Mapping the Mind (Consumer Understanding #11)

Mar 20 2011

Pulling the trigger

Have you ever had the experience that something was on the ‘tip of your tongue’ but you couldn’t quite remember?  That’s likely because you know the information exists, but you can’t quite find the right connection to trigger its recall.  That’s why such memories sometimes come back later when triggered by a more relevant (but often random) stimulus.

Our brains and memories do not work in a linear fashion.  Although when we talk or write, we put together ideas in sentences or lists, which are linear.  In business this is also true, especially with the tyranny of powerpoint.

Do you remember my associate?

Our memory (and particularly our long term memory) works by association.  That is, we connect new information to existing memories, and to the experience, emotions and context that they are associated with.  So then when we try to recall information, we need a stimulus which triggers the right experience, emotions and context or which has a direct connection with the memory.

However, this is not the way our brains really work.  They are much more creative and multi-dimensional than this, and can take in information which is non-linear.  Just think of the complexity of the sense information that comes into your brain every second, and especially the richness of visual information.

Pictures are mentally processed far more quickly than words or sentences, because our brains can interpret it holistically, and extract any relevant meaning or message almost instantaneously.

There’s more to bananas than bananas

What comes into your mind when someone mentions the word ‘banana’?  A smell, a taste, a picture, a sound or something else?  There are multiple associations which immediately flood through your mind which in turn trigger other associations, moving on and on through a chain of connections.

When I wrote down what comes into my head there was a banana fruit, the colour of banana, an irritating jingle from a TV show I watched as a child (one banana, two banana, three banana, four), and the shop Banana Republic (I had walked past one the previous day).  These in turn triggered the taste of banoffee pie, another tune from my younger days, the Banana Splits show and a banana split dessert and a banana tree (which led me to thinking of Banyan trees).  While this is a demonstration of some of my own very specific experiences (some might say downright weird), I am sure everyone else would come up with a similarly idiosyncratic jumble of associations all stemming from a unique set of life events.

Words are not enough

Most of these associations can be verbalised, but they are not themselves words but experiences and sensations (often complex ones too, which are difficult to put in simple words).  Neither are they linear.  If you want to remember more, it is important to write down less and focus only on key ideas and themes and how they connect to each other.

I use mind maps, along with many others, to help me to capture the richness of my memories around a specific topic, or to help me recall the important points on a phone call or during a meeting.  Mind maps allow us to do this and are based on how our minds work.  Rather than write down lists or sentences, we actually remember much more if we keep a record of key associations, allowing us to focus on what is important and how ideas are related.

Like my own map, they are built up stage by stage.  You can think of it as ‘radiant thinking’ and it’s much more natural than bullet points!

We think in maps

Tony Buzan has started a whole industry around mind maps (one of his key books is referenced below), and there seems to be have been a recent resurgence in business books around the use of ‘visual thinking’ (Dan Roam’s is one of the best I have read about using pictures as problem solving and creative tools).  The reality is that these approaches are all based on the way we think naturally and, with a little practice, we can all make use of visual tools to enhance memory, creativity and problem solving (even when you are a terrible artist like me).

Memories are easily triggered with right cue, but can remain on the tip of the tongue if given the wrong stimulus.  Our minds are not linear, but work in maps, based on associations (back to analogy and metaphor), between ideas.  For researchers to ‘extract‘ someone’s associations with a brand, product or service, they need to think more flexibly than a list of questions and answers, and think hard about the right trigger.  And marketers should focus on building strong networks of relevant connections.


Mapping the Mind by Rita Carter (2010)

The Mind Map Book: How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximise Your Brain’s Unlocked Potential by Tony Buzan & Barry Buzan (1996)

The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures by Dan Roam (2009)

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