Visual Thinking with Mind Mapping

Visual Thinking with Mind Mapping

Visual thinking can sometimes be better than words when brainstorming, asking questions and connecting ideas previously thought to be unconnectable. And mind mapping makes visual thinking come alive.  The old saying, “a photo is worth a thousand words” is certainly true as a mind map with photos, sketches, and data visualizations provide an alternative way to express and share complex ideas.

Porphyry of Tyros created the first documented mind map to organize the works of Aristotle

Porphyry of Tyros created the first documented mind map to organize the works of Aristotle

Most people think of mind mapping as just another tool for the Internet age.  But in reality, visual thinking with mind mapping has been around for thousands of years.  Historians credit the philosopher Porphyry of Tyros as the first documented user of mind mapping in the 3rd century BCE.  While his mind map looked quite different than contemporary computerized mind maps of today, Porphyry used visual thinking to categorize and organize the work of Aristotle.  Historians have also confirmed the use of mind mapping by one of the brightest minds of the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci.  He made extensive use of mind mapping to clearly articulate, reiterate and generate prototypes of his creations in science, engineering, art, sculpture and literature. “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” wrote Leonardo da Vinci.

While there are subsequent recorded instances of mind mapping after da Vinci, visual thinking with mind mapping was not rediscovered until the 1950s. Educator and psychologist Allan M. Collins is considered by some to have resurrected mind mapping in his studies of human cognition to envision how people learn.  Collins visualized creativity and learning networks with mind maps to illustrate the relationship among concepts.

Tony Buzan, a British psychologist, popularized mind mapping in the 1960s.  He defined mind mapping as a powerful graphic technique that provides a universal key to unlocking the potential of the brain.”  He called the mind map “the Swiss Army knife of the brain.”

Example of goal setting mind map

Example of goal setting mind map

Buzan’s  mind maps have five components.  The main idea presented in the map’s central image. Essential supporting concepts radiate from the central image as branches represented by photos, sketches or key words.  Twigs sprouting off the relevant branches represented less important ideas that may increase in importance through multiple iterations of the mind map.

Mind mapping was not just a tool to be used by philosophers and psychologists. Frank Cascio, in his book about growing up with Michael Jackson as his friend and mentor, recalls that Michael was a “rare and inspired teacher” who taught him how to think visually using mind maps.

Jackson saw mind maps as a way to visualize his dreams and creative goals. On a bus trip through Scotland, Michael and Frank, then 16 years old, visualized places, people, images and “outsized fantasies” that inspired the two of them as they imagined their life goals.

Frank writes, “while we worked on our mind maps, he helped me see that the opportunities were endless.  There was no limit to what one could achieve.”  Frank remembers Michael telling him that “God-given talent only gets you so far in this world.” Frank realized through mind mapping that dreams really do come true. “He’d (Michael had) achieved success because he believed he would do so.”

Tony Buzan himself worked with Jackson in 2006 on mind mapping techniques when the musical genius lived in Bahrain.  Michael invited him to teach mind mapping to his three children. “The children were fast learners like their father, who was probably the best pupil I’ve ever had.”

Buzan remembers that Michael did not consider himself a genius — that status was reserved for Leonardo da Vinci, Charlie Chaplin and other exemplary figures he had encountered in his extensive reading.  Jackson considered mind mapping in teaching his children the power of visual thinking just as he had taught Frank Casio a decade earlier. “He saw himself as a student,”  recalled Buzan.  “Michael talked a lot about creativity … and loved a challenge.”

Creativity and challenges are at the core of design thinking, which emphasizes the essential role of visually representing ideas and makes use of mind mapping to create solutions for problems. (To review design thinking, read “What is Design Thinking?”)

A mind map is useful during design thinking spaces

A mind map is useful during design thinking spaces

During the ideation “space” of design thinking, drawing is often a means of sharing creative ideas and connecting dots that have never before been connected.  In his book Change by Design, Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, integrates mind mapping into his explanation of design thinking.

A mind map is a visual pathway of an overall vision that can be used by scholars, singers or students. It combines the visual and the verbal in an alternative presentation to generate, structure, and classify ideas to help with studying, organizing information, and solving problems.


Karen Collias

My name is Karen Collias and I founded Knowledge Without Borders™ to infuse creativity and innovation into the most salient educational issues affecting global contemporary society. I attribute my enthusiasm to cross the borders of traditional knowledge domains to the multi-disciplinary nature of my education and professional experience. The first in my family to go to college, I have a Ph.D. from Columbia University. My professional experience focuses on interdisciplinary research, teaching, and strategic thinking at a variety of institutions, including Princeton University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Department of State. I currently am crossing borders to write about creativity and innovation in education and philanthropy.



  • Khumbulele November 12, at 22:40

    Mind Mapping Creative Problem Solving Posted on November 22, 2011 by jeanettegibson Most pepole are either. Analytical thinkers. Or highly imaginative. And creative. Mind mapping bridges the gap. Awakening whole-brain. And holistic thinking. A mind map is a diagram. Used to represent words. Ideas. Tasks. Or other items. Linked to. And arranged. Around a central key word. Or concept. Use imagery. Color. And association. And arrange second level elements intuitively. Allow your thoughts. To come freely. Jump about the mind map. As thoughts. And ideas occur. Connect. Generate. Visualize. Structure. Classify. Organize. And solve problems. Make it beautiful. Artistic. Colorful. Imaginative. And dimensional. With a little humor. Exaggeration. And even a touch of absurdity. Create by Mind Map Art


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