Zettelkasten Forum

Upgrade Atomic Thinking to Holistic Thinking

imageUpgrade Atomic Thinking to Holistic Thinking

The brain's analytical way of breaking complex things down into atomic parts is important. But it is far from all that is needed.

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  • Thank you, Sascha, for this insightful article :-)

    I have a question related to this part of the text:

    1. If we follow the barbell method of reading, we do not start with the exact analysis, but in the first reading cycle we look at the source as a whole. In doing so, we only notice individual things that stand out. We stay in right brain mode for as long as we can. We gain a feeling for the source rather than exact knowledge.
    2. In processing, the second reading cycle, we begin the analysis: we dissect the source into individual atomic thoughts. We make full use of the strength of the left hemisphere.
    3. We relate each atomic thought, each note, to other thoughts. This is a difficult step because on the one hand we are still using the analytical and thinking in parts left hemisphere. On the other hand, we have to make the leap to hand over the individual parts to our right hemisphere to create a whole.

    Once we have read the source for the first time, and we are doing the processing, what is better?

    A - Do the analysis of all the individual atomic thoughts (2) and, once that step is done, start relating all the atomic thoughts (3)?

    B - Do the analysis for some individual atomic thoughts (2) and relate them (3) and then continue analysing the source (2) for some more individual atomic thoughts?

    When it comes to short sources or sources with few ideas, I can have them analysed in their entirety and then integrate the knowledge into the Zettelkasten.

    But when it comes to very long sources or sources with a lot of ideas, this workflow does not work so well for me because it is really exhausting to do (2) for the whole source and then apply (3) to the result.

  • B, unless you have superhuman memory. :)

    I am a Zettler

  • Thank you!

    I will do that from now on :-)

  • This blog post has got me thinking about my zettelkasting practices. I agree that the holistic approach you write about leads to free-flowing creativity. I feel that an active review habit is what, for me, keeps the cycle of re-analyzing and re-creative emersion. I find reviewing old notes sparks new ideas. This is what I love about zettelkasting.


    The following is my note processing my understanding. I love this opportunity to fold analytical thinking with creative imagination that @Sascha has gifted us with.

    Notes are proxies for ideas.
    1. Analytical processes hold ideas at a distance to examine them.
    2. Creative processes intermingle with ideas intimately dancing as moods dictate.
    3. The holistic process marries the analytical and the creative into a powerful chimera.

    It is too easy to discuss using the classical metaphor of the two halves of the brain locked in a war.
    Your use of musical education as a metaphor is refreshing. Like a craftsman, a musician uses both an analytical and creative emersion in back-and-forth dance with an idea to nurture their life. "He ascends into the sky and breaks free from the body's limitations. At the same time, he keeps contact with the earth and feels the ground."

    Ideas are impoverished when only analyzed. The creative process without any understanding is doomed. The flourishing of ideas comes from the interplay between creative, free-flowing associations and analytical work.


    It is not the length of the distance our mind has to travel that challenges us. Rather, it is the question of what the first steps are. Once we get going, the path almost goes by itself.

    In this context, I'll go out on a limb, promptly chainsawing it off, and say that the first step is analysis. Start from a place recording fragments of understanding collected in a note. This will start the back-and-forth dance if the idea has potential.

    Metaphorically speaking, the left brain takes what the right brain presents as whole and living and dissects it until it is dead. Our right hemisphere seems at home with the living world of ideas, while the left hemisphere is an industrial complex that rips out the living and feeds its cold machinery with it. Even worse, the left hemisphere seems greedy, holding on to the ideas it has taken out. However, in the end, the ideas should be returned to the right hemisphere to become part of the living world of thought again.

    This seems harsh. Something similar might happen in extreme pathological cases, but I tend to think in gentler terms.

    Paraphrasing Sascha's graceful metaphor.
    Only when we are in touch with the living earth can we truly become creative and soar into the sky.

    Yes, the back-and-forth of analysis and creative ideation connecting ideas is the leap that makes for the paradigm shift that happens when deep in the flow of zettelkasting.

    The life of a zettelnaut soars into the troposphere only when we do more than analyze.

    Will Simpson
    I must keep doing my best even though I'm a failure. My peak cognition is behind me. One day soon I will read my last book, write my last note, eat my last meal, and kiss my sweetie for the last time.

  • I have been lurking on the forums/blogs for awhile, and I happen to have just finished a music degree and teach music at a K-2 school now. I want to keep elaborating on your musician comparison in the article. One thing that occurs in the brains of well-practiced jazz musicians is that the circuits in the brain associated with self-criticism or analysis are suppressed when they are improvising. This is like when we are in the flow of writing or speaking about ideas and we are overcome with excitement or passion about these ideas so that we aren't really analyzing them. These moments are necessary because they lead to things like feedback from other people. (the audience in the case of a musician)

    The process you described of a whole train of thought leaving the right brain to be broken into parts and reassembled is parallel to the "whole-part-whole" approach in music teaching. When I want to teach a brief song to my students, I start by singing the whole song for them. Then I might ask questions that focus their attention on a single part of the song. Then I might have them practice different pieces of the song. I keep connecting parts of the song until they are performing the whole song. Then we can enjoy the flow of performing the whole song together and playing whatever game or dance is associated with the song.

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