I do my best thinking when I’m supposed to be doing other things—showering, grocery shopping, having dinner with a friend, etc. So long as I’m not intentionally trying to ideate, I have plenty of ideas. Especially, it seems, when I’m far away from the means to write them down. If only I could transcribe the chaotic (presumably brilliant) mind maps my brain generates directly to paper, I’m sure I’d have a Nobel Prize by now. Many times I’ve found myself walking home, repeating a sentence in my head over and over again, frantically trying not to forget my stroke of genius before I can commit it to something more permanent than my memory.
Image attribution: Anne Preble via Unsplash
I’ve come to terms with the fact that this is just how my mind works. But it turns out that cognitive scientists have known this for a long time.
Scientists’ Network Models of the Brain
Figuring out how we think, remember, make decisions, and take action has been the domain of cognitive scientists for decades. To break down this complex problem into manageable parts, let’s try starting from the smallest elements.
What does an individual unit of thought look like?
It’s a question that sounds simple, but is actually one of the more difficult to solve. While older theories assumed that there was one place in our brain—a single location—that stored the concept of a cat, for instance, newer theories suggest that the concept of cat is actually comprised of a network of activations in the brain, not just one single point. In a study from the International Journal of Psychophysiology, researchers explained that: “Network models are predicated on the basic tenet that cognitive representations consist of widely distributed networks of cortical neurons.” Here’s an example of what they mean by that:
The concept of cat doesn’t exist in any single place in the brain. When you think cat, your brain actually lights up many nodes (elements) in a network that encompass other concepts, such as fluffy, pointy ears, meow, scratch, animal, and internet memes. The connections between each of these nodes encapsulate how we understand the semantic relationship (meaning) between elements. For instance, fluffiness and pointed ears are physical characteristics, while meow and scratch are actions, and animal and internet memes are broader categories that cat belongs to. Scientists believe these complex networks are how we make sense of and act in our surroundings and thus how the brain thinks.
This deep interconnectivity helps explain why insights seem to pop into our heads at random moments (and also explains the thriving Reddit community r/showerthoughts). Think of these new ideas as new connections that are forged between nodes of thought in your brain. If you’re constantly trying to be creative in the same surroundings, with the same people, via the same methods, you’re simply going to activate the same patterns in your brain, which makes it harder to forge new connections between previously disparate nodes. So go outside, shop, shower—maybe try sitting on or under your desk rather than at it. (You can tell your boss I gave you permission for that last one.) Whatever you do, switch up the routine so your brain can explore new cognitive maps.
Using Mind Maps to Tap into Creative Thinking
Mind maps are aptly named. A mind map recreates (in a crude way) the structure and process of how the mind thinks and generates new ideas. Starting with a sensory stimulus, a pattern of activation unfolds organically in the mind, spreading through a whole network of concepts. On paper, a mind map begins with a word, concept, or image in the center of the page, and subsequent concepts that pop up are joined via lines to the initiating concept.
Rather than a top-down approach to brainstorming, which divides and categorizes ideas immediately, these maps help us run wild with our thoughts. As much as we’d like to believe our thinking is systematic and logical, it isn’t at all, and the more we can embrace the chaos of creativity, the more we can explore the breadth and depth of our mind’s ability to create new ideas.
I created this mind map using Coggle.
Mind Mapping Tips
It can be tempting to want to control the mind mapping process too early on. Try not to worry about the details like whether you’ll be able to fit enough core concepts around the central idea, whether you should be going one layer at a time, or whether all ideas about color should be grouped together. Keep it rough, and keep it moving. There’s plenty of time to refine your thoughts later.
You don’t have to go about mind mapping in the same way every time. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t. Try using a mind map to solve problems on your own, or bring the concept to meetings and have multiple people contribute. Try paper versions, blackboards, or mind mapping apps. Try black ink or a rainbow of colors. Try just words, or a combination of words and images. The more you vary the approach to mind mapping, the more you allow your brain novel ways to make new connections that generate ideas.
The power of mind mapping over creative thinking in your head is you’re able to retrace your steps and see exactly how an idea came together. This can give you better insights into the idea’s relevance and relation to your other thoughts. It can suggest the ways in which others may arrive at the same idea and, therefore, highlight the salient elements that should be considered in creating a new marketing campaign or embarking on a new project. It can also show you where one particular articulation of an idea has a tendency to lead down a path you’d like to avoid. Seeing how you arrived at an idea can be just as important as the idea itself.
5 Mind Mapping Apps to Try
Mind mapping apps can help you search and find concepts more easily, and you’ll never run out of space on the page. Check out these apps, and see which one might work best for you.
- Platform: Mac / Windows
- Good for: Collaborating with hundreds of people in large organizations
- Price: $179 for Mac / $349 for Windows
- Platform: Mac / Windows
- Good for: Including multimedia elements like video and links in your mind maps
- Price: Plus $79 / Pro $99
- Platform: web app
- Good for: Individuals and small teams looking for simplicity
- Price: free
- Platform: Mac / Windows
- Good for: Consistency, rich features, and flexibility
- Price: free
- Platform: Mac / iOS
- Good for: Mapping on the go (on a mobile device)
- Price: $20 for Mac / $10 for iOS
The next time you feel the need to jot down an idea, try making a mind map instead of point-form notes. You may find yourself exploring aspects of the idea you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise or creating a richer picture of how your ideas fit together.
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Featured image attribution: Steve Jurvetson
About the Author
BiographyMore Content by Nicola Brown