I don't get mind maps
"Somebody needs to explain the appeal of mindmaps to me. It's top-down planning, nothing else, as far as I can tell... An outline." "I don't get the point of mind mapping." "Mind mapping? I just don't get it." "Mind maps were OK in grade school, but not for the real world." "Mind maps are a waste of time. I like to just get on with the job." "Mind Maps are silly and should only be used to create family trees. There... I said it."
To avoid misunderstanding - this article is not the answer to "What is a mind map?" or "How do I make a mind map?". Nor is it a response to claims that concept maps are superior to mind maps (see Concept maps or mind maps? the choice). It is intended for people who don't see the point or those who are not convinced there's any value in them. It doesn't set out to persuade, either - just explain what I get out of them and believe after more than 30 years of using them.
It assumes you know what mind maps are and how to make them. It sets out to give an unemotional, hype-free explanation in the hope that you will then be able to benefit from this tool. There is undoubtedly too much hype and I know that's one of the barriers to mind map use. It puts many people off - we'll try to steer clear of that.
If you don't know what a mind map is, then the explanation below will not make much sense, and you may want to click through to What is a mind map? instead.
And you'll notice that there is no map here. Mostly, I decry articles about mind mapping that don't include a mind map, but if you "don't get mind maps" I shall be spitting into the wind if I use a mind map to make the case, so this is a strictly linear presentation.
Let's kick off with a recognition of reality: Some disciplined thinkers with good memories don't need mind maps or any other type of visual representation. So if that's you, read no further. But if you are overwhelmed with work, information, learning and ideas, this could well be just what you need. But first, I'd like to see if I can guide you past the hippy image, the hype, the "that's just grade-school stuff" comments, or whatever else it is that's putting you off.
The first benefit is that mind mapping is a method. Many people have no special method for getting their thoughts in order, for converting the stream of information in a book they must study into a logical set of notes to study, or for planning a new project. "@abbykutiwa I prefer mind maps. I used to use no methods before"
Using a mind map is one way to approach these types of task, that provides a controlled and consistent approach. Other methods, like outlining, also work but not all work across such a wide spectrum of activities. And for reasons that I'll explain, mind maps offer more than outlines.
The spread - the overview - the placement on page: All give us extra clues that an outline or a list do not. This can stimulate new ideas.
Making cross-connections that go outside the hierarchy is valuable in understanding a subject, generating new ideas and planning an interesting story, paper or article. This is the first point at which mind maps offer more than outlines (or lists). In an outline, "See also" is about the best we can do, and we end up hunting in the list for the item referred to. But a line drawn across from one branch of the map to another can be followed immediately, and the flow of thought is not disrupted.
And when you're in the flow and ideas are coming fast, the ability to move quickly around the map and add new thoughts at any point that ties in with what is there is really helpful. Slowing down to find the right place in a list or outline holds me back.
Anything but the simplest project is likely to be easier to control and estimate if it is broken down into small portions. This is well known by project managers whether they use mind mapping or not. And seeing which activity belongs with which other activities is vital. This is common to all project management schemes but mind mapping encourages it as the mapper works down each branch. It's a process of dismantling activities into smaller tasks. Outlining works just as well in this respect.
If you're trying to learn, breaking down the topic makes learning more manageable.
If you're planning to write, breaking down the topics to be covered allows the detail to be seen in advance, and helps in planning research where that is needed.
Grouping / re-organizing
When you're absorbing important information ... reading a book, listening to a lecture, watching a video ... most of the time, you'll experience it as a stream. But if it's important to you, and you want to take notes, then extracting key concepts in linear form means that you will nearly always need to re-arrange the notes to learn the material later. A mind map gives you freedom to place anything anywhere and connect it to related concepts.
Thinking - the process
This is a biggie. Working out where to put things, how to connect them, how to break them down, requires you to understand the material or think through the project you're working on. Mind mapping doesn't do the job for you, but it gives you a way of tackling it - a framework for thinking.
All too often messages like this from students turn up on Twitter: "now to do the mindmap argh i hate mindmaps". I believe that in the majority of cases, they really mean "I hate thinking" or "I hate learning". That's natural enough if they are working on a subject they have to study but which does not excite them. But it may be useful for some students if they come to understand that the mind mapping is not the real culprit and more so if they see that it can be made into a motivator.
In mind maps I use color and images to a limited extent: Mainly to help me find my way around a long-lived, large-project map quickly. There are often repeated claims that color and images help with memory, and I'm inclined to believe it, but I haven't seen compelling evidence that it is so.
I do believe that for young mappers, color and images are very helpful motivators, see below.
This is anecdotal evidence, and we all know that anecdotal evidence is not data, but I have seen children newly introduced to mapping become highly motivated to apply it to topics they are learning. Motivated youngsters undeniably learn better than unmotivated ones, as any lad who can name the precise model of Maserati or Porsche at first sight demonstrates.
Not just children, though, here's a real-life example: "i actually don't mind doing mind maps for revision, cause then i can colour them in and make them all pretty :'D (original tweet)
Map templates provide a guide for the inexperienced. So it is possible for a newcomer to acquire a basic understanding of mapping, be provided with a template for, say, project management, and then quickly become productive, building on the knowledge and experience of others already contained in the map template.
A tool or the end product?
The map itself is rarely the desired outcome - it's a step along the way. We're seeing more and more mind map libraries, and they can be useful sometimes, maybe to provide a template or an example for the inexperienced. But most mappers I know consider the process of producing the map to be where the value lies. In the case of a map for a large project, it is a process that may be spread over months.
If the map is a lead in to writing an article or making a PowerPoint presentation, the mapper will have to change it from map for to a linear flow.
If critics don't take account of the thinking that contributed to the outcome, maps can seem a waste in all these cases.
WikIT, the free InformationTamers wiki about many forms of mapping and visual modelling, is an extensive and growing source with content that ranges from ab initio to advanced.
"Mind mapping" is the commonly used term, but there are many forms, and the different forms suit varied purposes. WikIT aims to describe the forms, their advantages and disadvantages, and their uses.
If you are a keen mapper and can spot omissions - there must be some - then know that this article in WikIT is open to discussion. To contribute, please sign up as an editor for WikIT, then contribute your thoughts. If you don't want to change the article itself, you can click on the discussion tab above instead.
Sorry about the need to sign up, but you wouldn't believe the spam I had until I disabled anonymous editing (or maybe you would ...).