Upgrade Atomic Thinking to Holistic Thinking

In his essay Atomic Thoughts, Matt Gemmell writes about the atomicity of ideas. The principle of atomicity is a guiding principle for understanding a larger and complicated idea. Its power lies in the fact that it mimics how our mind works. The recommendation for application could be summarised as follows:

Whenever you come across a train of thought that is difficult to grasp, break it down into smaller and thus easier to understand components.

Unfortunately, this is only half the truth.

Analysis is only a part of understanding, but not understanding itself

Breaking down the idea is undoubtedly valuable because it gets to the root of the problem of understanding: it is not the length of the distance our mind has to travel that challenges us. Rather, it is the question of what the first steps are. Once we get going, the path almost goes by itself.

Matt, however, went a bit too far:

The essential factor is that you’re breaking it up, and then connecting it back together. This seems to be how our own minds work, and it’s certainly the approach that I find most conducive to well-ordered and insightful thought. (Highlights by me, https://mattgemmell.scot/atomic-thoughts/)

There is a whole book that warns against this idea: The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist.1 The warning is: Too much focus on the analytical way leads to a narrow and incomplete view. This tunnel vision leads to false assumptions about the world. And those who act on false assumptions will be punished.

The analytical way is the way of the left brain. Metaphorically speaking, the left brain takes what the right brain presents whole and living and dissects it until it is dead. Our right hemisphere seems to be home to a living world of ideas, while the left hemisphere is an industrial complex that rips out the living and feeds its cold machinery with it. Even worse: the left hemisphere seems to be greedy, holding on to the ideas it has taken out. However, in the end, the ideas should be returned to the right hemisphere so that they can become part of the living world of thought again.

This does not mean that the left brain is fundamentally problematic. It provides us with deep insights. It enables us to think about something. Only the left hemisphere gives us the possibility to separate out individual qualities of the world and to see commonalities of individual qualities in what for the right brain are unique occurrences in the world. When the right brain keeps us in contact with the living earth, the left brain lets us become spirit and fly into the sky.

What has once been unfolded and dissected by the left brain should be returned to the right brain and revived. The left brain is unable to do this because it tries to use the same way of making the whole that it uses for dissecting. But what was alive and is dissected to death cannot be brought back to life by sewing it together. It has to be digested and become food for a living being. We cannot sew on a piece of muscle from a cow, but must eat the meat, digest it and then use its amino acids to build our own muscles.

In musical education we can observe the interaction of both hemispheres of the brain: Technical knowledge about rhythm and harmony does not make music cold and dead for the musician. Rather, this analytical view deepens its appreciation. A fully developed musician lives in the spirit as well as the body of music. He ascends into the sky and breaks free from the limitations of the body. At the same time he keeps contact with the earth and feels the ground. He does what Jung said: you reach up into the sky as high as your roots reach towards the bottom of hell.2

However, if you confuse left-brain analysis and manner with the workings of the human mind as a whole, you lose your grounding. Our forum member @Amontillado gets to the heart of the problem:

The compartmentalization of the outline will make the telling a stilted thing. (Link to full comment in the forum)

@Will comfirms:

I have the same experience with outlines; they feel like they are going somewhere when they are in the outline form. And I have a hard time using them to write the intended narrative. (Link to full comment in the forum)

There is a phenomenon that I call “solving gross motor problems with fine motor skills”. It vividly shows what happens when the left hemisphere of the brain oversteps its jurisdiction. Fighting, throwing, running and scuffling are domains of gross motor skills. Even technically demanding aspects such as punch combinations in boxing or combinations of quick directions changes in football are gross motor tasks. The (good) teaching of these techniques does follow the usual pattern of breaking them down into smaller subtasks and then putting them back together. But the return must make the leap in a fluent execution of a whole. This leap is a paradigm shift. If one does not make this leap, the movements remain wooden and mechanical. They can be strung together, but they remain inharmonious and hideous. They remain stilted. Easy to recognise is the nerd who lives entirely in the world of mind and analysis, but moves like an awkward puppet when he is supposed to dribble the basketball. The frustration these people feel when they are put under pressure in sports is left-brain frustration.3 It is rarer that people start out with a good body feeling (gross motor skills) but have difficulty benefiting from individual technique exercises. After all, the right hemisphere of the brain is made to process what the left hemisphere has digested.

These three phenomena, the failure of resynthesis by analytical means, the profundity of a musician and the problems of gross motor learning can be wonderfully explained by the way the two halves of our brain have to work together to create a complete picture of reality. What is born alive in the right half is handed over to the left for analysis, but must find its way back to the right half to be alive again.

Knowledge work is subject to the same rules. Only when we use our brain harmoniously do we get good results. We have to use both halves of the brain. And: we have to relate them to each other.

The commonality of the Feynman Technique and the Zettelkasten Method lies in the right hemisphere

The Feynman technique is an example of using both sides of the brain to understand. Essentially, the technique works like this:

  1. pick a topic and try to explain it to someone else.
  2. record all the gaps in your explanation attempt. 3.
  3. fill in the gaps by learning.
  4. repeat step 1–3 until you are satisfied.

We start with a conversation and try to explain the whole thing coherently. Only in the moments of failure do we take a step back and analyse (left brain). But then we return until we have created a harmonious whole. We find this whole only in contact with another person. We don’t find it alone during analysis. Only in conversation and coherent explanation do we find the whole. Only the return to the right hemisphere of the brain gives us the whole.

This is the special strength of the Feynman technique: it is a brain-friendly4 thinking technique.

Even the Zettelkasten Method only gives us a real understanding when it takes into account the way our brain works.

  1. If we follow the barbell method of reading, we do not start with the exact analysis, but in the first reading cycle we look at the source as a whole. In doing so, we only notice individual things that stand out. We stay in right brain mode for as long as we can. We gain a feeling for the source rather than exact knowledge.
  2. In processing, the second reading cycle, we begin the analysis: we dissect the source into individual atomic thoughts. We make full use of the strength of the left hemisphere.
  3. We relate each atomic thought, each note, to other thoughts. This is a difficult step because on the one hand we are still using the analytical and thinking in parts left hemisphere. On the other hand, we have to make the leap to hand over the individual parts to our right hemisphere to create a whole.

It is this third step that probably causes most people problems with the Zettelkasten Method. True, it is not a problem specific to the Zettelkasten Method, but a general mindset problem. But the Zettelkasten Method reliably exposes this problem. One of the most common complaints of Zettelkasten beginners is that they have used the method to the best of their ability, but they do not feel that anything is happening in the Zettelkasten. They follow the principle of atomicity and set links. And yet the Zettelkasten does not “speak” to them. Their Zettelkasten does not come alive. This problem arises when you follow the steps in the wording but not the spirit of the instructions.

There are some things that help in this third step to break away from the analytical way of the left brain and bring the right half on board.

  1. We need places in the Zettelkasten. Places are where the individual ideas can come together and connect. I call these places structure notes. Of course there are methods and techniques to make them “correct”. But isn’t it precisely the “correct” use of methodology and technique that has not led to success so far? The special ingredient so that thoughts can combine into wholeness is life. The structure notes should deal with something that is important to you and that you want to take with you into the world. A Dungeons and Dragons player who writes a structure note about their favourite character will make that leap. Someone who wants to gather information because they think it might be useful later likely won’t.
  2. It’s about the idea, not the note. The methods and techniques of the Zettelkasten Method fail if you believe that the targets of their application are notes. It is always only about the ideas contained in them. The Zettelkasten Method is not a method for idea bureaucracy. It does not allow one to avoid the actual work of thinking. Rather, it is an invitation and provides a thinking environment for you. The Zettelkasten relates to the thinker as the workshop does to the craftsman: good tools and lovely furnishings make good work possible, but do not replace it. Therefore, great thinking work can be done without a Zettelkasten, and wonderful craftsmanship can emerge even in the most adverse of circumstances.
  3. You need a lot of practice. In my experience, most beginners of the Zettelkasten Method lack practice in handling knowledge. If you don’t understand the basic stuff called “knowledge”, no method that provides the tools to work on that basic stuff will help. What good is the greatest workflow if you can’t make a deeper judgement than “this is certainly useful”. The best strategy in football is of no use if you can’t keep the ball on your foot.

I can report after more than a decade of working with the Zettelkasten Method that the way of working with it has changed significantly as familiarity with it increased. My personal favourite metaphor for the Zettelkasten is the permaculture farm. Permaculture is based on observing the cycles of nature, and building a functioning ecosystem yourself, into which humans can harmoniously integrate. It manages the balancing act between agricultural use and living nature. My structure notes strive to become permacultural digital gardens, ecosystems. The permaculture farm’s aliveness is the criterion of success for sustainability. You can’t fake that like a certificate. I do have simple storage places (for example tool boxes). But the best structure notes develop such a life of their own.

What this means for practice

The Zettelkasten Method’s life of its own only emerges when we do more than just analyse.

  1. Create places in your Zettelkasten. In this way you give your thoughts a place where they can meet.
  2. Work with the ideas of your Zettelkasten. Avoid idea bureaucracy by doing more than “correctly” hitting the methodological beats of the Zettelkasten Method.
  3. Practice a lot. Only with practice will you train your intuition for what works and what doesn’t.
  4. Talk to others about your thoughts. Feynman is not the only one who teaches this. Von Kleist already discussed this in his essay On the Gradual Fabrication of Thoughts in Talking (see our translation in the forums) about 150 years earlier, and Socrates more than 2000 years before that.
  5. Write complete texts. Writing complete texts is similar to speaking. In the flow of writing we recognise much that remained hidden from us in bullet points and outlines.

Parting words

I have probably made my points stronger than necessary. That article is just one of Matt Gemmell’s articles. I treated the article as an atom without considering Matt’s other opinions. Only a conversation with Matt could give me true context.

Matt, if you feel misunderstood: a big apology hug to you.

Christian’s comment: The Principle of Atomicity appealed to me as a programmer because it suits my analytical work process. It allowed me to seamlessly continue work with the Zettelkasten using a mindset I spend the rest of the day in. Summing up, I can confirm that getting out of this analytical rut is difficult, but very fruitful. Conversations with Sascha and our behind-the-scenes cooperation for this blog make this clear to me again and again.

  1. Iain McGilchrist (2009): The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Totton: Yale University Press. On Amazon 

  2. Anticlassical music movements are based on the misunderstanding that formality and liveliness of music are incompatible. 

  3. A large part of these problems can be remedied by good teaching methods. At the same time, it is amazing what kind of mental development people experience when they find themselves succeeding where they expect defeat. 

  4. Sadly, there is no good translation of “gehirngerecht”. A better translation is “brain-appropriate”. But this composite seems to be not common.