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‘How-to” business books are stacked knee-high in bookstores and advertisements for motivational seminars continue to multiply through commuter trains.

It seems that many of us are on a desperate quest to hone our mental faculties to ever higher standards, as we aim to stay motivated and focused, keep the creative juices flowing, and even remember the names and faces of all the people we meet.

Of course, such ambitions are easily explained. In today’s tough, competitive business environment, people face ever-increasing pressures to think and work smarter, more creatively and efficiently. After all, in terms of physical prowess, we were long ago outmuscled by industrial machinery. And today’s computers, with terabytes of memory and light-speed computation capabilities, put the world’s geniuses — just ask a humbled chess champion — to shame. It seems that the only real edge that humans have left over technology is the ability to dream up better ways of carrying out our tasks and solving the problems that arise along the way.

But can we really be taught to do these things more effectively? Tony Buzan says we can. This British “authority on learning,” also dubbed the “memory man,” says many limitations to our learning are the fault of the way we organize our thoughts on paper.

Buzan is the inventor of a note-taking technique called “mind map” that he says allows people to be more creative.

Instead of jotting things down in linear (top to bottom or left to right) fashion, as most of us do, he advocates taking notes radially, starting with an image in the center that best illustrates the topic you are pondering.

After drawing the central theme, he tells people to sketch several branches, and assign a key word to each, in various different directions, which should further branch out to new words and images, and branch out further and further. By color-coding different categories and illustrating them using pictures, his logic goes, your notes will more closely match the multilayered way that human brains actually work. And by limiting each branch to one word, more associations between words and concepts become evident.

Buzan’s techniques have been adopted, his publishers claim, at major corporations around the world, including Microsoft, General Motors, Walt Disney, IBM and British Airways. A media star whose books have been translated into more than 30 languages and sold in more than 100 countries, Buzan is even touted in a BBC documentary as having transformed “problem students” at a school outside London into creative geniuses.

But can making yourself adopt different models of thinking to the ones you are used to really have an affect on your brainpower?

Kikunori Shinohara, an expert in physiological anthropology and professor at Tokyo University of Science, Suwa, in Nagano Prefecture, who is not affiliated with Buzan’s business, said that, like other note-taking techniques, mind maps can help boost memory.

“When we think, a brain function called ‘working memory’ is activated,” he explained. “There are two kinds of working memory: ‘visual sketch pad,’ which is about visual memory; and ‘phonological loop,’ which governs audio memory. If you use images and charts, you would use the visual sketch pad, and it’s more efficient than just using the phonological loop. Mind maps apparently use both, so that makes people more memory efficient.”

Another independent expert, Makoto Takahashi, who is chairman of the 300-member Japan Creativity Society and professor at the Japan Professional School of Education in Tokyo, said that of more than 500 different “creativity tools” known to exist worldwide, mind maps are a typical tool for “divergent thinking,” which he further breaks down into three different subgroups: free associations, forced associations and analogical thinking. Mind maps, he said, fall into the first category of free thinking, because they help people to freely associate various words and concepts.

“Brainstorming,” which was invented by American ad agency founder Alex Osborn, and “six thinking hats,” which was developed by British psychologist Edward de Bono and helps with deliberate thinking, are among other major methods in this group, he said. Buzan developed his mind-map techniques more than 30 years ago, and they have been available in Japan for many years through translations of his books.

Takahashi noted that studies of creativity have gained momentum worldwide in recent years, citing the establishment 10 years ago of an academic society in China, whose members now number 10,000, and in South Korea, which has 1,000 members.

“Creativity is not the exclusive domain of geniuses,” Takahashi said. “These techniques can be taught in schools to bring out students’ creativity.”

Buzan was in Tokyo in late November to promote his new book “Mind Map for Kids: Benkyo ga Tanoshiku naru Noto Jutsu (Note-Taking Skills that Make Studying Fun),” which is the Japanese translation of a book he wrote three years ago for and with the input of children.

While here, Buzan also conducted a seminar to train and certify “official” mind-map instructors for the launch of training courses in Japan. Despite the steep cost of 840,000 yen per head, the seminar attracted 70 applicants for just 47 places, perhaps illustrating just how keen the interest is at the moment in improving your mental powers.

One participant in the three-day seminar was Yutaka Shiraishi, professor of sports science at Fukushima University.

Shiraishi, who has worked as a mental coach for Japanese Olympic athletes and professional baseball players, says he read Buzan’s book 24 years ago and often uses the tool in his job. In fact, days before the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, mind maps helped Japanese female basketball players recover from losses and get back on the court, he said.

“Back then, the team had won consecutively for four months and was fully confident that they would do well in Atlanta,” he said. “But right before the Olympic Games, they lost to Australia and China. It was a huge shock for them. So on the way back to the players’ village in Atlanta, we organized our thoughts through mind maps. I told them to write one map on the theme of ‘What was the problem?’ One branch was to be about mind, another was about physical aspects. Then we wrote another map, about what we could do. This helped their minds get clearer. . . . Mind map is an excellent tool for extracting thoughts and putting them on paper.”

For many of us financially challenged modern workers, attending seminars that cost as much as a decent secondhand car might not seem so clever. Maybe hitting the bookstores for a few of Busan’s books is a smarter option.

Anyway, be creative. That’s all that’s left for modern workers to do.

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