The Brain Extension — Creative Insights via Conceptual Objects
By understanding how the mind works and adapting our personal and professional systems to play to its design, we can improve creativity, elevate our thinking, and enhance our ability to bring new ideas to a situation.
Evolutionarily, we’re not good at dealing with abstract concepts. Until relatively recent times, humans had always dealt with practical, tangible issues that were easy to see and easy to understand. They were not abstract theoretical concepts; they were immediate, visible, and tactile — things you could touch and interact with directly.
So our minds are not fully developed for digesting and working with such intangible elements. It’s not something wired deeply into us.
Therefore, to work more effectively with abstract concepts and usher in more creativity, turn them into objects or artifacts. Shape them into a form we can interact and grapple with, and combine with others. Jot it down or sketch it or capture an audio clip or shoot a quick video or a take a photo — any way that we can transform abstract ideas into an artifact or object. It could be physical or digital.
In this new form, ideas and information can be visualized and interacted with in all new ways — ways were innately built for.
I use Evernote, but not the way most people do. There’s no other tool as fluid at dealing with and matching ephemeral thoughts. A few apps are as good at capturing and retrieving, but none at having the right concept-as-object find its way into your current efforts long after you’ve forgotten about it. I have no affiliation with Evernote, I just found it does this job like no other. Seemingly similar tools like One Note or Notion are awesome at other things, but none compete as well with Evernote at this thing.
Evernote is designed for search and for AI-powered recommendations and connections. Other note-taking tools rank according to a rigid hierarchy, Evernote (like your brain) enables objects or artifacts to float their way to the top when relevant. Other tools index and organize. Indexing is great for projects which need the information in a particular order. But when you’re capturing everything coming in at you, and everything your mind is conjuring, and all of your interpretations, you want to throw them into this floating ether.
You can quickly upload anything and everything that might one day be valuable into Evernote, incredibly easily. Just unload it all in there. You’ve come across an article or hear an idea, send it into the system. The system becomes an extension of your mind. Human brains are powerful when creating and shaping ideas, they’re terrible at remembering.
Throw all of it into this brain extension, and then here’s the thing:
Creativity is generally not coming up with something truly original, but rather making uncommon associations, connecting disparate elements.
Combining elements or insights that are not typically associated with each other is the engine behind most creative breakthroughs.
And by having this external database feeding your mind with elements you previously flagged as potentially important, you’ve just turbo-charged your thinking and your creativity. It’s an extension to your brain with pre-screened ideas and info and insights just waiting to be connected at the right time.
They’re all there, floating around waiting to be of service because you took these abstract notions and converted them into a tangible form as digital notes. They’re now forever on-call.
Now you can easily search and retrieve them. Make a little effort, and you can have tags or notebooks so that you can find things when you think “Oh yeah, what was that thing I came across…”
But beyond that, when pulling up a particular note, other related pieces will float up as additional recommendations to consider — references or ideas we likely forgot. This is done through Evernote’s AI language-pattern recognition engine.
Or if you do a Google search and you have the Evernote Web Clipper activated (which you should), it will serve up results from your Evernote database next to your Google search results.
So if you get in the habit of taking all of your ideas and all of the interesting elements that you come across and perpetually feed them into this system, you will have a potent brain extension. It will enable endless retrieval on demand, but just as importantly an ephemeral flow of unexpected associations.
The way to maximize this system’s power and capability is to commit big and throw everything in there. It’s not something where you just save special items. Anything that has any potential to ever be valuable to you again, throw it in there. This is the ONE place where hoarding is acceptable for hyper-productive people. This is the one platform I know of where it will not pile up in your way, while having a good chance of finding you when you need it most. If you had to organize all these entries hierarchically (as in One Note to Notion), then you’d have to climb over or wade through it all looking for things. That’s when the excess becomes clutter and noise.
This system, however, is more ephemeral and search-based, fueled by AI recommendations. That changes the game. With enough material, it starts making connections like a brain — one memory will trigger another memory, but this extended part of your brain will never forget.
These ideas-in-object-form will come together in ways that you never expected. It’s a digital ether of floating concepts and objects that becomes a self-perpetuating system. One finding sparks more ideas, connecting new elements that might fit the current moment — triggering yet more insights. This is a powerful way to come up with original thoughts that combine elements not typically or inherently linked together. And that is the basis of creativity.
I’ve been reading about and developing my thinking on these ideas from some great sources including David Allen’s GTD principles, Tiago Forte and his Building a Second Brain work, and Tim Ferris’ podcast and Tools of Titans book. These are great places to dive deeper into related concepts. High performers in every field have exceptionally effective processes for capturing and retrieving ideas and information — powerful tools and techniques are more accessible than ever to facilitate such thinking and creative insight. It’s a real competitive advantage to embrace them.