For the first time last week, I wrote about a new project that has consumed a large part of the last year for me.
I shared my frustration with the current landscape, how instead of mastering our tools, we’ve let our tools become our masters. Modern tools pull us in with flashy features and the promise of an easier life. Yet we spend hours managing, organizing and cleaning up the mess these tools create for us.
Our note-taking apps and hard drives have become graveyards of information. Our carefully considered systems and structures become obsolete only shortly after we put them in place. There's a disconnect between the way we like to organize ourselves and how our tools like to organize us.
Our tools tend to see the ideal version of us, which is also why we're attracted to them. They promise a better, more efficient *you.* But the assumptions our tools make about us are not who we are.
Are we failing to keep our shit in order, or are our tools failing us?
We’re only human, after all. And knowing this, I believe there is a way to leverage how our mind already works, rather than trying to change it.
Creating an extension for your mind
To create a tool that complements how your mind works, we first have to understand what that means, both philosophically and practically.
If our goal was to create a NEW mind, we'd have to change the way your mind works right now. We would fall into the same trap as every other tool, forcing you to adapt to structures and mental models that conflict with the way your brain naturally operates. Instead, we're trying to build an extension of your mind. One compatible with the way you're already thinking and working.
The reason you're constantly trying new tools or setting up new structures is because they're aspirational by nature. You can compare them to strict weight-loss diets. They seem great in the beginning, but they're abandoned soon after. They're just too much work to sustain.
The most effective diets are those that stick with you. And the diets that stick tend to be those that fit into your existing lifestyle and way of thinking. They give you power, rather than holding power over you.
It's the same with everything else in life, including our knowledge and productivity tools.
So how does our mind work?
If there is one thing we know about our brain, it's that we know very little. While we’ve made advances in neuroscience over the years, the brain is still one of the least understood parts of our body.
But let's see what we do know. To build an extension of your mind, we're interested in three fundamental questions:
1. What type of memories do we have? 2. How does the input of these memories work? 3. How are these memories accessed?
We’ll start with the first: The types of memories we have in our minds.
💭 Implicit memories
Your implicit memories are usually acquired over time and unconsciously. They can affect your thoughts and behaviors in ways you don't even notice. Riding your bike is an implicit memory; even after years of not riding your bike, you'd still know how to do it. Same with swimming or brushing your teeth.
Simply put: Implicit memories are automatic memories. They're enabled and recalled by past experiences no matter how long ago you experienced them. They last a lifetime.
💭 Explicit memories
This is what we mean when we talk about "remembering something.” An explicit memory is consciously recalled. Explicit memories can be episodic, meaning they relate to a specific experience in your life, such as a holiday or traumatic event. Or they can be semantic, meaning they relate to facts or general knowledge you've acquired for a specific purpose.
Both implicit (unconscious) and explicit (conscious) memories are usually filed under your long-term memory, which can be recalled later or added as automated functions of your behavior.
Your short-term memory or "working memory," on the other hand, is what you're currently thinking about. It’s the part of your brain that helps you remember a small amount of information for a short period of time while you juggle other cognitive processes.
Since your memories are scattered all over different parts of your brain, depending on the type of memory, we rely on strong connections between neurons to complete the picture. And those connections can be strengthened or weakened over time depending on how they’re used. If those connections weaken, we lose access to our memories or can only dredge up partial information. And our minds attempt, whether accurately or inaccurately, to fill in the rest.
Memories tend to be formed more strongly if they're related to a strong emotional experience, and if the experience involves a combination of your senses.
You have no trouble accessing a memory of coffee with a friend because it involves multiple points of access in your mind. You remember seeing your friend, seeing the interior of the coffee shop. You can remember the taste of the coffee. You remember the smell of the cake in front of you. You can hear the chatter around you and the sirens across the busy street of New York.
These are all data points in your mind. If you can access one of them, they can trigger each other so you can eventually recall the entire memory. The fewer access or trigger points a memory has, the harder it will be for you to recall it.
If our experience isn’t accompanied by strong emotions or involves multiple senses, we'll need to work even harder to commit it to memory.
This idea of memory indexing is still only a theory, but we know when it works and we know when it fails. For example: You know this feeling when you're talking with a friend and trying to recall a specific fact you learned, but you can't seem to access it?
Interestingly, you CAN recall that you learned the fact, yet you can’t bring the full memory to the surface. Meaning, you know that you know it, but you just don't know it right now. Often what that means is that our neurons aren't firing the way we want them to be.
This is where our brain fails us, and it does so often.
Say you’re trying to recall an article you saw a week ago while browsing. You remember you saw the website, but you can't seem to remember which publication it was. You do know if someone showed it to you, you'd remember it again.
It might help if a friend helped “trace your steps” or threw a bunch of triggers at you, such as a color or keywords. The more trigger points, the more neurons firing, making connections and giving you the information you know you have in your mind, but just can't access.
Today, we’ve come to terms with not knowing everything – because we know where to find it. We have Google and Wikipedia, both great collective databases with a vast universe of information and knowledge. But these collective databases are full of things that aren’t connected to our own memories, which makes it harder to find that one thing we care about.
What we don't have is an extension for our OWN mind. One that picks up where our brains stop doing the work for us. One that enables us to collect pieces of information that might seem trivial in the moment, but important a week later when we’re trying to tell a story at a dinner party.
An extension of your mind should work the exact same way as your mind already works, but better. Think of it like your own little knowledge base, but without the effort of categorizing everything. It should be a supplement. Like an enhancement drug for your brain, but without the side effects.
This extension of your mind should be as messy and intuitive as your real mind, but it should sort itself automatically when you need it to. It should be a place for the information in your brain to spill over, without the fear of losing it. It shouldn’t aim to change how your mind works, or even teach it something new. It should support your mind, without you even having to think about it.
Hi, I'm Tobias, a German designer living in New York. I'm the author of this blog, nice to meet you!