What are your thoughts about the "Second Brain" Trope

Many software developers, productivity enthusiasts and trainers (like Tiago Forte, who seems to have monetized the trope quite comfortably and built his reputation with it) are talking about software as a “second brain”.

Before launching into my own take on this from an integrative cognitive science perspective, I’d like to ask the Hookmark community what they think of this trope. Rather than focus on the benefits of the trope (which seems to be gospel these days), I invite you to question the marketing assumptions underlying the trope, and to take a critical look at the trope:

  1. What are the assumptions underlying the trope that software can be a “second brain”?
  2. In what ways might this assumption be unhelpful?
  3. If you are familiar with the dual concepts of “mindware”, the first being from David Perkins (Harvard professor, author of Outsmarting IQ) and myself (in Cognitive Productivity books) : mindware as mental stuff “in the head” , and the second being from Andy Clark: artefacts that extend our minds (cf. his Mindware: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Cognitive Science book), how would you compare mindware concepts with the “second brain” trope?

The Psychiatrist and author, Kourosh Dini, recently opined on the subject on his blog: Is Something Wrong With My “Second Brain”?.

I will link to this topic in our next newsletter (this week). But first: over to you !


This should prove to be an interesting discussion Luc.

My initial thoughts in response to your questions around the assumptions:

  • That we understand the brain sufficiently to be able to replicate it in software
  • There is software available that is capable of such replication

I wouldn’t say the term is unhelpful, but I definitely think it is aspirational – kind of like a north star.

I personally love this quest. Back in the early 90’s I had a piece of software on my Windows machine called HAL9000, a nod of course to the book and movie. It attempted to learn from me appropriate responses to certain commands and could take basic actions in response to commands, kind of like a very early Siri. Since then I have been on the quest.

However I am yet to assemble a satisfactory assembly of software that works as well as I want it to – that is, to match my brain – which is different from everyone else’s. I am getting there, but there are pieces missing.

My adventure has seen me explore all the usual software suspects, I was going to list them but I felt that is probably off-topic.

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Cousin, I would point to Andy Matuschak’s notes as a great reference for this discussion. The current popularity of linked note-taking apps is closely tied to the “second brain” trope (Obsidian: A second brain, for you, forever). But as Andy points out, the concept is “poor” if you restrict the idea of notes as storage buckets of thoughts. The concept is enriched, however, when you expand the idea of notes, metaphorically and literally, as the place where thinking happens. Andy calls the second conception “Evergreen Notes.”

These (storage notes) are not Evergreen notes. Most “storage-oriented” notes will never be useful again (Most people take only transient notes). More importantly, this framing misses that it’s possible for note-writing to be the “real” work (Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work).

Another writer on the subject I’ve admired is Ryan J.A. Murphy, who thinks of the second-brain apps as efforts to build an Integrated Thinking Environment. He’s obviously invoking the idea of integrated development environments for coders, and writes that IDEs “provide a kind of augmented cognition for programmers. They reduce the cognitive capacity needed for software development by automating some of the work. This is freeing: it allows programmers to think less about coding, and more about design and development.”

He continues:

An Integrated Thinking Environment (ITE) is an app that provides tools to make thinking easier, enabling us to be more innovative. 2 ITEs provide features that take care of some parts of the work of knowledge management and knowledge innovation. In the apps that I’ve seen, these features help us craft personal, contextual ITEs.

EDIT: I might quibble with the idea that an IWE makes thinking “easier.” It might be more accurate to say it makes thinking more fluid. But even writing that, dis-fluidity has its value for creative working.

The whole “software as a second brain” trope, in my view, is a bit funny because it depends on an earlier “brain as a hard drive” trope. As children of their times, analogies are both reductive and generative, but hardly ever in the ways we’d expect them to be.

Dini’s comparing second-brain apps to GPS is telling. Navigating is skill that is undermined by a reliance on mapping apps. The difference between a paper map and Google Maps isn’t the geographic data, but the decision-making about routes. Perhaps the question is whether second-brain software seeks to replace a skill, or augments one’s skills?

Jack Beaudoin


This is a fascinating topic, Luc.

As a scientist using AI technology daily, I enjoyed reading Kourosh’s blog post you shared. One word that caught my attention was automation. I believe that only those disciplined enough not to care about the details because they’ve gotten used to them through constant repetition can creatively improve them.

It is OK if the purpose of automation is to have more time to think.

“Second brain” can be regarded as a tool for thinking, then its value will inevitably depend on the purpose of the person using it. I think different purposes can manifest in the same-looking usage example.


To be honest, I think approaching a computer as anything like a “brain” in the sense of a thing that is somehow involved with “thinking” is purely absurd. Having said that, however, I have been using computers as an assistant for my own working mind/brain for decades. They’re great for doing all the things I’m bad at doing (perfect recall, instant searching, speedy calculations, etc.) which helps me do all the things at which they’re terrible or simply incapable (actual thought, introspection, feeling, will, etc.). In that sense, using them as a “second brain” is great. It’s when folks blur the two that things go awry from what I see.


Same here. For me, an instinctive question always arises, how could one have two brains? Although I have been following Tiago and his work, and echoed many of his insights, the terminology of a “second brain” is always troubling to me. Having an integrated system to facilitate deeper and more focused thinking has become increasingly necessary, but many may have come to a wrong perception that once had a “second brain” in place, all the doubts, struggles and hard work (leading to fulfilment) can be avoided.

Kourosh’s blog speaks volumes to me as well. A system with intended automation is very important to manage the many aspects of the complex modern life and voyage the river of life, but such system is only a vehicle, we are the corsairs who think and decide.

I have to admit I am still struggling with the many apps and tools on my computer, trying my best to build an integrated thinking environment for both my personal and academic lives, Hookmark has truly levelled up the game, thank you so much @LucB for building such a wonderful linking tool which is not only helpful but more importantly inspiring.


In answer to Luc’s questions;

In my view, simply marketing. People associate “brain” with “thinking” — as in someone being “brainy” — and (wish to) believe that they can buy something that will enable them to think better; whatever “better” means to them.

Products marketed “second brains” are in reality just sophisticated notetaking and filing applications; they don’t help you think, they are simply novel means of recording what you have thought.

No, so can’t comment.

It strikes me that what people are looking for in a “second brain” is a means to accelerate their understanding of a topic. They want is to accelerate the conversion of the connections (as perceived, whether correct or not) between facts into an understanding of the concepts to which those facts (may) pertain.

My understanding – and I’m not a student of this, so it’s likely entirely wrong – is that such connections first form in transient memory, the jumble of stuff that is “now”. Apologies if the terminology is wrong, but by “jumble of stuff” I mean what programmers call “flow”. Flow is very fragile – you’re working on something; you see a connection; you get distracted by the dog; it’s gone. And you can’t restore flow state. If the underlying facts are solid, like lines of code, you can perhaps rebuild something similar, but it’s never going to be the same state and you’re never going to know what’s changed; you just can’t because the original state was not a memory, just a set of things that were in memory.

An efficient note taking tool makes it easier to capture perceived connections in the moment. Moreover, the very act of doing something with that thought – of capturing the connection – emphasises its importance and seems to increase the chance that it will be shunted from transient to longer term memory. As importantly, if one end of the connection is something you already know, both the other end and the connection itself are then (at least tenuously) synthesised into the totality of “what you know” and can thenceforth be recalled.

I’m not a great believer in apocryphal moments; may be they occur, but they don’t seem to happen to me. Generally those more profound insights as I may have had have come from a slow stewing of proximate information. Something is going in the background without my consciously knowing it and I wake up one morning with a better understanding than I had the night before. In fact, it more often happens the other way: I have a bright idea, the perfect solution to the problem at hand, sleep on it and realise in the morning that it’s total rubbish. My “slow brain” has made connections that my “thinking brain” wasn’t focused on. I would suggest that any “second brain” worth its salt must include a similar mechanism.

It also seems to me that real brains are very different from software in that they are equally as good at forgetting things as remembering them. Maybe, in fact, they are better at forgetting than remembering lest we are overwhelmed by trivia important enough in the short term to make it from transient to longer term memory, but not exactly life changing. The only bit of last week’s shoppong list that I need to remember is the stuff I forgot to buy.

I can wake in the morning realising my bright idea was rubbish; the idea is still there, but the initial, overwhelming connection to “bright” has been forgotten and substituted with “once considered to be bright”. I know I thought it once, but when I recall the idea never again is there the emotional rush of “Eureka!”. Equally, I know there are things in my life that I have experienced – there are definitive records of them – that I simply don’t recall at all. It’s not infantile amnesia; I have definitely forgotten things I once knew and that, at the time, I probably thought I’d never forget; and it doesn’t feel like I shouldn’t have forgotten them. It’s not the same feeling as when, for example, metaphorically grovelling around for a word or a name, that unpleasant “knowing that you should know” feeling; and it’s not the same as “knowing that you knew, but could probably remember if you looked at it again” (for example, the chunks of Caesar’s Gallic Wars Book IV I know I wrote learned for my Latin O-level in the '70s)

So, are “second brains” second brains? Emphatically no. What would make a “second brain”? At the very least means of creating and forgetting new connections between facts that you, yourself had not seen. Software that, at te very least, might prompt you with “there may be a connection here, what do you think?” or “are you sure of this connection?”. Tall order, and it sounds rather like general intelligence so it’s quite possibly impossible. For the time being the best alternative is likely a colleague off whom you can bounce ideas.


Hi Luc.

I actually have more of a problem with how people talk about their first brain! The productivity space is replete with talk of “tricking your brain,” “brain hacks,” “my brain defaults to do X”, etc. etc.

It’s you. You’re the behaving organism. Yes, your central nervous system is part of that system, but no more or less essential to your behaviour than your skeletomuscular or sensory systems.

Those who accept this language without reflection are already implying at least one additional brain! After all, if you’re “tricking your brain,” who conceived the trick? Scratch the surface and its nonsensical.

The most productive model for self-management (which is ultimately what all this productivity stuff boils down to) is that we can behave to arrange the environment to make other behaviours of ours more (or less) likely. That’s it.

(A germane example: I might sit down to work on a task and find that 5 min later I’m doing something else. What happened? Well, maybe I started by trying to remember what file I needed. Is it in an email? I guess I’ll open the mail app, and . . . good luck.

OR I might hook the file I need to the task item. Now if I sit down to work on the task, my immediate environment includes a cue to invoke Hookmark. I do so, and my immediate environment displays a cue to simply hit enter and present the file I need to accomplish the task. I have acted to make that behaviour more likely by rearranging my environment. I have not hacked my brain.)

Compared to this misconception I find the “second brain” stuff to be a relatively harmless bad metaphor.

p.s. I fully expect negative reactions to this post. Quite alright! Love to all.


@TLM That’s actually quite on point. Any useful system, at least as far as I’m concerned, is on that promotes honesty with yourself. There is a degradation of trust when you “trick” yourself, for example with false deadlines.

Rather than “second brain”, sometimes I prefer the word “trellis” - something you can grow with as a guide, but then later may not have need of. Then again, sometimes it does still provide a support. But the organic entity is still the self.

I sometimes wonder if the seduction of a “second brain” is that of reducing the responsibility of agency, of taking care of one’s self, of making difficult decisions.


I’ve been reading all the comments on this thread and following the links. It is so interesting to read all the deep thinking about a “second brain”. I’m not an academic. I’m just a simple computer user - both for personal and business applications. I’ve tried so many apps over the years (over 40 now). I’m sure I’ve created terabytes of data.

The idea of a second brain or an integrated thinking environment is alluring. But the reality falls so short of the promise. Was I supposed to file, tag, cross-reference, and write notes about all the important events of my life? I think that’s a bigger job than the original actions.

Of course, all of us have become experts in search both on our personal devices and on the internet. But when Hookmark came to my attention, it was a revelation. I could group documents to be right at my fingertips. I quickly learned to link relevant information for future action.

Now we have the start of AI agents. I would like a “second brain” that is that personal assistant who’s read all data and does all that background filing, tagging, etc. I would like to tell it to “hook” particular documents and information to a project, ask it to save it for later, and recall it later when I’m available to do some deep work on said project. Maybe this is just science fiction. I’m sure I read too much of the stuff growing up.

Thanks for listening.

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Cheers Kourosh! I like the point about honesty as well.


This is brilliant.


Conversations are like apps in that they are a level of abstracting that arise and depend on a more abstract layer ‘beneath’.

Brain, mind, and thinking sit atop a mountain of notions that this conversational space isn’t set up to hold.

For example, I’d (‘I’, already an absurd idea) hold that almost all use of the term ‘thinking’ is false. Mostly, what’s called thinking is our neural system’s reflexive activity requiring no more thinking than other autonomic activities like breathing or heartbeat regulation. Mostly what’s called thinking is passively ‘having thoughts’. The level of engagement where actual thinking begins is where you engage with what is commonly thought of as unthinkable.

Similarly, AI is misconstrued as what constitutes Intelligence isn’t considered rigorously. The first requirement for Intelligence is a brain and unless I missed a staff meeting, my understanding is that we’re not yet up to growing, configuring, and using brains, yet.

Our use of these ideas demonstrates a usual unchallenged massive needed hubris.

Lastly, recall from an existential perspective these words are without inherent meaning. This means that whatever meaning you give these to these light and dark areas on the glowing screen is yours. May you make it bright for yourself and those around you.

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For me, the key to the “second brain” isn’t thinking but remembering. I’m good at thinking and making connections. I’m not great at remembering all the little details. I get enormous value from looking at a personal wiki page for Project Foo and seeing a link I’ve already manually made to Project Bar. I already knew they were connected when I made the link. Now, today, I’m getting a little nudge that “oh yeah, you’ve already thought about this, and here’s what came out of it.”

I occasionally appreciate that tools like DEVONthink can find un-obvious connections, but not enough to integrate that into my life.

I like that Hookmark allows me to extend the wiki concept to other things that aren’t traditionally linkable. Now my personal wiki comprises my dedicated “second brain” app, and also emails, and files on my hard drive, and all sorts of other things. It’s the “glue” that combines all the things into one web of links.


As a marketing tool the “second brain” trope was brilliant, but only as that. I see it as a panacea offered to lemmings and a trope which in part defiles the philosophy of its’ subject. My personal perception of the second brain cult is a cause of disappointment. It seems that it has been joined by a majority who rather than knowledge, see developing the toolbox to follow a method as the goal, not as a tool to pursue it. It is wonderful that we have the technology to collect and manipulate the minutiae of a topic. Using those pieces to build understanding in order to create and prove original thought requires time and study; not simply possession of a tool. :microbe: :seedling: :herb: :evergreen_tree:

Also, regarding @LucB 's reference to Tiago Forte and monetization of the “Second Brain” trope, the piece could have been titled “How to Adjust Your Marketing Strategy to an Anticipated Softening Market”.

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Well said.

The answer to that question would seem to lie with the perception of the software by the user. Both software implied intentions exist, only the later is possible. Unfortunately I would argue that the majority of those on the second brain bandwagon are seeking the former.

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I find the idea of a second brain hilarious. Often, the people who write about this, point out that our brain is deficient because it cannot remember everything. They don’t understand that the brain cannot be understood without understanding evolution and without considering its connections to the rest of the body. We have a brain-nervous system that has evolved for survival over 500 mln years. From that perspective, the brain-nervous system has been very successful.

They also forget that we as human beings remember, learn and act in a context and that context influences our moods, thinking, and behaviors. The idea that they often subscribe to is that we are top-down species. We are not. We are a complex adaptive biological organism.

The question then is how can software help us in our daily lives and serve decision-making, and knowledge development, help us think better.

Software cannot be a second brain simply because it is not all about the brain. Our whole body is a repository that serves us to survive and possibly thrive. As a metaphor, it fails in my view and focuses people on the wrong things like note-taking, memorizing, and suggests we have control. Which we don’t. Our biology does things we would never want - like creating cancer cells. Nobody makes an executive decision to get cancer.

So I prefer to let go of that metaphor and work from the notion that we need tools and techniques that help us think, decide, and explore and that we need variety because we each are different, and have different needs and ways of working. Hookmark is in that sense a powerful tool for me.

I look forward to your critical line of reasoning to expose some of the nonsense that is out there on this topic of a second brain.

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My training, such as it was, was mainly in social psychology, not cognitive psychology, and I can’t help feeling that approaching the question of how people study/work/think purely from the perspective of cognition is leaving out much that is important. As soon as I saw the title of the thread, I found myself thinking of Social Representations Theory (Social representation - Wikipedia). I suspect that the “Second Brain” could be seen as a sort of social representation. Just as a lot of people will describe something as “schizophrenic” without really knowing exactly what the word means, “second brain” is a handy concept for people who don’t need to think too much about it. And yes, I do think that a lot of people out there don’t need to think too much about what methods and systems they are using. They don’t really need to optimise them because they find they work well enough – or perhaps they don’t have time to spend on that question. And as to the social component – human beings love being members of a group, and embracing the whole “second brain” idea confers membership of a group, which may be very exciting for a lot of people. They will probably get a dopamine rush from it!

There is another factor that may be worth considering, and that is the influence of culture. I’d like to emphasise that I haven’t really looked at this material for a long time, and I’m really out of psychology nowadays (working as a psychotherapist) but here is the abstract of an article on the subject:

It seems increasingly clear that human thought develops in a cultural context, and that cultural processes markedly affect the functioning of minds. The evidence reviewed in this chapter highlights the complementarity of psychology and anthropology and questions the assumption of the independence of cultural and cognitive processes. The continued cross-cultural examination of cognition will also help us discover true cognitive invariances across cultures, and as well as providing insight about the cognitive implications of human cultural diversity and the cognitive foundations of culture.

Source: https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/91934/culture_and_cognition.pdf?sequence=1

If some people jump on the idea of the “second brain” might that be partly because their social and cultural context makes the concept attractive?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I think the social and cultural factors are worthy of consideration at least.


This might be an informative overview article: Tools for Thought as Cultural Practices, not Computational Objects

Specifically, the paragraph " What we are talking about is software that allows people to engage in a few key activities:

  • Write in a linear text format
  • Collect information
  • Store information
  • Search and find information
  • Connect information"

Personally, the core idea of taking notes focused on one specific concept and then seeking to find relations to other such concepts to create a web of ideas makes a lot of sense. I have maintained a Zettelkasten for over 2 years.

I also get a lot of value out of maintaining a detailed goal, project and task management system.

Being able to rely on all this information being retrievable in a simple way has a massively beneficial effect for me.

So in that sense, I think the whole second brain idea brings with it more positive than negative aspects.

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