Thinking by Writing. Thinking by Modeling

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Thinking happens neither in a human
brain, nor in a group of people’s brain, but
in a brain and an exocortex.

What do we mean when we say that thinking is a completely internal act? Thinking purely “inside your head” is unproductive and leads to slips of attention, mistakes, and inarticulate thoughts. For better performance of thinking we now use auxiliary tools. The best way to help you to think is to write:

  • You write your thoughts, and that’s what “thinking” is: thinking happens as you formulate and refine a claimed thought.
  • While “just reading”, you are reading the result of the other person’s “thinking by writing”. Moreover, when “just reading” you do not think.
Numerous experiments on students prove it: you remember everything 24 hours before exams and then forget everything for the very next day. Still, if you practice reading and putting down your thoughts on what you’ve read, or at least retelling what you’ve read in your own words (don’t quote, cut/paste, underline sentences and phrases in the text you’re reading – it’s useless!), then you can be sure that you have “uploaded” someone else’s thoughts into your brain.

“You don’t write = you don’t think” is a powerful and counterintuitive statement. It means that humans have a breakthrough in thinking compared to the animal kingdom, using tools, not just their bare brains. Humans work with devices, not with their bare hands. Humans do not think with their plain brains; they think with tools. A carpenter’s plane or an electric one, a pen and paper (does anyone remember what that is?), or a text editor, have the exact nature of using tools to enhance one’s capabilities. Like using tools with your hands, using tools for your brain is a skill that has to be learned: it is not given by nature; it is given to a person by culture.

In cognitive science, this is discussed as the extended cognition thesis. Although this is at times less popular thesis than embodied cognition. Still, in addition to an embodiment (i.e., brain-to-body, this thesis includes embedded, i.e. thinking functions only in its associated environment). It enacts with computation of the neural network while the body acts and extends the body’s environment), extended mind thesis (“And what about socially-extended cognition? Could my mental states be partly constituted by the states of other thinkers? We see no reason why not, in principle.”)

The “thinking by writing” thesis is most convincingly and popularly expressed in Sönke Ahrens’ book “How to Take Smart Notes“. In short, the author makes a case for writing down your thoughts about anything and keeping a file cabinet (slip-box) of those notes, dividing it into three sections:

  • Notes on the literature you’ve read (by no means quotes, but retelling them in your own words: the task is to strain your brain, and then it will come to mind in time. Bibliographical references will also go here).
  • And then your own thoughts come to mind about what you have read, including references to other such thoughts. The order is not essential.
  • Drafts for publication, made on the basis of your own thoughts and with bibliographical references from the previous two sections.
Thinking is writing notes on what you read, writing your own notes on notes, and writing prepublications on notes. No writing means no thinking. If you have a thought, it has to be represented externally; its results must be written down and demonstrated. If you can’t write it down, it means you haven’t thought it through. Think it through, and then write it down.

Further, it is guaranteed that the value of these notes will increase over time and also will increase thought productivity. For example, the sociologist Luhmann used a similar system and was notable for the hyper productivity of his scientific work. Still, there are many other examples of people thinking with a pencil in hand or, lately, at a computer. Thought-in-the-mind, unless manifested as a text from outside the same mind, usually cannot be evaluated by that mind and is therefore flawed and crooked. A thought outlined in a text can be checked, corrected, and put into a form suitable for communication both with oneself (for example, a month after writing, you read yourself and understand what you have written) and with other people (thinking collectively).

We strengthen the thesis from Ahrens’ book with a few thoughts:

  • The thinking goes about with natural language texts and with other kinds of formal models. So “thinking by writing and modeling” is essentially “thinking by documenting”. But not by visualizing because visual models are far from being adapted or edited simpler. So we talk about different texts or codes, more formal syntax, and semantics. Text is a model-schemanoid (not a conceptual schema, but similar to a schema. Cf. a humanoid is not a human but looks like a human), and a more formal model is pseudocode, followed by the very formal code: mathematical formulas, programming or modeling language code. The main thing is that everything is externalized anyway, constructivism.
  • Thinking is learning or building the world’s models in a broad sense. All of David Hestenes’ considerations in “Notes for a Modeling Theory of science, cognition and instruction” also support the “thinking by writing” thesis, where cognitivism and constructionism in education state written representations as a must. Models as the result of thinking, introduced through the exocortex, not the mind, are available for evaluation and possible correction by a teacher or colleagues, or even oneself, the day after writing.
  • The exact form is entirely optional. You can use your blog or note-linking software such as Coda, Notion, or Obsidian for the same purpose. All the famous attempts at card systems are acceptable (HyperCard, Xanadu, and other wiki predecessors and successors). They were designed for thinking by writing and collaborative thinking (as the first Wiki was).
  • The reason for not using tags Luhmann clearly expresses and Ahrens repeats in his book: it’s interesting to put every thought into a completely different context than existed at the time the idea appeared. Texts live much longer than their rubrics.
We explicitly recommend “thinking by writing” in the Systems thinking course.

  • Final essay. When you start writing text in systems language about your project, you find out you don’t have an excellent grasp of the domain. You barely write a dozen pages, though there is a lot of literature on the project, and you understand them quite well. Still, you somehow cannot write a coherent text; the understanding is very vague.
  • Cases’ answers. We strongly recommend you write down your rationales during the solving. It could turn out that you have a “gut feeling for the right answer”, but the coherent explanation is covered with mist.
Ahrens’ book describes in detail that one must write down such rationales when teaching. Otherwise, the learning goes past one’s head. No matter what the students say, the experiments show the importance of their written work in formulating some statements in the course language. If you don’t write it down, you don’t know whether you understand it or not. So begin to write, and you immediately discover the degree of understanding.

The method of developing your slip-box on different domains (by means of writing and externalizing texts as described above) is not a top-down waterfall, where you first plan what to write, then develop a writing plan, then research according to the plan, then write according to the plan. It’s agile and involves accumulating material and ideas “from the bottom up” with outreach to the product.

The criticism that the “blog of cards” as a result of thinking by writing is unstructured is not valid. If you have a full-text search, it does not matter if you put the cards with smart numbering into a multi-stack database or just “on top”. You can always narrativize accordingly to the purpose, whether you need to have a presentation or a book. The main point, you always have access to your thoughts via a search engine, even if a book as an output product is a good form of publishing the results of your thinking.

Well, what about structure? Instead of structure, the basic principles of organization stand out here: thinking by writing and modeling requires a pretty rigid discipline, and taking notes for many, many years provides you with a lot of potential unwritten books. But it is not so necessary to write them. You could spend the time you save on writing books on something else.

This thinking technology with writing and modeling has a lot of purely psychological benefits. For example, it is a little bit like the GTD method of putting all your planned work into an external drive, so it doesn’t waste energy on remembering, using the Zeigarnik effect (the brain doesn’t care whether it’s finished or written down for future reference, it releases “working memory”, the “closure” effect). Thinking by writing releases the working memory after the new thought that has appeared in the brain has been formalized in writing and published. Thus, when you use GTD and think by writing, you can reschedule at any moment: nothing is forgotten or lost, and there is no stress of keeping numerous “I should not have forgotten” memories. Everything is written down. The complexity of thought work turns out to be not so great when using the exocortex to enhance memory and attention retention. All decisions are standardized in form (make a note in GTD, make a blog post); the effort goes only to thinking about the content. There’s no strain on memory and attention (but that doesn’t mean everything is forgotten and attention doesn’t hold). On the contrary, nothing is forgotten and slipped away. A text search even brings up long-forgotten ideas.
Since, in the IAIEEM, we teach people to think, it is right to teach them to think by writing and modeling right away. This idea is implemented in our courses (starting from the Systems Self-development course) and propagated a lot to our large team of course developers, teachers, volunteers, and all students.
In the meantime, think and write. This habit will be worth it.
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