My failed attempt to build a second brain
Probably has a better brain than any current second brain option available right now
It’s been years now that I have been fascinated with second brains. It may sound a bit condescending but I'm deeply in-love with my brain. It’s probably my single most cherished body organ.
While I sometimes neglect my muscles, my stomach or my vascular system, as for my brain — I pump like crazy. It’s my go-to organ for everything and probably one of my strong points. No wonder I am fascinated with the option of, well, having another one.
My intellectual background goes back to Philosophy, and as a young scholar I never really thought of a brain as merely a soft nervous tissue (yikes!) but more of a concept. I believe that knowledge in the wider sense of it, is the thing that makes me myself, and the brain is the storage that allows that to happen.
Sans-brain I would cease to exist, that’s certain both biologically and intellectually, but with a slightly different brain I would cease to be me.
Putting all this faith into my brain made me think a lot about its limitations. Not only that the brain allows me to develop, excel and improve my skills, but it mainly, limits me. I can do only as much as my brain allows.
I’m constrained by its memory. I can not go further than its best calculating capacity. As much as I hate to admit it, there are concepts that are too much for me. I usually resonate that if I started earlier in life, I may have been able to understand math and physics at a higher level, to be a polyglot wizard, to remember everything I ever learned in any topic and be able to extract knowledge at the right time.
The latter point is probably the single most frustrating handicap I have as a human being. I have always been a speed reader, no special techniques involved. I got it from my parents, just like my love for books and my thriving for knowledge. I put a lot of stuff in. Good stuff. However:
- Some of it is never processed and stored
- Some of it is stored but is probably erased from my brain after a while due to misuse
- Some of it is stored so deep that I don't remember it was there in the first place, and isn't accessed well. There is a problem of context here. At what context should I be able to extract said things from my brain, and how do I know that these things are there in the first place.
So, what if I had another brain I could use?
Let’s think about the origins of the possibility of building a second brain. It goes back to writing. Before writing, one could not imagine to build knowledge in a way that accumulates, is accessible and allows for deploying of ideas in a way that may be pulled on request. Writing was first and foremost, a mean for communication but at some point it developed another goal. It became the mean for archiving.
While the invention is usually attributed to French Philosopher and writer Denis Diderot, Encyclopedias existed at least 2,000 years before that, at least in the wider sense. The Urra=hubullu, for example, was a major Babylonian glossary that consisted word lists ordered by topic, printed over 24 tablets. It covered ideas about naval vehicles, stones, plants and more.
The Nine Books of Disciplines, written by Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro, and written in the first century BC, became a model for future cyclopedias. He archived grammer, rethoric, logic, geometry, astronomy, medicine and more.
Most Encyclopeidia authors had global intentions, they wanted a second brain for the society as a whole, not for themselves. That thought came much later, but its origins are there, in the will to deposit one's knowledge in an external source and put your trust in it.
Encyclopedias and archives improved and become a monster of complexity before the computer revolution. Prior inventions like various indexing systems (the most famous being probably the Dewey Decimal Classification) made things better, but didn't made the situation anything close to a second brain. A brain can pull information in milliseconds. Using an external means for storing knowledge is necessarily involving a length of time which is longer by a few order of magnitude.
Are second brains possible?
Another key point in time for second brains is probably the works of modern day rationalist philosophers. The new age brought the European intellectual society to a big dispute. What are we as humans made of? Are we just bodies? Or are we minds? Maybe a combo?
On one side, body people like Scottish David Hume and John Locke gave the honors to our bodies or our senses, without which, they claimed we can not have any knowledge of the world. If we don't look, hear, smell and touch, we know nothing.
Hardcore rationalists, on the other hand, were mind people. While not referring specifically to the brain, they gave the stage to our mind, regardless of what’s the actual organ that operates it.
According to French philosopher Rene Descartes, for example, we get our whole body of ideas about the world (pun intended) via our mind. We do not need any other capacity such as vision to build our ideas.
While it may sound a bit hard to digest and may contradict certain “facts” we have about neuroscience today and how brains function and connect to our sensory system, the idea at its core is fascinating. It basically suggests that it is philosophically possible to have a brain in a box, or to separate our thinking mechanism from our sensory system, emotional system and our bodily limitations.
The body is a problem. It aches, it deteriorates over time, it rots and worst of all, it’s temporary. After a short period of time where it builds and develops, it starts to decompose, and we are all slowly dying.
Dying means that knowledge that we have accumulated, and our minds as capacities for thought, will cease to exist at one point or another. Even before dying, because our minds are connected to our bodies, our mind-abilities will deteriorate.
I’m turning 40 this year so I feel this all the time. My memory isn’t what it used to be 25 years ago. My mental abilities for calculation and analysis are slower and more limited. I don’t consider myself more stupid, but definitely more constrained.
Enter, operation second brain.
What did I want to achieve with second brain?
First, by second brain, it’s important to emphasize that I do not mean my gut. In the last few years it has become quite popular to talk about the brain-gut axis and how the guts react to various mental states that we experience. While it’s a very intriguing subject, which I’d love to explore, I mean something else entirely.
Second, I'm not aiming for the afterlife. I'm not letting go of my first brain, I don't wish to leave something that will continue to have thoughts after my body dies. My aspirations are completely different:
I need an extension of my current brain. A system that would please me should include at least two components:
- A storage mechanism that extends my current limited memory.
- Another processing unit that will allow me to export certain portions of my thinking efforts and receive results that are already pre-processed in digestible chunks that require much less brain power units.
As I said, I have no hopes for ultra life extensions in the form of cryonics or keeping of my self contained in a jar or a computer box. I intend to surrender to our human curse of dying in due time and leave this world as honorbly as possible without causing too much trouble. I do wish to make my brain as useful as possible while I’m hanging around here.
However, there are two major problems with seconds brains as I see it:
Am I strict enough to maintain a second brain?
First, discipline. You need to be disciplined enough to input everything you need inside your system. Our first brains actually do it automatically. Sensory input is accepted inside, filtered and registered. Not counting brain disorders, basically, everything you sense is put inside and is gradually erased over time.
Think about a book you read 5 years ago. Can you name the book? Can you name the author? The plot? The fifth sentence? How about the first? How about the name of that side-charachter that wasn’t very imperative for the narrative but was actually hilarious and made some wonderful remarks about life? And the protagonist, can you name her? You probably could, just after you finished the book, right? And a week later? And two weeks later? When was it exactly that you lost her name?
We input stuff in all the time. As most of it is not important (Hey, a plane just passed by, it was red with blue stripes. The time was 7 o’clock in the morning and I was just yawning), should I really remember everything, including the entire set of circumstances around any event.
The answer is no. Our memory is limited so our brain is wired to keep the important stuff in.
But, hey, that book we read 5 years ago was important. It had an amazing quote about Eudaimonism and the way to live life to its fullest. I could definitely use that quote more often, so why did I let go of it?
Probably other stuff came inside in the meantime and I didn’t hold onto that quote strong enough.
If I read that quote every day, or even, once a month, I’d probably remember it, but that would take time, and I have other things to do. I need to read other books, to work, to give my child a bath. I can’t spend my life reading that damn quote, regardless of how great it was. I’m probably doomed. Quote, consider yourself forgotten.
What if I use a second brain? Let’s say I write everything down. Never mind the exact system I use. Is that actually viable? Well, some people do that. To the extreme, it will drive you nuts.
A friend that works in a mental hospital told me about a patient who used to write little notes to himself about everything he encountered. He couldn’t stop documenting the world. At some point he was probably documenting the fact that he was documenting. It got a hold on his life, and he couldn’t do anything else. That’s probably overdoing it. Don’t be that person.
What about doing it more moderately? That’s an option, but how do you choose what to document? How much? What parts of the book should I archive now? Its title? Its author? Selected quotes? Names of characters? Plotline? What? It’s endless. You are bound to lose something.
Also, it’s not always fun to document. Say, you read something and you immediately document it, it’s cumbersome. While reading you will already think about the chore of having to document after you finish.
It’s like postponing your physical activity or daily jog to the end of the day. For many people, the thought of having to do it at some point of the evening will actually ruin their entire day, rather than improve it.
It’s very difficult to be disciplined enough to input everything you need into your second brain system. Whether its tasks that you need accomplished, data you want to memorize or things you have no use for right now and you have no idea if and when you will need them in the future. It’s very hard to create routines that take a lot of time just for something that you may need in the future.
How to extract stuff off your second brain?
Second, Retrieval. Say you need a certain piece of information or you come to a point where some data you stored may be of use to you. How do you extract it? Or, even worse, how do you even know that said information is stored in your second brain in the first place?
Let’s think of an example. You are giving a lecture about entrepreneurship and want to show a quote you read somewhere about successful first time entrepreneurs. You can’t remember the quote, or who said it, or what was it exactly about. You just know you had something that would work perfectly on that slide and would make the audience laugh and be inspired and all the jazz.
Good storage system should allow for searching, so you search, which brings a myriad of results. Entrepreneurship is a topic you read and write quite frequently about. So you start going over everything, filter the results, narrow it down, and eventually, after some combined first-brain and second-brain heavy lifting you find the quote.
The entire process took a while and could have even ended without a positive outcome had you not queried your second brain accurately enough.
So, unlike first brain that makes automatic retrievals at the right places and circumstances, second brain retrieval is harder. We use all kinds of patents and systems to improve that. We tag, categorize, make uni and bi-leteral links between data points. We add figures, videos, audio. We color code, add meta data to everything, and it all helps but takes time, makes second-brain depositing more expensive and exhausting and most importantly, it doesn’t guarantee successful retrieval because of second-brain disconnection.
That’s, for me, the biggest single problem with having a second brain. It is not wired to your first one. You have no immediate feedback on whether an item exists on your second brain or not. You have to go and look. If you remember that it’s already there, it means you were actually using your first brain and you didn’t really rely on your b-brain. If you didn’t remember that it’s there, you either didn’t go look in your second brain at all (as you didn’t know you can find something there), or, if you are a second-brain hog, you go look for everything in second brain, which means your yield is very low, and you waste too much time on working with your second brain.
The second brain paradox is probably the one that makes me understand the real impossibility of a second brain. The bigger your second brain system is, the more you come to trust it, the bigger the problem becomes. You either trust it with everything, making it absurdly inefficient, or trust it very little and still rely on your brain, which makes it more like an abridged version of the internet that you can look for stuff in, but definitely not a brain.
So maybe it's a problem with terminology
I'm a sucker for knowledge systems. I've used TiddlyWiki in 2004, then Basecamp, Evernote, Wunderlist and Notion. I haven't yet, but I will probably use Roam Research in the future. I also documented stuff in various system I made up, with notes, folder, tagging systems, you name it.
I still wish something will come up and become a real addition for my mind. Something that will break the paradox and manage to work seamlessly with my current brain system. Automatic input, automatic retrieval. Is that possible, I think it's logically impossible.
These are all knowledge management systems but are not second brains, and shouldn't be called so.
They are awesome. I love them, and they keep getting better. They do make more productive, they do allow me to store stuff, but there is still something lacking there.
The only idea that I think will bring me closer to what I need is to go cyborg. If I manage to wire my first and second brain systems, maybe the gap is bridgeable. Maybe storage could become automatic, and output almost instantaneous.
Will I go cyborg in the future? Probably not. Science advances slower than our aspirations and hopes. But if there is a chance, count me in.