What is the second brain approach?

The second brain approach to organising information allows learners to visualise ideas and inspirations in the original context

The second brain approach to organising information allows learners to visualise ideas and inspirations in the original context | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

If you are like most people, you store more stuff on your computer than you can ever read or watch. You may have marked many interesting concepts in books and then ignored them. As a result, most people forget much of what they learn after the exams are done. On the one side, we are drowning in more information than we can ever handle. On the other, we struggle to remember and keep our valuable ideas on demand.

To get useful outcomes from the information that we consume, we need a system to manage our personal knowledge: a second brain. The idea has immense relevance in the lives of students, teachers and others ranging from note-taking to networked thinking.

Structure of our notes

The second brain, also known as alternate memory or digital gardens, is an externalised storage; an electronic metaphor for personal databases. The data of your daily life — notes, screenshots, images, readings, writings, lists, ideas, links, voices, and thoughts — are littered across books, papers, mobiles and other devices in different file formats. Our brain is not efficient in storing such scattered information. It becomes difficult to structure, process, and retrieve personal knowledge when required. So this needs to be stored in an external programme that has easy input and powerful retrieval.

The idea of the externalisation of memory is not new. It has been pushed by productivity experts like David Allen. But, there are more reasons to go beyond such brain dumping, when you think of note-taking. Most methods of note-taking are compartmentalised in folders or pages. This means, we keep information under different folders which are like having different notebooks for different subjects, or separate folders for projects, meetings, references, and so on. Popular note-taking apps also follow the folder hierarchy. It appears neat because they are good at capturing the information. But they have serious limitations.

First, our brain does not work in folder-like compartments. Second, in real life, our folders tend to overlap. For example, the same reading material may be an input for a class, or for a personal project, or something to share with a friend or a reference. Organising it in many folders is cumbersome. Third, hierarchical arrangements are less useful in processing, interconnecting, and finding hidden patterns. Tags and cross-references attempt to overcome such limitations.

Networked thinking

A different way of tagging is the bi-directional linking of ideas and themes leading to a network. In other words, every piece of information is connected to everything else. We need to figure out how and why they are related or give meaning to that relation.

A good way to understand personal knowledge management is Taking Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens. The book explains Zettlekasten, the note-taking system used by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who arranged his thoughts in thousands of index cards in physical slip-boxes. The secret is regular inputs to the system and linking of the information, which means proper capture and structure lead to networked thinking. By organising information into granular interconnected blocks that are searchable and actionable, it functions like our brain and not like the folders on our computer.

Through consistent tagging and back-linking of information, the entire data gets a structure. You can design a workflow with no coding using plug-ins. In effect, by connecting your notes, you get an extensible graph-like database, which creates a stream of new ideas. Beyond a productivity extension of the pre-digital filing cabinets, the second brain is an approach to capture and organise your entire information consumption in the way you want.

While developing this system make take time, the value is knowledge accumulation over time. Students will benefit from the lifelong gathering of thoughts and the emergence of new insights by combining them. They can see hidden connections, which can help solve the ‘forget after exam’ syndrome in education.

Connected and continuous learning

The ability to process and manage information is crucial in learning. The second brain approach to organising information allows learners to visualise ideas and inspirations in the original context. Study habits supported by such a system result in better digital lives. Tiago Forte, who popularised the term second brain, says that Personal Knowledge Management will soon become a required course in all universities.

Though technologies change, the broad ingredients of the knowledge creation process remain the same: explore, capture, organise, link, think, distil, design, advance, create, rethink and repeat. Second brain methodology helps us to do this faster, better, and clearer without losing ourselves in information anxiety.

The views expressed here are personal.

The writer is with the University Grants Commission.

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Printable version | Jun 16, 2022 7:00:50 pm |