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Review of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight In The Age Of Information Overload by

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight In The Age Of Information Overload

by Daniel J. Levitin

I first heard about this book when Daniel Levitin appeared on a Spark episode to talk about organization. I recommend you follow the link and listen to the interview; his examples are pretty much straight from the book, so it should give you a good idea of whether or not to read this. I mentioned the book to my friend Rebecca, because it seemed like she would be interested in it. Lo and behold, she goes out and buys the book herself … and then turns around and lends it to me before she reads it, because she has other books to read first. I don’t know this happened, but somehow I managed to acquire excellent friends.

Anyway, The Organized Mind is not a GTD (Getting Things Done) book in that it doesn’t pretend to have one amazing system to turn you into a productivity powerhouse. Rather, Levitin aims to use cutting-edge neuroscience and cognitive psychology to give the reader some insight into how our brains organize information and use that to make decisions. As he points out several times, humans are unique among animals for our ability to plan for the future and visualize alternative scenarios. But another thing that makes us unique is our ability to hack our own brains.

That’s what Levitin is trying to teach us here. He’s showing us how to hack our brains.

It doesn’t matter if you’re the best (or worst, I guess, depending on your perspective) procrastinator: you can still be productive if you can find a system that works for you. And the best way to do that is to be aware of how your brain works, and to work with your brain rather than fighting it.

The first part of the The Organized Mind addresses the way our brain reacts to external information. Levitin identifies two complementary modes of attentional awareness: the default mode, or mind-wandering/daydreaming mode, and the central executive. The former is so named because it appears to be what our brains lapse into given the chance. It’s good for creativity, for chewing over tough problems “subconsciously” (in quotations because Levitin points out that consciousness is a more fluid notion than it used to be). The latter is what takes charge when we need to accomplish a specific task. It says, “Hey, we need to do this now!” If you’re following a recipe or, like me, writing a book review, your central executive is keeping you on task.

I like how Levitin’s careful explication of current neuroscience reinforces how we used to view the brain in such black-and-white, siloed terms. To some extent this remains the baseline in mainstream perceptions of the brain: you are a “left-brain” or “right-brain” individual; you are logical or you are linguistic. Eyeroll. Levitin points out that being detail-oriented and organized is not necessarily antithetical to creativity; some of the most successful creative people succeed because their organizational system gives them more time to be creative. Similarly, specific cognitive functions are not always localized; sometimes they are distributed among neural networks throughout the brain. This is particularly important when forming memories—the same memory might be triggered by a sight, sound, smell, or link to another memory or concept, because of how memories get formed by our networks. Levitin is very skilled at using computer metaphors for describing how the brain stores information without making the common mistake of likening the brain too much to a computer.

Of course, even with a better understanding of how our brain works, there are limits to how far we can push that lump of grey matter. Levitin is a big proponent of cognitive offloading as a way of dealing with information overload. Basically: if you write something down, your brain treats it as stored, and stops mulling it over so much. Want to stop worrying about how much you have to do? Jot down a to-do list. Consequently, in this model of cognition, external organization systems are not just productivity fetishes but potentially useful adaptations. The Organized Mind explores several such systems, from the random-access 3x5 index card system to flat files and computer storage. Levitin makes it clear that he’s not trying to advocate “One System to Rule Them All” but instead encourage the reader to find something that works for them.

I was surprised by how fascinating I found some of the history behind these systems. We take file folders for granted, but there was a time when they were being introduced and everyone was as excited about them as we are about the new iPhone. (Apparently Dewey premiered some of this technology at 1893 World’s Fair, which would be the equivalent of a modern day tech expo like CES.) There are some interesting anecdotes, such as the fact that the majority of people didn’t know the order of the alphabet in the eighteenth century. As a student of English literature I knew about the great variation in spelling, but it just didn’t occur to me that the order of the alphabet would be so unimportant. This just demonstrates how our current cultural values bias our view and assumptions of the past.

At times Levitin’s digressions get the best of him, and he wanders off into tangents that don’t seem as related to organization as I would have liked. His discussions of statistical decision-making reminds me a lot of How Not to Be Wrong, with a few of the examples almost verbatim. And he refers to the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky quite a bit, being a student of the latter, so there is some overlap with Thinking, Fast and Slow. For what it’s worth, Levitin’s writing is more enjoyable.

The Organized Mind also has much to say about education, a topic I’m just a little passionate about. Neuroscience seems to support constructivism—the theory of learning that promotes student-led inquiry and construction of knowledge, rather than merely receiving it from an expert. Levitin points out that doing something imprints skills on our brain in a way that merely reading about or hearing about something does not. There are a couple of times in my notes where I’ve just jotted down, “Flipped classroom!” (a term in which students learn by tackling problems set by the instructor, who acts as another resource or guide but doesn’t actually lecture or otherwise instruct). And the conclusion is basically an impassioned plea by Levitin to make sure we are teaching students what they need to know for now rather than what we thought they needed to know a decade or two ago. In the Internet age, students need to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. It’s not about what you know, it’s about what you know about how you can get the knowledge you need.

I can’t not recommend this book. It’s intelligent, insightful, and well-written. The barrier to entry is on the higher side; even after hiding away the four-fold tables primer in an appendix, Levitin leaves an awful lot of science and math vocabulary out on the lawn for the neighbours to see. (Is that … is that a correlation coefficient in your driveway? How gauche!) I say this not to frighten but to be upfront: this is not a beach read type of popular science book but a “frown and think” type. I still recommend it, but know what to expect and what frame of mind you’ll need to get the most out of it.

Oh, one last thing: this might seem like a thick book. However, if you are like me, the first thing you will do is flip to the back and see if there is an index and notes. There are, and they are over a hundred pages combined. This is a well-indexed, well-annotated science book, and that is even better. Sexy, even. Because I have a confession, ladies: I like big brains. I cannot lie. And you other brothers? You cannot deny that when a girl walks in with a big heavy bag and shoves a book full of learning in your face you get pumped … to spend a weekend reading about cognitive neuroscience.

Or is that just me?


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