Your brain: a user’s guide

I just finished reading Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. Although there’s a lot written about “big data” for industry or research, this was an interesting look at what managing information flows means for individuals. Despite the title, many of the insights are timeless.

In the interest of being organized and not overloading you with information, here are a few big takeaways:

  • Efficient multitasking is a myth. The neuroscience behind this is convincing. You can only focus on one thing at a time. Multitasking is a form of rapid and frequent switching among tasks, and the act of switching bears a cognitive cost that largely outweighs the perceived efficiency. The result is the illusion of productivity.
  • Externalize everything. Create to-do lists, take copious notes, set calendar reminders. The more that you put into external systems you can trust, the more of your brain you free up to be present for whatever task, conversation, or experience is in front of you. If you catch yourself thinking, “Oh, I need to remember XYZ later,” take that as a sign you should be writing it down. Yes, you will probably remember XYZ just fine, but in the meantime, that thought will be occupying valuable mental space.
  • Embed information in your physical space. I’ve never been one to think much about how my desk or home is arranged, but Levitin makes a compelling case for the value of keeping yourself organized. He frames this in terms of cognitive ease, rather than aesthetics: store objects in the places where you’ll need them (e.g. your toothbrush next to the bathroom sink, spatulas next to the stove) or create intuitive categories when some form of filing is needed (e.g. keep stamps, envelopes, and your checkbook together since they’re all things used for paying your rent). When things don’t fit into a category, it’s fine to have a “junk drawer”/”miscellaneous” file.
  • Sleep is really really really important. Beyond the clear dangers of exhaustion (contributing to major disasters such as the Exxon Valdez spill and hundreds of thousands of traffic accidents each year), missing sleep reduces cognitive performance in more subtle ways. These show up in tests even when the subjects are unaware of them. Sleep is critical for memory consolidation, mood regulation, and longer term health. And it’s not just about quantity, as quality of sleep matters as well.
  • Daydreaming is also important. Our brain goes into a different mode when its allowed to “float” around an issue, as opposed to being forced to derive an answer. That floating is similar to daydreaming. It’s responsible for creative problem solving as it allows less obvious connections and insights to surface.

There are dozens of interesting points throughout the book, and others might stand out to you. Though if you decide to read it, I would recommend skimming the second half. Levitin is at his best when grounding observations about everyday life in neuroscience and cognitive psychology; he drags on when he drifts into semi-related topics, such as our notoriously poor intuitions around medical statistics, the challenges of Wikipedia, and even the downsides of online dating. The resulting book is ironically long at 500+ pages.

Appropriately, the last chapter serves as the book’s “junk drawer”—Levitin throws in the odds and ends that don’t quite fit elsewhere, including an explanation of how U.S. interstate highways are numbered and the importance of serendipity.

Organizing the meta-information of life

Levitin closes with a section related to professional and intellectual development that is so uniquely interesting, I thought I’d share it in full. He quotes from a Reddit post, initially written about graduate studies in mathematics, but much more broadly applicable:

Sometimes, in your mathematics career, you find that your slow progress, and careful accumulation of tools and ideas, has suddenly allowed you to do a bunch of new things that you couldn’t possibly do before. Even though you were learning things that were useless by themselves, when they’ve all become second nature, a whole new world of possibility appears. You have “leveled up”, if you will. Something clicks, but now there are new challenges, and now, things you were barely able to think about before suddenly become critically important.

It’s usually obvious when you’re talking to somebody a level above you, because they see lots of things instantly when those things take considerable work for you to figure out. These are good people to learn from, because they remember what it’s like to struggle in the place where you’re struggling, but the things they do still make sense from your perspective (you just couldn’t do them yourself).

Talking to somebody two or more levels above you is a different story. They’re barely speaking the same language, and it’s almost impossible to imagine that you could ever know what they know. You can still learn from them, if you don’t get discouraged, but the things they want to teach you seem really philosophical, and you don’t think they’ll help you—but for some reason, they do.

Somebody three levels above is actually speaking a different language. They probably seem less impressive to you than the person two levels above, because most of what they’re thinking about is completely invisible to you. From where you are, it is not possible to imagine what they think about, or why. You might think you can, but this is only because they know how to tell entertaining stories. Any one of these stories probably contains enough wisdom to get you halfway to your next level if you put in enough time thinking about it.

I appreciate this excerpt because it’s one of the few times that the book lifts out of the everyday organization of information, and looks instead at the more abstracted level of life narrative and personal development. How do we make sense of the information overload, not in the daily churn of events, but in the broader story of our life? How do we think about our own ability to process information changes over time? How do the bits add up into gigabytes?

Here, it’s the interpersonal interactions, much more than the emails or news feeds, that matter for understanding our place in and impact on the world. The organized mind becomes the organized life, and organized thoughts lead to organized action.