The Brain Chart

Some 50 years ago my son came to me for help. He was preparing for his A-level history examination. But his mind was so cluttered with facts that he feared he could never compress them into an examination answer. So I taught him how to use a brain chart. Nowadays he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquities, so I can safely say that it worked.

Brain charts, originally popularised by the author Tony Buzan, are very simple. You can use them for a subject you are studying, or perhaps a talk you are planning to give, or maybe just to explore an idea. So grab yourself a sheet of paper and a pencil, but do not write your subject at the top. Instead, write it in the centre and put a box around it. Then invite your mind to identify the main elements of interest and connect them to the subject with a line. Don’t try to do this in order of importance, just flash them in as they appear in your mind. You will of course be able to put in further main elements whenever they occur to you.

Then start, focusing at random, looking at one of the main elements, and begin to add sub-elements to it. And of course you can use sub-elements, and sub- sub-elements, as you wish. Do this speedily around your chart and don’t get stuck in detail. Time enough for that when your chart is sufficiently full. You will then be able to see all the major factors and you are in a position to get down to work.

Typically, a chart for this column gives me pointers to enough matter to write a book. Yet I only have 800 words, but I am now in a position to choose the right 800 words.

The same psychology is present in the best way to read a non-fiction book. We are accustomed with books to begin at the beginning and read through to the end. And this is usually appropriate for, say, a novel – but a non-fiction book requires a different treatment.

Start by reading the dust cover, front and back – with particular attention to any summary, and the authority of the writer. Read the writer’s introduction, glance through his footnotes and notice his bibliography. Then flip through the book, carefully noting any introduction to or summary of chapters, and get a real feel for how the overall subject is being tackled. Look at any visuals. If it is a fairly recent book, it’s worth looking for reviews on the internet, and Wikipedia may tell you more about the writer.

The value of approaching non-fiction this way lies in the fact that our understanding and our memory is much greater if we have an overall picture of the issue addressed – rather than discovering it page by page. In some instance, of course, you might decide that you shouldn’t bother to read the book at all. At least you will have saved a few otherwise wasted hours. But, more importantly, it means that you can understand what is being said from the very beginning, and in turn are more likely to remember the key issues. Documentaries on television are the same: if you know something about the subject you will understand and remember far more than the viewer with a tabula rasa.

Some time ago I received a letter from a university teacher. It referred to this column. The comment was: “It is the single most useful piece of advice I have seen on how to learn.” So perhaps in this period of A-level examinations, it may be worth repeating.

Then, I was writing about the process of revision. I discussed the difference between short-term and long-term memory. We use our short-term memory continuously but it has a problem: new information replaces this knowledge unless we have already transferred the important elements into our long-term memory. There are various ways of doing this but the first, and necessary, way is to give the long-term memory time. So the first rule is to study for no more than about 15 minutes, and then take a five-minute break. The information now has time to enter the long-term memory. Then, move on to the next 15 minutes.

Later, on the same day, we must revise what we have grasped. A fellow scholar asking you questions is an excellent way. In an interesting experiment, it was established that groups that revised their new learning on the same day remembered the information six times better than groups that had left revision to the following day. Indeed, the first groups remembered more information months later than the other groups remembered on the following day.

I am not a teacher, but I have taught such methodologies as an industrial trainer. I am now wondering how much time is devoted in schools to teaching scholars the tricks of the trade. May they all end up with FRSA after their names.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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13 Responses to The Brain Chart

  1. Nektarios says:


    I can see this being very useful for some folk. It reminds me so much of my own sermon preps the method outlined here seemed quite natural to me then.
    As for books, or my tools, as would call them, I always read what the cover and usually the preface.
    But after reading that I dived into the bibliography to see what books they had read.
    It often turned out that some wrote books on spiritual matters, but a couple of pages into the introduction, one could see they had not quite grasped the subject matter.

  2. ignatius says:

    I thought everyone over 50 did this kind of thing routinely anyway; its called impatience!

  3. galerimo says:

    Birak, Bunuru, Djeran, Makuru, Djilba and Kambarang.

    First my thanks for the striking image of a son asking for help from his Dad and receiving a creative and fun way of solving a problem with “A” levels. A powerful and beautiful image.

    There’s a lot in the blog. Aide-memoirs, tips and tricks; useful stuff to help reduce the burden of study or serious reading. And much to pick apart too!

    We seem to be unable to conceptualise – unless spatially.

    The boxes and lines and sequences to be set out on the page are there to help the mind connect with and sort ideas.

    Given that space and time are the same reality it seems we cant think of time unless in terms of space.

    Time needs spatial “before”, “HERE and now”, “after”, “start”, “over”, “end”, “wave”, “bends”, “last” etc. all spatial ways of conceptualizing time.

    Yet we don’t think spatially. Ideas come verbally or maybe mathematically or musically. But to understand and grasp ideas we have to represent them spatially. Set them “down”. Think them “out”. Order them.

    I take it that this is the reason for the brain map.

    Now critical thinking is very valuable to learn and perhaps more of a priority than brain mapping or spatially thinking. Because it generates and doesn’t just organises ideas.

    Hebrews, unlike Greeks, did not think of time spatially.

    The movements of the heavenly bodies are not measures of motion, for the Hebrew they excite different sensations in humans and animals.

    Among many things one remarkable fact about the brain is its capacity is unimaginably vast and unimaginably flexible. These “Maps” are miniscule as methods of using our brains to conceptualise.

    A bit like training a lion to jump through a hoop so people can marvel at lions!

    Given our brain capacity we do well to be aware of just how limited we are in our thinking even with the help of brain mapping and the like.

    I began here by naming the seasons of the year. The 60,000+ year old Aboriginal cultures in Australia name these six seasons. A different way of seeing and understanding the world.

    These seasons are not defined by lengths of time, months of the year or measured by any motion of the heavenly bodies.

    Rather, it is the flowering of many different plants, the hibernation of reptiles and the moulting of swans that serve as indicators that the seasons are changing.

    How brainy is that?

  4. John Candido says:

    It is a lovely technique that I have immediately put to use.

    Thank you, Quentin.

  5. John Nolan says:

    ‘Mind mapping’ is indeed something that is taught in schools. However, we all learn in different ways, and in my case this technique would not have been of much benefit. I had a very good short-term memory which meant that I could ‘cram’ at the last minute, allied to a concise and succint English style . I actually enjoyed exams.

    If one has to write three essays in three hours (as I had to do in my Finals at Durham and eleven years later in my MA exams at King’s College, London) there is no time for planning. You have to know what you are going to write and get on with it.

  6. Alasdair says:

    Anyone who has attended a secondary school since the 1980’s is familiar with mind-mapping or “spider diagrams). Teachers of many subjects usually ask to see pupils’ mind maps before letting them embark on large pieces of work. Some of the mind maps become beautiful pieces of colourful artwork in their own right.
    I use a diagram of the type to represent the complexities and interlinkages of my finances.

    • Alasdair says:

      There are downloadable offerings on the internet to help you construct mind-maps. The advantage of these is the ease of updating and amending.

      • milliganp says:

        I thought the original idea of mind maps was to overcome the problem, in creating lists, of over-structured thinking. As soon as you do it on a computer you engage the structured thinking aspect of the brain. Perhaps an app for a tablet computer with pen input would be good but anything that is just a glorified list isn’t alternate thinking.

      • Alasdair says:

        “As soon as you do it on a computer you engage the structured thinking aspect of the brain”
        Not necessarily. The computer programmes mainly facilitate the graphical aspect of the mind map. Because of the ease of updating and amending, it removes the inhibiting effect of making a mistake. Also the digital product can be easily transmitted so that one’s thoughts can be shared with others.

  7. Nektarios says:

    Memory training is useful in many areas of this life, but I wonder just how mind mapping as such operates in the spiritual life?

    • galerimo says:

      The term “anamnesis” is one that is used in Christian liturgies and theology when dealing with a calling to mind or remembering God’s actions.

      But it is different from a recollection or memory exercise as it is more of a process of activation.

      It brings immediate and intimate contact with what happened in the past.

      In the case of the Eucharist it initiates a presence with the death and resurrection of Jesus.

      The Jewish religious practice makes use of the same when “remembering” the covenants between God and God’s people.

      It involves actively engaging in the reality of an event which took place in the past but is now accessed immediately in its fullness through faith.

    • Alasdair says:

      Mind Mapping is not primarily a memory aid, although Quentin described how it could be used in that manner. It’s more about grouping ideas to enable the mind to move around in an organised way, defining and dealing with complex problems more efficiently, and sharing them with others. For this reason it is widely used at the early stages of engineering projects.
      Mind Maps are very useful for the type of student who tends to over-emphasise part of a subject at the expense of other parts. The mind map format will constantly bring them back to the core of the problem.
      As such it could indeed be applied to the spiritual life.
      There’s a nice little challenge for somebody!

  8. Nektarios says:


    Thank you for your latest post, useful.

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