Thursday, May 28, 2009

Mind Maps

    In 70’s Tony Buzan coined the term of Mind Map for his visual tool based on “radiant thinking” principle, cataloguing it as a “powerful graphing technique”, “expression of radiant thinking” or “a natural function of human mind”. He made public the concept in his first book on Mind Maps that appeared in 1974, “Use Your Head”, one year later appearing “The Mind Map Book”, over the years, if we give credit to [3], the number of books reached 85, being sold over 5 millions copies worldwide, in 100 countries and translated in 30 languages. Quite impressive, isn’t it?!

    A Mind Map is centred on a single idea (in some sources referred as topic, subject, theme or question), other ideas being associated to it in a radial fashion, resulting in the end a Map of ideas, from here the alternative denomination of Idea Map. “Idea” is maybe a too general term because it can represent a thought, concept or a statement in which multiple concepts are used. In most of the Mind Maps met, ideas are expressed in the form of Key-Words, and sometimes of symbols or images, especially on digital Maps. A Key-Word is supposed to encapsulate “a multitude of meanings in as small a unit as possible” [1], thus ideas reach to be expressed as single words, each word being the label in a hierarchical network. Maybe an example will make some light, so supposing that “Happiness” is the central idea, we can associate to it words that we relate in our mind to Happiness: “family”, “good job”, “free time”, “money”, “love”, “vacation”, etc. Each of these ideas can be further extended with other associations, “family” could be associated for example with the name of “wife”/”wives”, “husband(s)”, “kid(s)”, “dog(s)”, “parents” and “grandparents”, “cat(s)” and any other pats we consider to be part of the family. A “good job” presumes “good remuneration”, “appreciation”, “good boss”, “nice colleagues”, “nice environment”, “potential”, etc. “Free time” could include all the activities somebody likes to have in his/her free time; same exercise can be done for each idea included in the Map, ideas can be associated over and over again with other ideas. It seems like a never ending story… when do we stop then? Most probably when the paper ends or we get bored, these are two possible answers too, in the end it’s up to each person, how detailed he wants the Map, what he/she wants to achieve, etc.

Happiness – Mind Map created with FreeMind Happiness – Mind Map created with FreeMind

    A Mind Map can be regarded as a tree, in which the trunk represents the topic, the labelled leaves represent ideas, the forked branches themselves supporting the whole structure of the tree, their multiple forking representing the degree of detail the Map holds. The comparison with a tree is not accidental, tree-like drawings has been used since Antiquity to encode meaning (e.g. Tree of Life, Tree of Love), moreover representational purpose can be given also to the roots of the tree for example to represent base or fundamental ideas on which the whole foundation is built. Unlike trees, it could happen for example that two ideas from different braches can be associated too, for example “money” with “good job” resulting cross links between ideas. With each cross-links added the structure of the Map changes, becoming more like a network, though still relying on previous radial structure which becomes the Map’s backbone. Network-like Maps are more natural to represent knowledge, as knowledge has a networked rather than hierarchical structure.

    A Map can go through multiple stages, iterations if you want, some ideas are deleted, others added, new associations are made, techniques are improved, and so on. Therefore such Maps are evolutional, they can change over time as people identify new associations, acquire new information or knowledge, change their values, change themselves and even their way of thinking…Excepting the radial disposition of ideas there are theoretically no other constraints, people can use their imagination and built all kind of Maps. Moreover, people can use visual rhythm, patterns, colour or spatial awareness (dimension and gestalt) to make Mind Maps easier to read, understand or navigate. Somebody can use his artistic talent and make a kind of piece of art from a Map, with a little imagination and skill a 2D Map can become 3D. In T. Buzan’s books you can find lot of propaganda for the use of Mind Maps and the benefits of its various characteristics together with references to (important) studies concerning learning and brain/mind theories.

    A Map generally can be created by multiple people, the addition of ideas can be done independently or through consensus, the collective work can start from an idea, an already existing Map or the augmentation of all involved people’s Maps. Such collective or collaborative Maps can be used for example in learning or brainstorming, consensus playing an important role, and for example in a digital Map can be seen how the Map itself evolved and eventually also how the consensus was reached. [2] considers that there are 250 million Mind Mappers all over the world, jumping over the basis used for this consideration, even if their number raises up to several millions, that’s quite a number. Many Mind Mappers buy rich-functionality software tools for drawing digital Mind Maps, others resume to less rich functionality but free tools, they integrated the technique in everyday life, learning, teaching, presentations, decision-making, etc. It’s a form of knowledge representation, though the creation of Mind Maps is mainly for personal use, even if many Maps are available already in the public domain.

    On the other side researchers occupy their time by building more or less complete ontologies, above their other characteristics, they imply consensus and quite an effort and coordination. Why not take advantage of the impressive number of Mind/Knowledge Mappers, give them rich and free software tools, and allow them to make explicit their knowledge or map the knowledge available on the Web?! Is the idea plausible?! How many of you haven’t underlined words or phrases of interest in a book or article creating thus bookmarks?! How many of you tried to built a mental image (Map) of how they fit together or into the existing knowledge? If we consider the “success” of folksonomies, of Knowledge Maps themselves, the increasing number of Web Sites and blogs on this topic, I am strongly convinced that the transition from folksonomies to Maps will happen pretty soon, once the Web Technologies in particular and Web’s evolution in general will allow that.

[1] Buzan, T. (1991). Speed Reading. Ed: 3rd Plume. ISBN: 978-0452266049
[2] Buzan, T., Buzan, B. (2007). The Mind Map Book. BBC ACTIVE. ISBN: 978-1-406-6102
[3] (2008). Tony Buzan. [Online] Available from: (Accessed: 29 May 2009)

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