Mind maps: interesting but potentially gimmicky

I have been experimenting with Freemind, a free software app that creates “mind maps”. So far, they are showing more potential than I thought they might, but it remains to be seen if I will stick with them over the long haul.

You are likely to have heard of mind maps, an idea popularised by Tony Buzan. Some might say “over popularised”, implying a lot fo sizzle, but no steak. I have shown an example mind map for my Greenblatt screen below to give you an idea of what they look like:


That was produced by Freemind, a free mind mapping tool available for Windows 7, Linux and OSX; written in Java.

I remember playing with mind maps as a kid, but nothing much ever came to it. One of the touted benefits is that you can draws links between concepts. To be honest, that is more fanciful than useful. Also, whenever I have seen mind maps that are actually drawn on paper, there is basically very little information on them. You might just as well write bulleted lists. It’s not as New Agey as drawing brain-like structures, but it gets the job done.

Buzan recommends 7 “rules”, like colouring your mind maps. They seem little more than gimmicky embellishments.

Having said that, having played with Freemind for awhile, it opens up more possibilities than pen and paper. The principal advantages are:

  • they can hold more content
  • you can make notes on the nodes, thereby allowing you to store useful information (like URLs) that is clumsy to do with pen and paper
  • you can move things arounds and restructure your concepts
  • you can make notes more extemporaneously and free-form
  • it’s quicker than other forms of note-taking
  • the ability to hide and unhide branches makes the layout more manageable for viewing
  • I see it as a way – potentially – of actually holding useful information, rather than being some gimmick revolving around notions of “neural nets”, and suchlike

I also use Treepad Lite, which is available for free. It works on Windows and Linux/Wine. They have payware versions available, but to be honest, a straight-forward enough and does the job for me. I have been using Treepad for some time, and it does have its uses. It is suitable for structured note-taking. I use it as a TODO planner in situations that a simple text file isn’t up to the job.

I am starting to get back into learning difficult subjects. One form of note-taking is the Feynman Method, named after legendary physicist. The idea is that you should write a concept down on a single peice of paper in a way that could be explained to a non-expert. Tacitly, the explanation should take no more than 10 minutes. You might ask: “is it any good?”. Well, it’s something that I need to explore further, but it is at least interesting as an idea with potential. What I like about it is that it respects the limits of human cognition. You need to really pinpoint your understanding of a subject, and keep things simple. It encourages the chunking of ideas into simple conceptual units. Psychologists have shown that after 25 mintues, your concentration has likely gone way down. So, instead of trying to pound the information into your head, you have to explain the concept well within the time the brain drifts off into lala land (enjoy!).

My conclusion so far: an interesting idea, and one that is worthy of a more substantial evaluation. YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary), but it is worth a check-out to see if it interests you.

About mcturra2000

Computer programmer living in Scotland.
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