From Einstein’s highly creative thought experiments to Leonardo da Vinci’s richly illustrated notebooks, renowned geniuses have discovered that expressing ideas visually is very powerful indeed.
Creativity expert Michael Gelb has devoted an entire book to unraveling the key principles that Leonardo da Vinci followed in his richly creative life – How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci – and has translated them into practical steps that we can use today to be more creative. One of these principles, naturally, is da Vinci’s proclivity for visual thinking. In this fascinating book, Gelb points out that the notetaking styles of many of history’s greatest brains – such as Charles Darwin, Michelangelo, Mark Twain and Leonardo da Vinci – feature a branching, organic structure compliment by lots of sketches, creative doodles and keywords. This, in turn, leads the author into an interesting discussion of mind mapping and the advantages that it has over hierarchical outlining:
“Although valuable as a tool for presenting ideas and a formal, orderly fashion, outlining is useful only after the real thinking has been done. If you try to generate your ideas by outlining, you’ll find that it slows you down and stifles your freedom of thought. It is just plain illogical to try to organize your ideas before you generate them.
Moreover, outlining and other linear notetaking systems exclude your brain’s capacity for color, dimension, synthesis, rhythm and image. By imposing one color and one form, outlining guarantees monotony. Outlining uses only half your mind, and a half a mind is a terrible thing to waste.
Mind mapping frees you from the tyranny of premature organization, which stifles your generation of ideas. Mind mapping liberates your conceptual powers by balancing generation and organization while encouraging the full range of mental expression.”
I tend to agree with Gelb’s assessment of outlining. On paper, it suffers from the same limitations as linear notetaking – namely, once you have jotted down some ideas on paper, it’s nearly impossible to move them around into different configurations. In software form, outliners gain the ability to move topics and subtopics around, and expand and collapse sections of the hierarchy of topics. But it still doesn’t stimulate the brain like a combination of words and pictures do. Also, mind mapping enables you to literally see “the forest” (an overview) and “the trees” (details) in a single view – in other words, a mind map gives you a better sense of how all of the topics and subtopics are related to each other. That, in turn, makes mind mapping more generative. In other words, seeing the topics and their relationships often spurs additional ideas – which rarely occurs when outlining.
Gelb goes on to say that da Vinci urged scientists and artists to go straight to nature in their search for knowledge and understanding. Many living things, such as trees and plants, take on mindmap-like forms, expanding in all directions from their trunks or stems. Likewise, the way your brain is structured resembles a rich, interconnected network. A mind map then, “is a graphic expression of those natural patterns of the brain.”
So if you feel at home expressing your ideas visually, now you know that you’re in great company!