Casey Newton: Why note-taking apps don't make us smarter

I’m surprised to learn Casey Newton is a note-taking apps nerd, like me.

And like me he’s a compulsive hoarder of clips and links.

And like me he wants a chatbot to be able to ask the hoard questions.


Good article. I think the first evidence that a note taking app has made me smarter will be that I stop purchasing note taking apps. :grinning:


I see what you did there …

Some number of paragraphs into the article comes this revelation, “you think with your brain”. Well duh.

This second brain nonsense is just that. Storage does not a brain make.

Notes are useful as memory augmentation tools, not as thinking tools. Today, I was trying to install the latest version of Python. But the installer kept failing. So I searched my notes for “install via terminal”, and voila, I found the command I needed, (which I had found the last time this happened, and made a note!). And soon Python was installed. And I continued on with my day.

I did the thinking to solve the problem, not my notes app. But my notes app was the offline memory store where I found the answer to the problem.

The chatbot Mr. Newton is looking for won’t help him think. It will do the thinking. Just as a good research librarian would for a journalist or author. You have a problem you do not know how to solve, but the research librarian or wished for chatbot does. Thus you hand the problem off to them, they do the thinking needed to solve it, and give the answer to you.

Useful? Hell yeah. A tool to help you think, not so much.


I agree with the author. I’ve heard/read multiple people eloquently and enthusiastically speculate about how apps like Roam, Obsidian, Craft, and Notion (any notes app with linking) will help you think better and see new connections between ideas, thus generating new ideas. I’ve never seen an actual example where that’s happened, and it’s never happened to me. You’d think the fan-boy users of these apps would constantly give examples in their speaking and writing of how the app prompted them to generate new thinking, but I haven’t seen it.

This “app will improve your thinking” argument sounds great and plausible in theory but doesn’t seem to pan out in practice. I don’t know that an app can do that for you. Most of my new connections come about through reading/listening and reflection, not looking at links in DevonThink or Craft.

If any app is involved more in the thinking process, it is link-less MindNode, when I’m working with and manipulating a mind map to prepare to write a blog post. A linking notes app may have provided some of the resources I’m using, but seeing new connections and producing new thoughts comes from me grappling with the sources in a mind map.


I’ve always been in the camp that notes serve two purposes: a tool to help you clarify your thinking on the thing that you are making the note about and a memory aid. I don’t see note taking as a tool that improves thinking or makes us smarter.

The King was saying, “I assure, you my dear, I turned cold to the very ends of my whiskers!”

To which the Queen replied, “You haven’t got any whiskers.”

“The horror of that moment,” the King went on, “I shall never, NEVER forget!”

“You will, though,” the Queen said, “if you don’t make a memorandum of it.”

Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 1

I guess in the sense that your thinking is not hindered by having to look up information because you already have it captured and organized, one’s notes probably do help your thinking somewhat. They enable you more time to think.

P.S. I hadn’t seen that @MevetS had already written essentially the same thing. So, consider this my +1:


This is the critical function for me. An augmented memory not a second brain. I think but it stores and I can retrieve.

1 Like

They definitely do.

I liked the essay overall. It’s a real problem that people can’t read a list of links without getting distracted. (I’ve seen it in session tracking data.) Good on the author for the humility there. However, people tend to act the same way with AI summaries. When attention and cognition are besieged, making information views more dense and interesting to compete isn’t effective defense.

But as to whether you can surprise yourself beneficially with either an automatic link or a link you made and forgot: absolutely.

1 Like

There’s a vast and important field sometimes called “cognitive science” around “thinking” and how it does and does not relate to computing.

The first thing a cognitive scientist would say is that there are lots of very different processes and combinations of processes we call “thinking” (and equally “learning” or “remembering”) and none of them are simple. The second thing they’d say is that what happens when humans express themselves in language (orally or in writing) is very interesting and very poorly understood.

Human experience, over thousands of years, is that writing things down or talking about them (expressing them in language) is very often useful. There’s no real doubt that making notes benefits us. HOW they work and how well they work is deeply personal (as is “thinking” and “learning”) and complex. Anyone being dogmatic with theories or practices around note-making (beyond “this is what I do and why I like doing it”) is more in the realms of faith than science, especially if their theories and practices are rigid and simplistic.

At best, we are all exploring what works and is most useful for us, and offering each other our insights and discoveries. Sadly, as in so many areas of life, there are always those who want to make complicated things simple: not a bad aim in itself, but also a gateway to exploitation for gain when it becomes about imposing one simple view.


I’m not going to comment on the content of the article because I think we all seem to be in agreement and anyway one could write many books on this subject.

I do however find it very irksome that the opening paragraph refers to “productivity platforms” before discussing note-taking. “Productivity” and “knowledge management” are not the same thing and it’s very careless phrasing.


This article is a poorly reinstated expression of the collector’s fallacy. It tries to combine numerous ideas without defining terminology.

What struck me about the article was the passivity of the author’s experience with note-taking. Brilliant insights are not made by just having notes. The author needs to make concerted efforts in relating notes to other notes, and in relating concepts to other concepts, before insights can be made. It is correct in that no tool will do your thinking for you. You have to extend your mind and use available data before you can make any insights.

This is a first step to conquer Collector’s Fallacy: to realize that having a text at hand does nothing to increase our knowledge. We have to work with it instead. Reading alone won’t suffice: we have to create notes, too, to create real, sustainable knowledge.

Integration and understanding rather than collecting information is the goal.

The other thing I take exception with is that taking notes doesn’t make me any dumber. There are a great many things that I forget, and I like having my notes nearby to help me remember.


To me the best use of links in Obsidian happens during my weekly review. Here I sit back and look at my daily notes for the previous week. I have links to all sorts of things in my daily notes. Conversations with people, meetings, brainstorming on projects. The links from the daily notes often has me following threads into topics I linked knowing I would come back to it for a deep dive during my weekly review.

I think the key point is you need to set aside an hour a week to actively engage with your notes. You can’t just wait for it to come out and grab you by magic. Thinking is hard and needs to be done in a deliberate way. I know that putting in a little time up front linking to notes during the week is going to pay off at the end of the week.

Here is one specific example. For all the important people in my life I have a note. Any conversation or meeting with that person will get a link back to the person note. During my weekly review, if I see a link to a person, I will open that person’s note and look at all the links. Say the conversation this week was on Project X. Opening the person’s note shows me we had 5 other meetings about project X over the last 2 months and here is what we talked about.


There will come a day when my hammer metaphor is bent so far that it breaks, but today is not that day.

Does a hammer make someone stronger?


But you can do a lot more with a hammer than you can do with your fists.

Same goes for note-taking apps.1

These are simply tools that offer us different ways to work with the material of our thoughts — our notes! — to shape them into whatever we want to.

But, as many have described already, it’s how we use the tool that matters.

What won’t make us smarter is to do what Casey describes in the article:

I waited for the insights to come.

And waited. And waited.

Edit: I published a lightly edited version of this on my blog in an effort to catalogue every time I invoke a hammer in discussions about PKM.

[1]: And same goes for our note-taking practices, which is often overlooked in articles like the OP but, as many have already discussed here, is the thing that actually matters. Latour and co. had it right. It’s not the person, and it’s not the tool, it’s person + tool. Or: we shape our tools, and they shape us.


I agree that it can happen. I haven’t read the article, so this comment is just related to the idea of surprise generating from linking —

I think the problem is how it’s currently presented. This isn’t a new idea at all. At its base form is the notion that connections between two or more seemingly unrelated things may change how you’re currently thinking. That’s it. Sometimes it bears fruit. Sometimes it doesn’t. It doesn’t really matter if the connecting string between concepts is really there or not — the important part is that it can subtly push you out of unconscious rigidity in your thinking.

And this has been around before personal computers. There’s the old parlor game of Exquisite Corpse and William S Burroughs cut-up technique (which a lot of artists use versions of, including David Bowie or Brian Eno’s oblique strategies), hyper-text fiction theory (again, predating the personal computer revolution, like Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch novel).

Word clouds and unconscious writing are also versions of this. Hypertext theory from the beginning has elements of this. You can find examples of hypertext fiction working under these theories written in HyperCard back when that was a unique program (sadly I don’t remember the names, but I had a few of them on my Mac Classic II - if that was the black and white version).

The problem is the “success” or “achievement” is more subtle than makes for a good YouTube presentation, online-course, or eBook. So it’s oversold in what it is and what it can do. And then is dismissed by folks because it’s hype. But the core concept is there, it’s just not as groundbreaking or huge — or obvious — as it’s made out to be.


I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here, along with your earlier comment, “This isn’t a new idea at all.” But the hype pitches it as something it isn’t.

Writers have cited examples where, in reviewing notes in a linking notes app, they’ve been “surprised” by things they recorded earlier that they’d forgotten or that links an app suggests between concepts get them thinking about the concepts.

The same thing happens all the time with non-linking apps. I’m constantly surprised by something I’d forgotten I’d read when I review Readwise highlights every morning. Likewise, when I go into a topic folder in which I’ve been collecting material, I’ve forgotten much of what’s in it. I could do the same, reviewing a stack of 3x5 notecards. Or one Readwise highlight reminds me of something else and prompts thinking, or I read two Readwise highlights and see a new way they are related.

In all these examples, the app is just recalling the material I’ve saved but not doing any thinking for me. I still have to look at the notes, decide if they are related somehow, and then think about what that means.


Right, it’s being pitched as an old idea made easier with new tools. Just like Readwise and MindNode. The core concept being promoted (hyped?) in the PKM community is that your research and ideas are better when you view your materials with more context.

One of the popular ways to be pulled in a direction among Obsidian users is the random note feature. Very simple, and not too different than flipping to a few random pages in a notebook or doing the Horner Bible reading plan. But a lot more people are doing it now because a tool makes it easy.

Likewise LLM summaries of your own data that Casey Newton speculates could help him would just be an advance or writing and consolidating your own or your assistants’ glosses. I criticized it as a solution but not because it’s an attempt to innovate on a research method.

As for why the hype: I think it’s a mix of Youtubers being Youtubers (bad) and some of these tools helping certain hobbies and careers move downmarket from academia, niche professional use and nerd circles (good.)

1 Like

Wonderful revelation. I totally agree with setting time aside to just evaluate, ruminate, collate, update and remake your notes as you work to make them a helpmeet not a millstone.


Wonderful examples, thanks for bringing some old passions to the front again. :grinning:

Some of this discussion is core to the concept and theory of “hypertext”, from the late 1970s onward.

There’s no doubt that enabling text (or images) to link to other text (or images or files) is incredibly powerful and is something most people on earth use every day on literally billions of pieces of text. The more difficult question is how to present the reader with a representation of links that is effective. Tim Berners-Lee’s original idea of underlining and changing the colour of text to show it links to something else was brilliantly simple and effective, which is why it has stuck despite the efforts of many web and software designers to subvert it. It’s no surprise that it has begun to appear in notes - and maybe a surprise that it took so long. The extension of that idea to “backlinks” (that links work both ways) is also almost inevitable, but no-one has yet come up with the simple equivalent of a hyperlink for that, so there are multiple methods of showing what links to a text instead of one accepted way of showing onward links.

What is not at all clear, despite many claims, is whether showing those links as a separate graph or other representation is helpful to many people. Graphs of the internet were popular maybe 20 years ago (showing web pages as nodes and the connections between them) and it is still possible to access them and create them (e.g. DevonAgent) but they never generated the hype that similar approaches have done in, say, Obsidian.

As I understand it, the benefit of linking thoughts/notes (whether in a Zettelkasten or in hypertext) is for use as a tool to organise and use them by following “threads” through in order to deepen understanding or broaden it. That can only happen by exploring the thoughts and ideas within the notes and how they relate, reorganising material into new syntheses and reaching maybe new conclusions. I don’t think that is going to happen by seeing a graph of links or list of backlinks on its own, unless your understanding of the field is so shallow that you haven’t made any connections of your own.

1 Like

For me it was a world of difference when I tried the „Plex“ feature of TheBrain where it‘s easy to link different „thoughts“ graphically in multiple parent, child and jump relationships. It‘s a conscious but effortless approach to link related things rather then burying them in the text. A strong reminder that having the same „feature“ (linking between entities) can be realized so differently to have a very different quality.

I’ve tried to use the graph in Obsidian and either it is too dense or a local graph doesn’t give enough links to be useful. I plan to try filters in the graph to see if that helps.

1 Like