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An Introduction to Mind Maps

Mind maps make a lot of big promises when it comes to creativity, productivity and efficiency – but are they able to deliver?

Billed as the best way to break down, structure, and organize information in a way that “syncs up” with the way your brain wants to work, mind mapping (or concept mapping) has gone from a bit of a fringe idea 30 to 40 years ago to a mainstay in schools, offices, and homes around the world.

The beauty of a mindmap is that it moves so far away from the traditional linear notetaking approach.

Visually breaking down organization by starting with a central theme and then branching out from there, highlighting connections along the way – not only to the central theme but to each individual branch as well – there’s a lot of extra creativity in a mind map that helps generate and cement ideas far more effectively than linear notetaking ever could.

Below we dive a little deeper into everything that mind maps or concept maps have to offer, not only helping you to better understand what mind maps are and how they were invented but also how to create your own, how to use them moving forward, and how to make the most of this creative thinking process to unleash your talents and abilities.

Let’s dig right in!

What is a Mind Map? / Definition of Mind Map

The definition of a mind map is a particular type of diagram used to visually organize and present information.

A mind map presents a clear visual diagram, with succinct information presented in an intuitive structure. Starting from a single central topic, therein stems the branches that point to subtopics containing ideas that are all connected. The diagram is called a “mind map” as it pertains to the similarity between the natural flow of a mind map and that of natural thought. In simple terms, what you see in the mind map is a map to your thoughts.

Mind mapping can help organize one’s thoughts, break down a complex subject, or create a plan. Because of its graphic representation and typically succinct form, mind maps help viewers access to information in a quick and clear way. For capturing one’s thoughts quickly, a mind map may be the best solution.

At its core, a mind map is nothing more than a visual organization of a central theme or core concept (this is why mind maps are also called concept maps) and all the individual branches that move apart from that theme – complete with its own hierarchy and unique connections.

Starting with a blank canvas and establishing the core of your mind map (often with just one word) smack dab in the center of that blank space, you’ll then branch out from that central concept with “main pillars” – feathering things out further and further as you go along and get more granular, but always finding ways to connect these disparate branches to one another wherever it makes sense.

At the end of the day you end up with something that perfectly blends the logical side of your mind that wants structure and order and the creative side of your mind that really thrives on unique connections, visual components, and interplay between the relationships of the branches and the central idea.

It’s best if you keep your mind map “touchstones” as simple and as straightforward as possible – particularly when you’re using this for notetaking – and it’s not a bad idea to draw little doodles and inject a lot of color into your mind map, too.

This is, after all, supposed to be as visually representation of your thinking as possible. You really want to play to both sides of your brain, the left side and the right side – the logical and the imaginative – to unlock all of your cognitive capabilities. 

Components of a mind map

Mind maps have a structure similar to a tree. Each mind map has 1 central node or central topic. Often the text inside a central node is the main subject (e.g. “Marketing Plan”, “Camping pack list”), but it could also be a question (“How to increase sales?”)

From the central node, there are connected branches (like the branches of a tree!) that connect the main node with subtopics. Each node can have a sibling topic or a child topic (also referred to as subtopic). As their names indicate, sibling topics are of the same level and subtopics are those of 1 level below.   

Every node may also contain icons, external links, or images.

History of Mind Maps

Porphyrian Tree

History of mind maps can be traced back to the 3rd century, when examples of what looked like mind maps were created by Porphyry of Tyros to showcase the concept categories of Aristotle (read more: Porphyrian Tree). Later on, during 1235-1315, there are records of philosopher Ramon Llull having used this technique.

Porphyry of Tyros

Historians have also learned that Leonardo da Vinci used the mind mapping technique to take notes.

Though it’s impossible to say with any real certainty exactly who created the concept of the mindmap the very first time out, we can tell you that the man most frequently recognized with bringing mind mapping into the mainstream is a fellow by the name of Tony Buzan.

Buzan has been experimenting with tapping into the fullest potential of the human brain for decades, tinkering with mind mapping tools and approaches for the last 40 years. However, it wasn’t until his runaway international bestseller “The Mind Map Book” was published back in 1996 that this creative thinking approach really caught fire.

Over the last nearly 25 years since the publication of that book Buzan has taught the principles of mind mapping and his specific methodology worldwide, giving lectures and lessons in more than 100 countries while advising major organizations like HSBC, Barclays International, Hewlett-Packard, and tech giants like Google, Apple, and Microsoft, too.

As we alluded to earlier, the early history of mind mapping drew a lot of comparisons to mindless doodling and was initially thought of as a real waste of time. It wasn’t until Tony and his team of researchers dug deep into how mind mapping mimics the way the brain thinks and the way the brain best absorbs – and retains – important information that mind mapping really started to be embraced.

20 years ago you likely wouldn’t have seen even a handful of high school students using mind mapping over linear notes anywhere in the US (or anywhere else, for that matter). Today, though, it’s almost as unlikely to see linear notes surviving as more and more students are taught the mind mapping methodology and all of its benefits.

How to Create a Mind Map?

The real beauty of a mind map is that there’s no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” kind of approach to creating them. You really do have a blank canvas with which to paint your thoughts on.

At the same time, a little bit of structure can definitely help you handle the heavy lifting of getting into the groove of mind mapping pretty quickly. Here’s a quick guide to help you hit the ground running.

Step 1: Start Simple

Your core idea is the foundation that the rest of your mental map is built off of. It needs to be simple but significant, concise, and the main pillar that you’ll build off and expand moving forward.

You want your core idea to be simple enough to condense down but broad enough to allow for your map to grow and expand – sometimes in ways you wouldn’t have expected. Spend time really focusing on what your want your map to be about before going any further.

Step 2: Begin Branching Out

The idea here is to build out from your central idea with broad, simple themes.

These are going to be the main pillars of your map, the branches that you’ll hang the more granular bits of info off of as you go along. Keep these simple as well, but clearly define these branches from one another. They’ll act as anchors back to your core concept, but they’ll also allow you to quickly see the interplay and the relationships between the different and defined branches you create from here on out.

Step 3: Build, Build, Build

From here on out you’ll work on really fleshing your map out.

Add details to your individual branches, using keywords, short snippets of text, images – whatever you need to really mind dump and get everything down on paper. This is where you’ll want to start drawing little lines of connectivity between your branches, too.

Show how different components on your map work with one another, how the relationships of these disparate pillars connect, and how everything ties back into the central core of the map itself.

The more visual you can make your map the more useful you’ll find it, too!

Top Uses of MindMaps (Idea Maps, Mental Maps, Thinking Maps)

The beauty of mind mapping is that it is so flexible and so versatile.

Truth be told, it’s hard to imagine a situation where you couldn’t take advantage of everything a mind map brings to the table.

Take brainstorming, for example.

This just might be the most popular use of mind maps at home, at school, and in the workplace. Starting with a core central thought, branching off from there, and then finding relationships you might not have discovered or expressed before – especially if you’re working collaboratively – makes brainstorming almost happen on autopilot.

Mind maps are perfectly tailored to creative and collaborative note taking, too. Everyone can work on their own nodes branching off of the central concept, finding interconnected relationships with the branches and nodes collaborators are working on as the map gets filled out.

Traditional note taking pales in comparison to mind mapping when it comes to retaining information, especially conceptual material that can be difficult to express in a more linear structured kind of way.

The visual nature of mind maps increase retention rates through the roof, too.

Organizational charts can be perfectly expressed with mind maps or thinking maps. Tackling new projects, establishing new action steps, and completing each step in the right order becomes a whole lot easier when you have the entire map – from start to finish – in front of you and can see how everything relates to everything else.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

Mind Mapping in Business

Mind mapping in business environments is incredibly popular these days, especially in businesses that are forward thinking and serious about tapping into the creativity of their employees and their executives.

Concept maps can be used in presentations to quickly convey a lot of information efficiently, can be used to troubleshoot and in problem-solving situations, and can even help to more clearly define a company structure or department hierarchy. The options are limitless!

Mind Mapping in Education

Traditional notes have been proven time and time again to really leave a lot to be desired, not only when it comes to the utility of these notes after they have been created but also when it comes to retaining the information contained within those notes later down the line.

Mind maps, on the other hand, work seamlessly with the way your brain wants to interpret, understand, and memorize new and often complex pieces of information.

The visual nature of these maps, the relationship interplay between individual notes on the map, and the logical hierarchy of the map all work together to activate every part of your brain – increasing creativity, boosting your memory, and generally doing a lot more good than traditional notes ever could have.

Mind Mapping in Everyday Use

There are plenty of people out there that use mind maps in their personal lives.

Some use mind maps to outline their goals and action plans to make those goals a reality, where others use them to better organize and plan their day, their week, or their month before moving key milestones over to their calendar.

Other people use mental maps in their everyday lives to solve problems, make major decisions (particularly financial decisions that may have far-reaching consequences beyond the obvious), and to simply better organize their thoughts so that they are more efficient and more effective on a regular basis.

Best of all, the real beauty of mind mapping is that it is so simple and so straightforward to master – even if you haven’t ever made a mind map before or even heard of it before reading this quick guide.

It’s incredibly intuitive, very flexible, and a powerful path to unlocking all the horsepower your brain has without having to do a lot of mental heavy lifting. Give mind mapping a shot. The odds are pretty good you won’t regret it!

Mind Map Examples

There are many ways one can use mind maps in both personal and professional contexts. Below are some examples of using mind map in practice.

Zen Mind Map is the simplest tool to create mind maps.