Mind maps—the power of lateral thinking for doctors

There's one specific trait that almost every genius has. Find out what it is and how you can use mind-maps to help you develop it!

Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
6th Oct 2018 • 6m read

Peter Diamandis is on a mission to make us immortal.

The engineer and physician (yes, both!) happens to also be an entrepreneur and author who reckons that immortality isn’t a question of if, but when. As the cofounder and vice-chairman of Human Longevity Inc. (HLI), a genomics and cell-based therapy diagnostic and therapeutic company focused on extending the healthy human lifespan, he isn't afraid to look beyond the constraints of today to reimagine what could be tomorrow. Think of that as you like, but I’d call it a pretty audacious goal!

According to Dr. Diamandis’s LinkedIn profile, his personal motto is—the best way to predict the future is to create it yourself.

And he takes that pretty seriously. He’s also the founder of Singularity University (an institution based in Silicon Valley that studies exponentially growing technologies) and of Planetary Resources (a company designing spacecrafts to enable the detection and mining of asteroids for precious materials).

This guy is clearly very talented and a modern-day polymath. Most people couldn’t dream of achieving, in a lifetime, what he achieves in a much, much shorter span. But there’s one underlying quality that enables him to think the way he does—a quality we can all nurture.

That quality is lateral thinking.

Lateral thinking—new connections between old ideas

Creative people need time to just sit around and do nothing.— Austin Kleon

It’s easy to look at geniuses and believe that their level of ingenuity is unattainable. Truth is, most "geniuses" are simply people who have made the decision to look at possibilities that no one else has considered.—Click to Tweet

In their book, Wired to Create, Carolyn Gregoire and Scott Kauffman explore the messy minds of the creative geniuses who’ve shaped our world; people like Picasso and Thomas Edison. They suggest that genius is underlined by a tendency toward creativity and expressed through an openness to experience. This openness personality trait tends to manifest in three different ways—intellectual engagement (searching for truth, ideas, and enjoyment in problem-solving), affective engagement (exploring the depths of human emotions and gut feelings), and aesthetic engagement (exploring fantasy and art). By accumulating these different experiences, the mind can then begin to create connections between them and generate new, unexplored ideas.

But we often live our lives relying on the executive system within our brains; our logical, structured, and ordered thinking. The magic happens when we let our minds wander, when we allow our default-mode networks to take over and break away from the outside world to explore our own imaginations.

This is the aim of lateral thinking—to nudge our brains out of our usual ways of thinking so that they have the space to look at the world with fresh perspectives. A fresh perspective gives your mind the opportunity to build new connections between seemingly disparate ideas. All you really need for this to happen is an environment that will free up your mind to engage in thought patterns that it wouldn’t normally have the time or space to explore. We can all relate to the feeling of being more creative when we travel. This is because we’ve been shunted out of our usual environments and stress triggers and so our brains are given the opportunity to think freely. Of course, travelling every time we want to be creative isn’t feasible, but (thankfully) creating a micro-travel experience in your own environment is possible.

The physical space around you is less critical to this process than the space you create that allows your mind to go wandering. One powerful space for this to happen is called a mind map. In very simple terms, a mind map is a physical representation of the way our minds naturally work. From one central idea, associated thoughts and ideas branch off and take on a life of their own. In his bestseller, The Mind Map Book, Tony Buzan suggests that normal, linear note-taking will put you into a semi-hypnotic trance, while mind mapping will greatly enhance your left- and right-brain cognitive skills. He recommends its use for a variety of purposes—studying, note-taking, pros-and-cons lists, thinking about complicated issues, and the list goes on.

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The power of a mind map should be obvious since it allows us to organize information in a visual way, which mimics the way our brains naturally work. This generally enhances our ability to remember that information. But it also has an unexpected benefit—it helps us to organize information in such a way that drawing physical connections (in the form of a line) between seemingly unrelated ideas becomes not only possible, but encouraged. You'll want to explore new ideas and possibilities simply because you can.

The mind map effectively becomes a proxy for travel (minus the pina coladas). It engulfs you in its bubble and gives you the mental freedom to draw out new possibilities without the baggage of prior assumptions and preconceived ideas. Building new links and connections becomes an engaging and rewarding experience. It takes the burden of thinking outside the box, away from your poor exhausted brain, and drops it squarely onto a seductive piece of blank paper.

But there is a caveat. The micro-travel experience doesn’t happen automatically. For mind maps to work effectively, there are a few rules you need to follow (ironically) and I would highly recommend that you read Buzan’s book to fully grasp them.

But in a nutshell, the first (and possibly most) important rule is this—just give in! Don’t question yourself or the sanity of your ideas. Transformative learning happens at the intersection between open minds and new possibilities. For the experience to reshape your thought patterns, you need to allow it.

Let me give you an example. Suppose I want to update my understanding of cardiac CT. I might start by completing a cardiac CT course and filling out the most important points on my new mind map. But I want to explore this further. Over a period of a few days, I’ll read various resources and fill in my mind map, as I go along, with information and insights that speak to me. Once I’ve built a robust mind map on the topic, I might spend an afternoon studying the map and looking for gaps in my understanding or areas that need fleshing out. At that point, something interesting might start happening. Since all of the information that I've collected is easily accessible and presented in a visually appealing way, I may naturally begin to see connections and unexplored links between the various components within the mind map. These new links may then take my understanding and appreciation of the topic to a whole new level and open up perspectives that I would likely never, otherwise, access.

How to start mind mapping

For someone who’s never created a mind map before, the prospect may seem daunting. Though mind mapping is most often used to organize notes, the power of a mind map manifests best when you use it to explore new ideas by letting your mind go and allowing associations about one central topic come to you.

Here’s a simple exercise to get you started:

  1. Choose a topic that you’re interested in and write it down in the middle of a piece of paper. For this exercise, let’s use happiness as an example.
  2. Create the first mind map layer. Using one line shooting off from the central word to represent each thought that comes to you, jot down any words or associations that come to you when you think of the word happiness. Don’t judge yourself or question what comes to you—just flow with it! Aim for at least 25–30 words. That’s usually how long it takes before you stop questioning yourself and just write down whatever comes to mind.
  3. Do the same exercise for each of the first layer items. For example, if sun was one of your first layer items associated with happiness, then jot down a few thoughts that come to mind when you think of sun, and so on.

This may sound like a pointless exercise, but it’s amazing what it can do for your lateral thinking skills. We spend most of our days filtering our thoughts and ideas through our own inner critics, constantly asking ourselves, Is this good enough? An exercise like this forces our brains to recalibrate and shake up unhelpful thought patterns. Do this often and you may find that your mini brain-dusting trips will become decent stand-ins for the real thing!

Have you tried mind mapping before? Did it help you? Share your thoughts below!