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Tim Brown: Using Visual Thinking Is How Your Brain Naturally Simplifies Things

If you’re like most of us, when you look for a Table of Contents in a book, you’ll expect to find a series of Chapter headings and sub-titles. So it might come as a shock when you see that the Table of Contents in Tim Brown’s 2009 bestseller Change by Design is a two-page mind map (see picture).  You might dismiss this as just a gimmick or a cutesy way to illustrate the book.  If that’s your reaction, you’ve probably been conditioned to think mostly in words, and if so, you could be failing to use a big portion of your brain – typically referred to as your “right brain.”

The VISUAL Table of Contents from Change by Design, by Tim Brown

The VISUAL Table of Contents from Change by Design, by Tim Brown

Actually, science has now shown that 50% of the brain is dedicated to processing visual information (much, but not all, of it concentrated in the brain’s right hemisphere). The upshot is that you can be failing to use that part of your brain if you’re ignoring the many ways to think and communicate visually. It could even be the case that for the brain to function optimally, we need to think visually, use visual tools, and communicate in pictures when appropriate. So why is it still so difficult to buy into the idea that a Table of Contents could be portrayed visually?

Traditional Table of Contents from Change by Design, by Tim Brown

Traditional Table of Contents from Change by Design, by Tim Brown

Chalk that up to an education system that for the most part, until recently, shunned visual thinking as a serious method.

The tables are turning, to use a good, visual metaphor.

Much research now shows that the brain works best when both the left side (logic, words, reason) and the right side (visuals, the mind’s eye, feeling) have been developed and work well together.

Some of history’s greatest minds must have understood this intuitively. Einstein, a scientist and mathematician, claimed that his first love was actually music and said he couldn’t live without the joy of playing the violin daily. Thomas Jefferson, hailed for his way with words and the beauty of the Declaration of Independence, was also an avid artist who sketched and designed frequently.

“All children draw,” Tim Brown writes. “But somewhere in the course of becoming logical, verbally oriented adults, they unlearn this elemental skill.”

A growing chorus of experts are showing that training the right side of the brain is not just for the sake of the art itself. It’s the art that makes the whole brain better. Brown explains how it works for him: “When I use drawing to express an idea, I get different results than if I try to express it with words, and I usually get to them more quickly.”

The process of thinking visually can also help you tap into a part of yourself you might otherwise have missed if you only think in words. That’s the message of Sir Ken Robinson in his latest book, Finding Your Element, the sequel to his bestseller The Element, which is about discovering your unique talents and passions, and building your career around them. “To find your Element,” he says, “you may need to see yourself differently.” The key word there, actually, is “see.” It’s a visual process.

Mind Map of the book Finding Your Element, by Sir Ken Robinson

Mind Map of the book Finding Your Element, by Sir Ken Robinson

Robinson himself has become an advocate of mind mapping, the visual technique illustrated above by Tim Brown. “To create a mind map, you begin by putting the core idea or them in the center of the page and draw a circle around it. You then draw branching lines fro the center circle that represent related thoughts and ideas. You can have as many of these branching lines as you like and each of them may divide into two or more other lines of thought.” As an example, Sir Ken himself offers a kind of visual table of contents – “a mind map of the structure and main themes of this book” (see picture).

It’s an old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. In today’s world where people have little time to read even five hundred words, the new motto may become that a sketch is worth a thousand words, and it only takes a few seconds to bang out a quick sketch.