Brainstorming Mind Mapping and Other Creative Confusions

In my previous post on Bubble Diagrams and Mind Mapping I mentioned the confusion between these thinking tools.

Well another common confusion I often encounter is that Mind Mapping is described as “brainstorming”.

Now whilst it can be used for brainstorming, Mind Mapping has so many other applications as well so defining it in such a restrictive way is rather limiting.

How To Use Mind Maps for Brainstorming

So what I want to do in this post is give you some idea how you can use Mind Mapping for Brainstorming, creativity and the generation of ideas.

I am not going to get into pure definitions of creativity (and the closely linked issue of innovation) but suffice it to say that in the context I shall be using the term, we will focus on it being the generation of new ideas.

Brainstorming Mind Mapping Creativity generating ideasNow ideas do not simply appear out of thin air.

In general terms an existing idea will trigger off a new idea.

Creativity is about taking these ideas and organising them in a new and unique way.

Now the brain generates ideas all the time based on the stimulus it has and the associations it makes.

In principle the brain organises its ideas through association and it does that in one of two ways.

First of all if I give you an idea to think about, it will be the trigger for these two processes.

I will break them down individually but left to its own devices the brain will do both simultaneously.

In a deliberate creative processes you can force the brain to do either but naturally it will take whichever course it chooses.

So what are those two processes?

One Thing Leads To Another…

This first mechanism is where one idea triggers another, which in turn triggers another and that one then triggers a third idea and so on.

Now whilst the first idea and the second idea will be related by whatever association they have between them (and that can be absolutely anything), the first idea and the third idea will only be related by their common link to the second idea and then when you get to the fourth idea it will have absolutely no association with the first idea in terms of the context of this information flow.

Boy that sounds complicated.

Let’s see if a picture works here.

mind mapping and brainstorming how the brain thinks in chains

So in this example with a starting point of “Water” this triggers the idea “Tap” and that in turn stimulates the idea “Plumber” which triggers “Van” and so on.

Now I must stress these are my associations and whilst you might see the connections between each adjacent word, it does not matter if you don’t because this is a reflections of the associations that take place in my mind.

And again this association chain is not fixed because on a different day with the same starting word, it is likely I will come up with a different set of associations.

So the principle is that one idea triggers another and is the mechanism that is responsible for you saying things like “Oooh that reminds me” (please delete the  “Oooh” and replace it with your exclamation of choice).

So what is the other way the brain the processes and generates association?

We Are All Related…

If we start with an idea then as before we will come up with a second idea.

But instead of letting this second idea trigger a third idea we go back to idea #1 and see what other ideas it triggers and we keep repeating that process.

Mmmm, time for another diagram…


So now the idea water triggers off a bunch of other ideas but all related back to water.

This is the other way that the brain processes association.

Now I have described these two processes in isolation but in reality the mind will crackle and sizzle and can and will make hundreds of not thousands of different associations across a combination of these two mechanisms from a particular starting point.

Now if we combine these two together, we end up with a structure of this form:


You know that looks remarkably like a Mind Map!

So when someone says to you “Mind Mapping is great because it represents on paper how the mind thinks” – this is exactly what they mean (though chances are they won’t know that).

How to Use Mind Mapping For Brainstorming

As you can see from above, Mind Mapping is a graphical representation of the way we generate and organise our ideas in our brain.

So it is a great choice to use when we want to generate more ideas and here is how to use for that:

Step 1 – Take a piece of blank paper, turn it landscape (ideally) and write your starting idea in the centre of the page

Step 2 – when your first idea comes to mind, add it as a main branch to your fledgling mind map.

Step 3 – when your second and subsequent ideas come to mind either add them to an existing branch (if they are related) or start a new branch if there is no logical place to put your new idea.

Step 4 – keep repeating the above process until you have got more ideas than you think you will ever need.

You can add to this process by overlaying other creativity strategies to stimulate more ideas but you still capture them using Mind Mapping.

Doing this with hand drawn mapping works very well and if you use mind mapping software you have the added advantage of being able to quickly and easily sort and re-organise your ideas.

Try brainstorming, Mind Mapping your ever growing number of ideas as you do so and let me know how you get on.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Thomas August 3, 2009 at 12:03 am

    As an addition to the creativity techniques mentioned- here’s a mind mapping / brainstorming process I frequently use, mostly in connection with mind mapping software. It’s easy to adapt to the paper version.

    The basic idea is to transfer concepts from other areas to the problem at hand – it’s often called analogy technique.

    Step 1: I prepare two main branches, one called “concept areas” and another one called “ideas”.

    Step 2: I add a subbranch to “concept areas” with a broader area in which I have some basic knowledge, like “beekeeping”, “internet” or “orchestra”. The chosen area may or may not be close the the domain of your problem.

    Step 3: For the area I’ve chosen in step 2, I collect a number of major concepts. In the orchestra example, these could be “conductor”, “string instruments”, “wind instruments”, “sheet music” etc.

    Step 4: I try to transfer the concepts from step 3 to my problem. If I had to come up with ideas for an electric toothbrush, wind instruments might lead to the idea of using pressurized air to cleanse teeth, or string instruments might lead to the idea of an electric version of dental floss. I collect these ideas in subbranches of the “ideas” branch from step 1. I can also add other ideas that come spontaneously to my mind.
    These initial ideas can be worked out and assessed later.

    Step 5: I add new concept area as in step 2 and repeat the process until I feel I have collected enough ideas.

    If the “concept area” is close to the problem domain, then usually the transfer of ideas is easier, but the new ideas are less surprising.

  • John Stiles August 9, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    Hey Michael,

    Excellent article on using mind mapping for brainstorming. This is one of my favorite uses with mind mapping software. It makes the job of organizing and expanding ideas extremely quick.

    Thomas added some great insights with his comment above. There are many ways to use mind maps for brainstorming effectively, just let our imaginations run wild, then use mind maps to tame the ideas into something useful.

    John Stiles