The Connection Between Brain Effort And Note Taking


Monday, 8.21pm

Sheffield, U.K.

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. – H. L. Mencken

If you are a fan of stationery and nice pens, as I am, you will have been pleased by the discovery by Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) that taking notes by hand is better for you than taking notes using a laptop. Their conclusion is clear: “laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good.”

But unfortunately it’s not quite as simple as that. Like the often repeated but incorrect belief that 93% of communication is non-verbal you need to dig a little deeper to understand what’s going on.

A review of the literature by Jansen, Lakens and IJsselsteijn (2017) found that some studies show notetaking with laptops works better, while others prefer longhand. There are many factors to consider, such as the way information is presented, the way people take notes, differences in cognitive capability between people and the way in which understanding is tested.

They find, for example, some studies that show that taking notes worsens recall while other studies show the opposite. The link between taking notes and how much you remember varies with whether you’re reading or listening to the content, how fast it’s coming at you, whether you can go over it again and again or not, whether you copy it exactly or say it in your own words, whether you use an outline, or words or a diagram. Learning is complicated stuff.

Jansen et. al. suggest that we should look at cognitive load theory to understand what’s going on – the amount of effort your brain puts into the task and what it spends that effort on doing.

When you’re trying to learn something there are five main things you do. You need to understand the material, you need to pick the points that are important, you need to connect them with other ideas that you know and that are relevant, you need to restate the ideas in your own words and finally you need to write them down. That’s a lot of stuff that’s going on.

It’s not surprising that there isn’t one perfect system that will sort you out every time. What you need to do is figure out a way of learning that lets you engage at a deeper level with the material. Copying it out exactly or taking notes verbatim is a surface level of understanding. Picking out ideas and relating them to other ideas is a deeper level. Saying these ideas in your own words starts you on the path of making them your own which you finish by creating a piece of written work that is ready for the world.

We visited Ironbridge this weekend, a place known as a symbol of the Industrial Revolution. We saw a candle maker’s workshop where the owner and his children made candles all day, boiling down the fat from carcasses – a dangerous, difficult and smelly job. They were one of the richest families in the town, but carried the stench with them – and the term “stinking rich” originates with this kind of job.

These days what we’re aiming for is to be the “thinking rich” – and to do that we need the ability to boil down knowledge by taking good notes and creating something valuable.


Karthk Suresh

How To Spend Your Time


Sunday, 7.40pm

Sheffield, U.K.

In the commercial world, you have this problem that the amount of research you can do in a company is based on how well your current business is going, whereas there actually should be an inverse relationship: when things are going worse, you should do more research. – Alan Kay

I’m in the first few months of a PhD programme and trying to figure out what’s worth doing, what’s not and whether it matters. And the difficulty with these kinds of questions is that every answer you reach for is right.

For example – if you want to learn to write should you write every day? Yes. Should you only publish material when you know it’s ready? Yes. Should you show the world work in progress – a glimpse behind the workshop curtain? Yes. Should you make your research open so that others can examine your process? Yes.

You can’t produce good material in one sitting – that takes work and rework. But if you don’t produce something on a regular basis you won’t get the experience you need to be able to produce good work.

When you start looking into such questions there is no right answer. You have a mix of factors and no guarantee that you will get things right. Whatever choice you make, it’s very likely that there were better ones. But you’re stuck with the ones that you’ve chosen and the possibilities that open up because of those decisions. You learn in the world of decision making that there is no benefit in regret. You move on, leaving sunk costs behind.

In my research process I have challenges that look like these:

  • What to read
  • What to extract and keep
  • What to take notes on
  • What to think about
  • How to take notes and think – the medium, the method.
  • Balance traditional methods and newer, perhaps more creative ones
  • Try and see things from different perspectives
  • Consider how approaches work for me
  • Consider how approaches work in groups
  • Work out what the important questions might be

What role does this blog play in that process – and, as you’re reading this, is what you are going to find something that’s worth your time?

I’ve tried a few things so far. Writing about what’s on my mind, what I’ve learned, pulling together a book project. Sometimes there is a thread, sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes I write about specific methods, and sometimes it’s writing about process, about the experience of method.

The one constant is that I sit down at roughly the same time every day to work on something that will be published when I finish typing these words. There is a clear beginning and an end and a time limit – and that helps with producing words. Making the rules of operation less clear or subject to choice will make it harder to do. But, of course, that also makes it harder to be clear on what is being done – what’s the purpose of this blog?

I don’t think I need to answer that right now because it fits into an emerging programme of work that I am still working to define and design. Perhaps it’s a reflective journal, a place where I write about things that I’m working on. Perhaps it’s a place for work in progress, first drafts that are later reworked. Perhaps it’s Zettelkasten, a partner in research, but it’s going to be a few years before we can work together.

All I can say right now is that there is no right answer. What you have to do is trust in the process.

And wait.


Karthik Suresh

What Have You Made That Would Not Have Existed Without You?


Thursday, 9.56pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. – Kurt Vonnegut

Over the last few days and weeks I’ve been reading a lot of research and am finding it tricky to work out what’s worth remembering and why. I’m messing around with different approaches and trying to see what works and what doesn’t.

Some of the papers I read have interesting, exciting ideas captured in terse but powerful writing. These are words and sentences that have been thought about for a while, carefully constructed to express precisely what the author wants to convey. So why is it that these ideas are locked away in prisons of Times New Roman and don’t find their way out into the real world, the practical one – where they can make a difference?

It probably has a lot to do with the language. What we’re all trying to do is get to grips with this complex world around us. What relationship do we have with it? What kind of knowledge is going to be useful? How are we going to go about getting it?

These four components have big names: ontology, epistemology, axiology and methodology. They are important but they also create a barrier to understanding. We have to climb this complex language barrier every time we want to understand something.

Like everything else history plays a part. I suspect that the reason we use words in the way we do is because of printing. For centuries the only way to create books was to write them by hand and we had a certain kind of product – books with images and structure, the kinds of things you could create without constraints, other than the physical ones imposed by the paper you were working on.

Then along came type and the ability to print books. But type coped well only with words and so for a few centuries we relied on words to express everything, and those words became increasingly more complicated to cope with the complicated ideas we were trying to express. The constraint of type created a particular kind of expression of knowledge and that particular kind of expression was used by powerful people until it became the accepted way to do things. To this day if you want to be taken seriously you write a book or publish a paper.

I can’t remember the sources but the old handmade arts survived in the traditions of scrapbooking and creative journalling. But, this source said, because these were activities traditionally done by women they were discounted as less important – only suitable for the home and not “serious” enough for any real problem – like the ones faced in business, where men dominated what went on and were comfortable with papers and memos and notes and would have looked askance at anything “creative”.

The emergence of the Internet and the ability of people to find other interested people around the world is leading to a resurgence of mixed-media approaches to generating knowledge. We’re going from a world of papers to one where you can do anything – from painting your ideas to making videos about them. This is going to change the way we think and make it easier to discover new and useful ideas. As long as they are discoverable.

I’ve talked before about the work of Lynda Barry, who teaches about the value of writing and drawing by hand. She asks students to start their notebooks by drawing an outline of their hand – the “original digital device”. This leads to an interesting question posed by Ingrid Lill in her newsletter: What is out there in the world that wouldn’t exist if you hadn’t made it? You probably need to exclude your children from this – but what else is there?

Have you created something that makes your soul happy. And if not, should you?


Karthik Suresh

A Predictable Formula For Success That’s Hard To Stick To


Sunday, 8.32pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan. – John F. Kennedy

I was watching Nigel Topping’s TED talk 3 Rules for a Zero Carbon World and was surprised to see him put systems thinking principles at the core of his argument about what we need to do to take action on climate change.

A key principle is the one of loops. positive loops that reinforce each other. One thing leads to another thing which leads to more of the first thing and so on, in a virtuous circle that increases whatever the first thing was doing. Negative loops work the other way and balancing loops keep things the same.

But we want positive loops when it comes to climate action – more of the things that are good for the planet and less of the things that aren’t. But how do we go about doing that?

Well, it turns out that the basic principle is pretty simple. Start by doing something – taking a stand, making a point, making a change. And then work at doing that for a while.

At first people will ignore you, and then you’ll get your first follower, and then more will join and then early adopters will notice and then the mainstream will find out about you and then, all of a sudden, the thing will be an overnight success after thirty years of working on it.

You can see this pattern with the shift to renewables, the adoption of electric cars, the increasing focus many of us have in buying sustainable products. I watched another talk on heating homes with ground source heat pumps and it seems quite feasible now in a way it might not have been even a few years ago. We see the change in the last year or so but it’s taken decades to get to this point.

What’s happened during that time is the slow march of project after project, with successful ones increasingly leading to the belief of onlookers that this is something that is worth doing, leading to more projects which leads to more belief and so on, until the whole world believes that we have to do something.

But what’s also interesting about Topping’s talk is that you have to recognise that the change you will see is exponential. In the early period, you see little result from your time and effort. And then it starts to show up, as it takes you less and less time to double your impact. This means that you shouldn’t expect to see amazing results for a while – that doesn’t mean you are failing. It just means you need to give it enough time before you give up and walk away. How many people have walked away just before they hit that point where their results were about to explode?

If you put this in terms people understand these days you should think about likes and followers on social media. You can put out content for ten years without people noticing and then suddenly you reach a tipping point and the numbers go up and up, seemingly unstoppably. Or you give you because you don’t get the quick results you wanted and never find out.

Of course it’s hard to tell the difference between something that isn’t working and never will and something that will work one day but just isn’t showing results now. You have to believe in what you are doing and be willing to spend your life doing it anyway, regardless of how things turn out to be happy with this state of affairs.

So there are two things you have to do if you want to make a success of whatever you’re working on. You have to be willing to believe that your work will lead to success and that eventually the people around you will see that and support you. And you have to be willing to wait for the length of time it’s going to take.

Belief and time – those are the ingredients you mix for success.


Karthik Suresh

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