Back in the late 70s, the BBC began what was to become a long-term relationship with Tony Buzan, author of a series of popular psychology books on the theme of cognitive ability. Buzan had developed a form of concept mapping which used radial hierarchies and tree structures to denote relationships with a central governing concept. (Concept maps are based on connections between concepts in more diverse patterns.) In popular parlance, mind mapping has become pretty synonymous with concept mapping, and it’s a credit to Buzan’s unfaltering marketing that the two are used almost as Hoover is to all vacuum cleaners.
Video technology was only just being commercialised at the time, and so BBC programmes were sometimes made available in 16mm cine format for educational purposes. At the time, I had only just begun my A level in Biology, and our teacher, Dr Marion Phillips, managed to borrow a complete set of the series that Buzan produced for the BBC called “Use Your Head”. I have no idea what the impact was on my peers, but certainly the idea of concept mapping appealed to me no end. The idea that it was possible to summarise vast amounts of notes onto a single page, absorb more detail than would be retained with classical notes, and make connections that others hadn’t seen, was too good an opportunity to miss. While my early experiments weren’t too successful (I nearly failed my first year exams at university!) by the time it came to revising for finals, I had three years of studies neatly summarised on 20 or so mind maps. (And it can’t have been a complete disaster, as I did stay on to do my PhD!)
So I have a strong positive affinity with such tools. I can’t say that I am a fan though of people who slap (C) symbols on what seem to me to be quite simple ideas, especially those that have been around for quite a while. The distinction between a mind map and other forms of such diagram, when drawn by hand especially, seem a little pedantic to my mind. The earliest pictorial methods for recording knowledge and modelling systems resembling a concept map, were developed by Porphyry of Tyros, in the 3rd Century, as he graphically visualized the concept categories of Aristotle. Philosopher Ramon Llull (1235–1315) also used such techniques. Since then, they have been used in learning, brainstorming, memory, visual thinking, and problem solving by educators, engineers, psychologists, and others.
Advocates of Buzan’s methods point to a trickle of evidence that they say supports the theory that such maps produce better recall and more creative solutions where the solutions depend on the interconnectedness of concepts. The evidence is far from clear and one study in 2002 indicated that any such effect was relatively short-lived.
One of the key ideas used by Buzan in selling the concept of Mind Mapping was the differential development of the brain’s hemispheres – referred to in the popular press as the left- and right- sidedness of the brain. In practice, modern evidence suggests that this idea has been over simplified and complex activities, such as processing languages, have many more elements involved in them and so draw on many different parts of the brain. There are also quite striking differences in the incidence of this hemispheric dominance between people who are left-handed and right-handed, suggesting that the classical distinctions apply more to right-handed people than left-. It’s a more complex picture than we always thought.
As a simple note-taking tool, nonetheless, mind mapping remains a viable and convenient approach. Regardless of the evidence, Buzan has a persuasive, almost hypnotic presentation style, charismatic enthusiasm, and contagious belief in human potential. (He’s also quite a snappy dresser.) While he seems driven to promote himself, there’s nontheless something compelling about what he says. You may have seen him working with a group of 6 ‘difficult’ children over 6 months, and 10000 children at the Royal Albert Hall for a morning.
Mind mapping, as the most recent development from the work of certain psychologists in the 1950s and 1960s, is undergoing a resurgence of interest lately.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, in recent years a number of computer-based tools have been developed to allow the production of concept maps and mind maps. Buzan himself, along with the co-author of this weeks’ Business Book of the Week, Chris Griffiths, launched one such product, iMindMap, a few years ago.
Far more important though, is that mind mapping is based around the idea of the interconnectedness of concepts. When I think of “x” my mind (often unconsciously) creates a link with “y” and so on. It was this concept of interconnectedness that was explored by Alfred Korzybski in his theory of general semantics, which was popularized in science fiction novels, such as those of Robert Heinlein and AE van Vogt, which Buzan acknowledges were his inspiration. In turn this led to the development of ‘Semantic Nets’ which were first invented for computers by Richard Richens of the Cambridge Language Research Unit in 1956 as an ‘interlingua’ for the machine translation of natural languages.
They were further developed by Robert Simmons at System Development Corporation in the early 1960s and later featured prominently in the work of Allan Collins and his colleagues. Between the 1960s and 1980s, the idea of a semantic link was developed within hypertext systems as the most basic unit, or edge, in a semantic network. These ideas were extremely influential, and most recently their use in searching vast, complex, unstructured arrays of data has become of considerable commercial importance as organisations, like Google, seek to deliver information to users that most closely matches their intended query even if this was not what they initially searched for.
Thus Buzan may yet hold a key in the jigsaw of understanding and education necessary for people to gain the most possible from these approaches. His latest book, published by the BBC, is called ‘Mind Maps for Business: Revolutionise Your Business Thinking and Practice‘.
Now in his late 60s, Buzan still tours and gives conference presentations, though they tend to be to high fee-paying auduences. So, you may be interested to know that he will be speaking at the Wootton Talks – a superb series of presentations on a very diverse range of topics by an astonishing array of high profile lecturers in the Village Hall in Wootton. Buzan is scheduled to speak on November 5th – tickets only cost £6 but sell out quickly so you’d better get in there quick if you’d like to go.
PS My previous Business Book of the Week was “Them and Us: Changing Britain – why we need a Fair society?” by Will Hutton (09/10/10)
the-confidant.info – Helping leaders see situations, organisations, themselves and others, differently
executive-post.info – Motivation and advice for senior executives exploring new opportunities
inter-faith.net – thefutureofwork.org – corporate-alumni.info