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Idea Maps: Theory and Evidence

This article presents basics of how idea maps (including mind maps) are formed and typically used. It also links them to findings and theory on visual display, graphics, and long-term memory learning. Some exaggerated claims on behalf of mind maps are treated, and available documentation as to how well mind maps may work is also furnished.

Central concepts and great ideas are to be focused on. To be flexible in processing them may work well

This essay is meant to update you on mind maps, or idea maps. Here is an example of an idea map:

Figure. By answering the six interrogative pronouns we cover a good deal of a topic. Here is an easy check list for covering a task, story, or problem.

Poetry helps learning too. Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem where he name six serving-men who taught him all he knew. Their names were "What and Why and When and How and Where and Who." It might pay handsomely to learn them by heart, and add: "who benefits" or "where does the money go?".

Idea Maps

Associations have loops. Some are clustered. As for petal designs, there is room for a wealth of variations.

The mind works associatively - integrating and synthesising added information to what is already in it by mental associations or by brain networking. To make a mind map, one starts in the center of the page with the main idea, and works outward in many directions, producing an organized structure of key words and key images, clusters, lines of connections between some of them. Some alternative terms need to be explained: Mind maps, idea maps, and concept maps.

Mind maps are cognitive maps, ideas presented as keynotes and keywords that branch out from a central field, and get more or less interconnected. You can find such mapping used in medical textbooks, for example. (McDermott and Clarke, 1998)

Idea maps are about the same, but more loosely understood. They may or may not adhere to exactly the same rules of producing such visual surveys or displays. The "rules" for producing idea maps are not as strict or set - yet. Idea maps may be said to be more flexible.

A third term is concept maps. Concepts, concept links, hierarchies, cross-links and examples are the components of concept maps. (Li-Ling, 2004)

Mind maps or similar displays have been used for centuries to aid visual thinking and problem solving.

Mind maps can produce fused concepts too, and not just relate them to one another.

Uses of Idea Maps (Mind Maps)

Idea maps is a variant of note-taking. They are graphic displays, and some of them may include codes. Map notes may be used

  • As notes. To jot down ideas more or less in a hurry, as in brainstorming. Notes can be from books, lectures, meetings, interviews, phone conversations.
  • As a means to prepare the mind for added content in a learning session.
  • To encourage creativity somewhat.
  • For problem solving, by linking issues to one another and trying to decide their relative importance (rank).
  • To categorise ideas (in general) by lines of connections and rank (hierarchic)
  • For recall and reviews. As easy means to quick repetitions or rehearsals to impress central ideas on the long-term memory (LTM)
  • For presentations, including speeches.
  • To save time.
  • For planning.

Memory Related

Learning is had by memory, and learning is an activity that balances previous content and added, new content. Knowledge is by activated brain networks that are aligned with mental associations. And idea maps cater to associations by how the charts are structured, and by the lines (of connections) illustrated. What enters the LTM (long-term memory) may not be represented visually at all, but visual displays, like mind maps, can help form key associations, and serve as memory pegs. Forgetting is a big problem that can be counteracted by periodical reviews, preferably spaced reviews. Idea maps are fit for simple reviews, preferably when the associations of the new material are fresh and not badly decayed. That is to say that reviews count, and idea maps have advantages in this process, in that they present keys, keywords, and connections between them in ways that are likely to foster better association networks (mental grids).

Material that enters the LTM (long-term memory), is encoded, which is facilitated through organisation, elaboration, meaningfulness and links with schema structures.

The basic unit of LTM is called a proposition, which means "something put forth", basically. Propositions are organised in networks. But just how they are organised, remains open to debate.

Meaningfulness is central for memory, in that we register and activate meanings. Information needs to be clearly comprehended to be recalled fairly well.

Bits of data that enter the LTM , may need to be activated and brushed up somewhat, especially during the first two or three weeks, to be recalled very well. Understanding of how the LTM works, helps to get more out of it too, by adapting to the mechanisms of LTM.

Mental imagery - as in idea maps - fits how the LTM works in some ways, but probably not all ways. People use imagery to represent spatial and visual knowledge. Mental imagery suits recall of concrete objects. Pictorial illustrations improve students' learning from texts. People also use imagery to think about abstract dimensions. Einstein excelled in it, in famous Gedanken experiments.

Using concrete materials and pictures enhances memory. Audiovisual aids facilitate learning. Especially young children, but also students (and scientists like Einstein), benefit from information presented in multiple modes: to put it differently It is hardly an either-or, but a both-and.

Imaginal representation can be developed in persons of any age.

The cues above relate idea maps - and other graphic illustrations - more or less to memory. It may be noted that idea maps may fit arenas fit for the manifestation of spatial intelligence - areas where many kinds of maps are common. (Schunk 2008, 172-81, passim)

LTM tackles core meanings, essentials; mind maps and keynotes arranged in other ways too, are helps in processing LTM items.

Means of improving memory?

Learning is much a question of remembering things. Memory is aided by meaning; meaning may be the dominant way of representing verbal material in the LTM. And visual impressions are also coded in LTM. LTM has a preferred code for verbal material (meaning), but other codes can be used too. The better we understand items, the more we remember. And the better retrieval cues (to associate with a thing) available, the better our memory.

Permanent LTM storage is almost certainly localised in the brain cortex. There may be separate systems for explicit memory (recal or recognition of facts) and implicit memory (improvements without conscious recollections).

Interference can impair retrieval. LTM is plastic, it may be partly reconstructed on the basis of expectations and knowledge.

We may improve our memory by getting better at encoding and retrieval. Mental images have been found to be particularly useful for connecting pairs of unrelated items. [Smith et al, 2003, 266-309, passim]

Graphics, visual display such as images help LTM, which centres on essentials, including meanings, most of all.

How To

Above is a little overview of memory. It is meant to assist the understanding of idea maps, by giving a much agreed on basis of recall. It seems that most people prefer to learn meanings above all, and that visual displays and charts are means to it. There is reason to caution against getting fixated in the mean (idea charts), the displays, and not going for encoding and recalling the vital meanings in the first place. With this in mind, may we continue:

The theory and practice of mind-mapping is simple. Put the main thing in the centre, and make loops of associations ("petals") branch out around the centre somehow. There is room for many delicate flowers and idea maps of different shapes in the world. One fit side to proficient idea maps is that they afford us far better "knitting" of associations than what is called linear thinking. It translates to: What you learn in the form of idea maps, could be remembered better in the long run. You can also survey material with less sweat if you apply the golden rules of mind-mapping, presumably.

"Is that all?" you may ask. There are more details, but the basics have been shown. Now, study the results of mind-mapping - "the proof of the pudding" - a little before you conclude anything. An example:

A Boieng Aircraft engineering manual was condensed into a 25-foot long Mind Map, to enable a team of 100 senor aeronautical engineers to learn in a few weeks what had previously taken a few years. The result was an estimated saving of $11 milion. (Buzan and Buzan 1995, 171)

Here is another sweet tale to tell:

Edward Hughes was a student who at the age of 15, got C's and B's, but wanted to go to Cambridge University. He learnt how to make mind maps, learn and study, and then announced that he was going for A's in all his subjects. Teachers did not believe much in his project, but Edward had much self-confidence. Edward drafted mind maps and exercised, and studied good essay forms, and eventually sat for examininations. He became a top student. At Cambridge he was asked to preside over the charitable Very Nice Society. At the same time he decided to spent 2-3 hours a day, 5 days a week, to study. His final examinations there were excellent.

He summarised: "I knew how to think - how to use my head. I was a C and B student before I knew how to "get an A". (Buzan 1989, 11-14)

There is one more thing to tell about the success tale from Tony Buzan's book Use Your Head, a standard introductory text for the Open University: One impressive tale told is no proof of anything, strictly speaking. This is so because such anedotal evidence carries very, very little "proof power".

Great Claims and Evidence

  • Tony Buzan claims in the Mind Map Book that the mind map is a vastly superior note taking method. That may be a tendentious postulate in the light of later research, which suggests an improvement of about 15 percent. Mind-mapping - a note-taking variant - improves the average learning efficiency with up to 15% over conventional note taking, it has been suggested (Farrand, Hussain, and Hennessy 2002).
  • Buzan props up that argument with claims that the mind map utilizes the full range of left and right human cortical skills. Against this view "Hemispheric specialization theory (that Buzan speaks of) has been identified as pseudoscientific when applied to mind mapping".
  • Buzen claims taps into the alleged 99% of the unused mental potential. claims about extremely low brain use in general, seem very wrong. We use far more than 10 percent of our grey matter, is suggested by others. [Evidence].
  • Buzan also claims that similar shapes between brain networks and mind maps make mind mips excellent for learning. This bogus argument resembles the ancient "signature teaching", which said that how plants look like, is the key to their medicinal use, through "like cures like". (Garland 1980, 262-63)

Buzan has some marketing claims that are invalid, and some that are dubious at best. What is needed is research that documents the said, very good effects of mind maps. Till now there is evidence of a slight improvement, and of problems with keeping up one's motivation to use mind maps after having learnt how to make them.

Variety is the spice of life, it is said, and there is no good reason to throw out the baby with the [dirty] bath water. I have nothing against idea maps per se, but do not agree with overstated claims on behalf of such things. My interest is to make the best out of them rather, since they are all right for organising material (overviews), excellent for repetitions, and appear to strengthen memory associations that learning depends on. Mind maps are graphic displays, or graphic organisers. They are good at putting together large amounts of information, combining spatial organisation, hierarchical structuring and more. But the mind map is not equally suited to all learning tasks.

It helps to discern between various sides to mind maps too. Producing them requires extra effort (which may or may not be found to be worth it). Using such maps or similar maps helps memory, as graphics do. We note the difference between making them and using them, adding that mind maps are produced by software too nowadays.

Proper use could, theoretically speaking, be age-dependent, could depend on just how charts are formed (there are variants around), and also on how they are used. For example, just drawing a mind map and not using it for repetitions as much as is ideal, is not much, and may not be representative of results had from fit use, whatever that be. How far to go for using idea maps optimally? It may be somewhat individual, in part depending on artistic bent, one's intelligences (spatial intelligence and linked memory). Results of mind maps obviously depend on how we use them, to what ends, and how we are (artistic etc.). Some who learn mind-mapping and stop using it, indicate either "It has not helped me a bit", or "not enough to be worth the extra efforts" or "I am not determined to prosper thus -" These difficult topics need to be investigated.

Note the difference between producing mind maps and LTM items or "chunks" - the difference between means and goal.


Apart from subjective evidence of the kind illustrated above, there is not much research on the effects of mind maps. Yet mind-mapping - that note-taking variant -improves the average learning efficiency with up to 15% over conventional note taking, it has been suggested (Farrand, Hussain, and Hennessy 2002). They found that the mind map technique had a limited but significant impact on recall in undergraduate students - a 10% increase over baseline for a 600-word text as compared to preferred study methods with a 6% decrease over baseline). This improvement was only robust after a week. But the researchers concluded, "Mind maps provide an effective study technique when applied to written material." To keep up the student motivation to draw such maps, became a a problem, they also found.

And Pressley, VanEtten, Yokoi, Freebern, and VanMeter (1998) found that learners tended to learn far better by focusing on the content of learning material rather than worrying over any one particular form of note taking.

Ω Effective study is often hard work. Processing LTM matters is helped by visual displays. Visual displays include graphics and well shaped, well built mind maps too. The crucial part is putting them to good use after once forming or getting them.


Sky flowers, flowers in space, kuge, mind maps, idea maps, thought displays, with tips for handling the learning processes, Literature  

Buzan, Tony, and Barry Buzan. The Mind Map Book: Unlock Your Creativity, Boost Your Memory, Change Your Life. Harlow: BBC Active / Pearson, 2010.

Buzan, Tony. Use Your Head. New, rev. ed. London: BBC Books, 1989 (There are many later editions of it).

Farrand, Paul, Fearzana Hussain, and Enid Hennessy. 2002. The efficacy of the 'mind map' study technique. Medical Education, Vol 36 (Issue 5), 22 May, page 426-431.

Garland, Sarah. Hjemmets store bok om Helseplanter, urter og krydder (The Herb and Spice Book). Oslo: Hjemmets bokforlag, 1980.

Hacker, Douglas J., John Dunlosky, and Arthur C. Graesser, eds. 1998. Metacognition in Educational Theory and Practice.. London: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Li-Ling Hsu. 2004. Developing concept maps from problem-based learning scenario discussions. Journal of Advanced Nursing 48 (5) , 510-518

McDermott, Peter, and D. N. Clarke. 1998. Mind Maps in Medicine. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Health Sciences.

Pressley, Michael, Shawn VanEtten, Linda Yokoi, Geoffrey Freebern, and Peggy VanMeter. 1998. "The metacognition of college studentship: A grounded theory approach". In: D. J. Hacker, J. Dunlosky, and A. C. Graesser (Eds.), Metacognition in Theory and Practice (pp. 347-367). Mahwah NJ: Erlbaum.

Schunk, Dale. Learning Theories. An Educational Perspective. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2008.

Smith, Carolyn D., ed, et al. Hilgard's Introduction to Psychology. 14th ed. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth, 2003.

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