Zettelkasten Forum


In which I ask myself: does building a second brain distract from doing hard work in my real brain?

edited November 2017 in Random

In @ctietze comments here: https://forum.zettelkasten.de/discussion/comment/335/#Comment_335 was the phrase

dozens of hours of processing notes.

This phrase strikes home for me:

Up till about six months ago I would take ridiculous amounts of notes on every kind of media I encountered: podcasts, videos, books, articles, papers... if I read, watched or listened to it I would take notes and "process" what I had learned into my growing "knowledge base". I would go back through my notes and re-write them, edit them, sort them, work with them, thinking about how they related, and how they linked together. I was determined with a vengeance to build a second brain. (I even spent countless hours building, testing, and improving tools for myself, both software and hardware!)

But all to what end? I had never questioned my motivations for such intense cataloging of knowledge. I just assumed integrating all this knowledge outside my head would "free up my brain to think". I accepted as "common sense" that building a second brain would prevent me from forgetting important information, and would enhance my cognitive abilities.

I was a little startled one day when it occurred to me the kind of thinking I was doing while processing notes and working with my Zettelkasten might not be the same kind of thinking I was doing when actively trying to understand something in my own head. This concerned me.

I began to wonder if by not really working to do all the thinking in my own head I was slowly degrading my ability to think in certain important ways? As in: "If you don't use it, you lose it" -- Was I over-practicing a specific kind of "processing" and under-practicing a specific kind of deep thinking?

Then another question occurred to me: How competent am I to determine the contents of my second brain in the first place? Do I have the necessary knowledge in my own head to be able to determine what should and should not be included in any specific note? How does my current point of view influence how I write any specific note? Would a future-me summarize that note in a different manner? (If so, does this imply I should re-visit source texts in future to compare them to the notes in my Zettelkasten?)

Put another way: if I am incompetent in "processing" notes into my second brain because of a poor point of view in my first brain could I unknowingly create a bias in my second brain and thus set me in a track of thinking I might never find my way out of? (This of course made me wonder if a generalized non-project specific second-brain Zettelkasten shouldn't be deleted and built up from scratch again every few years to give a clean start?)

And of course the ultimate question, rather bluntly put: What is the point of developing a second brain at all if one has the opportunity to develop a first brain? Why spend time at all working in my second brain if it takes time away from working in my first brain?

These questions ran completely counter to my original perspective and understanding on note-taking. I assumed I had all the answers. But I didn't! and still don't! And I have other questions too, more poorly formed than these. (And these are rather poorly formed to be honest. Re-formulations welcome!!)

So I find myself in an odd place at the moment. I still take lots of notes out of habit. But increasingly my notes begin to take the form of expressive writing of some kind: externalization of my own interior rumination. (They take the form of "thinking on paper" or "scratch pad thoughts" -- (mostly they are half-ideas and partial-concepts and hardly something I would include in a zettelkasten.) I find myself increasingly less likely to write notes summarizing someone else's writing. Why should I, when I can just re-read what they already wrote and think about it a little more deeply?

As you can see I have more questions than answers right now. I'm curious to hear any and all responses. I have no personal stake in the matter, as I'm just trying to think about ways to think better. To that end, any criticism is welcome!

Open-mindedly,
Nick

Comments

  • edited November 2017

    Thank you for sharing this, Nick, and good to have you back, by the way :)

    I was determined with a vengeance to build a second brain. (I even spent countless hours building, testing, and improving tools for myself, both software and hardware!)

    But all to what end? I had never questioned my motivations for such intense cataloging of knowledge. I just assumed integrating all this knowledge outside my head would "free up my brain to think".

    Yeah, I can relate to that!

    It's a lot like programming without a clear vision. Every feature you add, every bug you fix solidifies the current state and puts a handful of follow-up actions on the plate to pick from. Add some user feedback and you might be headed towards designing (or rather, not designing at all!) a terrible piece of software with little coherence. But it's very easy to get lost in the process completely.

    With knowledge work, I like the feeling of getting lost in the flood of ideas. And I love to write and type. It's all very satisfying. But sometimes I notice that I didn't pay as much attention as I should have during the past minutes. "What am I doing this for?", or as the hours pass by: "Is this really of importance, moving me towards some end, or is this just pleasurable idling?"

    Well, "obtaining more knowledge" sounds like a very good end, and it's easy to cheat oneself into commiting to high-level busy-work. To a bystander, it seems as if you do something profound; but on the inside, you sometimes know perfectly well that this is just your geeky version of hanging around on Facebook, but with 100% self-made imaginatory friends.

    Edit: My Zettelkasten suggested a connection to Matthew B. Crawford (2010): Shop Class as Soulcraft. An inquiry into the value of work, Penguin Books:
    As an electrician, flipping the switch and seeing that it becomes light is "an experience of agency and competence." (Crawford 2010, p 14) It is a pleasurable moment. The same thing happens when you write tests for your code and the tests pass; it's addicting. I think creating a new Zettel and putting a link to it somewhere is very similar. It gives you a feeling of agency: you are in control, period. The repetition of feeling in control can make it addictive. (I bet @sfast has something to offer on this with reference to dopamine.) Put more poignant: Processing Zettel notes but may result in prioritizing the wrong thing: pleasure over accomplishment.

    How does my current point of view influence how I write any specific note? Would a future-me summarize that note in a different manner? (If so, does this imply I should re-visit source texts in future to compare them to the notes in my Zettelkasten?)

    This is highly probable, and it's an effect that can be both disastrous and immensely helpful.

    • Disastrous, because lots of my old notes are at the brink of uselessness; I was writing something about the content under some headline, but it was by no means streamlined for later retrieval or re-use in my own writing. I was thinking through writing, but I didn't discard all the garbage that I created in proces, resulting in huge notes or lots of interconnected notes that could be "refactored" into fewer but more meaningful Zettel.
    • Helpful as in: you enable your Future Me to add his own take. If you don't write down what you think today, then you cannot respond, correct, extend, and learn tomorrow. You'll "just" think something different. (Unless it's a technical problem or a puzzle in my life that I'm constantly rolling around in my head, I hardly continue a train of thought from the day before, so whenever I think about a topic twice, the mere act of recall and thus re-construction will make the result different. I'm not implying never continuing a thought is good or healthy. :))

    Put another way: if I am incompetent in "processing" notes into my second brain because of a poor point of view in my first brain could I unknowingly create a bias in my second brain and thus set me in a track of thinking I might never find my way out of?

    Tough question! I had similar doubts, I think, when I realized how shitty my first 2000 notes really were. As my mode of work changed, so did my notes improve. But maybe it's not the change of modes of work, from collecting for the fun of it to creating notes to make progress in specific projects (or come up with new project ideas to put together otherwise orphaned notes). Maybe it's just the frequent discussions with Sascha and having someone else's work to relate my own stuff to.

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • http://christiantietze.de/

  • edited November 2017

    @ctietze said:
    Thank you for sharing this, Nick, and good to have you back, by the way :)

    Thanks! And thanks for your thoughtful response. Here are some initial thoughts:

    Processing Zettel notes but may result in prioritizing the wrong thing: pleasure over accomplishment.

    This was one of my unformed questions. To what degree does our tools & workflow incentivize us to prioritize temporary reward over real work?

    You mentioned Facebook. Back in 2012 Nir Eyal described the concept of a "desire engine" created to capture your attention through behavioral triggers and hook you in to a product to keep you engaged by hijacking your reward mechanisms. This kind of habit-forming technology has become the norm since 2012 and I've been wondering lately how much of the learned behaviors from this kind of technology are seeping over into how we think & work?

    If we spend hours every day interacting with systems designed to induce expectation of quick reward, wouldn't it follow that we might inadvertently begin to fashion tools & workflows that induce the same sort of expectation of quick reward? Would this lead to a detrimental affect on our ability to really think? On our ability to create something profoundly new as opposed to just incrementally new?

    Unless it's a technical problem or a puzzle in my life that I'm constantly rolling around in my head, I hardly continue a train of thought from the day before, so whenever I think about a topic twice, the mere act of recall and thus re-construction will make the result different.

    I've recently begun playing around with the idea of "thinking in themes" as a way to help myself continue a thread of thought from the day before. My idea was: perhaps I can add a narrative structure to my cognition to enable a sort of story-line along which I can move forward and back in time. Giving me a high-level view to see how I have developed an idea, and how it influenced other aspects of my thinking.

    Maybe it's just the frequent discussions with Sascha and having someone else's work to relate my own stuff to.

    I've noticed the effect even a basic conversation has on my thinking. How often do we miss something important or impactful if we focus only on processing Zettel notes without conversing about them?

    Is there a way we could test how conversation about a Zettel note might improve the understanding of that note, and better inform how that note relates to the rest of the zettelkasten body? I'm not suggesting a collaborative Zettelkasten, although that might be interesting! I'm just curious how one might go about testing this in more than an anecdotal fashion.

  • Constantly interacting with systems like Facebook does have the effect you mention. -- Again, @sfast has done research on this, I cannot cite anything scientific from the top of my head (including my Zettelkasten).

    I can only add anecdotes:

    • It makes focus worse: colleagues report how they noticed getting a restless feeling more often and quickly throughout the day since they wear an Apple Watch with sound/vibration notifications
    • Ditching push notifications improved my work: I isolated myself from most push notifications and don't hang around on Facebook or Twitter. At first I threw the baby out with the bathwater when I started my permanent "smartphone detox", sometimes not answering calls, but found a good setting nowadays. In any case I found my ability to concentrate improve, holding items in my head longer than before, which did improve some programming activities (esp. refactoring).

    I've recently begun playing around with the idea of "thinking in themes" as a way to help myself continue a thread of thought from the day before.

    How do you "implement" this? Sit around and remember themes to continue thinking about? Journaling and continuing entries?

    Is there a way we could test how conversation about a Zettel note might improve the understanding of that note, and better inform how that note relates to the rest of the zettelkasten body?

    Testing, as in quantifying?

    I was thinking about keeping parts in the public to talk in the open, too, one day, to leverage a mechanism like open source project's peer-reviewing. -- But who wants to subscribe to (parts of my) idiosyncratic note archive and keep up with changes? That's very impractical. It's not made for consumption.

    To talk about stuff to some purpose, I believe you end up with an article that is a published form of notes, hence commenters will not be giving feedback to the Zettel but the product of Zettel notes. Which beats the initial purpose.

    • Then again, let's say you blog about your research constantly so friends, co-workers, etc. can provide feedback, the act of blogging makes you use your notes more quickly and more often.
    • Using notes for blog posts means you go through the whole knowledge management cycle from "research" to "publish". That means you get feedback about note usefulness earlier, thus learn to write better notes directly. (That's the mechanism I presuppose.)
    • Also, peer pressure can help drive the focus of your Zettelkasten work. Instead of doing anything, pressure to publish a blog post narrows down the possible set of next actions.

    Maybe publishing articles/blog posts and opening the source notes for review could be cool for a look behind the scenes.

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • http://christiantietze.de/

  • edited November 2017

    @ctietze said:
    I can only add anecdotes...

    I have similar anecdotes as well. Your smartphone detox sounds like mine! But I'm also curious as to the long term effects beyond the loss of focus & distractions. What happens to human cognition when the very tools we use prevent us from thinking in (possibly very important) ways? (referencing mcluhan here: medium is the message)

    I've recently begun playing around with the idea of "thinking in themes" ...

    ...How do you "implement" this?

    I'm still working on that! Here's one idea I mentioned before: can I develop a narrative structure to my thinking? This is similar to the idea of a memory-palace, but in time instead of space. The linearity of a story-line coupled with the development of a particular idea can add a perspective to understanding my relation to the idea.

    Another approach is inspired by Einstein's approach to thinking -- combinatory play. He used multiple thought-modes or "psychical entities" as he called them. Symbols and signs to be combined and re-combined. Playing directly with the "real stuff" that words & language refer to.

    Certainly journaling and writing can help either of these approaches to assist in the process, but they would remain assistive and not form the core of the processes.

    I was thinking about keeping parts in the public to talk in the open, too, one day, to leverage a mechanism like open source project's peer-reviewing. -- But who wants to subscribe to (parts of my) idiosyncratic note archive and keep up with changes? That's very impractical. It's not made for consumption.

    Sure, I can understand. It's personal work, unfinished thought-stuff!

    To talk about stuff to some purpose, I believe you end up with an article that is a published form of notes, hence commenters will not be giving feedback to the Zettel but the product of Zettel notes. Which beats the initial purpose.

    One idea (riffing on your ideas here) is to incorporate into your workflow a discipline of discussion on specific notes. Do a quick summarization of one or more notes and bring that working version to a friend or group of friends for discussion. The discussion can be formal or informal, in writing or orally. By doing so you clarify your own thoughts on the matter, and also glean insight from others. Then take that back into your Zettelkasten to improve the note(s).

    So you're extracting bits of the work out into the world, live-testing them, giving others opportunity to react, discuss and think over them, and bringing them back improved in some way. This process also gives yourself the practice of doing the process of refining thoughts for communication, and listening for response from others. It's like a mini iterative design loop on specific notes. This is more nimble than even writing a blog post. It's just "talking about your zettel" with others.

    Maybe publishing articles/blog posts and opening the source notes for review could be cool for a look behind the scenes.

    Blogging would be a good way to implement the discipline of discussion. I like your point of how adding the blogging deadline helps to focus your work.

    Perhaps some tools could be developed to help easily publish parts of a Zettelkasten via blog, email or even audio/video? It would be cool to have a web-published version of a note that didn't require the user to maintain a full website, but was just a simple clean URL displaying my note. If I'm using Sublime Text I could run a command within the app, and update my thought-blog with a new note, or update an existing note, and not have to worry about web hosting or paying for a domain.

  • I wonder what the stuff Einstein did means in practice? I'm not good at thinking without a pen in hand, maybe I'm not creative enough :)

    Perhaps some tools could be developed to help easily publish parts of a Zettelkasten via blog, email or even audio/video?

    For sure! When the next few important apps in the workflow are done, I'll work on scripts and other tools to make publishing as a blog and ebook easier for laypersons -- and people in a rush. (In terms of free blogging, I'm thinking about starting with a GitHub hosted page with Jekyll to copy & edit notes for discussion, and then expand from there.)

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • http://christiantietze.de/

  • @ctietze said:
    I wonder what the stuff Einstein did means in practice? I'm not good at thinking without a pen in hand, maybe I'm not creative enough :)

    I wonder too! From what I've read so far he didn't consider it just "visual thinking" as we use the term today, but I am definitely digging deeper. And to be clear I don't think creativity is at all correlated to pen usage ;)

    For sure! When the next few important apps in the workflow are done, I'll work on scripts and other tools to make publishing as a blog and ebook easier for laypersons -- and people in a rush. (In terms of free blogging, I'm thinking about starting with a GitHub hosted page with Jekyll to copy & edit notes for discussion, and then expand from there.)

    Cool! I've got some ideas for sharing Zettel's that might be useful in an academic or research settings for example where someone might need to share lab data and results.

  • Sounds good! If you want to dump the ideas somewhere, feel free to open a new topic/discussion or just shoot me an email!

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • http://christiantietze.de/

  • @ctietze said:
    Sounds good! If you want to dump the ideas somewhere, feel free to open a new topic/discussion or just shoot me an email!

    Cool, thanks!

  • I am currently writing a part of the script for the upcoming course which covers an important difference in reading modes. I think it could be interesting for you:

    The big difference is in interpreting the text or just covering its content. Take the following abstract for example:

    Evidences are presented to show a strong and long-lasting analgesic effect after injection of dynorphin into the subarachnoid space of the spinal cord in the rat. Taking the amplitude and time course of the increase of tail flick latency as the indices of analgesia, dynorphin elicited dose-dependent analgesic effect in the range of 2.3-18.6 nmol. Calculating on a molar basis dynorphin was 6-10 times more potent than morphine and 65-100 times more potent than morphiceptin, another mu opiate receptor agonist. Dynorphin analgesia was completely reversed by intrathecal injection of anti-dynorphin IgG and partially reversed by naloxone. Acute tolerance to morphine analgesia did not affect the occurrence of dynorphin analgesia, indicating the absence of cross tolerance between morphine and dynorphin. Evidence from different lines of approach suggests that dynorphin may bind with kappa opiate receptors in the spinal cord to exert its analgesic effect. pubmed

    In my first iteration, I made the mistake that I just focused on the effect. Dynorphin elicts an analgetic effect via the kappa opiate receptor. But this is just me following the interpretation of the researchers.

    But there are several caveats:

    • They injected in the subarachnoid space. Semiochemicals have different effects in different areas. Noradrenaline in the blood functions as a stress hormone in the nervous system it serves as a neurotransmitter.
    • There are a couple of issues with the tail flick test

    What I should have done was the following: First, just describe the phenomenas. What was done, how and when. Second, formulate everything as an hypothesis.

    A couple of years ago, many of my notes were infested with these kind of mistakes. At least for sciency stuff, now I am pretty ok with my notes because I always have the phenomena at hand and can reinterpretate as I like.

    This approach was not inspired but heavily reinforced by my lecture of Nassim Taleb:

    What science call phenomenology is the observation of an empirical regularity without a visible theory for it. - Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile1

    Theories are superfragile; the come and go, then come and go, then come and go again; phenomenologies stay, and I can't believe people don't realise that phenomenology is "robust" and usable, and theories, while overhyped, are unreliable for decision making -- outside physics. - Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile1


    1. Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2012): Antifragile. Things that Gain from Disorder, St. Ives: Penguin Books. 

  • edited November 2017

    @sfast said:
    What I should have done was the following: First, just describe the phenomenas. What was done, how and when. Second, formulate everything as an hypothesis.

    Very insightful, thank you for sharing. Brilliant approach, and this is the direction I've found myself heading, but your articulation of your approach has clarified my thinking.

    A couple of years ago, many of my notes were infested with these kind of mistakes. At least for sciency stuff, now I am pretty ok with my notes because I always have the phenomena at hand and can reinterpretate as I like.

    I imagine this can be extended to any kind of phenomena, not just sciency stuff? And yes, one of the problems I had with my early notes was preemptive interpretations, thus reducing my ability to re-engage with my notes at a later date.

    And I really like Nassim's point about working directly with phenomenologies. I haven't read his book yet (although I will soon) but already I think it ties into my comment here: https://forum.zettelkasten.de/discussion/comment/308/#Comment_308 where I mention some methods to integrate knowledge directly in the brain. I just realized that each of these methods are "phenomenological" in concept i.e. they work through collecting and integrating phenomenology directly, and then afterwards making decisions and testing ideas based on the real phenomenon. Phenomenology first, idea/theory/decisions as a result of the collected & integrated phenomenon.

    Good stuff @sfast many thanks!

  • @toolboxen said:
    And I really like Nassim's point about working directly with phenomenologies. I haven't read his book yet (although I will soon) but already I think it ties into my comment here: https://forum.zettelkasten.de/discussion/comment/308/#Comment_308 where I mention some methods to integrate knowledge directly in the brain. I just realized that each of these methods are "phenomenological" in concept i.e. they work through collecting and integrating phenomenology directly, and then afterwards making decisions and testing ideas based on the real phenomenon. Phenomenology first, idea/theory/decisions as a result of the collected & integrated phenomenon.

    I would disagree. I am not familiar with the actual processes of these gentlemen you reported from. But It seems more that they stress:

    1. Be active with the stuff you learn.
    2. Connect what you have learned.

    The second part reads to me that you should be actively interpreting stuff your learn. But stressing them or not. You understand what I wrote. So, I feel happy. :smile:

    Actually, I talked today with a friend and we got to a skill I discuss regularly with my clients: How long can you think about something without having an opinion.

  • edited November 2017

    @sfast said:
    The second part reads to me that you should be actively interpreting stuff your learn.

    Sure. As far as I can tell, they both use a process similar to the scientific method: delaying interpretation as long as possible in deference to constant acquisition of new knowledge and actively re-shaping existing opinions/points-of-view in relation to the newly acquired knowledge.

    I note you are making distinction about: "actively interpreting stuff". Are you suggesting a benefit to indefinitely delaying the interpretation process?

    ... a skill I discuss regularly with my clients: How long can you think about something without having an opinion.

    Seems like a useful skill to practice. Any suggestions on books or resources on this? Thank you.

  • @toolboxen said:

    I note you are making distinction about: "actively interpreting stuff". Are you suggesting a benefit to indefinitely delaying the interpretation process?

    Definitely not indefinitely. :smile:

    To me, that is more like an exercise.

    ... a skill I discuss regularly with my clients: How long can you think about something without having an opinion.

    Seems like a useful skill to practice. Any suggestions on books or resources on this? Thank you.

    I think I heard this principle from a rabbi. But I am not sure. I do such exercises with clients and by myself. Delaying interpretation is more of a spiritual thing. (I wrote that to illustrate my point).

    But it is also embedded in the books on philosophy of science I read. But they are in German. Mmh, I need to keep that in mind. I have a writing project naming "The scientific method for non-scientist". When I happen to extend the part of phenomenology I will publish it here via the blog.

  • Thanks for your thoughts @sfast, I look forward to reading future blog posts from you on these sorts of subjects.

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