Daniel Levitin argues that people’s junk drawer, the place they store miscellanea, is a fitting analogy for how people should live their lives. With the objects in a junk drawer, as with the activities and people in one’s life, individuals should ask: Is this still important to me? Am I clear about what I need? Is there enough diversity? The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overloads draws on the neuropsychological and evolutionary basis of memory and attention to explain how to practice good “neural hygiene,” harness a brains’ potential, reduce stress, and be a successful person. Levitin, a McGill University professor of psychology, behavioral neuroscience, and music, has written an engaging and insightful book for anyone interested in cognitive adaptations to deal with today’s bombardment of information.
Now more than ever before, with an overabundance of information and distractions, attention is a precious, limited resource. Levitin argues that the most successful people have systems and assistance that help them attend to and prioritize the information that matters. Although individuals tend to want more information than is actually helpful, they can put structures in place to stay organized and focused. The best tool for staying organized and reducing the burden on our brain, opines Levitin, is externalizing information—writing down key facts about acquaintances, using notecards to track “to do’s”, and setting calendar reminders for upcoming deadlines. Levitin suggests categorizing emails you receive based on the difficulty of responding and the urgency of a response, filing memos in a way that will facilitate retrieval, keeping duplicates of items that are easy to lose, and backing up important documents to the cloud or an external system.
Successful people keep a regular sleep schedule, sleep enough, and are early-risers. Levitin warns that people who think they can multi-task deceive themselves. In actuality they are merely rapidly switching among tasks, which is metabolically costly and stress inducing. Properly encoding experiences into memory is facilitated by being mindful, fully present in the experience, and treating any activity, even the most mundane, as though it were new.
Levitin suggests that there are several reasons that the aforementioned cognitive aids are necessary. While people automatically attend to changes and concepts or objects important to them, there is a “cognitive blind spot.” This makes individuals neglect much of the information that passes before them. Memories are imprecise and readily manipulated. The brain’s default mode is to daydream or creatively mind-wander. Its natural state is antagonistic with the externally focused central executive mode. People are either in one mode or the other and the insula, a deep brain structure, is responsible for switching between the default mode and central executive.
Levitin discusses ways to organize business, personal, and social worlds to manage information overload and support decision-making. Businesses are now more specialized and systemized than previously. Regardless of the hierarchical structure of a company, employees are happiest when they are allowed to think creatively and operate freely within a broad set of boundaries. Levitin argues that an understanding of statistics and probability is important for making reasoned decisions about healthcare. Getting accurate statistics can be challenging. Even when people acquire them they may ignore base rates, accept false correlations, or focus on a frightening story while ignoring the anomalous nature of that story.
Levitin suggests that organizing one’s social world can enrich it. We have a biological need to be in relationships with others. The hormone oxytocin functions to help us seek out social relations. People with stabile, sustained relationships are healthier.
Any bit of information can be acquired so quickly and easily now that simply providing students with information is not a worthwhile goal for education. Levitin concludes with several recommendations about the skills that current students will need and ought to be taught. Students should be educated about how to search for information, evaluate its authenticity and reliability, and check for biases. They should be scaffolded in determining what they know, what they do not know, and what they need to know. A key factor for determining the strength of and satisfaction with ones social relations is one’s agreeableness. Especially given that today’s children will be working with more diverse groups of people than generations before them, it is important that children learn to be cooperative, friendly, and tolerant of others. They should be encouraged to experiment, explore, and develop flexible thinking skills. Balancing creativity and non-linear thinking with conscientiousness and linear thinking leads to productivity for students, scholars, and business people alike.
Levitin, J. D. (2014). The organized mind: thinking straight in the age of information overload. New York: Penguin Group.