The Crazy Suburban Mom: Paper planners and human evolution - A (semi) scholarly look at Filofaxes

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Paper planners and human evolution - A (semi) scholarly look at Filofaxes

Being tech savvy, I've often wondered why a paper based diary system works best for me. If I'm never more then 10 feet from a computer and have a smart phone ever on me why don't I  use an electronic diary?  Ticking off boxes on a screen and having instant spell check certainly seems the way to go.

So why are several Filofaxes,  a notebook (or two), and a gallon of writing implements always at my side?  I don't know really but suspect using paper is a little like when Hansel and Gretel left a trail of breadcrumbs to get out of the dark, evil woods.

 Mark Changizi in Psychology Today said, "In nature, information comes with a physical address (and often a temporal one), and one can navigate to and from the address. Those raspberry patches we found last year are over the hill and through the woods — and they are still over the hill and through the woods.  And up until the rise of the web, the mechanisms for information storage were largely spatial and could be navigated, thereby tapping into our innate navigation capabilities. Our libraries and books — the real ones, not today’s electronic variety — were supremely navigable."

That makes exquisite sense. Memory is more then a random set of unconnected facts; there is an order to it.   Without a sense of place and time my memory would be be a library with no card catalog; all the facts I need but in the form of 52 card pick-up.

My brain - perhaps all brains - needs a trail of bread crumbs for recall. 

Paul Reber, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, said in Scientific American. The human brain consists of about one billion neurons. Each neuron forms about 1,000 connections to other neurons, amounting to more than a trillion connections. If each neuron could only help store a single memory, running out of space would be a problem. You might have only a few gigabytes of storage space, similar to the space in an iPod or a USB flash drive. Yet neurons combine so that each one helps with many memories at a time, exponentially increasing the brain’s memory storage capacity to something closer to around 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes). For comparison, if your brain worked like a digital video recorder in a television, 2.5 petabytes would be enough to hold three million hours of TV shows. You would have to leave the TV running continuously for more than 300 years to use up all that storage."

A  brain mushifying analogy,  isn't it?  My brain holding  three million hours of Television and playing it back continuously for 3oo years... But point is perfect. Without this interconnected order and flow to memory, recall would be hampered. Singular facts are lost without context and there is be no route back to them.

Maia Szalavitz, a  neuroscience journalist, describes it more eloquently then my bread crumb analogy.... "Context and landmarks may actually be important to going from “remembering” to “knowing.” The more associations a particular memory can trigger, the more easily it tends to be recalled. Consequently, seemingly irrelevant factors like remembering whether you read something at the top or the bottom of page — or whether it was on the right or left hand side of a two-page spread or near a graphic — can help cement material in mind." 

That last line was  a huge a-ha! moment.


Further along in the above article was another clue," What we found was that people on paper started to ‘know’ the material more quickly over the passage of time,” says Garland. “It took longer and [required] more repeated testing to get into that knowing state [with the computer reading, but] eventually the people who did it on the computer caught up with the people who [were reading] on paper.”

Memory, like everything else human, evolved over millions of years into an almost physical thing and it's very real.  You not only remember the fact but the where, when, and why of it.  How you felt at that original moment, what song was playing....  Even how it smelled are all contained and accessible, perhaps necessary.

These physical connections to other things are missing in digital materials.  (It's probably why if given the choice I prefer to read books instead of using an e-reader).  

Reading a book and physically writing something down is a product of the way we've evolved to process information; digital media is not.  As the studies suggest eventually digital readers caught up with people who were using paper but that won't help me if I have a Doctor's appointment at 10 a.m. today (which I do).  

I wrote the appointment in my Filofax, not once, but bunches of times...  It's on my year on one page insert, my week on two pages sheet (with stickers) and several to-do sheets this week...  If I used an electronic diary I'd have entered it once and at 10 a.m. today I'd probably be cleaning my toilet until the doctor called to tell me I'm not there but I still owe him the money.

Living in a digital age is a wonderful thing.  The ability to access all that  amazing web based information is something I wouldn't trade for anything - but it's still not as appealing as accessing my own brain. 

And to do that I have to put pen to paper and write.  For me that's the beginning of remembering...

Someday we may evolve into beings that can fly but flapping my arms won't make it happen any faster.  Maybe with time our brains will change the way they process information but not yet.  

Thinking became speech, speech became writing and, I think, writing (not typing or texting) it remains...


Josh 8/30/12, 12:37 PM  

It's interesting, as I've gotten busier lately I find I'm using less and less digital information and services. In the moment where I need to just slog through and get tons of stuff done, I forget to turn on my computer, leave my smart phone in my bag, and deploy my Filofax as my landing pad to manage the details as they come up.

You're right, "doing" is important. Connecting the sound of someone's voice with what they tell you can help you recall later. All our senses become "metadata" which helps us place memories, fill in blanks in our memory (I remember making the phone call, but not when I made it, but then I recall the air conditioner was rattling annoyingly while I was on the phone and I switched it off, so it must have been summer, and I remember I was harvesting peppers from the garden, so it must have been later in the summer... You get the picture).

I'm increasingly feeling conflicted over how much internet is benefiting me. I notice when I stay off of it I feel more satisfied; I read more, I cook more, I talk to people more, I feel more involved in my REAL life, as opposed to all the internet falala. On the other hand, I discover wonderful people, things, ideas, information online.

Tracy Reinhardt 8/30/12, 2:29 PM  

Josh, you're so right about all of this - I feel the same way lots of times.

And so glad I connected with you online :)


kanalt 8/31/12, 8:03 AM  

I love this analogy of using paper over digital like leaving bread crumbs on the trail. I never thought of it in those terms, yet it's so true!

I also agree with Josh's comment above - I love the Internet for many reasons, but sometimes all it does is cause aggrevation for me (Facebook specifically, as it's just one more vehicle for annoyance, especially now that people use it to post random garbage).

I think (aside from the practical reasons we've all talked about many times) one of the reasons I stay with paper is because it reminds me that the world started and exists with more personal interactions in life, especially when the world is all but forcing us to go digital. I feel sorry for the upcoming generations, as they will never know what it's like to actually interact with other humans face to face and what those interactions actually mean to our well-being.

Tracy Reinhardt 8/31/12, 10:58 AM  

kanalt - I agree, and a really sad thing is digital is really the only thing they grew up with and for all the reasons the researchers mentions it doesn't quite sink with your brain. It's like trying to remember in a way that isn't quite comparable. Yet because they know nothing else they feel there aren't other options

austinlinda 8/31/12, 2:44 PM  

I absolutely agree with you Tracy. I came to a similar conclusion after I bought an iPad---I found there was still something missing. All this technology and still I didn't trust the results as I did with paper--with paper it was almost an artistic escape, instead of a digital printout.
Pretty soon, I found myself back to making hand notes, then came small notebooks.
And as they say.....Filofax was I really wanted. I feel much more in control now.

Tracy Reinhardt 9/1/12, 4:49 AM  

austinlinda - Thank you so much for commenting. This post was different from most of mine and I'm grateful people have read it! I was a bit worried :)

WeirdRockStar 9/2/12, 3:34 AM  

Just bookmarked this post. I cosign just everything written here!

Tracy Reinhardt 9/2/12, 6:48 AM  

Weird Rock Star! Thank you so much that's a great compliment!

Anita 9/11/12, 10:42 AM  

Thank you for a really interesting post! I definitely have more of a connection with writing as it's how I've studied & the very act of writing is very different for me compared with typing.

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