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Book Review: The Organized Mind

By (August 28, 2014) 2 Comments

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overloadthe organized mind cover
by Daniel J. Levitin
Dutton, 2014

“Attention is the most essential resource for any organism,” Daniel Levitin writes quite correctly in his fast-paced and engrossing new book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, so it’s the sidecar-riding irony of the whole thing that it suffers from a near-fatal distraction of its own attention throughout.

On the one hand, Levitin lays out the staggering new demands new technology puts on the same old human neurons, with each of us processing 34 gigabytes or 100,000 words every day in a world with 300 exabytes (300,000,000,000,000,000,000) pieces of human-made information. This hemisphere of his book is unendingly fascinating, despite the occasional oversimplification on his part (or outright flub, as when he says the patently untrue, “In order for something to become encoded as part of your experience, you need to have paid conscious attention to it,” or “Our brains evolved to focus on one thing at a time”) and despite some very strange misbeliefs, as when he writes:

Humans are, by most biological measures, the most successful species our planet has seen. We have managed to survive in nearly every climate our planet has offered (so far) and the rate of our population expansion exceeds that of any other known organism.

… a passage that would be mighty confusing to any alien xenobiographer who looked at Earth and wanted to talk about, for example, bacteria.

But on the other hand, the book’s other hemisphere – occasionally at odds and sometimes at war with the rest of the enterprise – zeroes in not on physiological and technological aspects of information overload but on a kind of business-seminar motivational angle revolving around how HSP – Highly Successful Persons – handle that overload … and how you can too!

This stuff is fascinating too, but it’s almost a different book and certainly a lesser one, a Harvard Business School-type manual on how to ape the financially successful specifically in order to become financially successful. Levitin gives many examples of HSP and comments consistently on their superior, relaxed focus – a focus made possible by the fact that Highly Successful Persons invariably employ crowds of assistants to filter out distractions and conduct daily attention-triage. Levitin puts a good deal of emphasis on the widespread and deleterious effects of all those distractions, boiling many of them down to added demands most people hardly even realize they’re answering:

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 …

The Organized Mind would have been considerably stronger if it had focused a bit more tightly on studying its central phenomenon rather than haring off every so often on how you can too! tangents, but even so, this is a mighty strong and fascinating book containing dozens of flashes of insight and dozens of examples of first-rate popular science writing, including one of the best descriptions of evolution by random mutation and natural selection that I’ve ever read:

You have an old house and everything is a bit outdated, but you’re satisfied. You add a room air conditioner during one particularly hot summer. A few years alter, when you have more money, you decide to add a central air-conditioning system. But you don’t removed that room unit in the bedroom – why would you? It might come in handy and it’s already there, bolted to the wall. Then a few years later, you have a catastrophic plumbing problem – pipes burst in the walls. The plumbers need to break open the walls and run new pipes, but your central air-conditioning system is now in the way, where some of the pipes would ideally go. So they run the pipes through the attic, the long way around. This works fine until one particularly cold winter when your uninsulated attack causes your pipes to freeze. These pipes wouldn’t have frozen if you had run them through the walls, which you couldn’t do because of the central air-conditioning. If you had planned all this from the start, you would have done things differently, but you didn’t – you added things one thing at a time, as and when you needed them.

The Organized Mind is full of such great little gems – to use its own freighted calibration, it’s well worth the expenditure of your beleaguered attention.

2 Comments »

  • I’m grateful to Mr. Donoghue for reviewing my new book, and for the time and care he put into reading it.

    I’d just like to respond to his suggestion that some facts in my book are wrong. The book was carefully vetted by expert readers, neuroscientists, biologists, military and business leaders, and contains nearly 1,000 citations to the points made. There may still be errors of course, and I take full responsibility for any that might be found. But the two that Mr. Donoghue mentions are not actually errors. Let me explain.

    Memory: It is well established in neuroscience that conscious attention – at some level – is required for memory storage. I know of no counter-examples of this, except for a few narrow laboratory demonstrations that do not mirror real-world situations. See, for example, Jacoby, L. L., Woloshyn, V., & Kelley, C. (1989). Becoming famous without being recognized: Unconscious influences of memory produced by dividing attention. Journal of experimental psychology: General, 118(2), 115. It may seem as though we are able to remember things we didn’t pay attention to, but introspection is not a reliable indicator.

    Human success as a species vs. bacteria: Bacteria are not a species, they are a domain, the highest rank of organisms in the three-domain taxonomic system. That is, the term “bacteria” is equivalent to the term “animals” not to homo sapiens sapiens. See, for example, http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/alllife/threedomains.html. In other words, yes, by many measures, humans are the most successful species.

    –Daniel Levitin
    Boston, MA

  • Open Letters Monthly says:

    It was my pleasure to read & review your book – it’s really, really good, and you deserve congratulations for that.

    But come come now! Regardless of what your experts told you, the assertion that something can’t become ‘encoded’ as part of our personal experience unless we’re paying conscious attention to it is effortlessly contradicted by the actual daily experience of every single person in the world – including you! How many times even in the course of a single week do we all realize we were aware of something without having noticed it at the time it happened? If you summarily disallow that, you’ll put half the therapists in Manhattan out of work!

    And an even more emphatic ‘come come now’ for this whole question of species and DOMAINS! Even if the context of your book’s wording doesn’t invite the comparison, I’m happy to move the whole thing out of the domain of domains and nominate virtually any SPECIES of bacteria you’d care to mention. Almost inevitably, that individual species will a) survive in far more environments than mankind, b) reproduce in vastly greater numbers than mankind, and c) pre-date mankind by roughly a billion years. Hence, those individual bacteria species – all 40 million of them – easily qualify as ‘more successful.’ Then there’s all the species of birds and bats, all of whom a) thrive in as many ecosystems as mankind, b) reproduce in abundant numbers, and c) (unlike mankind) have colonized the air as a second biome. And what do you think Charles Darwin’s answer would have been if he’d been asked which was more successful, the species Homo sapiens sapiens or any given species of worm or beetle picked at random?

    Humans are one very successful species on a planet hosting dozens of equally-successful species and HUNDREDS of more successful species. Thinking otherwise leads humans to almost all the species-arrogances you so rightly decry in your book!

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