Saturday, November 01, 2014

Review of "The Organized Mind - Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload" by Dr. Daniel J. Levitin

This book, "The Organized Mind - Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload," is, in a word, mind-blowing.  For a reader to fully appreciate and draw value from this book, there must exist a certain level of self-awareness and willingness to explore new realms.

I first became aware of the work of Dr. Daniel J. Levitin when I read "This Is Your Brain On Music." His dual training as a musician and as a scientist allows him to access the world - and to present it to his readers-  through a variety of lenses, metaphors and stories.  This multiplicity of viewpoints makes his writing both very readable and immanently relevant and practicable.  His major purpose in this book is to make the reader aware that our brains have not evolved to handle the overwhelming volume of data with which we are bombarded daily  It is not that the brain lacks capacity for storing the data.  The problem is that our "RAM" - our Random Access Memory is limited in the amount of information we can hold in our conscious awareness at any given moment.

The book is full of details about how our brain accesses and stores information and how we can be pro-active in off-loading to the external world information that we need not keep stored in our heads. Allow me to offer several examples of his very practical advice.

He deals with the phenomenon that coaching and teaching and other forms of external accountability are fare more effective than mere relying on internal will power:

"We typically trust them as 'experts' more than we trust ourselves. 'My trainer told me to do three sets of ten reps at forty pounds - he's a trainer, he must know what he's talking about.  I can't design my own workout - what do I know?'  It takes Herculean amounts of discipline to overcome the brain's bias against self-generated motivational systems." (Page 176)

Another section that I found personally relevant - and encouraging - deals with the cognitive degeneration that often accompanies aging:

"People with Alzheimer's disease show deposits in the brain of amyloids, proteins that erroneously interact, forming small, fibrous microfilaments in the brain.  People who were more cognitively active in their lives have less amyloid in their brains, suggesting that mental activity protects against Alzheimer's." (Page 217)

He follows with a discussion of the societal value of engendering the arts:

"As a society, it seems we take less time for art.  In doing so, we may be missing out on something that is deeply valuable and important from a neuro-biological standpoint.  Artists recontextualize reality and offer visions that were previously invisible.  Creativity engages the brain's daydreaming mode directly and stimulates the free flow and association of ideas, forging links between concepts and neural nodes that might not otherwise be made.  In this way, engagement in art, either as a creator or consumer, helps us by hitting the reset button in our brains.  Time stops.  We contemplate.  We reimagine our relationship to the world." (Page 217)

Dr. Levitin shares his thoughts and research on how the most effective leaders in any domain organize their minds and their work habits to lead to optimal effectiveness.  He is impressed with the ways in which the U.S. Army has learned to delegate responsibility for decision-making to the lowest possible level of the chain of command.  He extracts from the Army's recently revised Mission Command Manual five principles that are shared by top military leaders and business executives:

  • Build cohesive teams through mutual trust
  • Create shared understanding
  • Provide a clear and concise set of expectations and goals
  • Allow workers at all levels to exercise disciplined initiative
  • Accept prudent risks (Page 285)

Finally, woven throughout the book are evidences of why and how the concept of multi-tasking is exhausting and sub-optimal.  Attempting to juggle more than one task at once causes the neurons to burn glucose and exhaust themselves and the entire organism prematurely.

This book was both a revelation and a joy to read.



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