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Vol. LXVI, No. 17
August 15, 2014

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Idea Mapping Can Help People Be More Creative, Nast Says

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Author Jamie Nast
Author Jamie Nast
Diagrams that use words, color and pictures to organize information can help people be more creative and plan more efficiently, said author Jamie Nast at a Deputy Director for Management Seminar in Masur Auditorium recently.

“Idea mapping is a powerful whole-brained visual thinking tool that enhances memory, note-taking skills, thought organization, planning, creativity and communication,” said Nast, co-founder of NastGroup.

Based on Roger Sperry’s “split brain” research, it was discovered that the brain’s left and right hemispheres function differently. The areas of dominance in the left hemisphere include: logic, listing, linearity, words, numbers, analysis and sequence. The areas of dominance in the right hemisphere include: color, rhythm, imagination, day dreaming, spatial and gestalt. Idea mapping leverages both sides of the brain. The combination of left plus right increases creativity.


An idea map has many benefits:

  • The color and imagery increases recall.
  • You can be both creative and analytical at the same time.
  • Idea maps give a big picture overview as well as the connections between information and various data points.
  • Idea maps can simplify and clarify large amounts of complex data.
  • You can capture thoughts as they come to mind rather than being trapped into chronological thinking.
idea map Nast provided an example of an idea map (above) and showed a slide of a hand-made map (right) during her talk at NIH.

Nast provided an example of an idea map (left) and showed a slide of a hand-made map (right) during her talk at NIH.

Photos: Bill Branson

All idea maps begin with an image (or word/image combination) at the center of a blank piece of paper. Every idea map includes lines that radiate outwards. Lines that connect to the central image are called “main branches” and associate directly to the central image. Lines that connect to main branches are called “sub-branches.”

Next, Nast shared some guidelines for creating an idea map. The map should feature both words and images. Main branch lines should be thicker than sub-branch lines.

Before beginning, it’s important to define the idea map’s purpose, Nast said. The purpose of the map will determine many things including:

  • It’s hard to know when to stop generating ideas if there’s no well-defined purpose. “If I define my purpose, it’s easier for me to see when I come to a stopping point,” she explained.
  • Whether or not to use color. If recall is an important part of the purpose, then use color. If capturing information quickly is a main purpose, then switching colors is a waste of time.
  • The level of detail included in the map.
  • Drawing the map by hand or using software.

Once the central image is well-defined, Nast advised writing down what comes to mind on the main branches and sub-branches. Based on individual associations, idea maps look different from person to person.

As an example, Nast asked the audience to write down the first 10 words that came to mind when they thought of the word “run.” Groups of four estimated how many times out of 10 all four of them would have an identical word (i.e. four-of-a-kind). On average, groups guessed there would be 3-4 occurrences. Because of the associative nature of our brain, there was only one group of four out of nearly 400 participants that had one four-of-a-kind. Most people think they have more in common with other people than they actually do, Nast ventured.

“Out of our own experiences, we have associations that we make,” she said. “I call these blooms of associations because it hubs around a single idea and those 10 words all somehow relate to the word ‘run’ in this case.”

People who haven’t created idea maps may have trouble at first. Determining what goes on the main branch and what goes on the sub-branch can be tricky, Nast noted.

“When I first started using idea maps, there was no hierarchy to my thinking. My ideas were all equal,” Nast said. “By training myself to think about the high level and then the sub ideas, I changed the way I think.”

Nast closed by challenging all in attendance to create their own idea maps.

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