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The Organized Mind:

Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload

by Daniel J Levitin

(London Times)

YOU DON'T need a neuroscientist to tell you that your brain sometimes struggles to cope with the demands of the digital age, from email overload to keeping track of the car keys or the 2,260 objects in the average home. (Actually, that is merely the number of visible objects in the average American living-room and two bedrooms.)

In this thought-provoking and practical-minded book, Daniel ­Levitin argues that the brain’s architecture is 'like a big, old house with piecemeal renovations done on every floor'. He wants to help us remodel our ­thinking on the basis of neuroscientific principles. He focuses on those tasks we know the brain handles badly: remembering things, separating the trivial from the important and handling probabilities.

Levitin's chief target, though, is the besetting sin of our gadget-strewn times: multitasking. We think we can do it but, he assures us, we cannot. He should know: he is a professor of psychology, behavioural neuroscience and music at McGill University in ­Montreal, and co-discovered the brain's 'neural switchboard', which ­enables shifts of focus.

We can just about keep track of two conversations at once, he says, but multitasking is really just switching attention rapidly from one thing to another. Every time we switch, we pay a cognitive cost. Brain levels of the 'stress ­hormone' cortisol rise, which creates that familiar end-of-day mental fog. Multitasking also elevates the brain's levels of ­dopamine, the neurochemical that seems to regulate our internal systems of reward. Even though multitasking might be useless and fatiguing, the dopamine-addiction feedback loop 'effectively rewards the brain for losing focus'.

It gets worse. Multitasking makes us pay attention to the wrong things, because our brains have trouble ­separating the trivial from the important; it also makes us store information wrongly. If we study while watching television, for instance, the information is channelled to the brain region that specialises in new skills, rather than facts and ideas. Shockingly, even the possibility of multitasking diminishes us: one study showed that an unread email in the inbox can temporarily have the equivalent effect of lowering your IQ by 10 points, ­simply by disrupting your ability to concentrate on the task in hand.

So what do we do about it? ­Levitin's explanations are hi-tech, but his answers are determinedly old-fashioned. Unread email? File it away. Tired? Have a nap: 10 minutes' sleep in the daytime makes up for 90 minutes at night. Feeling your ­empathy draining away? Read ­literary ­fiction and nonfiction. Highbrow readers supposedly experience increased interpersonal empathy and better executive attentional ­control. As for the blight of mental fog, shut down all those windows on your screen, turn off devices and stay on task. Focusing on one thing at a time gave us music, ­penicillin and rockets to the moon.

By contrast, Levitin also wants us to daydream. Letting the mind wander is more than a metaphor; it allows disparate networks in the brain to connect, enabling creative thought and allowing us to recalibrate and restore our mental functions. He describes daydreaming as the yang to the yin of focus. 'Creative solutions often arise,' he says, 'from allowing a sequence of alterations between dedicated focus and daydreaming.'

Much of this is good advice, based on sound neuroscientific principles. But some of Levitin's ideas feel a bit maniacal. He wants us to have three ­different ­computers (for home admin, for work and for ­leisure). He advises sending 'ticklers', automated calendar alerts that remind us to check in with our friends. He suggests that we make important medical decisions using the specialised mathematics for ­estimating ­uncertainties, and he offers pages of 'fourfold tables' to help correct our inbuilt sloppy ­intuitions.

Other solutions, by contrast, are obvious. By way of 'externalising' our brain’s organisational resources, Levitin suggests the following: ­putting your car keys on a hook, ­filing things, using door handles that suggest whether to 'push' or 'pull'”, letting someone else draw up your exercise programme, mentally rehearsing a new acquaintance's name for five seconds, and making lists so as not to ­forget things.

Admittedly, the reasons why such tricks work are fascinating. Making a list of tasks breaks the brain's 'rehearsal loop', which keeps an idea alive in our minds; this allows us to relax and focus on other things. An imposed exercise regime is more effective than a self-designed one because if we draw up a ­programme ourselves our prefrontal cortex keeps us aware of all the flaws that went into its design. Saying someone's name over and over to yourself forces you to pay attention to it, instead of being distracted, at the moment of introduction, by worrying about “how we’re dressed or whether our breath stinks”.

There are other problems with the book, however. Levitin's assertion that the world has got more complicated and demanding is only superficially true. Yes, there are gigabytes of information flying around online and, yes, we have more stuff, but try telling a professional historian that things were simpler in the past - and stand well back.

And ultimately, many of the neuroscientific findings that underpin this book feel like confirmation of existing common sense, while many of ­Levitin's tips are drawn not from neuroscience but from other self-help books. So while this book may help you organise your life, and it definitely explains why you should, it promises more than it actually delivers. Rather like neuroscience.

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