Computer assisted thinking with mind maps

Computer assisted thinking with mind maps

As I mentioned in the previous post, my focus is on personal, computer assisted thinking with mind maps. You don’t necessarily need a computer to do mind maps. You can start with pen an paper if you don’t have a suitable device or application at hand. My aim is, however, to convince you that using a computer can take your mind mapping experience, and your thinking, to a totally different level. In fact, any old application that lets you write text can get you started: text editor, word processor, spreadsheet, diagramming tool or concept mapper. Anything that lets you write down single ideas and move them around easily.

There are a few things that using a computer gives you, that paper and pen don’t, such as speed and flexibility. It’s one thing to write a shopping list on a piece of paper. Even though I wish my wife would arrange the shopping lists she writes to me in the order of the physical location of the items in the store, it just doesn’t happen for some reason. Once you write something down on paper you don’t do much editing, simply because it’s too much trouble. On the computer things get much easier. Moving items around, editing, reordering, at the speed of your thought. Well, almost anyway, and after you’ve got some practice.

Memory card for the brain

Chances are that you do some sort of thinking every day, and not many people would oppose being able to “think better”, whatever that means.

Think about mental arithmetic. You can calculate 2 + 2 in your mind, but 345983274592834 + 2345234545 is difficult for most of us. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it at all. You just can’t do it in your mind that easily. Take a paper an a pencil and you can solve the sum in a minute if you want.

You’ve probably heard of the limits of our working memory. People can only hold 5-7 items in there at one time. Whether that number is exact is not that important. The point is that the brain’s capacity to hold thoughts in your mind has a limit, and that limit is not very impressive. Mind maps can help you break that limit by acting as an extension for your thoughts. Just as pen and paper extended your ability to calculate, mind maps can extend your ability to think in general. The maps are, like the paper, an external memory storage for your brain. The mind mapping application on your computer is the pencil and eraser you use to create and modify the contents of the maps.

Index to your mind

“This is not a thought.” In everyday speak you might say that the sentence before this one is a thought itself. Strictly speaking though, it’s not. It is a representation of a thought. It is a group of symbols, a label, that people have more or less agreed to have a certain meaning. You might think this is nitpicking but it comes in very handy to be able to make the distinction between representations and the actual phenomena they denote.

Think about your mind maps. They are not your thoughts, they are representations of your thoughts, just as a map of a city is not the city itself. Many times you only have to see one word in a map, and it brings along a whole bunch of memories. The word acts as a pointer or a trigger to your memories, but the actual memories are still only in your mind. In this sense, the mind maps you create are an index to your mind.

Consider a book. How do you know what’s in it? How do you find the page containing the information you are looking for? You can browse through the pages, but often there is an index or table of contents to help you. They are easily accessible and they help you to quickly jump from one place in the book to another, without flipping through every single page searching for the right one.

Now think of your memory. How do you know what’s in there? How do you actually find anything in there? Do you think an index could help you with that? An index also helps you to consciously jump from one set of thoughts to another, like with the book. The only thing is we don’t come to this world equipped with such a mind index (a mindex?), so we have to build one for ourselves.

Mind map as a tool

Mind maps are really quite a simple idea. They give you a lot of freedom to use them in any way you want. That’s a big contrast to many other computer applications and tools, specialized for certain tasks such as project management. A mind map is more like a Swiss army knife. It’s an excellent all-round tool to help you with almost anything that involves thinking. The downside of the freedom is that you don’t have a clear path ahead of you, but you have to think for yourself how to use the maps. During the last ten years I’ve found quite a few ways to use them for different purposes.

It’s good to remember though that tools are just tools. They are means to get something done. Being a techie I sometimes find myself using tools for the sake of using them. I might have a complex spreadsheet system for managing my tasks with priorities and work estimates, spending more time to manage the spreadsheet than to do the actual job. Often the good old pen and paper are surprisingly handy and fast for doing a task, and using a computer complicates things unnecessarily. If you can get a job done completely without any tool, all the better.

After spending some time regularly with mind maps you might notice that you don’t need them for many tasks anymore. Just as you learned to calculate 3×12 without paper, you’ll have learned to do all sorts of new tasks, directly in your mind without the use of a computer. The associative structure of mind maps makes them relatively easy to memorize. Can you imagine what it would be like to have hundreds of mind maps and have them structured so well, that you are able to navigate them without your computer, directly in your mind? Now that would be nice, wouldn’t it?

Antti Halla

M.Sc. in Computer Science, software engineer, personal coach, entrepreneur, writer. “Mind maps are the most important personal tool I use daily. And I’ve been doing so for over ten years now. I use them as a notebook, an idea collection, a personal planner and a project management system. The maps help me study, write, solve problems and think about anything in general. Basically, my whole life is in mind maps.”