Zettelkasten Forum

The siren song of brain prosthetics

On the principle that most people have nothing to say that is worth hearing, here is my intro.

Over the years I've tried to organize and improve my note-taking, writing, drawing and research with index cards, blogs, Kanban boards, journals, mind maps, structured procrastination, spaced-repetition algorithms for long-term memory, dual-N-back for short-term memory, bookmarking sites like delicio.us and pinboard.in, flash cards, incremental reading in SuperMemo, Microsoft One Note, Scrivener, Markup, Markdown, YAML, emails to myself, wikis and straw grasping.

Of these, wikis seem to have been the most effective, until they too ran out of gas. Still, the siren song of brain prosthetics, ringing like the tinnitus in my ears, has somehow led me to the Zettelkasten Method. 

I am impressed with this community.

Post edited by ZettelDistraction on


  • edited March 30

    @ZettelDistraction wrote:
    On the principle that most people have nothing to say that is worth hearing

    There few statements that are more wrong than this statement. I never encountered any person who didn't have some things worth listening. To a good listener, any person is interesting.

    Welcome to the forums. :)

    I am a Zettler

  • edited March 30

    @ZettelDistraction, welcome to the community.

    You lucky dog to have such a low Erdős number!

    As a budding writer, I love your literation on the list of "brain prosthetics." Traveling through similar terrain, we've all landed here. I've learned on my journey that there ain't no magic bullet, no genie in a bottle, no fairy dust whose sprinkling cures my longing for a deep and meaningful experience connecting with what I learn. It takes work and time. We're all here looking for ways to share ideas to make the work a little easier, a little less likely to lead us into trouble, more engaging, more connected with our lives and goals, and more fun.

    Also, love your combo of alluding to Greek Mythology, neuroscience, and biology in the title of this post. It makes me wonder about the literary creativity of your note titles compared to my dull monikers?

    Post edited by Will on

    Will Simpson
    I'm a zettelnant.
    Research areas: Attention Horizon, Productive Procrastination, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing

  • @ZettelDistraction

    Welcome to the forum! Sounds like you've been around the track many times. A lot of us have.

    I love the principle and practice of Zettelkasten and reading about others' experiences in this forum. A word of warning, though - ZK is not a panacea nor is it (necessarily) simple to learn. But it is very flexible, so each person can tailor it to their own needs and ways of working.

  • Thank you for the warm welcome!

    It is true: I have been around the track (not to mention the primrose path--pardon the paralipsis) many times, including enough of those laps where one almost loses patience with life-changing methods. Decades of severe obstructive sleep apnea can "modulate" one's enthusiam too. 

    As for software,  since my iMac sits unplugged underneath my desk, I'm leaning toward Obsidian, despite the apocalyptic connotations--I'm reminded of the flake of obsidian in "The Road."

  • Ah, another SuperMemo expat! So glad to find someone who also did incremental reading! :smiley:

    I was literally just finishing a comment critiquing SM vs the ZK method, based on my experience using SM for a couple of years.


    My follow-up comment is just a couple comments down from that.

    Out of curiosity, when you did IR did you do it as shown in Wozniak's videos and in the examples of others, i.e. copying in text from a source and then selectively whittling it down into cloze deletions to memorize facts / ideas / etc?

    If so there is a much better approach through ZK that would have worked quite well with SM were it not so difficult and cranky and brittle. Love to talk more about this.

  • edited March 31

    My edits have been deleted. I had written replies twice, but at some point Save Comment morphs into Delete Comment. I lack the energy to reconstruct a third attempt. I am interested in your critique of incremental reading, however.

  • @ZettelDistraction Sorry to hear that. I look forward to discussion on this topic. My opinion is that ZK can be augmented using IR techniques, and I effectively do IR now except for the automated display and prioritization components. My reading inbox has a great many articles I've collected, many unread but several in various stages of reading and processing. This simulates the interleaving. I don't have the SM IR prioritization piece but am considering ways to implement that using scripts that query on YML front matter in the markdown files. That's pie in the sky ideas though and it may never be needed for this, as it may just be better to make outlines that group together items in the reading inbox so I can pick multiple sources on topics of interest in any priority I choose.

    So its "lazy IR" rather than programmed IR.

    My suspicion is that an Obsidian plugin or external script can be written to add the scheduled "flip" through the sources in priority order, but it isn't clear how much value that would provide.

  • edited April 1

    The distinguishing feature of Piotr Wozniak's incremental reading algorithm--at least what struck me about it--is that the readings are scheduled to be revisited and dissected into cloze deletions (or else greyed out or chopped up) in increasing intervals. This is supposed to counteract the Collector's Fallacy. Incremental reading still looks to me like a work in progress, and I abandoned it after a few attempts in SuperMemo and in Anki, using plugins for IR. The opportunity cost of using incremental reading versus not using it doesn't seem to justify the effort.

    I did not watch Piotr's videos--I was using IR before Piotr posted any. My other experience with incremental reading was on the receiving end of it, in an extended correspondence with Piotr Wozniak. The replies were extracted from email entered into his Incremental Reading queue, and they arrived, edited down to the parts he decided to respond to, only after the incremental reading algorithm scheduled them, at ever increasing intervals. Eventually the replies stopped altogether. It was as if GOLEM XIV itself, the superluminal supercomputer of Stanislaw Lem's Imaginary Magnitude, had computationally modelled enough of its human interlocutor's intellectual range as to obviate further interaction.

    Speaking of opportunity costs, I like Sacha Fast's idea to use a low tech pen and notebook to begin with. The reasons he gives are convincing. I am very much in the neophyte stage.

  • @ZettelDistraction @davecan - can I join the conversation?

    The more you talk about IR, the more I see that this is one of the key ways I interact with my notes, although I'd call it something different. The incremental part, I'm onboard with 100%! The Progressive movement toward understanding. The reading part was my sticking point. Idiosyncratically, reading seems too passive, too much like sitting on the couch with a tea and the iPad. I want to think that what is meant by IR is really Incremental Editing, moving a note along to better and better formulate novel ideas. To use a gardening metaphor, weeding and pruning, fertilizing, and harvesting. I'm sure now that is what you mean by IR. Not simply re-reading a note, re-familiarizing yourself with an idea. Instead, biting into it and munching it, extending it, seeing where it connects with other ideas.

    First, I on-board an idea into a note. Usually, the note is in rough and frankly embarrassing shape, and then comes the fun of editing it in place, and it morphs and changes into a unique idea.

    Technology helps by putting a list of IR/e candidate notes in front of your eyes at the appropriate time. I think this is a GTD principle. For me, I use Keyboard Maestro to create a template inserted into my morning daily journaling session. It has x-callback-url links that present notes in a way that helps me Incrementally Read/Edit them.

    What I have a hard time with is the prioritization of which notes get presented. I have to admit that this is something I've only thought about in the small, small world between my ears. I can't see where any algorithm can predict relevance. By that, I mean an algorithm can't know the best idea for me to engage with at any given moment. I keep presently created notes in the priority queue, figuring that they must be relevant, and I mix in a random idea for Increment Read/Editing. I also look at everything I created 365 days and 730 days ago, mostly for laughs and to see how far I've come.

    This is only a partial snapshot that shows 26 notes for IR/e! Some take only a moment to re-read and get no edits. Some are incrementally edited and further integrated into my zettelkasten, and then they are re-queued into tomorrow's IR/e session.

    Will Simpson
    I'm a zettelnant.
    Research areas: Attention Horizon, Productive Procrastination, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing

  • edited April 2

    @Will Of course you can join. In the absence of studies on the effectiveness of incremental reading, however this is interpreted in ZK, I'll stick with a minimalist ZK.

    I'm taking my time reading through the introduction, Ahrens's book, the forum, etc.,--even Nathan L. King on the intellectual virtues. Again I find myself in agreement with @sfast, who wrote elsewhere in the forum that Zettels come in two types (roughly): source Zettels (citations) and interpreted or worked-through Zettels.

    Perhaps the Zettelkasten Method encourages the formation of chunks (as in the CHREST model of chunking networks) and the schemata of cognitive load theory. This is purely speculative and vague--too vague (not to mention obvious) to rise to the level of thought. I'm far from an expert.

    For definitions and remarks on the state of the modeling art on chunks, schemata, see Fernand Gobet, Peter C. R. Lane, and Martyn Lloyd-Kelly. Chunks, Schemata, and Retrieval Structures: Past and Current Computational Models.

    We're a long way from incremental reading. I hope I don't trip the spam filter again.

    Post edited by ZettelDistraction on
  • edited April 2

    Apropos of nothing, after losing a debate with myself, I've decided to try Zettlr.

    Post edited by ZettelDistraction on
  • @Will

    Technology helps by putting a list of IR/e candidate notes in front of your eyes at the appropriate time.

    Yes this is it exactly. One distinction though, its not about relevance but rather about priority. As you say it would be difficult/impossible to make an algorithm essentially read your mind to identify relevant reading. (interesting caveat below)

    Since the term and concept of IR was coined by the SuperMemo creator it is traditionally defined in relation to this process: progressively read and process into flashcards, until source is completely processed.

    All I'm thinking about is changing that into: progressively read and process into zettels, until source is completely processed.

    Once that distinction is made many of the remaining IR principles can be applied. In particular a prioritization value applied to source notes would allow the user to enter "IR mode" at which point the app would then begin displaying source notes to the user in priority order. The user can then choose to work on the displayed source note by reading some more of the source and taking notes (or watching, or whatever) or decide to skip it for now. In either case the user can also optionally adjust the priority up or down. Once the work with that source is complete for the current session (whether it was worked on or skipped) the user "flips" to the next source in priority order and the note is displayed and the user can begin processing the next source.

    In SM this is traditionally presented as having copy-pasted the entire source material into the source note and then iteratively whittling it down into individual flashcards. But the material doesn't have to be in the note itself, though it can be if desired and if it can be pasted in without technical limitations.

    So its really about programming attention by showing the sources in priority order.

    There's also an element of pseudo-randomness added in with SM so they aren't strictly in a linear sequence, because they are interleaved with the flashcards as well. So you may get a flashcard, then an IR to process, then two more flashcards, then three IR's to process, etc. It's shuffled each day.

    * Note however I can envision a capability in an app where, given a source note with specific metadata / URL in the YML front matter, the app accesses the source and indexes it behind the scenes. Then when you are interacting with an individual zettel the app correlates the information in the zettel with the indexed information and recommends additional notes to consider looking at, including potentially relevant source notes. This could get messy though but would be an interesting avenue of pursuit.)

  • @ZettelDistraction Yes ZK definitely encourages chunking of concepts and linking them in a mesh of interrelated thoughts. It enables systems thinking and pattern finding.

    Agree with you that IR is not something that can truly be replicated easily. There is something remarkably powerful about how SM works internally in this matter. But given its fairly brittle support structure, very limited ecosystem, and continued reliance on increasingly outdated technology I just don't see it as a viable long-term knowledge development tool like the ZK method. Hopefully the SM algorithm will be set free from the current technical constraints and we will see an ecosystem form around it, unlocking its potential.

  • In other news, my onboard ethernet adapter refused to work. The hardware was fine. Restore points failed. A network reset left both the wifi and the ethernet adapters unusable. I had to reset Windows 10 with user files preserved. Now re-installing apps. I'm close to resuscitating my iMac and installing The Archive. Another wasted Sunday.

  • @GeoEng51 Now I'm familiar with programs that undermine restore points--I won't install those. OBS, Virtual Box...on my machine these create points of no return. My next astounding feat will be to solve the "something went wrong" Microsoft error when re-enabling email accounts. Under Windows, the personal is corporate. :#

  • edited April 10

    I have settled on Zettlr+MikTeX+Pandoc+Zotero+BetterBibTeX, partly because of a superannuated iMac, and because of extensive familiarity with LaTeX and BibTeX (at one time, at any rate).

    I feel compelled to defend Ahrens against an academic review of How to Take Smart Notes. The reviewer misses Ahrens's longueurs on concision, and then suggests, bizarrely, that Ahrens missed an opportunity to remark that the neo-liberal university has created economic pressures that make books like "How to Take Smart Notes" necessary. To begin with, Ahrens's book distinguishes itself from other such books--leaving aside whether they take the neoliberal university as given. While academics face ideologically motivated economic pressures, the book is interesting to writers under neoliberalism or otherwise. If Ahrens truly missed an opportunity to comment decisively on the need for his book among academics, who might stand accused of perpetuating an unjust system by creating their own Zettelkasten, then academics need not read it. Or they could read the review and add the requisite apologia to their Zettelkasten.

  • edited April 11

    @ZettelDistraction i find this review rather confusing. It seems like we are discussing the comparison of apples and pears; and even that only so much as to say that it is not the same. The expectations set for the reader are exaggerated, but what exactly are these expectations? A method, more innovative that Luhmann's Zettelkasten? How is the work not innovative, why do we expect it to be and in which way Ahren's technique on smart notes may reduce the quality of science? (are smart notes a drop-in replacement for the scientific method?) Etc, etc. there are many judgements thrown in the air but not a single point is made.

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • edited April 11

    @zk_1000 There are a few points made, as well as insinuations, though I doubt they would lead Ahrens to respond. Perhaps the reviewer would be satisfied with a statement (the optimal medium for this is the Tweet) such as, "I neglected to account for the market forces that create a demand for books like mine. For this I am profoundly sorry for the in-principle unspecifiable metaphysical harm I have caused, and pledge all further proceeds from the book to a cause of the reviewer's choosing." Luhmann's method predates the neoliberal era, which began around 1979 in China, Great Britain and the United States. It's of independent interest.

    There is the not unexpected dig against science: "The ever-increasing demands of high productivity in compressed time frames is imposed by the neoliberal university (Mountz et al., 2015) result in a toxic culture of science dominated by a ‘publish or perish’ ideology (Colquhoun, 2011)." Maybe stop writing so many reviews.

    This statement is correct: "Taking notes when reading a text may be common for most, but
    formulating these notes in a way that makes it possible to add them up to a fully
    developed paper with original ideas, and entering such notes systematically into the
    externalized system of the slip box may seem unnatural at first. Ahrens however ... ."

    A confession: I am putting off reading the documentation on Zotero etc., with my "condescension from below."

  • edited April 11

    Luhmann was (still is) a very productive person which rises interest and admiration. Just like Albert Einsteins brain is studied to explore why he was exceptionally intelligent, Luhmann's Zettelkasten is studied to explore why he was so productive. Forming these contexts is indeed insinuating but there is nothing wrong with it, popularity and anecdotes are used to rise interest to the outsider into an unfamiliar topic.

    I don't have the impression that the quantity of Luhmann's publications have been mentioned in any other context as to introduce the Zettelkasten to the reader. Further claims on productivity are not related to publications at all. Instead, they are related to writing itself, such as the number of daily written notes.

    There are exceptions, for example the claim that writers with smart note taking can easily surpass those without.

    @ZettelDistraction said:
    This statement is correct: "Taking notes when reading a text may be common for most, but formulating these notes in a way that makes it possible to add them up to a fully developed paper with original ideas, and entering such notes systematically into the externalized system of the slip box may seem unnatural at first. Ahrens however ... ."

    Radical changes are not good, but what is a radical change? This is very subjective to the individual reader, there's nothing a book author could do to account for that. Independent of changes or not, i believe it is always worth it reconsidering old habits or believes.

    Despite of this I agree there are several good points made here, so i was wrong about that. When the advices are too concrete it can be distracting to the reader, from current workflows or initial goals. It could lead to overconfidence in the technique, causing too many changes at the same time. Also, this:

    Ahrens’ valuable contribution lies less in providing an innovative technique of note-taking and the organization of academic writing, but more in reflecting critically on the very nature of writing as a medium of knowledge generation.

    I think that it is not evident for the greater part of the book what it is focusing on. Apart from insufficient overview, for a book about writing, learning and thinking it is either too generic, or partially to specific.

    Perhaps i am missing something, but the dig against science is unjustified. Ahren does not specify the area where his technique should be applied. It is not competing with other workflows or methods. Ahren's work is a niche product which addresses problems that arise while reading or writing. He does not promise higher productivity in any market. Isn't it more likely the reader itself is giving into such demands while searching for books like these? Is it really the author formulating exaggerated expectations or where they formed by the reader, even before finding this book? Partially, they are indeed formed by the author, but at the end of the day the reader must judge for himself what he is expecting to find and whether the book provides support for that. A lack of overview makes this task needlessly difficult, however.

    Post edited by zk_1000 on

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • edited April 12

    The dig against science was gratuitous. The reviewer blames the sciences for a "toxic culture" that has spread amoeba-like into the humanities.

    We have given this academic reviewer more air time than they deserve. Citation in this case is zero-sum: it makes little sense to compound one's losses by continuing to cite them.

  • Skimming over that review I find myself wondering if the writer was simply using that as an excuse to rant about the publish-or-perish mindset they are currently trapped in as they furiously typed out a review to publish ASAP. Critic's gotta critic after all, so better find something and publish or die...

    Regarding Ahrens' book I will say that while it is quite good at motivating one to adopt the method it is relatively weak on specific examples of the principles in action. Many people begin adopting the ideas and run into issues and then go "Well, now what?" and come up empty handed unless they are in this or a related forum. (I've seen many complaints from people to that effect) I understand @sfast is writing his book to be more approachable as a step by step guide and less of a philosophy book.

    What I'd almost like to see is a book in the style of the old programming books from the 2000s: start with a project where the instructor spends the first few chapters giving you code snippets to type in and tells you briefly what and why. Then once the initial basic project is built and running the rest of the book dives deep into each of the fundamental ideas that you encountered during the throwaway project.

    This would give readers direct experience at the method. Then they could decide what components and principles to tweak as needed, after they've actually used them hands-on.

  • edited April 12

    @davecan I agree with you about Ahrens. The first part of the book on what you need for a Zettelkasten and on the types of notes is useful. So is the advice that only writing matters. I find Ahrens's book most helpful in conjunction with the many valuable resources here. And @sfast's book looks promising enough to start studying German again. (My attitude that a foreign language shouldn't impede the study of an international subject outstrips my ability.)

    An update: I doubt there ever will be a satisfactory verbal theory of Zettlekasten that can predict "good" versus "bad" implementations of them, based on some remarks of Gobet, F., Lane, P. C., & Lloyd-Kelly, M. (2015). Chunks, Schemata, and Retrieval Structures: Past and Current Computational Models. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 1785. Gobet et al write, "...not enough constraints are provided by verbal theories, and thus too much freedom is left in the way they can be interpreted."

    Luhmann speaks of the Zettelkasten reaching a "critical mass." It's difficult to quantify. In combinatorics (Ramsey theory, specifically), any sufficiently large structure is going to contain a large substructure--in this case, a Zettelkasten with "enough" links is going to contain a complete subgraph of Zettels. So what are we talking about when we speak of clustering within a Zettelkasten or its critical mass? Is this just an independent combinatorial phenomenon, or something else? A verbal description, which is what Luhmann, Ahrens and others provide, is unlikely to provide answers that will withstand scientific scrutiny.

    I suspect computational modeling of Zettelkasten is needed--whatever form that would take. Until then, for me the pursuit of Zettelkasten is a matter of faith, a last resort: everything else has failed, so why not.

    Post edited by ZettelDistraction on
  • edited April 13

    The adoption of the Zettelkasten Method is, for me the continuation of a transformation normally associated with The Outer Limits.

    Over a year ago, on February 8, 2020, I began CPAP therapy. I was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea. A year later, I'm sleeping normally. I have no recollection of restorative sleep prior to CPAP. 

    Recently I read two research reports on the effect of CPAP therapy on the gray and white matter in the brain lost to severe sleep apnea. According to the research, three months of CPAP therapy was enough to restore the lost gray matter, and twelve months was enough to restore the lost white matter.

    I was looking forward to a Flowers-for-Algernon-like cognitive transformation, though without the catastrophic decline. Either that or transformation into Cliff Robertson.

    Now I would like to assign to hypoxia of the brain everything I've done prior to this.

  • I suspect the "critical mass" is probably dependent on several factors including personal interest, discipline in writing notes well, targeted vs untargeted information collection, etc.

    But there may be some general patterns that happen in "phases" so to speak.

    For example, in the first few dozen notes one may have no real need for much structure. Then as it grows one finds a need for a note to capture links to other notes – the first "hub" appears. Somewhere around the first few hundred (give or take potentially a good bit) several (potentially many) hubs exist and the need for "hubs of hubs" has appeared. Charted paths (outlines) as a first-class citizen may also have appeared by now as the need for actual structure is identified (as opposed to just "dumping ground of note links"-style hubs). Workflows are becoming more refined. By the time 1,000 notes is reached the boundaries between topics may become increasingly blurry, with an increasing number of notes acting as "bridge" notes between major concepts/domains (as opposed to just "hubs") as patterns and themes are identified. One has already begun thinking much more in terms of "how can this new information fit into and extend my existing knowledge structure in the ZK." Working with it has already begun to feel like working with an organism rather than a set of files, and discussion of the ZK becomes philosophical i.e. "let the links tell you where they want to go in the note" etc.

    This is just some ideas based on my experiences. I'm sure others have more insight.

  • edited April 14

    @davecan Those are verbal descriptions--not that they aren't valuable. If you follow the reference, verbal descriptions (as opposed to computational models) are too vague to yield falsifiable theories, testable predictions and reproducible results.

    Post edited by ZettelDistraction on
  • It's practially irrelevant to quantify the critical mass. You have to grow you Zettelkasten until you both hit quantifiable thresholds as well as non-quantifiable ones (e.g. your own proficiency with the software and the method, as well as your reading abilities etc.). The critical mass depends on you as a person, too. Not only on objective facts in the world.

    I am a Zettler

  • @sfast I disagree that the parenthetically listed thresholds are non-quantifiable (if that's what you meant). Software proficiency and reading ability are measurable. The variety of software implementations would complicate matters, as well as the variety of possible notes one might add to a Zettelkasten.

    Now if the significant relevant factors are subjective or else methodologically inaccessible, but somehow the "output" of the Zettelkasten is measurable--Luhmann's body of work is often cited as a reason to create your own Zettelkasten--then we might as well be researching genius, or some other elusive notion.

  • Do you disagree by feel or on the grounds of evidence?

    I am a Zettler

  • I don't think that critical mass is a good motivating factor for good / bad implementations. Drawing attention to, or even enforcing conventions for critical mass is not scalable. You want to achieve the exact opposite so you can work on a single topic at a time.

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

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