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Blog // Creativity
August 28, 2021

Second Brains Are Everywhere

The idea of storing your information in a second brain is popular in productivity circles. But what if second brains already exist and are all around us?

Imagine if you had a second brain, something outside your body that could think for you. Your second brain would quietly work in the background, helping you preserve your precious attention and energy for your most important commitments.

The idea of a second brain has been popularised by Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain course (which I wrote about here). Forte’s approach to productivity fosters innovative problem solving by using a clearly defined system and carefully curated notes. He encourages you to think of this system as your second brain.

While the language might feel new, second brains have been with us for a long time. We use calendars, for example, to remind us of important dates and appointments. The calendar is a second brain. It remembers for us.

In fact, as we start to look around, we’ll see second brains everywhere.

Hoards Of Second Brains

If you want a sense of where someone’s thinking is at, ask them about the books they’ve read recently. Reading isn’t a passive exercise. It’s not the copying of information from one place to another, like a data transfer between computers. As we read, we interpret, we consider, we think.

This kind of “mind-expanding” happens with other media, from news and magazines to podcasts and documentaries. Our mind extends beyond our bodies into the pool of ideas we choose to swim in.

Once we start to look around, we’re apt to see second brains, extensions of our cognitive processes, everywhere.

Brains In The Kitchen

We’ve looked at Winifred Gallagher’s excellent book House Thinking: A Room-by-Room Look at How We Live several times (here, here, and here). Gallagher’s idea is that the rooms in our homes tell stories about us that in turn shape our behaviour. They think on our behalf.

When she was recovering from her stroke, my mother told me she would often walk into the kitchen and let it “speak” to her. The arrangement of things, a design born of years and decades of cooking, reminded her of details she otherwise struggled to remember. Professional chefs put a lot of effort into setting up their work station, their Mise En Place, because it helps them work fast and safely.

Contrast this with the experience of trying to cook in an unfamiliar kitchen. We open all the cupboards and drawers, struggling to find a spatula or large pot, something we could locate easily in our kitchen.

The way we design buildings enshrines a lot of ideas about how to live. We see this in the way kitchens and bathrooms have become bigger and more prominent while the formal lounge, once a feature of many homes, has all but disappeared.

Our cities are the same. Poorly designed cities make walking and cycling difficult, which reflects current ideas about transport and encourages car-based trips.

Thinking And Digital Utopianism

Much of today’s talk about second brains implies something digital that “thinks for us”, an electronic thing, an artificial intelligence, working for us. But this betrays a limited understanding of what thinking is.

We might believe thinking happens only when we actively use our cognitive functions. Like Rodin’s famous sculpture, we stop everything, assume a tortured pose, and think!

But our minds don’t work like that. We’re thinking – solving problems, making connections, coming up with ideas – all the time. We’ve looked at this in previous articles on sleep, mind-wandering, and walking.

We might not realise it, but we’re thinking all the time.

This helps us understand how the things around us can think for us. They don’t have to be active in order to be second brains. They just have to be well encoded.

Templates As Second Brains

How can we build a second brain for work? Templates are a popular answer for everyone from designers to music producers. Templates can help us overcome the creative block we might get from staring at a blank page.

In Template Mixing and Mastering: The Ultimate Guide to Achieving a Professional Sound, Billy Decker and Simon Taylor explain how a well-designed music production template has helped Decker mix 16 number one hit songs. Decker’s template isn’t just a starting point for new songs. It’s the distillation of 20 years of experience and a tool for making faster and more reliably good-sounding mixes.

Templates speed up our work and reduce many simple errors. They help make the work more consistent, and because effort isn’t wasted on building things from scratch every time more energy can be focused on the details that matter.

Masters of any craft customize their tools. Woodworkers, for example, personalize their tools to suit their hands, the kinds of wood they work, and their technique. In turn, these modified tools remind the woodworker of their approach to the craft.

Templates are just another form of customized tool, an extension of the mind.

Other People As Second Brains

Second brains of all sorts are explored in depth in Annie Murphy Paul’s rewarding book The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain. Paul suggests that much of what we consider thinking happens outside our physical brains. Our bodies, the physical spaces we inhabit – even our interactions with others – are extensions of our own minds and thinking processes.

Paul recounts the story of the US Navy ship Palau, which lost all power and all systems while returning home from drills. Onboard was a psychologist who was studying “socially distributed cognition”. We tend of think of thinking as the property of individual minds and even distrust “groupthink”. But the crew avoided catastrophe by thinking together, solving problems and collectively navigating their way to safety. The ship became a hive mind.

In our fragmented world of work, where people are quickly hired in the name of growth then equally quickly dismissed to save costs, we tend not to think about the collective knowledge and memory of an organisation. If anything, we’ve been schooled to distrust the idea of the institution as a brain.

We know the people around us influence our attitudes, habits, and thoughts. They are a predictor of who we will become. And while the reflections we have in our solitude are important, it’s also true that some of our best efforts at making sense of the world happen thanks to other people.

Brains Are Not Computers

Thinking is a lot more than just processing information. Thinking of any kind, critical or creative, involves taking disparate pieces of experience, knowledge, and perception, then combining them in new ways to create ideas and ways to act.

Our brains aren’t really like computers. We don’t have a brain to store information. We have a brain to interact with the world. This is where a lot of the talk about second brains starts to fall short.

But the metaphor is still useful if we extend beyond just notes and digital devices to all the things and people around us. In fact, it ought to inspire us to take designing our lives more seriously, in order to think more clearly.

In an important way, your second brain is all around you.

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