Study Tip: Mind Maps

Here's a fun and powerful study tip that follows the natural patterns of your brain. It's a great way to make sense out of complex, confusing topics.

If you have to write a research paper or do a project for one of your classes, this is a good way to start.

This study tip is called Mind Mapping. Here's how it works.

Pick a topic you want to learn about in more depth, or something you need to write about. I'm using genetics as an example, but you can replace this with any topic and your mind map will work the same way.

Write “genetics” at the top of a page. Then brainstorm everything you know about genetics. Write sentences, individual words or terms, random facts, and so on.

At the beginning you'll probably of ideas faster than you can write them. As you use up everything off the top of your head, it will take longer to add new terms. When it takes you more than a minute of thinking just to come up with one new item, you're ready for the next step.

On a fresh sheet of paper, write “Genetics” in the center of the page and draw a circle around it. This page is going to be your mind map.

Now go back to your brainstorming list and pick the most broad, important terms that fit under genetics. Put these down around the word “genetics” and draw a line from genetics to each of these terms. For example, you may write “DNA” “Mendel,” and so on. These are your main terms.

Next, pick one of your main terms. Go back to your brainstorming page and find all the words, sentences and facts that are related to that term. Add them to your mind map, drawing lines from each one to the related main term. Continue this with the other terms.

Repeat this process until you've placed everything from your brainstorm list into your mind map.

Right away, you'll have a detailed outline of your topic. Each of your main terms becomes a paragraph or a chapter, and the connected ideas become sentences. (In fact, some of the software listed on the link below will turn your mind map into an outline, or even make it into a PowerPoint for you.) If you're doing this for a class project or writing assignment, you're halfway there already!

But that's not all.

This study tip will help you learn in several ways.

First, you're reviewing and consolidating what you already know about genetics. As you build your mind map, you'll think of additional concepts that you forgot to put on your initial brainstorm.

You'll also notice gaps in your learning. Maybe you have a lot of facts and terms tied in with Mendel, but little or nothing related to DNA. This process reveals what you need to study, or where you might want to specialize.

A mind map also helps develop schema. Schema is your mind's method of organizing new information and connecting it to things you already know. Schema is what makes it possible for an adult to study Shakespeare or physics better than most children, even though a five-year-old is capable of learning much faster.

Finally, mind-mapping works in sync with the natural development of the brain.

One of the main features of your brain is the number of synapses. A synapse is basically a connection between one neuron (a type of brain cell) and another. Every thought and every physical action causes millions of these neurons to “fire” and electrical current and signal each other in a specific pattern.

When you “learn” something, you set up a special series of connections, or synapses.

As a child grows towards maturity, a huge number of synapses are formed in a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, or PFC. The prefrontal cortex  is a region of your brain running roughly from your forehead up to the top front of your head.

As a teenager, your brain goes through an intense “synaptic pruning” in the prefrontal cortex. A lot of synapses are broken down and a few are strengthened. The PFC of a 12-year-old looks like a dense, tangled thicket. In contrast, the 25-year-old brain is like a well-pruned tree.

Mind mapping helps with this pruning, and it may also help you discover connections and relationships you hadn't understood before.

Use mind maps whenever you feel overwhelmed with information, whenever you have to organize your thoughts to write a paper or do a project, or anytime you're trying to master a new subject.

Resources

If you don't like old-fashioned pencil and paper, there are some good mind-mapping apps and software out there. Some of it is free. Here are my three favorites:

Inspiration: http://www.inspiration.com/ (A lot of teachers use this one. It costs about $10 US but it's worth it.)

Freemind: http://freemind.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Download (Freemind takes a few steps to download and install, but it's free)

iThoughts HD: http://www.ithoughts.co.uk/iThoughtsHD/Welcome.html (Specifically for iPad, costs about $10 US)

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