How to learn anatomy with mind maps
“Many think of memory as rote learning, a linear stuffing of the brain with facts, where understanding is irrelevant. When you teach it properly, with imagination and association, understanding becomes a part of it.” - Tony Buzan, inventor of mind mapping
If you are like 99% of the students, you are probably learning by rote. In other words, you become a robot - you mechanically keep repeating the information that needs to be learned. Studying this way is extremely easy, especially with a subject like anatomy, which almost has rote learning sprayed across it. More than likely, understanding the subject is quite easy for you. The main challenge is getting all the long and confusing terms into your head. What seems to be the right answer? To open your anatomy book, start reading the page, take some linear notes, revise a bit and hope for the best. It is definitely not the worst strategy, but you’ll shed a lot of blood, sweat, and tears…
If you want to keep your sanity while learning anatomy, you need to be the ‘odd one out’ and join the remaining 1% of students. Instead of switching off your brain and transcribing the author’s exact words and concepts, process the information and organise it in a way that makes sense to you. In other words, mind map the information and personalize your learning in a way that you probably never thought possible. This article will explain mind maps, how to create them and their power in helping you manage all that voluminous anatomical knowledge. Creative geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, and Albert Einstein used them constantly to elaborate their ideas, so they will certainly help you as well.
What is a mind map?
A mind map is an organizational thinking tool - a Swiss army knife of the brain. Exactly as the name implies, it is a map reflecting what is present inside your brain. Michael Michalko, a renowned creative expert described it as “the whole brain alternative to linear thinking, [which] reaches out in all directions and catches thoughts from any angle”.
A mind map looks exactly like a map of a city. The most important idea, or the city center, is situated in the middle. Major branches, or main roads, radiate out of the city center and they represent your primary thoughts. Smaller, secondary thoughts, branch out from the primary ones, and so on. Images, symbols, and scribbles are placed on some branches to facilitate your learning, just like a city has interesting sites, buildings, and tourist attractions worth stopping at and admiring.
The principle behind mind maps is radiant thinking, which is very similar to how your brain works. It is easiest to understand this idea with an example. If you start thinking of the heart, your mind will instantly bring into the consciousness its location (enclosed by the pericardium, in the thorax), its function (pumps blood), the chambers (atria and ventricles), innervation (cardiac plexus), etc. If you focus your attention just on the thorax, ideas start branching out about the lungs, thoracic part of the aorta, the thoracic cage, etc. You can then focus on one of these ‘smaller’ ideas or go back to a previous one about the heart.
You get the idea. New and old information is constantly ‘hooked’ onto an already existing one, building a map. Knowledge is organised like a spider web inside your mind, allowing you to link seemingly unrelated topics together. This is how your brain thinks. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel when you learn, especially with a subject like anatomy. Expand and access your web of knowledge according to how it works in order to make your life easy.
Why use mind maps?
I almost hear you say - “Wait a minute! Is this not just a fancy and time consuming way of writing down information?” Not quite. The devil is in the details with this learning strategy and what appears as drawing images and lines, actually has significant manifestations inside your brain, which facilitate learning. Here are the ways mind maps help you:
You see the big picture - A well structured mind map gives you a clear overview about the main idea in the centre of the page. The information is also presented hierarchically - the biggest idea in the centre and the smallest ones on the edges. Therefore, you know exactly what you’re looking at in the blink of an eye!
You create associations and connections - By simply creating the mind map, you think radiantly. You not only create connections between different pieces of information, but also between terms and images, making your learning more visual. Also, the combination of associations and seeing the big picture will allow you to think in 3D, which is a critical skill for learning anatomy. Therefore, encode the information the right way because you only reap what you sow!
Focus your attention - Let’s not forget that we are talking about anatomy, a subject which can sap your energy and where the slightest distraction can be an oasis. Through the act of drawing, images, and colour, you learn with laser sharp focus. Check out this Kenhub article to learn more about the benefits of colouring.
Filter the information - A mind map only contains key words. It includes the important terms which help you understand a concept, which come up in exams and which you remember for a long time. You will forget the details so focus on the essentials!
Potential for active recall - Drawing a concept map strictly from memory or with the book open is what separates the men from the boys! By closing the book, you are essentially learning by using active recall, a crucial principle for boosting your learning.
It’s easy, fun, different, and personal.
How can you map out your mind?
Creating a mind map is a very intuitive process because it is a reflection of what goes on inside your brain. Actually, not following a series of defined steps is the whole idea behind mind maps - they should just flow naturally according to your imagination and the associations your brain creates. Just make sure you incorporate the following aspects:
- Images, pictures or sketches
- Curved and organic lines
- Key words only
- Branch out from the center in decreasing order of importance
To give you an idea, a mind map of the proximal end of the humerus is shown below:
As you can see, it is possible to create mind maps electronically on your computer or your favorite portable device. So don’t worry if you can’t draw like da Vinci! In fact, you don’t need to because quick and simple sketches are enough to make a connection. In addition, anatomy has an amazing tool which students are in a love-hate relationship with. This resource is an atlas and it can be the inspiration for all your anatomical drawings. For instance, the images in the above mind map are from Kenhub’s atlas, a collection of clear and professional illustrations ready to suit all your needs.
Drawbacks of mind maps
Hopefully, you are convinced that mind maps have the potential to help your anatomy learning. Before you jump with joy and start mapping out your knowledge, it’s important for you to realise that they are just a learning tool. They certainly are not perfect, so don’t put all your eggs into one basket and solely use this method. Here are some things to watch out for:
- Time requirements - Despite the major benefits of mind maps, all the colouring, drawing, and organization can take a slightly longer time compared to other learning strategies. The best thing is to try them out and see for yourself because it depends on your abilities and preferences.
- Space requirements - To be able to make clear mind maps that don’t require a magnifying glass to be read, you need a big working space. A4 paper can work, but you might run out of space to expand your map. Ideally, you should use A2 paper or above. Alternatively, you can create your mind map on your computer and then you will have all the space in the world. You save a few trees in the process too!
- Artistic skills - Let’s keep it real, you can’t learn anatomy if your closest representation of a human being is a stickman. To learn the material you need to be able to illustrate details, otherwise mind maps become simply an outline for you (still, this is not something to overlook, especially in this subject!).
Information pile up - Your mind maps can mount up incredibly quickly, especially if you draw them by hand. For example, the one shown above is only about the proximal end of the humerus. However, this bone has a shaft and a distal end. Not to mention all the potential mind maps that you can create from every single word on that page (this is actually both good and bad). That’s a lot of pages and filing you need to do!
Despite the slight drawbacks, you now have a method to visually represent all your favorite Kenhub articles. Their structure is so clear that it will be a breeze to mind map them! Do you remember about the important principle of active recall mentioned above? After you create your maps and learn them using active recall, you can really test and solidify your knowledge even further with some quizzes. They won’t know what hit them!
As you can see, mind maps are another potential learning strategy that you can use to learn anatomy. Being the Swiss army knife of the brain, they can filter out the essential information, organise it clearly, create associations, and inject some fun in the process. They might be exactly what you need to stimulate your learning!