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What’s the Point of Colour?

You may think that colour has no place in studying maths and science. You do your calculations or algebra problems in blue or black ink and copy single colour notes from a white board in lectures. In this article I discuss the reasons for using colour in Mind Maps. It’s not just because they look pretty.

Our eyes and brains have evolved to recognise certain frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum that we call colours. This is not ubiquitous in the animal kingdom. Bees can see ultra-violet light whilst most cats can only detect a little colour. Cats have better night vision than humans and superb depth perception for hunting. There must therefore be some evolutionary advantage conferred on humans to have retained and developed colour vision.

It is a common misconception that colour is an unnecessary frivolity and just for kindergarten kids with no place in serious study. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are myriad reasons to use colour. Here are my top five:


1) It aids clarity and conveys meaning.
Colour helps us to discern differences and thus extract meaning. Try to navigate the London Underground using a black and white map and you will struggle. Using a different colour for each tube line makes it far easier to see the interconnections and simply follow what is a very complex diagram.

2) It promotes creativity.
Colour stimulates the right side of the brain. Creativity is born form the interplay between right and left. A single colour (or mono-tone) leads to monotony and boredom. What does your brain do when it is bored? It shuts down, tunes out and goes to sleep. Even if you manage to stay awake your mind wonders off in search of stimulation elsewhere.

3) It can be used to code extra information.
Colour-coding is very useful as it allows you to add extra information without the need for additional words that could potentially clutter a complex Mind Map. Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Edward deBono uses colours to segment types of thinking with his ‘Six Thinking Hats’ technique listed below. The same approach can be used on a Mind Map.

Red = Emotion / gut feel,
White = Data,
Green = Lateral or creative ideas,
Yellow = Positive reasons why something will work,
Black = Potential problems,
Blue = Summary for action.

4) It helps to chunk related ideas.
Chunking is a natural memory system. Ask anyone a phone number and they will nearly always give it to you in blocks of three or four digits. These are ‘chunks’ of information. Our working memory can hold between five and nine pieces of data concurrently before we get overloaded. A phone number typically consists of 11 digits. Considered one-at-a-time this is far too many to remember. By grouping the digits together the number only takes up three or four ‘slots’ and is much more manageable. If you have less than nine main branches on your mind map, typically 7, and use one colour per set of branches you are achieving the same strategy of grouping data into manageable chunks.

5) It can be used to highlight important points.
Using a different colour from that which predominates on a branch is a great way of drawing attention to salient points. This also improves memory by creating a “von Resforff effect” (named after the female, German psychiatrist Hedwig von Restorff 1906–1962). This predicts that an item which stands out from its surrounding context (called distinctive encoding) is more likely to be remembered than other items. It is a bias in favour of remembering the unusual or imaginative.