Good Idea, Bad Idea: Mind Mapping

A bit of personal history about the concept of Mind Mapping

I first heard of mind mapping in high school, in the late 1970s.  The context escapes me, but I was talking with a teacher about ideas for a paper or a project, and the teacher asked me if I had heard about mind mapping.  He described it as a brainstorming or idea-generating technique, and although I don’t recall his precise words, he described it very roughly as involving a central idea spidering out to other connected ideas, with connections out in layers.  I toyed with it at that time, but it did not really click for me.

The idea of mind mapping stayed with me, though, and through the years of school, and after, I tried it out for various brainstorming activities.  I remember, in particular, trying to break loose from plot blocks when writing fiction.  I am pretty sure I used it a couple of times when creating technical presentations or proposals, as well, but it never became a regular part of my tool set.

A few years ago, our pastor brought up the subject in a conversation, and for a while after that conversation he tried using mind mapping techniques in the sermon notes he passes out on Sunday mornings, as well as in the notes he displayed on a screen at the front of the sanctuary.  At this point, I began to get confused about exactly what mind mapping was.  I was still stuck on the brainstorming definition from a five-minute conversation in high school.  I began to realize that I needed to learn more about the technique, and about its application.

Clearing up my confusion

A while ago, then, I bought a copy of The Mind Map Book, by Tony Buzan, .  So, I have a few things to say about mind mapping as a technique, and about this book in particular.  I am not going to recap the book.  I am just going to talk about my reaction to it.

First, although mind mapping can be used for brainstorming, that is not its strength.  Brainstorming requires fluid speed, popping ideas out in all directions without pruning the list, the tree, the cloud of ideas.  The “Rules of Mind Mapping”, as Buzan lists them in the book, are so restrictive that when I attempt to follow them, it constricts the flow in my exploration of the ideas.

But, if you ignore mind map formatting in your brainstorming, then spend some time organizing, re-structuring, coloring, and sketching, you can produce a consistent mind map that shows you where most of your ideas cluster.  Depending on what you are doing, you can focus on the full or sparse branches.

Next, it can be used for taking notes, as in a lecture or study.   But, you must plan to go through several iterations.  There is simply no way to be sure, when you are learning something new, where all the bits belong, or even which parts are important to include.  So, the way to get the most out of mind mapping for note taking is to get your best “live” guess, then go run a draft or two to get the structure right, and then add color, sketches, highlights, and textures.

Hmm.  That sounds like note-taking advice I got back in high school, except for the mind map format.  Take notes, then later on re-write them, not for neatness necessarily, but to organize it, add your own thoughts, explore questions raised by your notes, etc.  Almost as if “mind mapping,” per se, is not a critical part of the process.

And that’s really the key

The key to a useful mind map is just this:  It is not a first draft.  It is not a draft at all.  It is a finished work, requiring re-working, re-structuring, and re-thinking.  It requires tossing crumpled papers in the trash, crossing everything out in big bold frustration, giving up and starting over.

In other words, it’s a lot like writing.  Or painting.  Or any other artistic or intellectual endeavor.

What’s right about Buzan-style mind mapping

Emphasis On Context

Buzan lists a number of features that make items more memorable:

Easier To Remember
Description My View
Near the beginning Temporal Context
Near the end Temporal Context
Associated with existing memories Referential Context
Associated with other items in the material Structural Context
Emphasized in the material Artificial Context
Appeals to the senses Sensory Context
Interesting to the student Personal Context

In my view memory is all about context.  Another way to view that is associations.  The different things that make a bit of information memorable are contexts, or associations, and learning something requires some way to put them all together in a cohesive structure.

When we study a subject with a lot of internal connections, it has what I would like to call Structural Context.  Natural science tends to have a lot of these:  “The head-bone’s connected to the neck-bone.”  History, when it is viewed as interconnected stories, has them.

But, a lot of abstract studies, or contrived knowledge systems, lack natural structure and connections.  In these cases, structural context lacking, it often helps to add some artificial context.  You can add context by ordering (temporal context).  You can add context by associating sensations with concepts (colored fonts, sketches, associations with sounds or smells).  You get the idea.

And some of the most useful parts of The Mind Map Book are about attaching artificial context to concepts.  Colored pens, stars and underlines, boxes and curves.

There is another technique of artificial context, an ancient concept:  the Memory Palace.  You have probably heard about the technique.  Things like associating an exaggerated representation of the first item with the front door, the second item in the foyer, etc.

A completed final version of a mind map is a web of colored, textured associations, sketches, and words.  A two-dimensional artificial context map.  A useful memory tool.

What bothers me about the book

Okay, I believe that a mind map can be a useful memory tool.  But, The Mind Map Book, what about it?

Excess Enthusiasm

The whole book reads like a political tract, working too hard to convert you to the position that Mind Mapping is the best and only way to represent knowledge.  Frankly, it’s a sales job, of the used car variety.  I found myself wondering if the brakes were bad on this lemon, so to speak.

I believe the book would be more effective with the attention of an editor whose paycheck was signed by someone other than Tony Buzan, someone who could rein in the enthusiasm and push Buzan  to view the techniques more dispassionately.

Junk Science

One of Buzan’s central ideas is that Mind Mapping reflects the structure of memory, and that therefore, by definition, it is the best way to organize information.

There are plenty of examples in the book of people making breakthroughs using the technique, and some of them are striking.  On the other hand, most of them have a hidden leap of eye-rolling illogic.


Except for a couple of chapters near the end, the second half of the book is a half-dozen variations of this theme:

If you use Mind Mapping for this situation, it is completely different from all the other uses of Mind Mapping, and utterly revolutionary.  Here are the steps.

1. The same step 1 as all the other uses.

2. The same step 2 as all the other uses.

… etc.

See?  Different from all the other ways to use it!

Few (Useful) Instructions

I found that the descriptions of what a Mind Map should look like inadequate for actually producing them, and the step-by-step instructions too vague.  I suspect that a significant part of Buzan’s income is from live classes on the technique, and that he feared that really good instructions would cannibalize that business.  It felt miserly and disingenuous to me.

De-emphasizes Iterations

If you want to wind up with a usable Mind Map, it is going to require iterations, multiple drafts, trial and error.  Buzan manages to convey the impression that the maps should spring from your head like Athena from Zeus, by virtue of the “natural” structure of the tool.

There is a short and inadequate discussion of iterations, but to me it felt overwhelmed by the rest of the implications in the rest of the text.

Single-Word Branches

One of the Rules of Mind Mapping is that branches should have single words only.  So, instead of “Red Pony”,  would have “Red” -> “Pony” (or vice versa, depending on what you wanted to emphasize.)

I’m not making that up.  In fact, the argument in the book for single-word branches is even more precarious and contrived than that.

Topological Identity of Trees and Outlines

In a very real sense, I believe this is one of the most glaring weaknesses of the book.  Buzan hammers over and over at the idea that Mind Maps are superior to numbered outlines in every respect.  However, topologically speaking, they are identical.  Either one is simply a way of formatting a tree:  A set of connected nodes, each except the root) with one parent, any node may have zero or more children.  The only difference is formatting.

His refusal to acknowledge this fact completely dissolves his credibility.


  1. Get a different book.
  2. Use a stripped-down version of mind mapping to explore a concept space (brainstorming).
  3. Create maps to help remember complex information that lacks natural context.

Lexi’s Brain

My niece Lexi wants to be a brain surgeon, so I decided to get her started.

Inside the Brain Box

It’s like the buzzing “Operation” game, but customized for Lexi.  The items in the cavities represent things she likes or thinks about, and a couple of inside family jokes.  I got some inkjet-printable shrink plastic to create the items.  Getting the sizes and color density right took some trial and error.

Outside the box

It’s all in an ordinary cardboard box, with scrap-book paper glued to the outside.  I suspect that the rubber cement will fail, because I didn’t tuck things in and clamp or weight them, for the most part.  But rubber cement is strong enough and fast enough to use when you are scrambling to get a project together at the last possible minute.

I used a dollar-store battery-powered fan for the buzzer.  Removed the foam blades and screwed a washer to the side of the hub to provide an off-center vibrating effect.  I interrupted the current path at the fan switch, and ran one side to the sheet of steel, the other to some garage-sale tweezers, with a globby, ugly solder job.

I should have taken more in-progress photos, in particular of the process I used for the cavities.  They are just holes drilled with Forstner bits into a scrap of MDF.  The sheet steel was easy to perforate with a stepless drill, then connecting the drill holes by cutting with a Dremel.  Not real neat, but I finished the project in time.  Barely.

The brain image is just printed in ink-jet.  I probably should have laminated it, or at least used a laser printer for a slightly more durable image.

I’m fairly happy with the project, and very happy with Lexi’s reaction, especially when she touched the edge of a cavity and it buzzed at her.

This project was inspired by this one from Make Magazine.