How to organize a neural network outside of my brain to help me learn?
January 15, 2015 1:37 PM   Subscribe

I am studying psychology and like to make associations and note similarities between different theories. For example, perhaps I see a relationship between Fromm’s concept of conformity and ideas of enculturation and socialization, from there maybe I can then link to constructs of social interaction in Vygotsy’s work on learning. I believe that I am looking for a non-linear organization system similar to a big mind map, semantic network, or a personal wiki. Any suggestions about how to structure something like this?

I’m less concerned with facts and knowledge which can easily be found in texts or papers than I am with organizing connections between ideas, to keep track of them and jump between them. In my imagination this information forms a neural network like structure that helps me remember my ideas and form new creative ideas and associations.

This not a question about psychology and could be about any field or topic. There is no specific research goal at this time; only to learn the field in breadth and depth.

And not to get caught up in the theory and jargon of the field, but, in italics below are specific examples of a list of associations that I made in a personality class assignment. The assignment was to describe and give an original example of psychopathology according to George Kelly. Instead of giving one example I looked for the manifestation of Kelly’s bad personal constructs and impermeability in the theories of the others we studied in class. The strongest associations I made are below.

Psychopathology in Kelly’s theory refers to people that are poor scientists and will not reject a personal construct that has been disconfirmed by reality and have made their construct impermeable. Kelly’s idea of pathology can be related to many other previous ideas from this course:

Freud’s concept defense mechanisms and a person denying the reality of an experience as far back as childhood may result in hardened non-helpful constructs or fixations. A person fixated at the anal stage for example may have an impermeable concept of orderliness versus sloppiness.

Allport’s lack of self-insight or a poor self-image result in the inability to learn from experiences and to alter their constructs.

Although these examples are rather simple and remedial undergrad psychology, I’d love to watch my links grow and become more complex as I progress into graduate education.
posted by Che boludo! to Education (19 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
I can relate to your desire and have often wished for something like this (it's behind my desire to recreate a new version of Hypercard). I haven't found anything that really suits the bill, but will watch this thread hopefully. In the meantime, maybe play with SpicyNodes.
posted by Miko at 1:45 PM on January 15, 2015

I thought this what the Omni Apps like Omni Outliner are for, but then I checked the website - NOPE.

There is an app that makes Venn Diagram-like relationships between tasks and ideas, and displays them like that. I'm off to find it for you. I used it in 2005, but surely it (or similar) still exists?
posted by jbenben at 1:56 PM on January 15, 2015

I find that with stuff like this drawing it out by hand is the best. When you're forming connections in your head, the interaction between your hand, the paper, and your brain is helpful. Seeing the big picture easily is helpful. Being able to express it exactly the way you picture it is helpful. Being able to access it immediately is helpful. Futzing around with software and working around the program's limitations just uses up your brain's bandwidth and is not helpful. I would get one of those big rolls of paper they sell for kids and put up a big piece of paper on the wall. Or a cheap non-precious sketchbook you can carry around.
posted by bleep at 2:04 PM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Have a look at "thebrain" (for Mac/Windows - it's a mind map that reorganizes depending on from which perspective you want to look at it and uses father/brother/son relationships. It grows with you and you can delve into specific views. A bit hard to explain but very worth it.
posted by mathiu at 2:08 PM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

I want this too! So much! I have a background in computer science, so please consider contacting me if you decide you care enough about this to make a project of it.

There is something called an "object database" that is possibly a basis for creating something like this. In this conception, the ideas you are talking about above would be the "objects", and the database would store them and store their relationships to each other. I know of one object database platform, and I assume there are others by now, but I don't yet know anything about front-end (i.e. visual/user interface) tools to use them.

However, it's not enough just to put it into a datase; you (and I, and a lot of people) need a way to do so _quickly_ so it's not going to slow down the learning process too much, and you need a really great way to get the information out again later.

The questions then become: how to you plan to access the information after you have stored it? What kinds of questions will your future self (or other people) ask? Also, what's the quickest, most streamlined way for you to enter the information so that it _can_ be retrieved later and so that the process itself won't slow down your other work?

I'll be watching this thread with interest. I think this is a very important question, actually, since so many of us spend so much time reading and learning, and emerge with a pretty good understanding but an inability to see _how_ we arrived at that understanding and _how_ to explain it clearly to others who haven't read the 10 things we (and our close friends) have read.
posted by amtho at 2:10 PM on January 15, 2015

This is something I often think about, and have never found a good way to represent digitally. In graduate school I poured all my notes into DevonThink, which has a concordance AI that tries to make connections between your files for you. But it's nowhere near as smart as it needs to be, and it can't organize those connections in any way other than through file structure. If you're less interested in discovery than in organization, mindmaps might work just fine (FreeMind is opensource and not bad). But the thing with them is that at larger scales, it becomes very difficult to accidentally make connections that you don't know you want to make in the first place. That is to say, at least for me, I've found it's hard to discover connections without you yourself realizing, when you're deep in one branch of a mindmap, that this bit looks like this other bit in some other (usually collapsed) branch of your mindmap. You still have to kind of curate and organize your connections.

This may differ for STEM subjects, and it may be different for you. Speaking for myself, as a historian, in the years since I began and left grad school, I've found really no good replacement for the brain making the connections itself. This, through stubborn and dogged reading, re-reading, rethinking, circulating, backtracking, neural-sparking a-ha moments after the fifth, sixth re-read. Certainly no good digital visual way of keeping track of these things. I've literally devolved/evolved into implementing an 18th century system of commonplace books in DevonThinK, and keeping notebooks of ideas in Evernote. YMMV: the historical understanding and connections I'm trying to make and keep appear to be a fairly straightforward function of time, effort and memory; the nature of the connections are best clarified and solidified through writing, talking and teaching. Which is to say, not easily represented visually. I get a lot out of hand-drawing mind-maps of books I'm reading, but that's really much more for the process than the storage, and it would be impossible for me to connect my bookmaps up with each other in any meaningful way. But everyone's different, and I'd be the first to get excited if anyone has any suggestions for digital solutions.
posted by idlethink at 2:11 PM on January 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: A personal problem is that I am terrible at organizing physical papers and computer files. If I use a notebook or annotate a PDF, I'm not sure that I will ever find something specific again. I've been dumping ideas into Evernote but it's becoming a disorganized pit.

The best thing I have found so far with extensive Google searches is this article on creating a research wiki using strict hierarchies. It's pretty simplistic but seems like a decent basis for something like this.

Amtho - I don't know that quick data entry would be a problem if you took things one at a time. You could enter things as you read almost as taking a normal note. I can see if you are trying to dump everything you know or all your notes at once that it would be a nightmare.
posted by Che boludo! at 2:37 PM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

What I meant is that some newer UIs might take _longer_ than entering a normal note, or (new thought) some apps might not lend themselves to the same uses as "normal notes" thus requiring you to enter information in two places.

In my ideal UI (maybe), one could read with the eyes (or listen and watch during a lecture or video, or listen to audio and watch something else) and enter information with the fingers without having to constantly refocus the eyes.

idlethink: have you thought about how to label/describe the connections you're talking about? Something like "caused" (X caused Y) (maybe with some kind of weighting - a king may cause someone to die fairly directly, but an art movement may cause things to happen less directly) , "may have caused", "conquered", "discovered", "implies" -- I'm coming up with these in this moment, but I've wondered if there's an existing list somewhere to help, or if anyone else is thinking about this. You seem to be interested in storing information this way to discover new connections, while I'm interested in formulating arguments. Most of the software I've seen doesn't label relationships, but I think that's where my interest is going, and it might help with what you're looking for also.
posted by amtho at 2:56 PM on January 15, 2015

I'd say either The Brain, Tiddlywiki or an online personal wiki service of some kind.

You can kind of do this with Evernote and Note Links, but it's clunky. Evernote badly needs to implement functionality to create wiki-style links, or at least links that autofill with Note titles.
posted by cnc at 3:10 PM on January 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yes, I think structure, hierarchies and categorization are key, and my DevonThink database implements Cal Newport's structure for each project. For me, his structure has been really useful in terms of being able to find stuff and to be able to hyperlink between them. And yes, @amtho, one frequently does try to think in terms of labelling connections. But in terms of the intellectual work that those hierarchies, structures and labels for connection are doing: I would say it's very, very hard to do that digitally. The problem is that the very nature of scholarship consists in the changing and relabelling of those categories, all the time, over time. I still find C. Wright Mills very wise on how good scholarship takes place (PDF), and why it's probably misguided to think you can start with a bunch of categories -- say, "constructs" or "impermeability", or even "may have caused" -- and think that will continue to do all the categorization work for you at all times in the future. As Mills puts it,
the way in which these categories change, some being dropped and others being added, is an index of your intellectual progress … As you rearrange a filing system, you often find that you are, as it were, loosening your imagination.
for this, I've never found a good digital proxy.
posted by idlethink at 3:51 PM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Memail me...
posted by tel3path at 4:05 PM on January 15, 2015

So far it's disappointingly simplistic, but Google Docs is trying to accomplish something like this when you turn on the "Research" sidebar. As long as you keep all your notes and files in Google Drive, it will continuously search them for you as you write in a Google Doc, and supposedly pops up related information (I guess using keywords that it creates by indexing your files). You can also let it give you information from the web in general, rather than just your own documents, but I find for narrow subjects like academic research, you'll get suggestions that are too broad unless you keep it focussed on your own files.

Anyway, it seems like the sort of thing that could eventually do what you want, but so far, I don't think it is indexing files in detailed enough ways.

For example, if I'm writing a paper about verb endings in a dialect of English, I would love it to throw up snippets from papers I've saved about verb endings, my own previous writing on that dialect of English, grammatical descriptions of verbs in other languages, etc. But instead it's more likely to give me anything that has the word "English" in it, and anything relating to the keyword "linguistics".
posted by lollusc at 4:17 PM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Excellent point about the nature of change and mental recategorizing idlethink. Although I was not thinking about changing knowledge explicitly, that's part of what I'm trying to get at here; keeping all these thoughts organized in some way so that I can read something new and then associate with previous knowledge and see it in a different light. I could see myself rearranging the filing system constantly.

I don't think specific categories would make sense either. That's a great way to get caught in minutiae. General tags would be better.

I really look forward to reading the C. Wright Mills piece. Thanks!
posted by Che boludo! at 5:08 PM on January 15, 2015

Response by poster: Does anybody have experience with Ontowiki? On first glance it looks like it may do the job somewhat well.
posted by Che boludo! at 5:12 PM on January 15, 2015

The last time I considered doing this, I settled on Tinderbox as a likely solution. Sure, it's $250 USD and Mac-only, but it's built for this sort of thing, from what I've seen.
posted by circular at 5:39 PM on January 15, 2015

I've wondered about using Prezi for something like this. It may not be a good fit for this - I'm not sure how interactive it is - but I like how it apparently allows infinite scaling, which should (in theory) make it easy to add stuff without wasting time dicking around with moving items around to make room for a new entry.
posted by doctor tough love at 6:10 PM on January 15, 2015

I think it would depend if I were learning a completely new topic or adding on to my existing knowledge. I did try Evernote but I hated how limited it felt and how I couldn't access my notes offline. Right now I'm relying on GDrive and Keep but who knows how long they will be around.

If the former then I would create a outline for new ideas and then create examples similar to ppt or class notes. I know my handwriting isn't perfect by any means but it's still in some ways more convenient than have to keep using my smartphone or tablet. Lately I've tried a LiveScribe which will record lectures and has the ability to replay some sections using certain points on paper. It's not perfect as I find the pen to be slightly awkward and there's a space limit but it does record well for it's price.

If for the latter than I would simply record the info that I know I don't know completely and just keep updating it in my mind as the time goes on. Ofc since most people's memories are inaccurate I'd keep side notes about some points and add specific examples to jog my memory. I think the best way to describe it would be Sherlock's mind palace from Sherlock BBC. I'd connect examples with a greater overall theory or concept.

Tagging your notes would help searching but at the same time you don't want to have 100+ of individual tags which can be confusing and pointless in the long run. Perhaps you can rely on a binder so you can add or remove separate sections unlike a regular notebook? Inside each section would the main topic and then you can shuffle it around depending on how familiar you are with it.

IIRC someone used to write summary notes for each reading and create questions based off his notes and try to consider what's the most likely question the teacher would ask for the upcoming midterm. Although it's interesting I'm not sure how productive it'd be if we were say assigned multiple chapters as it would be somewhat tiring to create questions for everything.

I did look into other note taking apps or programs but they felt too fiddly and I just wanted access to my notes and not a elaborate file system for info. The wiki idea is interesting but at the same time I want to be able to access it on any PC and not have to carry around say a USB either. I like GDrive since I can update my notes anywhere and it's also saved for me. The only downside is how yet again I need to hope Google won't sunset it any time soon and maybe if anyone else is reading my amazing notes on how I want to learn IF.
posted by chrono_rabbit at 6:44 PM on January 15, 2015

When I was completing my masters project I used WikidPad to store summaries of my readings and create links between different ideas.
posted by Cheese Monster at 6:44 PM on January 15, 2015

Here is another free mind mapping tool: In my grad program we used it to map relationships between various theories, approaches, methods, etc.
posted by neutralmojo at 7:25 AM on January 16, 2015

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