Why notes?

Why take notes?

Why record ideas?

Why digital gardens?

Does it need an end game?

Organising ideas: abstraction or embodiment

Maggie Appleton, digital anthropologist, did a lightning talk called “How to Become a Neo-Cartesian Cyborg” to discuss the question, “What does it mean to build a “second brain,” and why do we think that’s a Good and Valuable thing to do?”. 

She had completed the Building A Second Brain course and answered the question posed in her talk with, “Yes, if we rephrase building a second brain as ‘Build a Partial Cybernetic Extension of Your Empirical Collection & Reflection System to Help the Small Conscious Part of Your Brain Do A Limited Number of Writing-based Tasks’”.

I’ve also spent a lot of time trying to find ways to organise ideas in ways that helps me to connect them, either linearly because one led to another, or in an expansive divergent way. At the same time, I try to keep myself in check by reminding myself that the map is not the territory, the model is not the reality.

So, does Maggie’s definition help me be clearer about what I’m trying to do with organising ideas? A random stream of consciousness about the topic…

I tend towards the abstraction of ideas, Maggie favours the embodiment of ideas.

Are we talking about different ways to do the same thing, or are we talking about different things?

Embodiment is about reasoning, abstraction is the mental constructs. 

Data (raw, uncontextualised) can be interpreted, creating information (contextualised, formalised, organised), which can be transferred knowledge (only held within the person), which can be partially codified as information in order to be transferred.

Does there need to be a distinction between a mechanised process of a computer interpreting data to present information and the human perceptual system of the senses collecting unconsciously data about the world around us and transforming it into conscious knowledge?

A distinct piece of codified knowledge is what I would call an idea. It’s a useful building block. It is abstracted from its original context, purified almost to its simplest clearest expression. 

Where Maggie talks about second brain as practice, a process of reasoning that relies on embodiment not abstraction. 

I guess I don’t disagree with the Embodied Cognition premise, that cognition is shaped by the body which is cognising, but is it something to reduced or removed, or am I falling into a cartesian trap of thinking that an idea is purer if it just of mind?

The idea, as a piece of codified knowledge, could contain metadata about its origins (even just conceptually), almost the genetic code that controls how the idea behaves and will result from interaction with another idea.


Abstraction – the quality of dealing with ideas rather than events.

Abstraction in its main sense is a conceptual process where general rules and concepts are derived from the usage and classification of specific examples, literal (“real” or “concrete”) signifiers, first principles, or other methods.

“An abstraction” is the outcome of this process—a concept that acts as a common noun for all subordinate concepts, and connects any related concepts as a group, field, or category.[1]

Conceptual abstractions may be formed by filtering the information content of a concept or an observable phenomenon, selecting only the aspects which are relevant for a particular subjectively valued purpose.

Embodiment – a tangible or visible form of an idea, quality, or feeling.


Embodied cognition 

Embodied cognition is the theory that many features of cognition, whether human or otherwise, are shaped by aspects of the entire body of the organism. The features of cognition include high level mental constructs (such as concepts and categories) and performance on various cognitive tasks (such as reasoning or judgment). The aspects of the body include the motor system, the perceptual system, bodily interactions with the environment (situatedness), and the assumptions about the world that are built into the structure of the organism.


My biases:

  • Rationality is not neutral.

Stress and soaring thoughts

I know how it feels to be stressed. My thinking slows down. It gets heavy and sluggish, like each chain of thoughts drags dead weight with it.

When I’m not stressed my thinking soars. My thoughts become fast and light, they float and bump into each other merging into new ideas. When my thinking is like this I come up with ideas like future.charity, my weeknotes stretch into two thousand words or more because I have so many ideas to get out, and I write essays for my masters with fluid ease.

I’ve been aware of stress’ effect on my thinking for some time but never really gave it much thought. And then, on a day when my thinking wasn’t stressed and ideas were colliding, I listened to a What Comes Next podcast about AI for good, featuring an interview with MyCognition, a “digital platform that enhances cognitive fitness through a structured programme of insights, assessment and training”.

They mentioned case studies from schools using their platform to help children with special educational needs learn to self-manage their behaviour, and research that shows “poor cognitive functioning increases the risk of poor mental health and increasing evidence shows that cognitive issues are predictors and risk factors for mental illness” My interest was piqued. I wanted to know more about cognition. LMGTFY

“Cognition is defined as ‘the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.’ At Cambridge Cognition we look at it as the mental processes relating to the input and storage of information and how that information is then used to guide your behavior. It is in essence, the ability to perceive and react, process and understand, store and retrieve information, make decisions and produce appropriate responses.”

Cambridge Cognition

How our brains take information from our senses and experiences, and process it, affects how we react, understand and behave. That makes sense to me. It fits my conjecture that mental illness and ill-health is a result of traumatic events ‘rewiring’ the pathways in our brains and manifesting as stress, anxiety, depression, etc.

So, if mental ill-health can exhibit as poor cognising, could the reverse be true? Could getting our brains thinking in a particular way help to relieve anxiety and stress? When I’m stressed and I go for a walk with my notebook, pick a topic to research, google things, make notes, explore ideas, I feel less stressed. When I go for a walk and take my stress with me I don’t get to my thought-soaring state. Maybe having something to focus my thoughts on, and get a particular kind of mental process happening, allows for cognising in a way that results in positive feelings for me. 

Maybe this is why some people enjoy sudoku puzzles and crosswords, because engaging in something that makes our brains cognise in structured, logical, focused ways means we aren’t using the pathways in our brains that allow chaotic, fight-or-flight stress-inducing cognising to occur.