A Word and a Thousand Pictures

Yesterday, 25 May 2011, Tony Buzan, the inventor of Mind Map, was at a Crossword bookshop in Bangalore. He spoke brilliantly on how to use mind mapping technique to improve thinking by associating and organizing thoughts as images, resulting in effective learning and better memory.

For a few years, I have been using mind map to organize my thoughts, plan some activities, outline a book, summarise my learning, etc. I have suggested my friends to try it out. I ask students in schools to summarise  lessons using mind map. Sometimes I also use the tool to teach some topics. The two freeware tools I use are Free-Mind from Source Forge and X-Mind from the company of the same name. Both are simple, intuitive tools and serve my purpose well.

Through his talk, Tony Buzan emphasized that thinking through pictures is the most effective way. He said ‘banana’ and demonstrated that image of banana flashed in the minds of everyone in the audience, with associated color, shape, and taste. He declared that in all the 70 countries that he has travelled, when he would say ‘banana,’ people would think identically. Thinking does not require language, but images and associations, he claimed.

Drawing pictures, imagining in terms of pictures, requires a physical model. It is at concrete level. The other kind of thinking is abstract.

Tony Buzan himself was thinking aloud about thinking – meta-thinking – at abstract level. He did not use any pictures or images, no paper, no colors, and no projections on screen. He did not need them and the audience did not miss them. They were able to think along with him without the aids about which he advocated.

I wonder how the people’s brains would have reacted if Tony Buzan was to say ‘bank account’ or ‘telephone call.’ There is no physical model to represent these abstractions. They are conceptual entities and not physical entities. Like a banana has properties like color, shape, taste, and weight; a telephone call has caller, receiver, start date & time, and end date & time. These are necessary for the exchange to record the call data and charge the user. These data are recorded in a computer, which most of us do not know and do not need know how. We cannot create an image of the telephone call representing these core properties – certainly not a ubiquitous image that everyone understands.

Our mind uses abstraction to understand concepts. There is no physical entity called “justice” and “freedom,” the foundations of a cultured society. Use of metaphors requires abstract thinking. If we say “Lala Lajpat Rai was Lion of Punjab” we do not imagine an endangered wild animal.

One class of nouns is abstract. Our five senses cannot detect this group of nouns. We cannot see them, hear them, smell them, taste them, or feel them. Therefore, a young child cannot think abstract – she can think of only what she can experience with her senses. Capability of abstract thinking grows with age – ascending the staircase of abstraction. Some mentally challenged children cannot think abstract; their thinking is limited to concrete physical entities.

Abstract thinking is higher order thinking. Questions in competitive examinations stress on the capability of abstract thinking of the candidates. Impaired abstract thinking is often associated with reduced foresight, judgment, insight, reasoning, creativity, problem solving, and mental flexibility.

Mosby’s Medical Dictionary defines abstract thinking as “the final, most complex stage in the development of cognitive thinking, in which thought is characterized by adaptability, flexibility, and the use of concepts and generalizations. Problem solving is accomplished by drawing logical conclusions from a set of observations, such as making hypotheses and testing them. This type of thinking is developed by 12 to 15 years of age, usually after some degree of education. In psychiatry, many disorders are characterized by the inability to think abstractly.”

American Heritage Dictionary states, “abstract thinking: Thinking characterized by the ability to use concepts and to make and understand generalizations, such as of the properties or pattern shared by a variety of specific items or events”

If weI tell children “get only fruits to eat during short break,” the term ‘fruits’ has combined properties shared by different kinds of fruits. The child has freedom to bring any fruit. This is more liberating than telling specifically to bring only banana or orange. In some cases, being very concrete is robbing freedom and flexibility.

Tony Buzan told that Da Vinci made his notes in pictures. Most of my favorite authors have not used diagrams to drive home the concepts they discussed. Chinese pictographic writing is less practical and less popular than languages written based on alphabets. Pictographs can be good memory aids, can complement a matured language, but cannot replace a language as thinking tool or to express thoughts completely and unambiguously.

Numbers are abstract. Very young children learn to add and subtract numbers using their (concrete) fingers; but, they grow out of it and develop abstract thinking. Here we move from concrete to abstract thinking. Abstract mathematics is used in research, design and development; abstract thoughts are applied and concretised. We have to teach children how to think concrete with images and associations and also like Socrates and Plato teach pupils how to think abstractly.

If we say “vehicles on the road,” it is equivalent to drawing trucks, buses, cars, two-wheelers and bullock-carts. One word is equal to thousand pictures.


About pgbhat

A retired Naval Officer and an educationist. Has experience with software industry. A guest faculty at different institutes and a corporate trainer with software development companies.
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3 Responses to A Word and a Thousand Pictures

  1. Krishna says:

    I have observed – ironically abstraction and ‘simplified’ thinking, comes only with experience… a s/w developer, may not be able to explain a design to a lay man, however an experienced Architect will be able to easily articulate it and even draw parallels to other real-life examples

    We seem to be paying more and more as people get to think simpler and simpler 🙂


  2. kartik Hosanagar says:

    I have not tried or used mind maps so perhaps my views are irrelevant. But I agree with your point that there are a number of important abstract ideas and thoughts that we come up and many of these are hard to convey using images and maps. At the same time, I agree that it can serve as a useful mnemonic aid when it’s easy to creat such maps and it can also be an effective means of communication. In fact, I just read a pictorial representation of a research paper earlier today and it ws very effective in communicating complex ideas http://worrydream.com/ScientificCommunicationAsSequentialArt/

    I suspect the key open question is a framework to determine what kinds of ideas are best conveyed by mind maps and what kinds are perhaps not best communicated using these tools


    • pgbhat says:

      Thank your for your views, Krishna and Kartik.

      When learned and reputed people advocate their ideas, tools, and techniques with missionary zeal as ultimate solutions for all the situations and needs, people can be misled. We have to guard against magic solutions and remember the importance of self-effort in learning, applying and practicing the concepts prgmatically.


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