Mine your mind
It’s after lunch at Hreod Parkway secondary school in Swindon, west of London. Thirty-five children of mixed abilities are silent in their concentration. Using coloured pencils and their imaginations they are mapping out what they think should be important for the next millennium. Many draw a globe, then connect it with lines to such hopeful thoughts as peace, conservation of resources, enough food to go round.
“They were mesmerised,” says David Hemery, former Olympic gold medallist in 400-metre hurdles and supporter of Tony Buzan, the man who spent the morning explaining how Mind Mapping works and inspiring perhaps the toughest of all audiences – teenagers. The goal of the activity was to show these young people how to develop and organise their thoughts in the most productive way so as to make those thoughts both creative and memorable.
For more than 30 years Buzan has expounded in person, on television and in books a practical vision of hope for all those who feel they do not live up to their potential: You can achieve more if only you learn how to use your brain better. According to Buzan, 90 percent of all the notes people take either in school or in business are forgotten. “It’s just a colossal waste of time and energy,” he says. It follows that if we remembered more of what we were taught, we would end up better prepared for everything – everyday decisions, exams, work, life. At the centre of Buzan’s notion of intelligence is the idea that to reach our potential we need to learn how best to use the brain – something we are never taught to do. “The brain needs data externally that reflects itself internally,” says Buzan. The brain is a sophisticated network of sensors that processes information from all our senses. If we shut off any, we necessarily limit what we can achieve.
For Buzan, the journey from curious child to intellectual guru started at the age of 7 in southern England where he and his younger brother lived with their father, an engineer, and their mother, a medical secretary who later went on to take a master’s degree at university. At school Buzan began to notice that he was getting better marks in certain exams than students he thought were smarter than him. Also, the teacher thought Buzan’s best friend was stupid, while Buzan and his classmates considered the boy a genius.
Over the years Buzan worked hard to understand why these apparent anomalies might be true. The family moved to western Canada when Buzan was 12. By the early 1960s, after graduating from the University of British Columbia in Canada with a double honours degree in arts and sciences, the seeds of an answer began to grow.
Buzan moved back to the United Kingdom and started teaching English, creative thinking and memory. He helped troubled children and those with learning disabilities by encouraging the use of all the senses for learning and understanding. Following the BBC broadcast of his first series, Use Your Head, in 1973 – and the publication of an accompanying book – Buzan started to reach a far wider audience. “This was really the official launch of Mind Mapping,” he says.
Now as the next millennium approaches, this self-proclaimed prophet of the intellect is convinced that the era of the brain is coming into its own. “All the major magazines and newspapers have put the brain on the cover in the past seven years,” he says. He predicts a new renaissance in both art and science because for the first time in history the brain is becoming aware of itself.
“When the brain focuses on something, it happens, such as the moon landing for example. Imagine what will happen if the brain focuses on itself?” Buzan asks, sitting underneath a portrait by his favourite genius, Leonardo da Vinci, in his studio office near the banks of the river Thames. In the room next door are the building blocks of his polymath life: piles of books, notes for works in progress, a guitar, framed awards, children’s drawings and bags – packed and ready for one of the many trips that keep Buzan out of England for up to eight months each year.
At 56, Buzan looks every bit the successful businessman he is. His polished appearance – white turtleneck, blue blazer with gold buttons and neatly pressed grey trousers – reflects a sartorial sensibility that clearly comes from an innate sense of order and priority. And it must be so if the Buzan operation is to run smoothly. In addition to a busy calendar of speaking engagements worldwide, Buzan’s enterprises encompass a mind-boggling array of interconnected activities from coaching Olympic athletes to advising governments.
These include the Buzan Centres, which run training courses to help teach the Buzan method to others, who in turn run courses of their own. Then there’s the Mind Sports Olympiad, launched in August 1997 in London, which attracted more than 2,000 competitors from 58 countries who competed in such brainteasers as chess, bridge and crossword puzzles. There’s the Brain Trust, a charitable organisation that just made a proposal to develop a Brain Dome, a sort of cerebral theme park with activities that help visitors discover the different ways the brain works.
And there’s the Academy, an innovative business seminar programme, in collaboration with Prince Philipp of Liechtenstein’s Global Trust and the prestigious Wharton Business School in the United States. Not surprisingly, the curriculum at the Academy illustrates the Buzan method of unlocking intelligence. “It is based on the Greek notion of education and that of the Italian Renaissance,” says Buzan.
The 10-week course is divided into four terms. First the students learn different thinking skills and study creativity. The teachers include a prominent conductor (Benjamin Zander of the Boston Philharmonics), a poet (British laureate Ted Hughes), an artist, a martial arts expert and an athlete. The second session is a dash through the history of the world and a history of science. Then the students move to Philadelphia to study the most advanced business methods at Wharton. They return to Liechtenstein for an intensive brush with ethics, self-control techniques and meditation.
Buzan holds up Leonardo da Vinci as the best example of what mankind should aim for. “It’s his breadth of knowledge, his ongoing childlike curiosity, his dedication to arts and sciences and his brilliance as a communicator and translator of genius. He is a beacon for the well-rounded human being,” says Buzan.
Buzan strives for the same kind of well-roundedness. In addition to his business activities, he writes a poem every other day and fits in early-morning workouts (preferably rowing on the Thames). He says that he decided in his late 20s to not have a family, thinking his constant travelling would be unfair to them. Although he says he has some regrets about that, he clearly enjoys the affection he receives from a worldwide network of young admirers.
As the rain beats down on the Thames on a cold Tuesday morning, Buzan prepares to select his bags for his next journey. He will be back in Britain just one day in the coming month. “Tony believes there is a spark of genius in everyone,” says his gold medallist friend David Hemery. “And he is prepared to do all he can to help people find it.”
a business journalist based in London
photo John Cole