the Organized Mind

Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

the Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J. Levitin

information and conscientious organization

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Here we come upon two of the most compelling properties of the human brain and its design; richness and associative access. Richness refers to the theory that a large number of the things you’ve ever thought or experienced are still in there, somewhere. Associative access means that your thoughts can be accessed in a number of different ways by semantic or perceptual associations–memories can be triggered by related words, by category names, by a smell, an old song or photograph, or even seemingly random neural firings that bring them up to consciousness.


1. Too Much Information, Too Many Decisions
the Inside History of Cognitive Overload

Recent research shows that people who were asked to make a series of meaningless decisions of just this type–for example, whether to write of meaningless decisions of just this type–for example, whether to write with a ballpoint pen or a felt-tip pen–showed poorer impulse control and lack of judgment about subsequent decisions. It’s as though our brains are configured to make a certain number of decisions per day and once we reach that limit, we can’t make any more, regardless of how important they are. One of the most useful findings in recent neuroscience could be summed up as: the decision-making network in our brain doesn’t prioritized, summed up as: The decision-making network in our brain doesn’t prioritize.

Our brains do have the ability to process the information we take in but at a cost: We can have trouble separating the trivial from the important, and all this information processing makes us tired. Neurons are living cells with a metabolism; they need oxygen and glucose to survive and when they’ve been working hard, we experience fatigue. Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend, is competing for resources in your brain with important things like whether to put your savings in stocks or bonds, where you left your passport, or how best to reconcile with a close friend you just had an argument with.

The processing capacity of the conscious mind has been estimated at 120 bits per second. That bandwidth, or window, is the speed limit for the traffic of information we can pay conscious attention to at any one time. While a great deal occurs below the threshold of our awareness, and this has an impact on how we feel and what our life is going to be like, in order for something to become encoded as part of your experience, you need to have paid conscious attention to it.

At the grocery store, we’re expected to bag our own groceries, and in some supermarkets, to scan our own purchases. We pump our own gas at filling stations. Telephone operators used to look up numbers for us. Some companies no longer send out bills for their services–we’re expected to log in to their website, access our account, retrieve our bill, and initiate an electronic payment; in effect, do the job of the company for them. Collectively, this is known as shadow work–it represents a kind of parallel, shadow economy in which a lot of the service we expect from companies has been transferred to the customer. Each of us is doing the work of others and not getting paid for it. it is responsible for taking away a great deal of the leisure time we thought we would all have in the twenty-first century.

Orders of emergence in language exist for other concepts. Among the most well known was the discovery by UC Berkeley anthropologists Breant Berlin and Paul Kay of the universal order of emergence for color terms. many of the world’s preindustrial languages have only two terms for color, roughly dividing the world into light and dark colors. …
When a language advances and adds a third term to its lexicon for color, the third term is always red. Various theories have been proposed, the dominant one being that red is important because it is the color of blood [and ripe fruit]. When a language adds a fourth term, it is either yellow or green. The fifth term is either green or yellow, and the sixth term is blue.

2. the First Things to Get Straight
How Attention and Memory Work

This distinctive and special brain state is marked by the flow of connections among disparate ideas and thoughts, and a relative lack of barriers between senses and concepts. It also can lead to great creativity and solutions to problems that seemed unsolvable. Its discovery–a special brain network that supports a more fluid and nonlinear mode of thinking–was one of the biggest neuroscientific discoveries of the last twenty years. This network exerts a pull on consciousness; it eagerly shifts the brain into mind-wandering when you’re doing gets boring.

The tendence for the [daydreaming and mind-wandering] system to take over is so powerful that its discoverer, Marcus Raichle named it the default mode.

The mind-wandering mode works in opposition to the central executive mode: When one is activated, the other one is deactivated; if we’re in one mode, we’re not in the other. The job of the central executive network is to prevent you from being distracted when you’re engaged in a task, limiting what will enter your consciousness so that you can focus on what you’re doing uninterrupted. And again, whether you are in the mind-wandering or central executive mode, your attentional filter is almost always operating, quietly out of the way in your subconscious.
For our ancestors, staying on task typically meant hunting a large mammal, fleeing a predator, or fighting. A lapse of attention during these activities could spell disaster. Today we’re more likely to employ our central executive mode for writing reports, interacting with people and computers, driving, navigating, solving problems in our heads, or pursuing artistic projects such as painting and music. A lapse of attention in these activities isn’t usually a matter of life or death, but it does interfere with our effectiveness when we’re trying to accomplish something.
In the mind-wandering mode, our thoughts are mostly directed inward to our goals, desires, feelings, plans, and also our relationship with other people–the mind-wandering mode is active when people are feeling empathy toward one another. In the central executive mode, thoughts are directed both inward and outward. There is a clear evolutionary advantage to being able to stay on task and concentrate, but not to entering an irreversible state of hyperfocus that makes us oblivious to the predator or enemy lurking behind the bushes, or to a poisonous spider crawling up the back of our neck. This is where the attentional network comes in; the attentional filter is constantly monitoring the environment for anything might be important.
In addition to the mind-wandering mode, the central executive, and the attentional filter, there’s a fourth component of the attentional system that allows us to switch between the mind-wandering mode an the central executive mode. This switch enables shifts from one task to another, such as when you’re talking to a friend at a party and your attention is suddenly shifted to that other conversation about the fire in the kitchen. It’s a neural switchboard that directs your attention to that mosquito on your forehead and then allows you to go back to your post-lunchtime mind-wandering. In a 2010 paper, Vinod Menon and I showed that the switch is controlled in part of the brain called the insula, an important structure about an inch or so beneath the surface of where temporal lobes and frontal lobes join. Switching between two external objects involves the temporal-parietal junction.

The attentional filter (the Where’s Waldo? network) is controlled in part by neurons with nicotinic receptors located in a part of the brain called the substantia innominata. Nicotinic receptors are so named because they respond to nicotine, whether smoked or chewed, and they’re spread throughout the brain. For all the problems it causes to our overall health, it’s well established that nicotine can improve the rate of signal detection when a person has been misdirected–that is, nicotine creates a state of vigilance that allows one to become more detail oriented and less dependent on top-down expectations. The attentional filter also communicates closely with the insula, so that it can activate the switch there in order to pull us out of the mind-wandering mode and into the stay-on-task mode when necessary. In addition, it’s strongly coupled to the cingulate, facilitating rapid access to the motor system to make an appropriate behavioral response–like jumping out of the way–when a dangerous object comes at you.

When we experience an event, a unique network of neurons is activated depending on the nature of the event. Watching a sunset? Visual centers that represent shadows and light, pink, orange, and yellow are activated. The same sunset a half hour earlier or later looks different, and so invokes correspondingly different neurons for representing it. Watching a tennis game? Neurons fire for face recognition for the players, motion detection for the movement of their bodies, the ball, the rackets, while higher cognitive centers keep track of whether they stayed in bounds and what the score is. Each of our thoughts, perceptions, and experiences has a unique neural correlate–if it didn’t, we would perceive the events as identical; it si the difference in neuronal activations that allows us to distinguish events from one another.
The act of remembering something is a process of bringing back on line those neurons that were involved in the original experience. The neurons represent the world to us as the thing is happening, and as we recall it, those same neurons re-present the thing to us. Once we get those neurons to become active in a fashion similar to how they were during the original event, we experience the memory as a lower-resolution replay of the original event.

Events or experiences that are out of the ordinary tend to be remembered better because there is nothing competing with them when your brain tries to access them from its storehouse of remembered events. In other words, the reason it can be difficult to remember what you ate for breakfast two Thursdays ago is that there was probably nothing special about that Thursday or that particular breakfast–consequently, all your breakfast memories merge together into a sort of generic impression of a breakfast. Your memory merges similar events not only because it’s more efficient to do so, but also because this is fundamental to how we learn things–our brains extract abstract rules that tie experiences together. This is especially true for things that are routine.

Changing a single word in a sentence can cause witnesses to falsely remember seeing broken glass in a picture. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus showed videos of a minor car accident to participants in an experiment. Later, she asked half of them, “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” and she asked the other half, “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” There were dramatically different estimates of speed, depending on that one word (smashed versus hit). She then had the participants back one week later and asked, “Was there any broken glass at the scene?” (There was no broken glass in the video.) People were more than twice as likely to respond yes to the question if they had been asked, a week earlier, about the cars’ speed with the word smashed in the question.
To make matters worse, the act of recalling a memory thrusts it into a labile state whereby new distortions can be introduced; then, when the memory is put back or re-stored, the incorrect information is grafted to it as thought it were there all along.

But many busy and effective people say that there is something different, something visceral in using old-fashioned physical objects, rather than virtual ones, to keep track of important things from shopping lists to appointments to ideas for their next big project.
One of the biggest surprises I came upon while working on this book was the number of such people who carry around a pen and notepads or index cards for taking personal notes, and their insistence that it is both more efficient and more satisfying than the electronic alternatives now on offer.


3. Organizing Our Homes
Where Things Can Start to Get Better

More recently, we’ve discovered that there are dedicated cells in the hippocampus (called dentate granule cells) to encode memories for specific places.
Place memory evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to keep track of things that didn’t move, such as fruit trees, wells, mountains, lakes. It’s not only vast but exquisitely accurate for stationary things that are important to our survival. What it’s not so good at is keeping track of things that move from place to place.

4. Organizing Our Social World
How Humans Connect Now

5. Organizing Our Time
What Is the Mystery?

the Biological Reality of Time
Both mystics and physicists tell us that time is an illusion, simply a creation of our minds. In this respect, time is like color–there is no color in the physical world, just light in different wavelengths reflecting off of objects; as Newton said, the light waves themselves are colorless. Our entire sense of color results from the visual cortex in our brains processing these wavelengths and interpreting them as color. Of couse that doesn’t make it subjectively any less real–we look at a strawberry and it is red, it doesn’t just seem red. Time can be thought of similarly as an interpretation that our brains impose on our experience of the world. We feel hungry after a certain amount of time has passed, sleepy after we’ve been awake for a certain amount of time. The regular rotation of the earth on its axis and around the sun leads us to organize time as a series of cyclical events, such as day and night and the four seasons, that in turn allow us to mentally register the passage of time. And having registered time, more so than ever before in human history, we divide up that time into chunks, units to which we assign specific activities and expectations for what we’ll get done in them. And these chunks of time are as real as the strawberry is red.
Most of us live by the clock.

One of the most complicated things that humans do is put the components of a multipart sequence in their proper temporal order. To accomplish temporal ordering, the human brain has to set up different scenarios, a series of what-ifs, and juggle them in different configurations to figure out how the affect one another. We estimate completion times and work backward. Temporal order is represented in the hippocampus alongside memory and spacial maps. … The brain is adept at this kind of ordering, requiring communication between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, which is working away busily assembling a mental image of the finished outcome alongside mental images of partly finished outcomes and–subconsciously most of the time–picturing what would happen fi you did things out of sequence.
More cognitively taxing is being able to take a set of separate operations, each with their own completion time, and organize their start times so that they are all completed at the same time. Two common human activities where this is done make an odd couple: cooking and war.

Then there is the balance between doing and monitoring your progress that is necessary in any multistep project. Each step requires that we stop the actual work every now and then to view it objectively, to ensure we’re carrying it out properly and that we’re happy with the results so far. We step back in our mind’s eye to inspect what we did, figure out whether we need to redo something, whether we can m ove forward. it’s the same whether we’re sanding a fine wood cabinet, kneading dough, brushing out hair, painting a picture, or building a…presentation. This is a familiar cycle: We work, we inspect the work, we make adjustments, we push forward. The prefrontal cortex coordinates the comparison of what’s out-there-in-the-world with what’s in your head. Think of an artist who evaluates whether the paint she just applied had a desirable effect on the painting.

Reaching our goals efficiently requires the ability to selectively focus on those features of a task that are most relevant to its completion, while successfully ignoring other features or stimuli in the environment that are competing for attention. But how do you know what factors are relevant and what factors aren’t? This is where expertise comes in–in fact, it could be said that what distinguishes experts from novices is that they nkow what to pay attention to and what to ignore.

Chunking fuels two important functions in our lives. First, it renders large-scale projects doable by giving us well-differentiated tasks. Second, it renders the experiences of our lives memorable by segmenting them with well-defined beginnings and endings–this in turn allows memories to be stored and retrieved in manageable units. Although oru actual waking time is continuous, we can easily talk about the events of our lives as being differnetiated in time. The act of having breakfast has a more or less well differentiated beginning and ending, as does your morning shower. They don’t bleed into one another in your memory because the brain does the editing, segmenting, and labeling for you. And we can subdivide these scenes at will. We make sense of the events in our lives by segmenting them, giving them temporal boundaries.

This follows a well-established principle of cognitive psychology called levels of processing: Items that are processed at a deeper level, with more active involvement by us, tend to become more strongly encoded in memory. This is why passive learning through textbooks and lectures is not nearly as effective a way to learn new material as is figuring it out for yourself, a method called peer instruction that is being introduced into classrooms with great success.

Sleep experts Matthew Walker (from UC Berkeley) and Robert Stickgold (from Harvard Medical School) note the three distinct kinds of information processing that occur during sleep. The first is unitization, the combining of discrete elements or chunks of an experience into a unified concept. …
The second kind of information processing we accomplish during sleep is assimilation. Here, the brain integrates new information into the existing network structure of other things you already knew. …
The third process is abstraction, and this is where hidden rules are discovered and then added into memory. If you learned English as a child, you learned certain rules about work formation such as…”add ed to the end of a word to make it past tense.” If you’re like most learners, no one taught you this–your brain abstracted the rule by being exposed to it in multiple instances. This is why children make the perfectly logical mistake of saying “he goed” instead of “he went”…

Thus, many different kinds of learning have been shown to be improved after a night’s sleep, but not after an equivalent period of being awake. Musicians who learn a new melody show significant improvement in performing it after one night’s sleep. Students who were stymied by a calculus problem the day it was presented are able to solve it more easily after a night’s sleep than an equivalent amount of waking time. New information and concepts appear to be quietly practiced while we’re asleep, sometimes showing up in dreams. A night of sleep more than doubles the likelihood that you’ll solve a problem requiring insight.

REM sleep is believed to be the stage during which the brain performs the deepest processing of events–the unitization, assimilation, and abstraction mentioned above. The brain chemicals that mediate it include decreases in noradrenaline and increased levels of acetylcholine and cortisol. A preponderance of theta wave activity facilitates associative linking between disparate brain regions during REM. This has two interesting effects. The first is that it allows our brains to draw out connections, deep underlying connections, between the events in our lives that we might not otherwise perceive, though activating thoughts that are far-flung in our consciousness and unconsciousness. It’s what lets us perceive, for example, that clouds look a bit like marshmallows… The second effect is that it appears to cause dreams in which these connections morph into one another: Your dream you’re eating a marshmallow and it suddenly floats up to the sky and becomes a rain cloud… These distortions are a product of the brain exploring possible relations among disparate ideas and things. And it’s a good think they happen only while you’re asleep or your view of reality would be unreliable.
There’s another kind of distortion that occurs when we sleep–time distortion. What may seem like a long, elaborate dream spanning thirty minutes or more may actually occur within the span of a single minute. This may be due to the fact that hte body’s own internal clock is in a reduced state of activation (you might say it is asleep, too) and so becomes unreliable.

Sleep is among the most critical factors for peak performance, memory, productivity, immune function, and mood regulation. Even a mild sleep reduction or a departure from a set sleep routine (for example, going to bed late one night, sleeping in the next morning) can produce detrimental effects on cognitive performance for many days afterward. When professional basketball players got ten hours of sleep a night, their performance improved dramatically: Free-throw and three-point shooting each improved by 9%.

…it was discovered (or rediscovered, you might say) by Thomas Wehr, a respected scientist at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health. In a landmark study, he enlisted research participants to live for a month in a room that was dark for fourteen hours a day, mimicking conditions before the invention of the lightbulb. Left to their own devices, they ended up sleeping eight hours a night but in two separate blocks. They tended to fall asleep one or two hours after the room went dark, slept for about four hours, stayed awake for an hour or two, and then slept for another four hours.

Part of the problem is cultural–our society does not value sleep. Sleep expert David K. Randall put it this way:
While we’ll spend thousands on lavish vacations to unwind, grind away hours exercising and pay exorbitant amounts for organic food, sleep remains ingrained in our cultural ethos as something that can be put off, dosed or ignored. We can’t look at sleep as an investment in our health because–after all–it’s just sleep. It is hard to feel like you’re taking an active step to improve your life with your head on a pillow.

Here are some guidelines for a good night’s sleep: Go to bed at the same time every night. Wake up at the same time every morning. Set an alarm clock if necessary. If you have to stay up late one night, still get up at your fixed time the next morning–in the short run, the consistency of your cycle is more important than the amount of sleep. Sleep in a cool, dark room. Cover your windows if necessary…

Achieving insight across a wide variety of problems–not just word problems but interpersonal conflicts, medical treatments, chess games, and music composition, for examples–typically follows a pattern. We focus all our attention on the aspects of the problem as it is presented, or as we understand it, combing through different possible solution sand scenarios with our left prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate. But this is merely a preparatory phase, lining up what we know about a problem. If the problem is sufficiently complex or tricky, what we already know won’t be enough. In a second phase, we need to relax, let go of the problem, and let networks in the right hemisphere take over. Neurons ni the right hemisphere are more broadly tuned, with longer branches and more dendritic spines–they are able to collect information from a larger area of cortical space than left hemisphere neurons, and although they are less precise, they are better connected. When the brain is searching for an insight, these are the cells most likely to produce it. The second or so preceding insight is accompanied by a burst of gamma waves, which bind together disparate neural networks, effectively binding thoughts that were seemingly unrelated into a coherent new whole. For all this to work, the relaxation phase is crucial. That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers. Teachers and coaches always say to relax. This is why.

Abraham Maslow called these peak experiences in the 1950s, and more recently the psycholoigst Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has famously called this the flow state. it feels like a completely different state of being, a state of heightened awareness coupled with feelings of well-being and contentment. It’s a neurochemically and neuroanatomically distinct state as well. Across individuals, flow states appear to activate the same regions of the brain, including the left prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia. During flow, two key regions of the brain deactivate: the portion of the prefrontal cortex responsible for self-criticism, and the amygdala, the brain’s fear center. This is why creative artists often report feeling fearless and as though they are taking creative risks they hadn’t taken before–it’s because the two parts of their brain that would otherwise prevent them from doing so have significantly reduced activity.

Engagement is what flow is defined by–high, high levels of engagement. Information access and processing seem effortless–facts that we need are at our fingertips, even long-lost ones we didn’t know we knew; skills we didn’t know we had begin to emerge. With no need to exercise self-control to stay focused, we free neural resources to the task at hand. And this is where somthing paradoxical occurs in the brain. During flow states, we no longer need to exert ourselves to stay on task–it happens automatically as we enter this specialized attentional state. It takes less energy to be in flow–in a peak of creative engagement–than to be distracted. This is why flow states are periods of great productivity and efficiency.

6. Organizing Information for the Hardest Decisions
When Life is on the Line

7. Organizing the Business World
How We Create Value


8. What to Teach Our Children
the Future of the Organizing Mind

In short, the primary mission of teachers must shift from the dissemination of raw information to training a cluster of mental skills that revolve around critical thinking. And one of the first and most important lessons that should accompany this shift is an understanding that there exist in the world experts in many domains who know more than we do. They should not be trusted blindly, but their knowlege and opinions, if they pass certain tests of face validity and bias, should be held in higher regard than those who lack special training. The need fo reducation and the development of expertise has never been greater. One of the things that experts spend a great deal of their time doing is figuring out which sources of information are creditble and which are not, and figuring out what they know versus what they don’t. And these two skills are prehaps the most important things we can teach our children in this post-Wikipedia, post-Google world. What else? To be conscientious and agreeable. To be tolerant of others. To help those less fortunate than they. To take naps.

9. Everything Else
the Power of the Junk Drawer


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