Study skills
By Gregory Mitchell - Copyright © 2003
Chapter 7 - Associative Networks
Knowledge in any subject can be described as a pyramid of hierarchically related data. The top of the pyramid contains the simplest, most general, most wide ranging, most abstract data in the subject. The further down we go in the pyramid the more specific, complex, limited, and practical the data gets.


The practical data at the bottom of the pyramid builds on the abstract principles found further up in the pyramid. The general principles at the top can be explored and illustrated by the manifestations and examples found further down.

Any conflict between specifics low in the pyramid are resolved by moving one or more steps up and inspecting the general principle the specifics are based on.

The process of developing lower parts of the pyramid is called deduction. It is the construction of specifics by the application of general rules. General laws can be combined logically to establish and predict practical data. Engineering is an example of this. The mathematical formulas for bridge building are known, they just have to be applied to the conditions at hand.

The process of working out the top parts when only the bottom parts are known is called induction. One can guess at theories that will explain the maximum number of observed specifics. The theory or fact that explains the most is the best candidate for a high position. Science usually uses this approach. The theory of evolution was developed like that. A theory is thought up and then one checks if reality fits the theory.

Any subject has a structure like this, no matter if it is being presented like this or not. It is the duty of the student to structure his own understanding and to get the relative importances and seniorities right.

The higher the datum is placed in the pyramid of knowledge the more important it is to know it 100%. Lower data can always be developed if the higher are known. However, it might not be possible to have conceptual understanding of widely spanning, abstract data unless a sufficient number of specifics and examples have been understood and evaluated.

In the subject of physics you can predict a lot of things if you know the laws of gravity. They are placed very high in the hierarchy. If you know that things in general fall to Earth according to certain principles you don't have to walk around remembering that apples fall down, stones fall down, coffee cups fall down, etc. You might develop your conceptual understanding of the subject by observing a lot of things falling down, but once you understand the rule, the specifics have much less importance. Any confusion or question about the specifics can be sorted out by referring to the general rule.

Meaning is an essential part of all thought processes, and it is meaning that gives order to experience. Indeed the process of perception is ultimately one of extracting meaning from the environment. If the mind is not attending, information will go 'in one ear and out the other'; the trace it leaves may well be too weak to be recalled in normal circumstances. If concentration is applied, i.e. there is conscious involvement with the information, more meaning is extracted, more meaningful connections are made with existing understanding, the memory is stronger, and there will be more opportunity to make meaningful connections with new material in the future. 

Memory is not recorded like a tape recording, with each idea linked to the next in a continuous stream; instead, the information is recorded in large interconnecting associative networks. Concepts and images are related in various ways to numerous other points in the mental network. The act of encoding an event, i.e. memorizing, is simply that of forming new links in the network, i.e. making new associations. Sub-consciously, the mind will continue to work on the network, adding further connections which remain implicit until they are explicitly recognized, i.e. they enter the Preconscious as relevant material, and are picked up by the spotlight of consciousness. 

Such associative networks explain the incredible versatility and flexibility of human information processing. Memory is not like a container that gradually fills up, it is more like a tree growing hooks onto which the memories are hung. So the capacity of memory keeps growing - the more you know, the more you can know. There is no practical limit to this expansion because of the phenomenal capacity of the neuronal system of the brain, which in most people is largely untapped, even after a lifetime of mental processing. 

Mind Maps
Because the brain naturally organizes information in associative networks, it makes sense to record notes about information you want to remember in a similar way.

Mind Maps were developed in the late 1960s by Tony Buzan as a way of helping students make notes that used only key words and images. The non-linear nature of mind maps makes it easy to link and cross-reference different elements of the map.

Using the method of Mind Maps, all the various factors that enhance recall have been brought together, in order to produce a much more effective system of note taking. A mind map works organically in the same way as the brain itself, so it is therefore an excellent interface between the brain and the spoken or written word. 

Paradoxically, one of the greatest advantages of Mind Maps is that they are seldom needed again. The very act of constructing a map is so effective in fixing ideas in memory that very often a whole Mind Map can be recalled without going back to it at all. Because it is so strongly visual, frequently it can be simply reconstructed in the 'mind's eye'. 

To make a Mind Map, one starts at the centre of a new sheet of paper, writing down the central theme very boldly, preferably in the form of a strong visual image, so that everything in the map is associated with it. Then work outwards in all directions, adding branches for each new concept, and further small branches and twigs for associated ideas as they occur. In this way one produces a growing and organized structure composed of key words and key images. 

mind map


Read through this How to Study course and at the same time, based on your growing understanding, build up a Mind Map displaying the main ideas and how they connect.

Tree Charts
Tree charts represent hierarchical information, such as the structure of a web site...

tree chart

Graphical software can be used for making these useful diagrams, so the chart can be easily edited and supplemented as your understanding grows. This chart shows the processes involved in the practice of hypnosis...

fuzzy map

A flowchart illustrates the steps in a process. It identifies the start and end points of a process, the sequence of actions in the process, and the decision or branching points along the way...

flow chart

Here is a simple example flowcharting the process of filling the bath...

flow chart

Drawing a flow chart can often help to clarify your understanding of a complex sequence of decisions and processes. It may even expose fallacies, false assumptions and illogical sequences in the study materials themselves.


1. Introduction
2. Barriers to Learning
3. Setting Objectives
4. Reading Techniques
5. Key Word Noting
6. More on Note-Taking
7. Associative Networks
8. Asking Questions & Listening
9. Thinking Clearly
10. Word Definitions
11. Defeating the Decay of Memories
12. Physical Learning
13. Sight, Sound, Action...
14. The Decision to Fail
15. What's Next?


Copyright © 2004 Gregory Mitchell - Published by Trans4mind

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