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Imagine that you are planning a big party or charting your goals for the next five years. Begin generating ideas. As you do, observe how your mind works. Do you construct whole paragraphs in your imagination or conjure ordered outlines in your mind’s eye? Probably not. Chances are that impressions, key words and images float into your mind, one associating with the next, and not necessarily in a linear order. Your mind generates ideas free-form — and strings them together later.

The challenge is how best to capture these fast-moving and seemingly random ideas on paper and unlock the connections and big ideas that are waiting to break through. That’s where mind mapping comes in. It’s a method for continuing the brain’s natural associative process on paper in a way that enhances your ability to generate and organize your ideas.

Mind mapping is a simple, practical tool you can use to improve your creative-thinking, planning and problem-solving abilities. Fortune 500 companies use mind mapping to draft strategic plans, but you can use it for any number of activities: to plan an event, prepare for a presentation, envision future goals, write a report or even construct a plot for a book.

The method is so effective because it helps you use the left and right hemispheres of your cerebral cortex in harmony. If you are a more logical, left-brained thinker, mind mapping will help you liberate your creative potential. If you are a more intuitive, right-brained thinker, it will help you organize and integrate your free-flowing imagination. Mind mapping can help anyone unleash creative potential and allow his or her hidden genius to emerge.

The Power of Mind Mapping

Most schooling emphasizes linear, left-brained thinking: We are taught to create lists, write outlines, and put ideas and information in logical order. These organizing principles can be incredibly helpful when we’re ready to sort through our ideas, but they can be downright stifling as we try to generate them. Outlining is useful only after the real thinking has been done. One of the simple secrets for enhancing your creative power is to generate first, then organize. Mind mapping makes it much easier to let your ideas flow, and it helps you organize them naturally.

British educational consultant Tony Buzan invented modern mind mapping in the 1960s. Buzan worked at the College of Advanced Reading in London, England, where he taught study skills to students while researching methods for improving learning, memory and creative thinking. He studied various note-taking styles, aiming to discover what would work best for his students.

Buzan concluded that the best note-takers shared two distinctive characteristics: First, they recorded key words — capturing the essence of a lecture or the chapter of a book they were studying — by jotting down only the essential “nuggets” of information; they also kept their notes clear and easy to read by printing their key words. Buzan discovered that many students suffered from an inability to read their own handwriting, making their note-taking efforts useless.

To improve on printed key-word notes, Buzan drew on research into the note-taking styles of geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Darwin and Thomas Edison. He observed that their notebooks featured lots of creative images, sketches and key words. Buzan realized that the use of images and sketches stimulated the right hemisphere, while capturing key words engaged the left hemisphere. He brought all this together to create mind mapping.

Making a Mind Map

Mind mapping is simple. You don’t need much to begin — just your brain, a piece of paper, a few colored pens and a willingness to try something new.

Begin your mind map with an image in the center of your page. Starting at the center rather than at the top of the page helps free you from the limitations of hierarchical, “top-down” thinking. Images enhance your ability to think creatively about your subject. So, to make a mind map of your next team meeting, you might begin with an image of a briefcase.

As the meeting’s topics and ideas evolve, draw lines radiating out from your central image and print key words on those lines. Key words are the information-rich nuggets of recall and creative association. By linking words with lines (branches) leading to other words, you’ll show clearly how one key word relates to another. Printing is easier to read and remember than writing.

It’s best to print just one key word for each line.This keeps the mind map clear and makes it easy to follow the flow of associations. (You can always take down more detailed notes — a complex process or instructions, for example — on a separate piece of paper.)

Use images and colors for greater association and emphasis. Pictures are worth the proverbial thousand words. Colors and illustrations stimulate your right hemisphere and make your material much easier to remember. Consider using different colors for each main section.

There are countless ways to use mind maps. The key is to begin experimenting with how mind maps can help you — to grow your ideas, make the best use of your brain and unleash your full potential.

Advantages of Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is a simple, practical tool for improving your creative-thinking, planning and problem-solving abilities. It will help you:

Generate more ideas: Mind mapping allows you to start quickly and generate more ideas in less time. You don’t have to edit or order your thoughts; just start with a creative doodle in the center of your page and begin printing words on lines emanating from the center as you think of them. The free-ranging format — adding words to one branch one moment, then skipping over to another branch the next — increases your chances of generating new ideas.

Make new connections: Mind mapping allows you to represent a tremendous amount of information in a relatively small space. You can have all your notes for a topic on one piece of paper, with your ideas arranged in a way that encourages you to see relationships between them. Mind mapping helps you see connections among things that may have seemed completely separate.

Improve your memory: Remembering your material becomes much easier. Colors, images and key words — three central ingredients of mind maps — are much more engaging to the brain than sentences. A well-made mind map is almost impossible to forget!

Use your whole brain: Half a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Mind mapping helps you strengthen your analytical left brain by training you to look for the most essential key words. At the same time, it stimulates the right brain by encouraging you to use colors and images.

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