Your second brain could be hurting your memory.
To understand why and the ramifications this has in the information age, we must take a journey through the history of notetaking.
📝A History of Notetaking
Before notetaking, our ancestors used oral storytelling to pass on knowledge. To survive, they needed a detailed mental map of their territory and the organisms which inhabited it. New knowledge took time to ingrain because thoughts are fleeting, and there was no way to externalize them.
Instead, memory was the primary form of knowledge storage. Oral storytellers ingrained information through mnemonic techniques like alliteration, repetition, assonance, and proverbial sayings.
This changed with the advent of notetaking from the phonetic alphabet (letters and symbols directly corresponding to speech sounds). Boom. Ancient second brains were born. For the first time ever, we could externalize our thoughts, examine them, and look at them anew every day.
This was revolutionary because thinking could compound on itself. We started asking questions like, "what is beauty?" and "how does one live ethically?" People could write down laws and edicts, bringing order on a mass scale. Trade sparked as currency and numerical notetaking made transactions easier. Information centers like the Great Library of Alexandria were built for the evergrowing knowledge of civilization.
But there was a problem with these early methods: they took loads of friction to use.
Early notetaking required wood, stone, and other difficult to use mediums. These notetaking techniques were time intensive and costly. Over time, humans found new mediums like papyrus, paper, and the telegram to reduce friction for sending and taking notes. But even these mediums had flaws (as anyone who has used a typewriter compared to a keyboard can confess), so we reduced friction even more.
Now, the internet gives access to the notes of the entire human collective with a few clicks of a button. And even more recently, new digital notetaking technologies like Roam Research, Evernote, Notion, and Obsidian are again changing the notetaking landscape.
This is fantastic in so many ways.
I no longer have to remember the names of my favorite restaurants and travel spots; Google maps does it for me with its location saving feature. It's become common jargon if you don't know something to "google it" and find the answer in five seconds. Unlike my parents, I can keep phone numbers in stored contacts instead of memorizing them by heart.
Modern humans are free to foster memory for what matters most to them.
Unfortunately, this progression in our notetaking capabilities has a dark side.
🌑The Dark Side of Notetaking
Even in the early stages of notetaking, some people voiced their ambivalences.
Socrates warned it was an "invention that will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them."
If Socrates was ambivalent about notetaking in the 400s and 300s BCE, he would be shocked at the state of notetaking today. It's all because of one word.
For most of history, notetaking was hard. Stone and wood were obnoxiously slow and difficult to carve in. In addition, many people weren't literate, meaning scribes—professions whose sole job was to take notes—were required.
This created lots of friction in taking notes. Most people didn't externalize thoughts in writing, and memory remained the primary form of knowledge storage for thousands of years.
But today, the friction in taking notes is practically nonexistent.
Clicking a button, I can open a new apple note on my phone and write whatever comes to mind. A quick google search shows me the answer to almost anything in five seconds. I can highlight passages on Kindle with the click of a button.
What do we take notes on when there is no friction? The answer, it seems, is everything.
Modern humans are slaves to their notes. I myself am guilty. My digital devices hold all of my tasks, calendar events, my second brain, and a bunch of other random stuff (you don't even want to know). If I lost access to my phone and laptop tomorrow, I would be screwed.
Offloading our memory has become much too easy. As a result, notetaking becomes a process of forgetting information by externalizing it in notes.
Scientifically this makes sense. In Supersizing the Mind, The Science of Cognitive Extension, Andy Clark argues "our minds utilize the external landscape to save energy by keeping things out of memory." All else being equal, the brain prefers external sources because they take no energy to maintain.
This is the problem of notetaking without friction. Forgetting becomes an addiction because it saves your brain the energy of storing things in long term memory. And because there is no friction, there is a possibility for taking notes on everything.
It's awestriking to have conversations with some teens--a group particularly affected by modern technology--and get slapped in the face with their lousy memory.
A few days ago, a relative and I talked about a book we had both read called Sapiens. They had finished the book last week and loved it. When I asked about their favorite takeaways, however, they could barely recall a few sparse ideas.
They likely highlighted as their primary form of "notetaking" and did nothing further to engage with the material. While I read it three months ago, I recalled more because I made a book summary on it. I engaged much more deeply with the material.
🧠The Art of Memory Formation
If we want to learn how to effectively foster memory in our first brains once again, we can once again take insight from notetaking history.
As discussed earlier, before notetaking knowledge was transferred orally often through storytelling. They ingrained this knowledge by using an ancient yet underused process:
Thinking births memory. Through thinking, we connect new information to past knowledge, organize it amongst related ideas, develop those ideas, and come up with new knowledge.
Thinking fosters memory through two fundamental processes: active recall and spaced repetition. Active recall involves bringing information to mind without having it in front of you. Spaced repetition is doing so over repeatedly expanding intervals of time.
But as you now know, notetaking isn't a form of active recall; it's more accurately a form of forgetting.
I believe this is one reason why many people's memory is so bad in modern society. Instead of fostering memory through thinking, people resort to forgetting through notetaking or, even worse, disregard both thinking and notetaking altogether.
But there is another major reason thinking has been disrupted: distraction. In the information age, we are bombarded with so much informational garbage most people struggle to find thirty minutes for thinking in a day. Billboard advertisements, texting, color television, unlimited music, Spotify, and so, so much more.
Compare this to the more solitary and distraction free lifestyle of our hunter gatherer ancestors, and it's easy to see how they had more time for thinking.
Interestingly, we can see the positive effect of thinking on memory in one particular societal group. For example, people with dyslexia often have incredible long term memories. I can't prove it scientifically, but I believe one reason is they find it hard to take notes. Instead, they must spend more time thinking inside of their first brains, facilitating memory formation through active recall and spaced repetition.
🤯The Tragedy of the Second Brain Movement
Now we can finally answer the question of how your second brain could be making you forgetful.
The reasoning comes back to friction. Second brainers use many tools to make notetaking as seamless as possible. Article highlighters like Instapaper, podcast highlighters like Airr, web clippers, conversation transcribers like otter.io, image scanners, and many more apps all reduce the friction of notetaking. Many second brainers also learn keyboard shortcuts for saving information, allowing them to highlight information with an unrelenting fervor.
As you now know, this relentless notetaking makes you forgetful. Forgetting information through externalization becomes an addiction. It takes away the need to foster memory.
But it also has a second ramification. When you capture everything, you capture nothing. So many things seem lifechanging when you first read them. It's only after our first brain has some time to process that you realize they aren't substantial.
Finally, seamless notetaking has a third issue for second brainers. Their second brain becomes so cluttered they are forced to spend all their time organizing. Their knowledge management systems become an endless cycle of capture and organization.
This leaves no time for thinking, killing their ability to come up with creative solutions to problems.
I'm not saying all second brainers do this. But with the capabilities of modern knowledge tools, it can be a trap too easy to fall for.
🌟What is the Solution?
I propose a solution put forth by a few select people in the second brain community, most notably Nick Milo.
We need to notemake rather than notetake.
What's the difference? Notetaking, broadly defined, is the externalizing of others ideas into the physical world. Notemaking, however, is the process of externalizing notes in our own words.
The difference can be summed up by this simple equation:
Notetaking + Thinking + Friction = Notemaking + Memory
This equation considers everything we have learned from the history of notetaking. It adds friction to notetaking to ensure we capture only the most important ideas. And it adds thinking to make sure these ideas are insightful and unique. As a result, we make notes in our own words and come out with valuable memory in our first brains.
How do we implement this into our systems?
First, figure out what medium of information you use most for your second brain. Is it Kindle books? Is it podcasts? Is it something else?
Then purposely make it harder to capture information from other mediums.
I get most of my information from kindle books, articles, and podcasts. I make capturing on every other medium harder. For example, on Twitter, I only allow myself to capture through copying and pasting. When I could save them with a simple click, I practically captured every thread I came across.
Even in mediums you value most, add friction to capturing. I force myself to make some type of annotation for almost every highlight I take. This stops me from the mindless highlighting of the entire book many people are prone to.
Don't capture "shoulds." Instead, capture information that sparks joy. In other words, capture what resonates with you. Does seeing a piece of information make your heart beat faster? Do your eyes dilate? Does a light bulb go up in your head? Only then capture it.
In addition to adding friction, make time for thinking. Slowly decrease your exposure to the distractions of modern day society. Stop checking your phone 41 times a day. Don't watch Netflix alone. Reduce the time you spend on social media.
At the same time, schedule time for thinking. I walk for an hour in nature every day, critically without listening to music or a podcast. This is where I get some of my best insights into future blog posts, videos, and newsletters. If this is too much for you, try 10 minutes. Anything is better than nothing.
If you implement these suggestions, your second brain will become a beautiful balance of other people's ideas mixed with your own insights. And you will be less forgetful. Thinking will facilitate long term memory through active recall and spaced repetition.
Your conversations will become magical. People will be stunned by your ability to recall vast amounts of interesting information off the top of your head. They might even become curious about building their own second brains if they haven't already.
Being a second brainer myself, I believe it's the second brain communities responsibility to show the rest of society how to manage knowledge effectively.
If we want to stay worthy of this status, we have to learn from notetaking history. We need to prioritize notemaking. Only then can we hope to convince others to remodel their relationship with information.
Thanks to Astrid Helfant, Skye Helfant, and Murray Helfant for the conversations that helped form this blog post.