Tony Buzan: My brain my hobby
Tony Buzan is the world's leading expert on learning and the brain in the tradition of Edward De Bono, though perhaps it would be more appropriate to say De Bono is in his tradition. He has lectured in 67 countries over the last 30 years, and his books -- so far he has authored and co-authored 90 of them, selling over six million copies in 30 languages -- have influenced millions of people worldwide. Born in London in 1942, Buzan graduated from the University of British Columbia; he has since become an accomplished scholar in a whole range of fields: neurobiolology, zoology, statistics and probability, psychology, literature, music as well as pre-med and anatomy. He holds the world record for Creative Intelligence tests. As a world renowned guru on mind power and creativity, he has served as a consultant at many multinational organisations, including Hewlett Packard, IBM, Walt Disney, Barclays International and British Airways; he has also served as advisor to governments in England, Singapore, Mexico and several Gulf states. Buzan lectures regularly at leading universities and business schools.
Interview by Amira El-Naqeeb
Interviewing Tony Buzan would have been infinitely more intimidating had I not quickly discovered common interests: rowing, martial arts and poetry. At 65 Buzan is also a fellow learner of Spanish. And yet the mark of genius is so indelibly stamped on his face it's hard not to immediately fall under his spell. His liveliness and the diversity of his interests is amazing; but "accessible" is one epithet he undoubtedly deserves. Whether through common interests or sheer warmth, he is capable of dispelling the sense of being shadowed with incredible ease. "My books aren't for academics," he begins with a twinkle in his eyes, "nor for the general public, nor students. They are," he stresses, "for everyone with a brain." So is his best celebrated invention: the Mind Map, otherwise known as "the Swiss army knife of the brain"; it is now used by over 250 million people. Editor of Mensa, the journal of the international high-IQ society for a period of three years, 1968-1971, Buzan is also the founder of the World Memory Championships and the inventor of Mental Literacy. Interestingly, it was "doing badly at school" that first inspired him. As he went through his education, he explains, he made notes, he studied more and more, but the depth and direction of his interests veering away from the examiners' expectations, his fear of exams eventually undermined his sense of self confidence. "In desperation before the exams I would go through my linear notes, underline the key ideas and put them on separate cards, which were the nuggets of my knowledge." The method was developed and finetuned, eventually far beyond its initial use for exam revision.
The key ideas, Buzan discovered, were all his mind required; this led to greater condensation, the use of symbols, colours and eventually pictures -- "a picture is worth 1,000 words" where memory is concerned -- and a process of organisation and discrimination in which he realised the instinctive tendency of the mind to look for keywords. Research was establishing the fact that the brain is significantly susceptible to colour changes: one colour is monotonous; and when the brain is bored it switches off. "So I was adding more ingredients in the menu," Buzan elaborates, "and finally the full mental meal -- the mind map, emerged." Nor did the quest stop there: "For 40 years one of the dreams I had was to be able to interface the human brain with the computer brain." Mind maps were beyond the power of a computer, he says, so there was a major obstacle. After three years of working with a team led by a man called Chris Griffiths, Buzan has finally solved the problem: software was developed that could do mind maps; when looked at, the end result seemed like it had been done in the usual way. "For me it's a historical moment, because it's the first time in the history of humanity that there has been a thinking tool that's identical to how the brain functions, which the computer can use as a language too. Whereas most computer languages had been 19th-century industrial, revolutionary, linear, verbal, IQ-type languages and not as creative, explosive and organic as the brain wanted them to be." Nor are these adjectives haphazardly strewn.
They are the result of a life-long concern with defining intelligence. When he was only seven, together with his friend Barry, Buzan took a school test that changed his life, triggering the deepest insight into the human brain. It was a routine test about nature, he recounts -- "name 20 kinds of fish in the English stream, name the differences between a butterfly and a moth..." -- and though both friends were precocious naturalists, while Buzan got the highest mark in class, Barry got the lowest. "And I knew he was more knowledgeable than I -- the thing is, he couldn't write. Had this been an oral test, he would have listed all the fish in the English stream, not just 20. He would have got 100 per cent. That's when I started asking what's smart." A revolutionary approach to intelligence would eventually result. "You know there is a huge difference between IQ and creative intelligence," he starts. IQ is based on verbal, mathematical and analytical reasoning. So when one child responded to an odd-one- out question involving moon, sun, earth and a lemon by selecting the earth, his teachers were dismissive of his assertion that he chose based on the fact that "It's the only one that's blue". To them, Buzan explains, he was stupid because his brain recognised the colour. What they did not realise was that each and every one of the items could have been crossed out; the assumption that only one answer is correct typifies an approach that promotes straight reasoning at the expense of Creative Intelligence, which is equally important to intelligence as a whole.
At 14 the seed of yet another aspect of intelligence was sown: Buzan scored lower than a female colleague during a speed-reading test, and when he expressed the desire to improve his speed-reading rate, he was told, "You can't! It's something you are born with, like your IQ." That was motivation enough: "Whenever somebody tells me I can't do something, they must be wrong." Watching his muscles grow as he exercised them at the gym, Buzan deduced that his brain cells too could grow with exercise. He trained, and within two months he had beat the girl in question at speed reading. It was a question of working harder within a given time. Later, Buzan would come up with the 21st-century's techniques of Speed Reading and Knowledge Management -- guaranteed to improve each anyone's inborn ability by 100 per cent. "We use less than one per cent of our brains. The brain can take infinity, we just aren't taught how to use it." Memory is the number-one complaint in matters of the brain, and this is because we are involuntarily taught to forget. To ensure you will forget something, just put it in sentences, arrange it in lines using only black or blue -- and learn it that way. Memory works with images, locations, connections. "We read dull, monotonous books, and we get stressed because by the end of a book we've already forgotten the beginning; stress too kills memory." By now Buzan's World Memory Champions attract the brightest minds from around the world, but everyone can benefit from them. "At the end of the 21st century we discovered the extent of the magnificence of the brain cell when we filmed it with an electron microscope. Knowing how to use it makes a huge difference in performance, in the rates of success, in happiness and fulfilment. That's how, by the time I was 28," Buzan says, "I realised I was spending 14 hours a day on my favourite hobby: my brain."
This has involved critiquing assumptions about the way the brain functions, or rather the fact that significant aspects and processes are systematically ignored. We have learned what, not how to learn: "You go into a meeting room that has thousands of dollars' worth of art, very expensive furniture, cheap black pens, sweets which are pure sugar, a coffee dispenser; and with those tools the company's 12 leading brains will captain the ship. It's astonishing. Is it any wonder that businesses get into trouble, that countries get into trouble. But no one was taught otherwise, it's a massively widespread global habit. We need to establish new habits, and for that we need to nourish the brain." Buzan summed up the ingredients of this mental recipe: "learning, healthy diet, oxygen and love: friendship, affection". In his experience as an Olympic coach, Buzan says training the brain improves the body's condition and vice versa; so developing both in tandem doubles the benefits. Head Strong is one example of books in which he has elaborated the concept: "I write books that are rescue operations for the human brain, and the human body." Buzan's academic career reflects the flexibility of his methods. At university he said he wanted to study "everything", and he did.
Meeting Buzan turned out to be exactly as Times columnist Raymond Obe described it, "like plugging into an electric socket of the mind. After you meet him you are totally enlivened and full of wonderful and creative ideas". Buzan has inspired many people; who inspired him? Leonardo Da Vinci, naturally enough. "Because he was interested in everything." Alexander the Great too was one of his childhood heroes: "He was not only a conqueror but someone who promoted culture in honour of the brain, setting up libraries wherever he went. He was an explorer, an animal lover; and his army was a moving university."
To liberate minds and "unleash" their fluency, flexibility, originality, creativity: that is Buzan's mission, the passion that guides him; and in it he reckons he still has a lot to do.