Zettelkasten Forum


Well-trodden path vs. off-piste

As I wrote in the weekly work thread, I've been reading Richard Hamming's The Art of Doing Science and Engineering and in it he talks about many topics, but one of these is "creativity" [ch. 25]. He makes some interesting remarks which have some relevance to Zettelkasten, which I why I post it here.

A clear definition of creativity is not given, but one of the points he comes across, is that to be "creative", one must at least be able to form connections which seems non-obvious at first. He describes this as having "hooks" inside the mind, which can latch onto topics and ideas and connect them with other topics and ideas. The parallels to Zettelkasten are rather obvious.

Now the interesting thing is this: He argues, that memorization poses a problem for creativity, because it restricts the freedom of association. To paraphrase, it forms a "right" way of thinking, which puts our mind on a well-trodden path and thus we don't get to stumble into new ideas.

This is incredibly interesting w.r.t. to a Zettelkasten and how to work with it. For sure, there are no pre-determined hierarchies or categories. We are free to connect as we please. But! if the exploration and browsing of the Zettelkasten becomes too samey, we might limit ourselves. Thinking back on my own use, there are definitely some notes and chains of notes which are heavily visited in connection with writing some papers.

I would love to hear if any of you have some ideas (even "obvious" ones) about how to go "off-piste" and seek new paths. Or maybe you don't recognize this issue at all?

Comments

  • @henrikenggaard It's an interesting idea, but I'm not convinced it is correct. It's one of those ideas that sounds like it should be or might be right, but is there any evidence to support it?

    Contrarily, I've moved in the direction of introducing more structure into my ZK in the past month - not too much, but more than I had before. I was feeling too "at sea" about everything in the ZK. Adding a couple of structure notes felt satisfying and, unexpectedly, improved my generation of new zettels. Overall, I'd say more of the formal structure in my ZK comes from tags rather than structure notes (or hubs), but I'm learning the value of, and how to use, the latter.

    On balance, I'm not a proponent of much structure. I like to find an entry point into my ZK and then follow links. Structure within a ZK is good for finding an entry point - it might come from a structure note, searching on a tag, or just browsing a list of notes. But then moving around in a ZK is better done (for me) by following links from zettel to zettel, sometimes along pre-established lines of thought, sometimes along serendipitous ones. I like browsing my note list, occasionally, hoping to find new connections. Oddly and infrequently, as it did early this morning, I can wake up and find my mind already swimming with one or two new zettels, or improvements or new connections for existing zettels. I have an iPad right by my bed, grab it, and capture those ideas before they evaporate. My wife has got used to this :blush:

    I think you are onto an important point, though, in that we should shake up our approach to interacting with our ZK occasionally so that it and we don't become like stale bread. That might come from introducing structure into or removing structure from our ZK. It might come from discovering a new purpose for the ZK and pursuing new themes. It might come from learning something wildly different and outside our comfort zone. It might come from taking a rest and coming back with a refreshed mind, or contrarily, from doubling down and focusing when we have been coasting. My "waking dreams" seem to come after such periods, as if my subconscious has decided to work overtime on some idea or theme.

    Keep in mind that while I have purposes for my ZK and themes I am pursuing, I am not driven to "make it work", as might be some people who use their ZK to help in an intense job or to capture research results for advanced learning. I am relaxed and, I hope, patient with my ZK. I can afford the time to let it take some unanticipated directions, in addition to meeting some of my purposes for it. Somewhat like teaching and mentoring a child.

  • @henrikenggaard said:
    Now the interesting thing is this: He argues, that memorization poses a problem for creativity, because it restricts the freedom of association. To paraphrase, it forms a "right" way of thinking, which puts our mind on a well-trodden path and thus we don't get to stumble into new ideas.

    I think he is on to something here I can apply to my work. But I'm not sure how yet. Anytime I repeatedly do something I forge neural pathways that construct who I am and what I do in the future. I can see where memorization (establishing neural pathways) prevents the spontaneity associated with creativity if those neural pathways cross. But I don't care if she wants to be "creative", want my doctor to memorize the drug formulary!

    The neural rigidity of forming the pathways required for memorization may not limit other types of creativity. I don't remember Hamming talking about different creative types.

    Will Simpson
    I'm a Zettelnant.
    Research: Attention Horizon, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

  • We are venturing into the territory of cognitive psychology, it seems. Worth having a look at Duncker's famous experiment on functional fixedness: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Candle_problem, which shows that people typically have difficulty in seeing another use for a thing. And there is quite a range of articles referenced in the British Psychological Society's research digest: https://digest.bps.org.uk/?s=creative. Some of those may spark some ideas. I seem to recall that working in a second language may have some influence on "creativity", but I can't remember the paper that investigated this.

  • jimjim
    edited February 5

    I have read about a few different recombination techniques to explore their slip box in directions their minds haven't found independently.

    • The original such technique is Luhmann's "pull a few notes at random and see how they relate".
    • Andy Matuschak talks about the possibility of resurfacing pseudo-randomly, privileging the most fruitful notes, through spaced repetition.
    • I have read (and I don't know where; apologies) about the idea of, for instance, pulling a random note and pulling a card from an Oblique Strategies deck. What ideas lie at the intersection of "Most understand only contextually that they forget most of what they think" (and its neighbors) and "A line has two sides"?

    I am also intrigued by the possibilities Maggie Appleton's visual-thinking approach (~19:45), but I'm probably years away from usefully commenting on it.

    Post edited by jim on
  • @henrikenggaard said:
    As I wrote in the weekly work thread, I've been reading Richard Hamming's The Art of Doing Science and Engineering and in it he talks about many topics, but one of these is "creativity" [ch. 25]. He makes some interesting remarks which have some relevance to Zettelkasten, which I why I post it here.

    A clear definition of creativity is not given, but one of the points he comes across, is that to be "creative", one must at least be able to form connections which seems non-obvious at first. He describes this as having "hooks" inside the mind, which can latch onto topics and ideas and connect them with other topics and ideas. The parallels to Zettelkasten are rather obvious.

    Now the interesting thing is this: He argues, that memorization poses a problem for creativity, because it restricts the freedom of association. To paraphrase, it forms a "right" way of thinking, which puts our mind on a well-trodden path and thus we don't get to stumble into new ideas.

    This is incredibly interesting w.r.t. to a Zettelkasten and how to work with it. For sure, there are no pre-determined hierarchies or categories. We are free to connect as we please. But! if the exploration and browsing of the Zettelkasten becomes too samey, we might limit ourselves. Thinking back on my own use, there are definitely some notes and chains of notes which are heavily visited in connection with writing some papers.

    I would love to hear if any of you have some ideas (even "obvious" ones) about how to go "off-piste" and seek new paths. Or maybe you don't recognize this issue at all?

    I don't see any merit in claims of this type. By "this type" I mean that something learned will hinder you to discover something new. It is just a version of the modern myth of creativity that is somehow opposed to dilligence, routine and everything that has regularity or certainty in it.

    I never heard of anyone creative who hadn't had a vast body of knowledge at least in his field. To be creative, you need to have one foot in the known and the other in the unknown. A firmer stance in the known does not prevent anyone to place the other in the unknown.

    In the end, it is an empirical question and not one that can be answered by creating theory.

    When I am pushing knowledge work and concentrating on my Zettelkasten I create new knowledge on a weekly basis. Some cases are:

    • A new model for flow to explain more cases that are not covered nor explained by the simple flow channel.
    • An improved frame of understanding the symbolic meaning of heroism in myth, folklore and religion. (meaning: different levels of heroism)
    • A new trainingssplit that optimises frequency better in certain phases.
    • A new political design to reduce possibility of corruption
    • An easy way of filtering investments opportunities to reduce cognitive burdon for retail investors.
    • A model for relationships that can be used to explain women the various types of relationships they had and why some failed and some not. (models to explain opposite sex issues are quite difficult to generate I think)
    • A better model to measure inflation than the ones I know
    • A solution for a fantasy novel to make it plausible that most of global relevant actions happen on one continent.

    This is just by going through the last notes I created.

    I could make some theory about how I generate new ideas. But the reality is that I just push myself to process a lot of very diverse material and try to solve problems. Sometimes, I need to understand what is hard for me to comprehend. Sometimes, I need to solve a problem with my clients. Sometimes, it is just luck that I thought about a connection.

    But the common theme is that I put myself under pressure. Creativity happens when you put yourself in a place where it is inevitable to transform what you know or even yourself. Some of the most creative places are prisons, gulags, concentrations camps etc. Or think of the creativity of a person who suffers from paranoia. There is no lightness to creativity. It is mostly a result of external or internal pressure that can't be avoided.

    I am a Zettler

  • Another avenue of related exploration is to think of the type of connections you are trying to foster. Are they direct links between concepts? Or are you looking at top down connections, such as how concepts are thematically connected.

    @jeannelking is getting a PhD in humanistic psychology (creativity studies specialization) and probably would have a good answer for this.

  • @sfast I like your answer; it fits well with my own discomfort with the initial hypothesis.

  • @jim said:
    I have read about a few different recombination techniques to explore their slip box in directions their minds haven't found independently.

    I am also intrigued by the possibilities Maggie Appleton's visual-thinking approach (~19:45), but I'm probably years away from usefully commenting on it.

    Thanks for the youtube link, Jim. Lots of fascinating stuff beyond the visual-thinking. I love how she's integrated Keyboard Maestro into her workflow. Beautiful stuff.

    Will Simpson
    I'm a Zettelnant.
    Research: Attention Horizon, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

  • edited February 6

    @sfast wrote:
    Some of the most creative places are prisons, gulags, concentrations camps etc.

    Christian reminded me of some possible misunderstandings: I think of the various types of weapons prisoners craft, the super sophisticated escape plans, the secret communication systems, Solzhenitsyn's memorisation of books etc.

    Creativity is crucial to my work. So, I make sure to study it from all angles. Like all my topics, I make an effort to not think in narrow paths by creating representations and ideals. (Which could count as a decision to be creative)

    Example: Most people who try to become stronger model their training after a representation of strength. Many think of bodybuilders, powerlifters and sometimes strongman. Some think of gymnasts. But few associate arm wrestlers who have an intricate knowledge of their hand and arm which can be translated to models for strength in other areas.

    I am a Zettler

  • @Will said:
    Thanks for the youtube link, Jim. Lots of fascinating stuff beyond the visual-thinking.

    We're incredibly lucky that Maggie is thinking so publicly about knowledge work and her approach to her own.

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