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Outside the Lab Profession, Training and education

Your Brain on Paper

Diagnosis is an art – and, like any art, it requires the right supplies and technique. Rather than paints and brushes, our supplies are the information we gather about a lesion – for instance, its site or histological characteristics. And rather than careful brushstrokes or energetic splatters, our technique is the approach we take to organizing our thoughts. With so many different tissues and lesions, we need a simple approach to categorizing them. And for me, that’s where mind maps come in.

As pathologists, it’s not enough for us to read the details of a case – we must also retain those details and draw connections.

Put simply, a mind map is a visualization tool focused on a central concept. It breaks the monotony of data collection and helps categorize individual pieces of information into colourful, memorable items. As pathologists, it’s not enough for us to read the details of a case – we must also retain those details and draw connections between them to create a “big picture” overview. Mind maps allow us to visually represent and sort those connections. After all, to quote Robertson Davies, “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend (1).”

I realized as a student that, if I knew in advance what I needed to see under the microscope, I would be able to see it. But pathology is a vast field – and only by organizing and conceptualizing the material could I hope to understand it fully. And so, in my second year of pathology residency, I started making mind maps. But they’re not only useful for studying – they helped me with assignments. I even used a mind map to formulate this article!

Do you need special software? Not necessarily; mind maps are so easy and versatile that the least you require is paper and a pencil. My first mind maps – just drawn on paper – work wonders! Anyone can make a mind map, but following a defined process makes it easier.

First, you need to know your subject matter. Mind maps can’t replace reading, but they can replace re-reading. On your first examination of the subject matter, you can identify i) a central concept, ii) the ideas that revolve around that central concept, and iii) any further ideas that connect to those thoughts. The next time you want to review the subject, just take a look at your mind map. You’ll find revision easier, quicker, and more effective.

Here is an example of a mind map I developed to study pancreatic neuroendocrine neoplasms.

The neoplasms are the main concept around which the other ideas revolve. One such idea is neuroendocrine microadenoma. The size of the microadenoma is of importance and can be easily forgotten, so I have included the fact that microadenomas measure <5 mm on my mind map. Other ideas that stem from the main concept are pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors and pancreatic neuroendocrine carcinomas. Each of these neoplasms possesses different molecular pathways and histology. Also included on the map are the various hereditary mutations we must consider in pancreatic neuroendocrine neoplasms.

I share my mind maps on Twitter and on my website ( However, I recommend that you make your own; it’s not just the map itself, but the creative process that aids in comprehension and retention. Mind maps – and the brain work involved in creating them – exist to make life simpler. They can help you with not only education, but also other aspects of your career – researching, framing a report, or even planning your day. I encourage you to give mind maps a try. You will be amazed at the results!

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  1. R Davies, Tempest-Tost. Clarke Irwin: 1951.
About the Author
Vishakha Pardeshi

Pathology Resident at Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan, USA.

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