Mind-mapping is a versatile and fun note-taking tool. Versatile because it’s equally useful for revising for exams, planning out a piece of writing, generating creative ideas, or simply jotting down everything you know about a subject. In fact, if I could recommend only one brain-boosting tool, it would be mind-mapping. Fun because it works the way your brain most likes to work. It’s both creative and structured. 

Traditional note-taking is linear. You write out line after line. Whilst you may write single words in traditional notes, you mainly write sentences, so you are following the rules of writing and grammar. In contrast, mind-mapping uses the grammar of the brain. It’s a form of note-taking that works more naturally in sympathy with how our brains like to work. 

Our brains like colour, doodles and images, and they like to connect ideas to all the other ideas that seem to have a natural connection to them. Our brains don’t think in straight-lines, they think in terms of networks of connections. For example, any particular concept you store in your brain will be connected to all those concepts which you associate with it. Think of the idea of ‘mug’ and you will also activate associations like ‘drink’, ‘hot’, ‘coffee’, ‘tea’, and so on. This is why even when you can’t remember something – such as a person’s name – you can usually still remember some of the associated concepts or details, such as that it rhymes with a particular word, or its long, or sounds foreign. Thinking of one or more of these associations can often help you trigger the memory. Therefore such ‘networks’ of concepts can be more memorable. Also, our brains, particularly our memories, like to work spatially. The world around us, which our brains evolved to deal with, is organised spatially not in a neat line-by-line way. Mind-mapping maps out the connections between ideas as connections in space, unlike traditional note-taking in which one idea must always line up after the other in a strict linear format.

How to mind-map

You begin with writing down a single concept in the centre of the page (or screen, if you are using mind-mapping software). From this central concept will radiate a range of sub-concepts. If your central concept were a book title, for example, your sub-concepts would be the chapter titles. In practice you will probably do these one at a time, writing down a sub-concept title, and drawing a line under it, branching out from the central point. Then from each sub-concept, you have various other concept words branching out. So, imagine your mind-map looks like a tree from the top looking down, if the central concept were the trunk, and the main sub-concepts are the branches, then the further sub-concepts are the twigs on those branches.

The beauty of this format is that you can easily add in more branches and twigs as you go along, and new ideas are stimulated. Mind-mapping is hierarchical but non-linear. It’s organic and freeflowing. 

Further tips

Whilst you can experiment and find your own way to Mind-map that best suits you, there are several suggestions for how to create them:

Just use one concept word per line, and make the line the length of the word. The reason for this is that it maximises the number of connections you can make, and keeps things simple. You don’t, for example, want to be writing sentences. Mind-mapping is about expressing each concept as just one word (or maybe two at a stretch). If you put multiple words on one line, then you are combining concepts together and then it can make it harder to have other sub-concepts coming off it. For example, if I have a line which says ‘Jazz music’, then I’m immediately limited to only draw sub-concepts off it that relate to Jazz music, but If I just write ‘music’ I can have separate sub-concept lines for ‘Jazz’, ‘Rock’, ‘Classical’ etc. It keeps things simple and open.

Making your map lines curvy and different helps make your map more unique, memorable and fun.

Use colours and doodles. Key words and images.  This makes mind-mapping more fun, creative and memorable.

Uses and benefits

Laying out your current ideas in a mind-map is a great way to stimulate new ideas. This is because it maximises the number of connections you can make. Each time you write one concept line, many different connected concepts will spring to mind. Also, as the map forms, it will show you areas where you are short on concepts, and you can focus more on generating ideas in those areas.

If you are planning anything, from a work project, to a trip to an essay or other piece of writing, mind-mapping can be useful. For a project or trip, it is great for getting clear on everything that you need to do. Due to its spatial structure, you quickly see areas that you haven’t planned properly for yet, enabling you to quickly rectify it. If you are planning out an essay, or even a speech, mind-mapping can be really useful, enabling you to quickly jot down all the key ideas and the structure within which they best connect together. 

Mind-maps help you remember because they are spatial, and also because they trigger associations. Many people find that once they’ve created a mind-map, they can often close their eyes and remember what it looked like. This can make them a useful tool for writing notes that will be memorable. Also, if you are trying to remember information, for example if you are sitting in an exam and you need to quickly recall everything you know about a particular topic, a mind-map can be extremely useful. 

My experience of mind-mapping

Over the years I’ve used mind-mapping a lot. Personally I’ve found it a bit limiting for note-taking when learning a subject if it’s the only technique you are using. Sometimes you do need to use linear note-taking, particularly in less ‘creative’ subjects, when quoting someone, or when dealing with a linear train-of-thought (they do exist!). So I would use it in conjunction with more traditional note-taking when learning a new subject. However, where I’ve found mind-mapping most useful, is in generating new ideas, planning out a piece of writing, and in jotting down what I know about a subject.

Exploring further

Mind-mapping was popularised and formalised by British-Canadian psychologist, author and broadcaster Tony Buzan. He’s written a number of books which cover it in more detail, such as ‘Use your head’ and ‘The mind-map book’ which I recommend.