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On Mind Palaces

7 min

Can we store our notes onto mind palaces to help retain and remember better?

I had this precious little notebook where I used to scribble ideas from various books I read from time to time. It used to be neatly tugged under my bedside pillow for easier access.

When I read Antifragile by Nassim Taleb, I literally wanted to chew and digest each and every sentence of that book. Even now, I can talk about the key ideas from this book.

And I have a very vivid memory about it.

And I do often wonder.

Why was it that the ideas from the book are so fresh and vivid even now?

Was it because of writing it down on pen and paper? Did this process have something unique which made it more memorable?

After ditching the physical notebook for a digital brain where I started putting all my highlights from Kindle, I now wonder how handwritten notes are different, compared to digital notes.

Would I have gulped down Antifragile if I had typed it down instead of writing it?

I have archived the heck out of all these digital notes; almost 150+ books worth of material (now available on gumroad), I still find it difficult to retrieve them on the fly.

Not that I don’t remember anything at all from my digital vaults. But it would be silly to assume that there is no difference between the physical and the digital.
As the cultural critic, Marshall McLuhan aptly coined it —

The Medium is the Message.

So let’s investigate handwritten notes and digital notes a bit further.

What's more superior when it comes to retrieving information?

First of all, digital does comes with its advantages. There are no limits to storage. And since we are so habituated to typing down notes instead of writing them down on pen and paper, we are much faster at storing them. We are so used to it. Digital note-taking leverages the advantages of memory and computation.

However, the bigger question mark here is how much of this seemingly infinite digital storage tank is retrievable? Our biological memory is limited in capacity.

Anne-Laure Le Cunff makes an apt visual of our retention problem —How much ever we try to fill in the bucket, there is still a big wide hole in the bottom that leaks.

And you keep filling water into the bucket. And the water keeps pouring out.

To counter this leaky tap in my memory, I started using various SRS apps such as Anki and Neuracache. SRS (Spaced Repetition) is an algorithm to repeatedly churn out the saved information at selective intervals for easier retention.

However, there is a strong reason why physical books are better than digital books for retrieval.

While reading physical books, we outsource our memory to the environment, making it easier to remember things.

What if we created a similar environment to make it easier to remember digital books?

In the book, Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer talks about how he has expanded his memory retrieval limits by creating memory palaces.  

Memory palaces combine both visual and spatial navigation in an unique way to help you remember things faster. Foer talks about locating things to remember in a palace with visually stimulating objects that stick. For example – A blue banana, purple cow, etc (you get the drift). With this simple framework of tying digital info on an environment such as a mind palace, Foer could even remember 10,000 digits after the decimal place for irrational numbers such as pi. The feat in itself is quite stupendous.

In physical books, you retain better since – You outsource your memory to an 'external environment'.

In a similar fashion, using mnemonic techniques such as memory palaces, you can also retain digital books much better.

What’s happening in a memory palace is this —You are outsourcing your information to your 'mental environment.

This is why reading physical books and taking physical notes have easier memory retention for us — You are outsourcing your memory to an 'external environment'.

Now think of this.

How about getting the best of both physical and digital worlds? Can we make the best of digital worlds (storage, computation) and physical worlds (memory retrieval) to navigate information faster and better?

Can we combine the unique qualities of physical books and embed them onto our digital landscape?

To understand this, we first need to understand the history of bidirectional links.

Bidirectional links go all the way back to the origins of Xanadu and its likes, but lets zoom in on one of the latest note-taking apps that has taken the internet by storm.

Project Xanadu is here – after a long time – Persistent Inappeasable Mind

As long as you are not living within a cave within a cave, you might have heard of the Roam Research app, a tool for networked thought. This app created a disruption in the way people started taking notes, by means of using bidirectional links.

How to use Roam Research: a tool for metacognition - Ness Labs

Bidirectional links has become a rage now, merging with the cultural zeitgeist and opening up many possibilities. Imagine creating your local wiki where all the links are bidirectionally linked back and forth allowing you to navigate into interesting rabbit holes.

You might have already encountered bidirectional links. Haven’t you clicked on hyperlinked terms in Wikipedia and see where it ends up in? That’s another example of bidirectional links. You somehow connect Ostrich eggs to Sourdough bread to Jeff Bezos and see how many connections it takes to reach each one. Sometimes you end up back to the original point where you started from, creating one big round robin.

I've played this game quite a lot out of sheer curiosity.

Now it is possible to create your own such hyperlinked environment, what is now called a digital garden.

Caufield makes it clear digital gardening is not about specific tools – it's a different way of thinking about our online behaviour around information.

Away from time-bound streams and into topological thought gardens.

Digital gardens act as a counterbalance between the unstructured streams of consciousness through tweets and highly refined and distilled final outputs such as research papers, evergreen blog posts etc.

Illustration by Maggie Appleton
"The Garden is the web as topology. The web as space. It’s the integrative web, the iterative web, the web as an arrangement and rearrangement of things to one another."

A collated list of digital gardens that are well 'pruned and trimmed', and available for the public to take a stroll through are shown below.

Andy Matuschak on Twitter: "“Retcon”-ing internet history, it's fun to  imagine what might've happened if Blogger and Wordpress never existed. The  notion of a “blog” was much more amorphous until it was
Tom Critchlow's Blog

I've been trying to make my own digital garden inspired by the idea of having spatial topology on top of your notes. Just like how we navigate a bookstore in a real world.

What if we had a "town map" with "places" for each of the areas in our life?

Imagine ditching the archaic way of storing information in files and folders. And replacing them with metaphors and digital palaces.

You could navigate through your website however you want, just like how you use a 'town map' for 'places'.

You take a scroll to the library to source some highlights from the books you've read.

You go to the museum to retrieve some important moments with your family ten years back. It might even have your assorted collection of photographs, mixtapes and albums.

You go to the distillery to review the book you're planning to publish.

Your portfolio of work resides in the office.

Or even the planetarium where you can dwell on your notes imagining the foreseeable future.

Cabin Concept (Source: Unknown)

Physical notes are retained faster than digital notes.

The key essence is that — Memory is spatial.

So how do we retain digital books and notes faster?

Harness the capabilities of bidirectional links and create a digital garden out of your notes, articles, visions, whatever you want.

Then connect the various themes of your content by means of metaphors (instead of files and folders) and create your own map!

Inspired by the website of Unusual Ventures and putting it to action, where files are folders are replaced by checkpoints on your knowledge map.

The idea I have is to stretch my digital environment spatially by means of metaphors to connect and synthesize.

All of a sudden, mere text suddenly seems magical. Injecting the right amount of physicality into digital text. And the words such as Distillery, Office, Library, Museum etc stimulates much needed spatial memory for digital text.

Searching for ways to make this a reality, I recently discovered an update on Obsidian Canvas which allowed you to create your own knowledge map.

Knowledge map of my notes.

I divided the map into the following regions. Information City (Book notes, tweets, articles etc), Distillery (Evergreen notes), Epicurean Forest (side projects, leisure circles etc), Galleria (media) etc.

Such knowledge maps help us make sense of what we encounter.

Good sensemaking illuminates our thoughts and guides our actions—adding clarity, enrichment, and joy to our lives.

Clearer thinking is a metaskill that pervades everything we do. Knowledge maps help us make sense of our own questions.

Good questions don't just shape our answers, they shape ourselves.


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