Tony Buzan invented a memory boosting technique that millions of people are using, including Al Gore and Asian ministers. Melissa Sleiman meets the original 'mind mapper'.
Tony Buzan looks like he just walked out of a Japanese cartoon. He has an extremely friendly, smiling face that one can only find on tv, making his dark blue suit and pink tie look a bit misplaced under it. But what is perhaps the strangest sight, is that the 66-year-old is drawing images and words with coloured pens instead of neatly writing his appointments in an agenda.
He keeps track of his business by mind mapping, a memory improvement technique that he invented half a century ago. It's supposed to capture ideas by drawing colourful diagrams with words, rather than taking down notes. It's supposed to stimulate the brain to memorise things more easily.
Buzan has written around a hundred books about it, some of them published by BBC Press, and is rumoured to be making over US$150 million yearly. His fees for a program outside of the UK are 15,000 GBP (US$23.000) per day, 10,000 GBP for half a day. The hirer will also have to cover the travel, hotel, and food costs for him and his partner.
And he is in demand. About 200 million people are mind mapping worldwide, Buzan claims. Al Gore has said he does it and another disciple is Vicente Fox, former President of Mexico. "He actually created his political party and won the elections with mind maps," Buzan points out to me rather proudly.
The method was invented when Buzan was in school and university. "I developed it because my marks were going down," he explains. "When it came to exam time, I couldn't remember what was written in my hundreds of pages of notes. Nothing stood out from the blue words. So I started to go through my notes, taking out the key ideas.
"My marks became much better. Those key words were only 10 percent of all my notes, so I had been wasting 90 percent of my time. Also, I concluded that lining the more important things in red made my memory stronger. That's colour coding. It helped me to make associations and connections." Those findings became the basis of his mind maps.
"But don't they...," I try to interrupt him , as we're already ten minutes into the interview and Buzan tells me to shush whenever I express doubts about the technique. "No they don't," he quickly replies. He bursts out laughing. I wonder whether he's stuck-up or simply tired of the amount of times he's had to invalidate criticism. After all, the processes of the brain are extremely complicated.
Still, I manage to ask a question about regular note-taking. Isn't that better when you need to memorise a lot of details? His answer is in the negative. "Normal note-taking damages and interferes with the brains processes," responds Buzan. "If I ask you to tell me ten sentences of ten words or more that you have written, spoken, read or heard in the last ten years of your life, could you?"
I hesitate. I try to remember an article I've recently written, but Buzan interrupts my thought process. "Even as a journalist, you'd probably get the sentences wrong. Your brain doesn't use sentences to remember. It uses images." I nod, and scribble down his quotes. "Linear notes are brain pollution, making the brain malfunction," he emphasises, with a disapproving look on his face as he looks at my notebook.He continues to explain how mind mapping even worked on "Britain's worst six children, from the worst class in the bottom school." It was filmed for the BBC tv programme ‘In Search of Genius'. The kids were 10 years old and due to be expelled from school within six weeks.
"They were wildly delinquent," recalls Buzan. "Swearing at teachers, they fought in the playground, slammed doors, walked out of classes. But they listened to me. I asked them to write down their problems and concluded they had pretty depressing lives. So I said: ‘I can make all your dreams come true by using your brain. Now go outside. You get five minutes to get your bum on that seat if you want it.' Everyone came back in."
He gave the kids quizzes and memory tests, which they all failed. So he offered to "improve their stupidity" by explaining them how the brain works, catching their attention using a mind map with colours. The class did a second memory test and everyone got a 100 percent grade. "Suddenly, for the first time in their lives, they thought: maybe I'm intelligent."
Buzan's success as a teacher caused him to become a frequent guest at schools and to even help out education ministries in Asia. Singapore led the initiative, starting 15 years ago. "I've taught five thousand of their teachers," says Buzan. "The Ministry of Education now communicates in mind maps to the teachers."
The same thing happened in Malaysia. Buzan was sponsored by Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, former Prime Minister of the country and also a mind mapper. The Chinese government followed suit and now publishes his books. The Japanese are also getting into it, says Buzan and shows me an issue of a Japanese magazine. He flips over page after page full of mind maps.
And that's not all. Buzan is looking to expand his business into the Middle East. He's working together with Dubai-based company Right Selection to organise trainings for business companies and workshops in Wellington International School and Jumeirah English Speaking School.
Furthermore, a partnership with Xerox in the region will help schools and the health industry become more colourful. The plan involves putting up coloured signs or using colour in their documentation. "Xerox poured in millions of dollars in research about it," says Buzan. He adds that it's widely known that the brain looks for colour.
"One of the globally exposed torture systems is called ‘white torture,' which is colourless torture. Using that method, they don't break bones anymore. They deprive their victims of colour. When you do that, the brain goes mad."
Along the way, Buzan's also founded the World Memory Championships (WMC). This year, Bahrain hosted the seventeenth edition of the event. The battle is held yearly to determine who has the most powerful memory in the world. Contestants were called upon to memorise hundreds of historical dates and random words as well as matching long lists of names with faces.
The winner of the seventeenth edition this year is Ben Pridmore, a 32-year-old financial analyst from the UK and born with a "memory slightly above average at best," he'd told me earlier. He's now trained himself for hours at a time to memorise a shuffled pack of cards in 24.68 seconds, memorise 27 packs of cards in one hour and 4140 binary digits in thirty minutes.But, surprisingly enough, not by using Buzan's method. "Mind mapping is only tangentially related to memory, and not something that is useful for competitions," he'd explained to me. "I don't have a reason to use it in real life either." However, he did agree that using images and colours helps the memory.
"There are three basic principles of remembering things effectively: pictures, interest and association. So if you need to remember a sequence of things, think of a story associating the images together. Imagine yourself pouring a bottle of milk over a loaf of bread if you want to buy a bread and milk. That way, when you remember one thing, you'll remember the other. In competitions, I have a mental image for each combination of numbers or cards and create a strange and funny story with that."
The mind map method might not lead up to winning the WMC, but there are many other areas in which Buzan expects it will. Sports, for example - Buzan is also involved in training athletes who will participate in the London Olympic Games in 2012.
"Coaches have begun to realize that athletic sport is primarily mental," he explains. "Let me give you a very gross example. There are stories from all over the world of how small, untrained, unfit mothers see their baby under a car. The only way to save the baby is to lift the car." A dramatic pause. "And they lift it. The brain totally directs the body to do that."
So how do you train an athlete, I ask. By putting babies in danger? He laughs. "No, you tap into what a swimmer is thinking about for six hours, six days a week, fifty weeks a year, for four years... If they're not thinking correctly, their swimming will disintegrate. I make them think about images of success and the best swimmer they've ever seen. I tell them: ‘Watch videos of Thorpe and Phelps. Pump those videos into your body as you go up and down.' The brain sculpts the body."
Because of the London Olympics coaching deal, Buzan is being scheduled into 2012. Is it full? "No. It could be, but I don't allow that. I have committed myself to work with certain governments for periods of time every year."
He pretends to throw a ball at me. "I'm gonna throw it now," he warns me. I pretend to catch it. "See?," he then says. "All you did was imagine and your body sat up. The brain does it and the body obeys."
But Buzan doesn't need to convince me; he's already convinced millions of people into buying his books. He's even created software out of his idea called iMindMap, which allows computers to mind map things.
Buzan, however, sticks to doing it the old-fashioned way. As he looks at a radio illustrating his next interview appointment, he tells me I definitely have to start doing it too. "Mind mapping is changing the way people think," he says with a smile.