play and his narrator, Tom, says of it:
‘Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental,
it is not realistic.’
Forgetting is inevitable
And that sums up the problem of memory: what we remember is only a representation of reality. In her new Pocketbook, Vicki Culpin exposes some of the myths of memory and points out that forgetting is inevitable.
If we know something happened, yet we cannot recall what, our brains strive to fill in the gaps. And they do this with newly created memories based on suggestion and fantasy. These are often known as false memories and are strongly associated with trauma.
Does this mean that all attempts to improve your memory are doomed? Vicki exposes another myth here: memory is not like a muscle, so simply exercising it will not help.
There is hope
But the answer is a resounding no. By using the right strategies and practising them until they become second nature, remembering facts and figures, names and faces can become easy and efficient.
Many of the masters of memory have always been magicians, illusionists and mentalists, whose ability to remember card sequences, for example, allows them to perform tricks that seem inexplicable. When most people are challenged with the assertion that the performer ‘simply’ remembered a sequence of 52 cards, they find that even more incredible.
The truth is that these feats of memory are relatively modest to those who know the right method and, more important, are prepared to put in the many, many hours of practice to perfect its use. For a great description of these methods and how they are used, take a look at Derren Brown’s excellent ‘Tricks of the Mind ’.
Practical Tips and Techniques
The Memory Pocketbook is a simple guide to how to improve your memory, filled with useful techniques and tips.
Improve your Short Term Memory
How often have you been told a phone number and, before you could write it down, it’s . . .
One way we try to hold the number in our short term memory (STM) is by repeating it. Vicki relates research showing that the faster you repeat the number, the longer it will last. So not:
0 – 1 – 9 – 6 – 2 – 7 – 3 – 5 – 5 – 7 – 3
0–1–9–6–2–7–3–5–5–7–3 . . . 0–1–9–6–2–7–3–5–5–7–3
and better still:
01962735573 . . . 01962735573 . . . 01962735573
Another Memory Tip
Grouping numbers really helps too. Groups of three are particularly easy: