Many people think of note-taking as an extension of memory — i.e., a way to capture things to remember later. Of course, many notes do play this role. But notes can also play another essential function: to help you understand and develop ideas by interacting with them.

Thinking doesn’t happen exclusively in the brain. As Stephen Anderson and Karl Fast explain in Figure It Out, you understand things by interacting with them in the world. You look at things, push-pull-prod-move-etc., add or remove, and otherwise reconfigure. As Andy Clark said, “Cognition leaks out into the body and the world.”

The process reveals possible relationships and patterns — the emergent (in your mind) structure of things. These can be physical things, but also representations of abstract ideas. 

Exploratory notes aren’t just the record of your efforts to understand; they’re part of the means through which you understand — a model of how that part of the world might work. It’s a creative act. (Wurman: “The creative organization of information creates new information.”)

You can explore such models on paper. But modeling on paper is slower than with computers, where you can more easily move symbols around in an (effectively) endless canvas. The process matters more than the outcome, and computers make the process easier.

This is why digital tools for thought are so revolutionary: they go well beyond the capabilities of paper for thinking. Not only do computers enable you to explore relationships between ideas more easily, but they can also suggest ideas you might have missed. Exciting stuff!

The next time you take notes, ask yourself: Am I capturing this to remember later, or am I trying to understand it? (Of course, the two are related: you recall things your mind possessed.) Notes can be a means to remember, but they can also be a means to understand and “ideate.”