I've heard the mind mapping term tossed about here and there for years, but I never really understood how it differed from plain old brainstorming from the days of yore. I felt my storming mind needed a little orderly mapping, and below I outline how that process unfolded.
Recently I needed to use my whiteboard to work out some ideas and how certain concepts were interconnected. The whiteboard was already full of the things I needed to connect, but they weren't written out in a way that made that easy to do. In addition, I really needed to take the contents of this brainstorming on the road with my laptop, and I do not have a tablet for scribbling on a virtual whiteboard on the computer.
I remember a colleague from LOPSA, Bob Apthorpe, telling me that mind mapping software was a way to use a computer to easily brainstorm. He described how it was different from outlining software like OmniOutliner or the outlining tools in Microsoft Word or Apple Pages because outlines require a strict hierarchy and the rigidity of the format limits creativity.
That memory popped to the forefront of my mind when I was looking for a solution to my whiteboard problem. My answer, then, was to investigate my options for mind mapping to see if it would work as effectively for me as it did for Bob.
The easiest and most cross-platform option is FreeMind, and it is Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) as a bonus. Apparently it is an immensely popular option because it is quite good at mind mapping, not just because it is FOSS.
FreeMind's User Interface (UI) is fairly straight forward and rather intuitive. You start a mind map with a central or main idea. From there, you can branch out to either side any number of sub-ideas, each of which can have any number of their own sub-ideas and on until you have your entire tree of related ideas mapped. You must have that central idea and can only tree out from there to the right and left, so there is an inherent limitation of two main types or sides of ideas, though in practice any of the sub-ideas off the central concept are direct children and there is no distinction within the software placed on the right or left sides. You can, also, make multi-colored and shaped pointers from any sub-idea to any other sub-idea to indicate non-linear relationships.
Most mind mapping software I read about or poked at used this basic paradigm or something quite near to it. (I should mention that Tony Buzan lays claim to inventing mind mapping. He has a gallery of mind maps, and he promotes his own software, iMindMap as a solution, as well. I strongly considered it, also, because it is cross-platform and appears quite robust.)
Then someone told me I needed to look at TheBrain's Personal Brain software. At this point I had already decided to just use FreeMind, but I was finding limitations in its paradigm and visualization techniques. PersonalBrain was exactly what I needed.
PersonalBrain uses a fluid paradigm where no one idea (or "thought" as they call them in the context of the software and within the "Brains" it creates) has more importance than any other. All thoughts can link to any other thought as a parent, child, or related on a more peer or distant basis called a jump. Depending on the version you use, you can export your data in different ways, as well.
PersonalBrain has changed the way I capture and document ideas, concepts, and complex relationships. Because I can now use any idea (or thought) as the locus of a view into the data, I can see relationships that aren't linked that should be, streamline cumbersome connections, normalize data using multiple child/parent relationships for any data set, and move through and with large, highly complex structures in whole new ways. I can map out extremely complex data relationships and how those correlate to the real world, such as data points for tracking repair issues, response times, or hardware failures, and how those items relate to locations, inventory, and other processes.
I can take a completed mind map (or brain) using Personal Brain and directly translate those relationships into a fully normalized relational database design to implement those conceptions as hard ideas to improve my work and my business.
Now, if only I could do this with a VR rig.