I struggled with my last article on the Zettelkasten portal because I didn’t know how to express a tiny piece of theoretical background in the right way. It was about a constructivist approach to cognition and information.
Because it bugged me so much, I began to write this journal entry while editing the article. Maybe you’d like to have a look behind the scenes, so here it is.
It all started with this seemingly harmless part:
Information is not a thing out there to grab and hold on to, consequently. Information is to be created from environmental stimuli: it originates in your brain.
Sascha found there were too many implicit assumptions. I should’ve made my point clearer. Well, I thought, nothing easier than that. So I added a few things and hoped for the best:
You cannot grab and hold on to information, consequently. Unlike the table I’m sitting in front of, information is no thing at all. Instead, information originates in your brain and is inherently a personal matter. It may be created from environmental stimuli, for example, from which a selection is presented to your consciousness. Let’s change perspectives: As a writer, you can’t send or transmit information like electromagnetic waves to a receiver. You can only work with vehicles to convey meaning, words and texts, that is, and hope someone will interpret your stuff in a way compatible to your intentions.
But the implicit assumptions remained, Sascha pointed out. He found I made things worse. Ideally, I’d have started with definitions of my terms because it’s likely some of my readers will not have adopted a constructivist view of the world, yet. The stuff I added didn’t help to solve the problem, he found.
Maybe it helps to start the part from scratch, I figured. Sometimes it’s easier to delete and start fresh than to polish the garbage in front of you until it shines.
We can say that there’s at least two kinds of thoughts:
- Thoughts originating through introspection or “looking inward”, and
- thoughts originating through external stimuli or looking at the world outside.
Here, we deal with external stimuli: reading a text is about looking at a thing in the world, be it a book or your computer screen.
Let’s say you read a printed text. A page of paper with letters on it cannot transfer information to your mind. Instead, your brain will create an interpretation of the stuff you look at. That’s how a printed page is identified as a text. Your dog won’t notice the difference between a crayon drawing on paper and a text, but you will. So that’s the first interpretation, recognizing a text as a text.
Information is what you think about when you read. Some parts are the usual blah-blah fillers, some seem interesting. The interesting parts inspire thoughts. Your brain does some woo-woo magic stuff here and creates a thought fitting you from the data it gets.
To make this part fit into the rest, I changed the text in a few other places.
I finally found the article was making its point clear. But something didn’t feel right.
I didn’t feel good about the whole endeavor. I’m no expert in human cognition, and while I do have read a bunch of articles and books on the topic over the years, most of it was in my pre-Zettelkasten era.
In short, whatever hard facts and theories I may have had known is inaccessible now. What’s left is a mere belief: this is how things work. I can’t share that kind of crap with my readers, though. I shouldn’t publish things I can’t back up properly.
Thus I knew I had to change the tone of the piece.
I should have tried to not come over as if I was presenting a full-fledged theory. Instead, I wanted to point out a few assumptions to the reader. I wanted to present my thoughts on the matter so my readers would entertain the thoughts for a while, too.
So it was time for a more dramatic rewrite.
Sadly, I had to remove a lot of text I grew fond of:
Your dog won’t notice the difference between a crayon drawing on paper and a printout of a text, but you will, because your brain is capable of interpreting the data accordingly.
Ditching that and way more, I ended up with a post about to focus on framing activities. It was better, but still not too good, I think.
Do you know the following situation: after you finish a text, you talk about it and come up with a succinct summary of the whole piece?
As I write this, I notice the point I initially wanted to make is this: dear reader, whenever you read a text and find “this sounds interesting,” take note of what your thoughts are. You don’t need to capture the interesting part, but the thoughts they inspired you to have instead.
So that’s the take-away. Compare that to the final post.