Note to self: Take notes

The single thing in the philosophy of mind that has surprised me the most is the importance of human language in thinking. Its importance in communication is of course quite obvious, but in the inner language we use to “talk to ourselves” its role is more open to dispute. I won’t go too far into the different theories here, but the theories I’ve read range from that it plays no role at all, to the notion that without “inner language”, no planning nor direct recall of experience is possible. We would simply be living in the present, trying to make the most of it based on the general but not specific experience we have accumulated in our lives.

At first I was a little skeptical of the importance of language in thinking, but the more I read and think about it, the more I believe in its central role in human thinking. Words are almost definitely used as references to memories. Try this for an example: Think of a dog. How do you do that without thinking of the word “dog”? Can you imagine? Of course a picture of a dog, hearing a bark or encountering a real live dog would get you there, but in the absence of those it is hard to imagine how you would call a dog to your mind without using the word “dog” as a reference. And what do we do to memorize things? We utter them over and over as if to imprint them thoroughly into our heads.

By nature we are extremely forgetful (for those of you who know me, I welcome the jokes ;-). One of our excellences, as stated by Daniel Dennett lies in how “human beings offload as much of their minds as possible into the world”. By this he’s referring to how we write text and other scribbling or otherwise reminding means (tie a knot to the finger) to make references that we can then use to reload memories into our brain when needed.

A brief look at your own daily live may help to show how true this is. How much of your daily tasks would you be able to complete if you had to memorize every single thing? An organizer is an invaluable thing in many people’s lives. Even those of us that are not so organized write PostIt notes and stick them on things; write shopping lists instead of memorizing as we become aware of things that need to be bought; and scribble memo points about things that need to be done when we show up at work the next day.

We surely use text a lot to communicate with others, but we use it even more just to communicate with ourselves. It is fair to assume that this is due to the fact that the brain cannot keep track of all these things, at least not in a way that makes it accessible whenever we need it.

After noticing for the ten-thousandth time that I had in the morning forgotten the idea from the night before that was so brilliant it was simply unforgettable, I started carrying a notebook wherever I go and make an effort to write down things that I feel worth noting. I use paper, as nothing quite matches it in terms of usability and handiness. Once in a while I then take the last batch of notes, type them into a computer and arrange them to fit the different projects and subjects I’m working on. This makes them easily searchable which often comes in handy.

Despite several efforts to find good, specialized software to do this, I still haven’t found one that I like. This is probably because of my preconceptions of how such software should function and none of the systems I’ve tried meets them. The top wanted features are:

    – Ability to make all notes searchable in one go while…
    – notes are categorized and…
    – every note can be put in multiple categories.
    – Crossreferences can be made between notes.
    – Everything is stored centrally on the net, prefereably accessible in a browser.

There are loads of other nice-to-have features, but these would pretty much do it for me. I have high hopes for Microsoft’s OneNote but there is still some wait.

In one way we can look at notes as an extension to our memory. But what do we really want to remember? I’ve seen several projects that intend to record everything we see and do to make it available for recalling later. The more futuristic ideas suggest a direct brain link, but tests so far are more camcorder / dictaphone / computer log combinations, like this project by MIT student Sunil Vemuri. Another interesting discussion of such system can be found in David Gelernter’s article “Tapping into the Beam” in The Next Fifty Years. There David Gelernter talks about the information beam, a logging feature that could be compared to the journal feature found in Microsoft Outlook, but extends it to cover our entire life.

Brain interfaces are obviously still quite far away and the recording solution puts demands on search abilities that out-Google anything even at the horizon of invention yet. Hence we do have to select the best bits and note them, making the daily note-taking at most a few kilobytes, rather than the 150 million Gbytes of data per minute, needed to store our entire experience! Let’s admit that most of it is junk anyway.

Taking notes may become easier with new technologies, but the selection, sorting and storing process is likely to be manual and limited rather than an unlimited store-all method.


  1. A low tech approach to your note taking problem would be to simply scan your notes and store them in an image library. Image libraries are getting exceedingly better for organizing pictures, here’s an example. This would probably take less time than typing everything in and you don’t loose your sketches. All you need to do is to find a neat web oriented image library.

  2. The problem with that approach, is that I want to be able to search my notes for certain words and in order to do so, I have to type it all in anyway (or find an OCR program that can read my handwriting, a task that even most humans fail at). Simson Garfinkel’s recent article in Technology Review ‘Slaying the Paper Dragon‘ talks about this sort of digitization and the problems it faces.

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