I discussed here how taking notes is a great way to extend memory but what intrigues me is the whole need to extend the memory. This is the essence of the habit of taking notes.
Sadly, despite having an abundant body of knowledge about how our brain works & which areas of the brain are responsible for what functions, we haven’t been really able to capture the essence of the memory function & how it aids in building thoughts. We know a lot about it through several metaphors & we have readily extended these metaphors into our lives with the help of social media.
Imagine being tagged in a post. If the whole world of social media is one giant memory then we have become part of that memory by getting tagged with a particular item. So now every time we want to access that particular memory we can either directly recall it by clicking on that post or we can access it through our tag. When someone tags us all that really happens is now there is a context created between the existence of that post & us. With this context it becomes easier to remember why the memory exists. Imagine the post just idly sitting on a Facebook wall with no tags, it would soon be buried under new posts or new updates. But if it is tagged more than one people get associated with it & it remains live for that much more time. It gets accessed by other friends in our network who wish to know why we were tagged in it. They might leave their own comments to that post thereby creating more associations. They will get updated about changes in that post in the future only because they had participated in some activity about the post.
Now translate this idea to our real memory. Suppose we have just learnt a new concept. We read the whole chapter but all we have done is stuffed our brain with the idea (created a post with no tags). Now we don’t know how exactly this newly learnt knowledge might get integrated with whole body of knowledge that we already know. Right now what we learnt is at the top of that stack. We can either associate this newly learnt information with what we already know or we can choose to leave it just like that.
As we are reading, the process of association (tagging) with previous memories works in the background. It is not a conscious process that we have to pay attention to. It is automatic. The best way to cement this association is to take a notebook & jot down keywords (“#<keyword>” hashtags) that are related to what we just read. This process is really easy on computers or apps but very tricky to keep it going on physical, pen & paper notebook.
Once the keyword is associated, this information is already being cataloged in our mind in a metaphorical folder with the keyword as the title. Once this is done whenever we learn something new which gets associated to that keyword, it only adds up to what we already know.
I have to admit, this is where the habit part kicks in. Without habitually noting down & categorizing with keywords or tags we tend to misplace data that we know. Once it is misplaced we have to only rely on chance to get the association working again. Otherwise it ends up like random strings of data just floating in our memory, ready to be forgotten. This is the moment when we feel we know something but we’re unable to recall any specific part of what we know. This is perhaps the remnant of some old, un-tagged data which we have half forgotten.
This is where the mental models approach, that I wrote about earlier, plays a crucial part. Mental models is just an idea. It is not some app we have to install in our brain to get it to work in this particular way. Mental models are literally those keywords with which we categorize data. This can work on a broad scale by making a very vague category or very specific smaller ones. For instance if we are reading about ‘How biases affect human decision making’, then we can either categorize under a broad tag/keyword like “Psychology" & have other stuff linked with the subject of psychology along with it or we can specifically tag "Behaviour Biases”. This can be a sub-tag under the main tag of “Psychology”. This way whenever we read new information about biases or decision making, we can just jot down the important points in this particular folder / page under this keyword / tag.
I have wondered a lot of times how often should this note taking obsession be used? The answer is pretty simple. In most of our day to day lives we are automatically doing this. We associate things we see with some memory & that’s how we remember. It is sufficient to get by throughout our life in this default mode of association. But when we are working & want to think analytically & remember specific details, we can use this natural ability & augment it with our note taking habits.This will make us learn faster, learn better & remember more. This remembering more part is a tricky bit. We don’t know how much we have to remember to perform better at some task. So if we have the desire to deeply think over a particular problem & analyze situations by carefully considering all the possible angles, which I can say is a pretty important task in most of our professional lives, then we can augment ourselves with this habit of taking categorized notes. Of course taking notes & not reading them ever again is as good as forgetting.
The idea is to basically have all the necessary tools (mental models) which will help us perform better. This technique not only makes us keep our tools in order for easy access, but it also keeps them polished by allowing new information to be added to them. This makes learning much more effective. After all effectiveness of learning anything is evident only from how we apply it. If we are not able to apply what we have learnt then we have wasted time in learning it. Why spend more time to re-learn something which we already know but are having difficulty remembering it when it is needed the most? Just consult the notes every now & then and it becomes automatically reinforced in our memory. This is a focused activity & not random reading of our own notes. Our brain automatically bring relevant memories in the front when we are thinking about something. Taking notes over time fine tunes this process by allowing us to access a wider pool of our own knowledge. It basically lets our brain do what it does best with its natural associative skills to pull up this data when it is most needed.
In the end we are only competing with our past selves to become better in the future. Taking better notes is just one of the ways of doing this.
Maria Konnikova wrote this fantastic book called Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes where she uses Holmes’ legendary detecting abilities as an example to explain how we can think & apply better. It is surprising how Arthur Conan Doyle put all this detail in his lead Character when the academic research in the field of psychology began much later after his death.
Apps like Evernote are tremendously useful in helping store data & categorizing them. Not only does it store well but it is also accessible from anywhere, literally anywhere on any device. So now we can store notes on Evernote & their cloud will follow us everywhere, with our notes.
(Disclosure: I use Evernote extensively to take notes & it has helped me in ways I sadly cannot quantify)
What good is technology if we can’t take advantage of it to become better & have a more fulfilling life experience!