And how to fix it.
Knowledge management expert Tiago Forte writes:
“Your professional success and quality of life directly depend on your ability to manage the information around you. […] Now, it’s time to acknowledge that we can’t ‘use our head’ to store everything we need to know and outsource the job of remembering to technology.”
Tiago is partly right.
Note-taking systems can improve your life. A well-organized knowledge base can give you clarity of mind and save you time. RoamResearch, for example, reduced the time it takes me to write an article by 50 per cent.
And yet, Tiago is also dangerously wrong.
With the following insights from neuroscience and cognitive research, you’ll understand why the belief to outsource your memory to technology is terribly wrong and how your brain indeed can store everything you need to know.
How Your Brain Actually Works
You likely know your two memory types: short-term and long-term. The key difference? Duration and capacity.
“Short-term memory is the brain’s short-term buffer, keeping in mind only the hottest, most recent information.”— Stanislas Dehaene in How We Learn
If you ever felt your brain is juggling too many pieces at a time, it’s your working memory. Your long-term memory capacity is vast.
Learning expert Daisy Christodoulou explains:
“Our long-term memory does not have the same limitations as working memory. It is capable of storing thousands of pieces of information. This allows us to cheat the limitations of working memory in lots of ways.”
So if you manage to transfer information from your short-term to your long-term memory, you can store as much as you want for as long as you want.
This disproves Tiago’s claim. You can indeed use your head to store everything you need to know.
All you need is to transfer new knowledge from your short to your long-term memory.
How to Store Things in Your Long-Term Memory
You encode new information in different brain areas.
Some of your neurons respond to what you see (in the inferior temporal region), some to what you hear (in the superior temporal region), and others to the layout (in the parahippocampal region).
To transfer what you want to remember into your long-term memory, you need spaced repetition, learning scientists agree.
“Repeated recall appears to help memory consolidate into a cohesive representation in the brain and to strengthen and multiply the neural routes by which the knowledge can later be retrieved.”— Roediger et al. in Make It Stick
Because when you recall a memory, you reinforce it and its cue. With every additional retrieval, you strengthen the connection and can access your memory faster.
To remember what you learned in high-school geography, you need to recall the material over increasing time intervals, first every few days, then weeks, then months, etc.
Got it? You’re ready to bust the second brain myth.
Why You Can’t Outsource Your Brain to Technology
Remember, you can only hold four to seven items in your short-term memory.
When you look something up (e.g. in your second brain on Evernote), you use up the limited space and not much capacity is left to process the new information or combine it with existing things, so you have new ideas.
Daisy Christodoulou writes: “So when we want to solve a problem, we hold all the information relating to the problem in working memory. Unfortunately, working memory is highly limited.”
If you don’t memorise facts to encode them into your long-term memory, you’ll never have the same processing fluency and thought quality as someone who has. It’s as if you’re trying to win a race walking barefoot while the other person sits on an e-bike.
The benefit of remembering information is not in the knowledge itself but in the way you can deploy it. You build a mental structure that helps you develop new thoughts and knowledge through memorisation.
When solving problems, thinking critically, or generating new ideas, you don’t rely on your limited working memory capacity but on your basically unlimited long-term memory.
And that’s why the second brain belief is dangerous. When you outsource the job of remembering to technology, you’re neglecting most of your brain’s potential.
“Learning is dependent on memory processes because previously-stored knowledge functions as a framework in which newly learned information can be linked.”— Radvansky in Human Memory
What to Do Instead
In essence, you want to find the most effective way to store everything you need to know in your long-term memory.
Imagine all things that are useful for you would be stored in your long-term memory, giving you an edge in every conversation, brainstorming or deep work session.
We know from learning science that transferring information into your long-term memory works best when you reproduce the same piece of information from your mind over increasing time intervals.
Remembering everything you want forever is not nearly as hard as you might imagine. Computerised flashcard programs, such as Anki and Neuracache, manage your forgetting curve and maximise your retention.
Unlocking the power of these tools works in three steps:
- Create digital flashcards. You enter a question and a corresponding answer for anything you want to keep in mind forever. (Hint: ask yourself whether knowing this is worth about 5–7 minutes of your life because that’s how long you will need to see a flashcard to remember something forever).
- Retrieve information from your memory. When the program shows you a card, you actively recall the answer from your memory. Look at the answer afterwards.
- Self-assess. The software asks whether you know the answer or not. Based on your self-assessment, the software manages the review schedule for you.
The goal of fact-learning with your real brain is not to memorise just one random fact — it is to learn thousands that help you solve all kinds of problems without you needing to rely on your restricted short-term memory capacity.
Where to Go From Here
Should you stop building a digital knowledge management system? No.
But stop thinking of these tools as your second brain.
The assumption that you don’t need to remember anything yourself will prevent you from thinking critically and having great ideas.
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