Help Your Brain Work Better in Times of Overload

Help Your Brain Work Better in Times of Overload

[Reading the article “Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain” in the August 9, 2014 New York Times prompted me to post it as a Resource for Recovering Resilience on August 14 and then read Daniel Levitin’s entire book The Organized Mind:  Thinking Straight in an Age of Information Overload from which it was excerpted.  Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness says, “Daniel Levitin has more insights per page than any other neuroscientist I know.”  It’s true.   Here I offer selected highlights of concepts I think most relevant and tools I consider the most do-able for staying focused and productive even when bombarded by too much information, too many decisions.]Ever since the invention of written language, human beings have sought ways to off-load the storage, indexing and retrieval of information needed for life to run smoothly – how do I find a good restaurant for my wife’s birthday?  Where do I put next summer’s vacation reservations so I can find them? – onto extensions of our memory systems – libraries, calendars, filing cabinets, computers, smartphones.

Daniel Levitin offers some very practical suggestions on how to do this, wisely, usefully, efficiently in his latest book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in an Age of Information Overload. Drawing on his understanding as a cognitive neuroscientist of how the brain’s attention, memory and categorization systems work, Levitin is able to both normalize the inevitable errors we all experience and worry about in this age of exponentially increasing informational overload and suggest hundreds of ways to off-load the work of the brain onto devices in our environment that help us keep our focus on the true priorities and meaningful relationships essential to a sense of creativity, productivity, and well-being.

Here I’ve streamlined many of the key concepts in the book.  The power of The Organized Mind to me was in the simple explanations of the neuroscience that helps us understand, and work with, how our brains actually operate most optimally, so that we’re working in harmony with our neural processing rather than against it.

May these reflections and resources be useful to you and yours.


Levitin’s delineation in Part One of the problems we face in the age of information overload is illuminating and sets the stage for why helping our brains cope better with too much information, too many decisions, is so essential.THE PROBLEMS (what a relief to have this all explained and normalized)

1)  Attention overload: According to Levitin:  “Attention is the most essential mental resource for any organism.  Attentional filters – not being distracted by what’s not relevant – is one of evolution’s greatest achievements.  But our brains evolved in a much simpler world with far less information coming at us.  During the hunter-gatherer phase of human history, we might encounter no more than a thousand people across the entire span of our lifetime.  Now, walking around midtown Manhattan, you’ll pass that number of people in half an hour.

“A critical point that bears repeating is that attention is a limited-capacity resource – there are definite limits to the number of things we can attend to at once. (Four is the maximum for most frontal lobes.)   We see this in everyday activities.  If you’re driving, under most circumstances, you can play the radio or carry on a conversation with someone else in the car.  But if you’re looking for a particular street to turn onto, you instinctlively turn down the radio or ask your friend to hang on for a moment, to stop talking.  This is because you’ve reached the limits of your attention in trying to do these three things.

“The limits show up whenever we try to do too many things at once.  You’ve just come home from grocery shopping, one bag in each hand.  You’ve balanced them sufficiently to unlock the front door and, as your walk in, you hear the phone ringing.  You need to put down the grocery bags in your hands, answer the phone, perhaps being careful not to let the dog or cat out the open door.
When the phone call is over you realize you don’t know where your keys are.  Why?  Because keeping track of them, too, is more things that your attentional system could handle.”

2)  Information overload:  “In 2011 Americans were bombarded with five times as much information every day as in 1986.  (YouTube uploads 6,000 videos every hour. 1,300 apps for mobile devices are being released every day.) One example:  Today someone with a PhD in biology can’t know all that is known about the nervous system of the squid.  Google Scholar reports 30,000 research articles on that topic, with the number increasing exponentially.  By the time you read this, the number will have increased by at least 3,000.  We’re exposed to large amounts of information our parents and grandparents weren’t.  We hear about revolutions and economic problems in countries halfway around the world right as they’re happening; we see images of places we’ve never visited and hear languages spoken that we’ve never heard before.  We’re kept up to date on traffic jams in Singapore and the weather on Mars.

“Our brains do have the ability to process the information we take in, they are hungrily soaking all this in because that is what they’re designed to do, but at a cost: all this information processing is competing for neuroattentional resources with the things we need to know to live our lives.  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 where your daughter should go to college or where you left your passport or how to best reconcile with a close friend you just had an argument with. And it 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.”

3) Decision overload:  “Although most of us have no trouble ranking the importance of decisions if asked to do so, our brains don’t automatically do this.  The decision-making network in our brain doesn’t prioritize.   The mere situation of facing so many trivial decisions in daily life (50 kinds of pens in the office supply store – do I need a felt tip, ink, gel, cartridge, erasable?  Ballpoint, razor point, roller ball?) creates neural fatigue, leaving no energy for the important decisions.”

4)  Attentional switching: “Our brains evolved to focus on one thing at a time.  The attentional filter evolved to help us stay on task, letting through only information that was important enough to deserve disrupting our train of thought.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century.  The plethora of information and the technologies that serve it changed the way we use our brains. Multitasking is the enemy of a focused attentional system. Increasingly we demand that our attentional system try to focus on several things at once, something that it was not evolved to do. We talk on the phone while we’re driving, listening to the radio, looking for a parking place, planning our mom’s birthday party, trying to avoid the road construction signs, and thinking about what’s for lunch.  We can’t truly think about or attend to all these things at once, so our brains flit from one to the other, each time with a neurobiological cost.”  [More about this neural fatigue below under solutions.]

5)  Shadow work: “Companies large and small have off-loaded things that used to be done for us as part of the value-added service of a company.  Now, with airline travel, we’re expected to complete our own reservations and check-ins.  At the grocery store, we’re expected to bag our own groceries and to scan our own purchases.  We pump our own gas at filling stations.  Telephone operators used to look up numbers for us – no longer. 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.  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.  This takes away time we prefer to use for our own leisure and creativity.”


I’m summarizing many, many solutions Levitin offers (the man is brilliant and far-reaching in his thinking) into three overarching categories – practical and impactful:

  1. off-load information from your own brain to external memory systems;
  2. reduce your multi-tasking;
  3. prepare for failure.

1)  Off-load information from your own brain to external memory systems

The brain’s process for encoding memory is more reliable and accurate than its process for retrieving memory.  When we experience any event, a network of neurons is activated.  That neural constellation is accurate and unique.  But accurately remembering an event requires the activation of precisely the same neurons, and that rarely happens.  The instructions for which neurons need to be activated and how they need to fire together gets degraded with non-use, leading to a re-presentation of the memory which can change or fade over time. Two ways to aid in the retrieval of a memory (accurate activation of the neurons) is 1) to associate the memory with something distinctive and unique so the brain can search for the unique feature and pull up the rest of the memory with it (like googling Tasmania rather than vacations) and 2) associating a powerful emotion with the memory, which will activate a neurochemical marker for that emotion and make it easier for the brain to search and find – like remembering where you were the morning of 9/11 rather than where you were a month before.

When what we want to store and retrieve from our own memory system starts to get overloaded,we need to begin to externalize our storage and retrieval systems.  Levitin gives a delightful exploration of when externalization really took off in human evolution.

“We humans have a long history of pursuing ways to off-load some of the brain’s functions to external sources.  One of the biggest advances occurred only 5,000 years ago, when human discovered a game-changing way to increase the capacity of the brain’s memory and indexing system.  The invention of written language has long been celebrated as a breakthrough, but relatively little has been made of what exactly were the first things humans wrote – simple recipes, sales receipts, and business inventories mostly.  Around 3000 BCE our ancestors began to trade nomadic lifestyles for urban ones, setting up increasingly large cities and centers of commerce.  The increased trade in these cities put a strain on individual merchants’ memories and so writing became an important component of recording business transactions. The first forms of writing emerged not for art, literature, or love, not for spiritual or liturgical purposes, but for business.  All literature could be said to originate from sales receipts.  (Sorry!). Poetry, histories, war tactics and instructions for building complex construction projects came later.”

He continues: “The Industrial Revolution ushered in the Age of Paperwork.  An explosion of information and decision making needed to be organized beyond the skills, memory and capacity of any one individual, and that led to standardization and manualization of operations extending memory that continues to this day.”

Levitin gives a delightful history of harnessing the power of the hippocampus (long-term memory storage and place memory) to off-load memory onto paper through cubbyholes for documents and letters through flat horizontal files  on shelves in chronological order through filing cabinets of vertical files in alphabetical order (requiring people beginning in the 1800’s to memorize the alphabet, something we take for granted today) to computer data bases (categories within categories within categories of to do lists, calendars, and contacts) to help us index and retrieve vast quantities of information, including where we have filed something in our paper files. “Organizing paper is a way of organizing the mind.”

Then, one specific tool for off-loading information that surprised me (and apparently surprised Levitin when he was researching this book because he found so many high level executives do this) was using index cards for To Do lists.  Every item, every idea, goes on one 3×5 card; this allows rapid sorting and re-sorting of the tasks, and allows easy re-categorization of ideas with other germane ideas.   The stack of cards can be easily shuffled as new priorities emerge; individual cards get tossed when the task is done.

The mind-wandering mode of the brain can conjure up new thoughts at any moment; those thoughts will churn around in your brain until you deal with them somehow.  Writing them down gets them out of your head, clearing your brain of the clutter that is interfering with being able to focus on what you want to focus on.

“This clearing of the mind is based in neurology.  When we have something on our minds that is important, we’re afraid we’ll forget it, so our brain rehearses it, tossing it around and around in circles in a rehearsal loop (a process that evolved in the brain long before we had writing, let alone computers) until we attend to it. Writing the idea down gives both implicit and explicit permission to the rehearsal loop to let them go, to relax its neural circuits so that we can focus on something else.  Writing things down conserves the mental energy expended in worrying that you might forget something and in not to forget it.  Anything you consider unfinished an any way must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind – that trusted system is to write it down.”

Once you have a stack of index cards, make a point to sort them regularly. This maintains maximum flexibility. During your daily sweep through the cards, do something with each card.   When there are a small number, you simply put them in the order in which you need to deal with them.  With a larger number, you assign the index cards to categories:  Today, this week, can wait, junk drawer. Or do it, delegate it, defer it, drop it.

Levitin:  “As humble and low-tech as it may seem, the 3×5 card system is powerful.  That is because it builds on the neuroscience of attention, memory, and categorization.  The task-negative or mind-wandering mode is responsible for generating much useful information, but so much of it comes at the wrong time.  We externalize our memory by putting that information on index cards.  We then harness the power of the brain’s intrinsic and evolutionarily ancient desire to categorize by creating little bins for those external memories, bins that we can peer into whenever our central executive network wishes to.  You might say categorizing and externalizing our memory enables us to balance the yin of our wandering thoughts with the yang of our focused execution.”

2) Reduce Multi-tasking

Levitin begins his critique of multi-tasking with an exploration of two ways the brain evolved to pay attention to information and experience optimally:

1) the central executive, task-focused mode – the executive functioning of the prefrontal cortex that allows analysis, planning, judgment, scheduling, decision making, and impulse control – the mode we use to do our taxes, write a report, or navigate through an unfamiliar city, and

2) the default network mode of processing in the brain, which he calls the mind-wandering mode. We experience mind-wandering as relaxing into a state of reverie or daydream, where thoughts seem to move seamlessly from one to another in a gentle stream of consciousness.  Mind-wandering is a distinctive brain state marked by the flow of connections among disparate ideas and thought, and a relative lack of barriers between senses and concepts; it replenishes the central executive attention system.

“The discovery of the mind-wandering network is now considered one of the biggest neuroscientific discoveries of the last twenty years.  This form of processing can lead to great creativity and solutions to problems that see unsolvable.  The mind easily shifts into mind-wandering when we’re not engaged in a task, and it hijacks your consciousness if the task you’re doing gets boring.  Envisioning or planning one’s future, projecting oneself into a situation (especially a social situation) feeling empathy, invoking autobiographical memories also involve this mind-wandering network. It’s a natural state of the brain and accounts for why we feel so refreshed after it, why vacations and naps can be so restorative.  It’s not that you can’t hold on to any one thought, it’s that no single thought is demanding a response.”

The mind-wandering mode and the task-focused mode operate in a kind of yin-yang: when one is active, the other is not. In addition to the mind-wandering mode, the task-focused mode, and the attentional filter (which is always operating quietly out of the way in your subconscious; it’s what remains vigilant and alerts us to danger, breaking thorugh the central executive and mind-wandering modes when necessary) there is structure in the brain that allows us to switch between the central executive mode and the mind-wandering mode – the insula.

This four-circuit human attentional system evolved over tens of thousands of years and it now lies at the center of our ability to organize information by allocating neural and metabolic resoures among the mind-wandering, stay-on-task, or vigilance (attentional filter) modes.  The challenge with multi-tasking is, if the insula is called upon to switch our attention too much or too often, we feel tired and a bit dizzy.

“With multi-tasking, although we think we’re doing several things at once, multitasking has been shown to be a powerful and diabolical illusion.   When people think they’re multi-tasking, they’re actually switching from one task to another very rapidly.  And every time they do there’s a cognitive cost in doing so. Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can over-stimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking.    Ironically, multitasking makes us demonstrably less efficient.

“Multitasking also creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, sending chemicals through the brain’s pleasure center when you complete tasks, no matter how trivial, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. Each time we dispatch an e-mail, we feel a sense of accomplishment, and our brain gets a dollop of reward hormones telling us we accomplished something.  Each time we check a Twitter feed or Facebook update, we encounter something novel and feel more connected social and get another dollop of reward hormones that are genuinely physiologically addicting.

“To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new.  The irony here for those of us who are trying to focus amid competing activities is clear; the very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted.  We answer the phone, look up something on the Internet, check our e-mail, send an SMS, and each of these things tweaks the novelty-seeking, reward-seeking centers of the brain, causing a burst of endogenous opioids, all to the detriment of our staying on task. Make no mistake: E-mail, Facebook, and Twitter checking constitutes a neural addiction.

“But remember, it is the dumb, novelty-seeking portion of the brain driving the limbic system that induces this feeling of pleasure, not the planning, scheduling, higher-level thought centers in the prefrontal cortex.  The greatest life satisfaction comes from completing projects that require sustained focus and energy – like raising children writing books or composing music, building an organization or solving problems of climate change, and the mind-wandering mode which needs time to percolate its ideas and explorations.

“In multitasking, we unknowingly enter an addiction loop as the brain’s novelty centers become rewarded for processing interesting new stimuli. It is the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy.  Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugarcoated tasks.”

Levitin warns that even just having the opportunity to multitask is detrimental to cognitive performance.  Multitasking can effectively reduce your IQ by 10 points and send information you want to learn to be directed to the wrong part of the brain (the striatum, which stores new procedures and skills, but not facts and ideas, which need to be stored by the hippocampus for easier retrieval.) (Research has shown that the cognitive losses from multitasking are even greater than the cognitive losses from smoking pot.)

“Then there are the metabolic costs of switching itself.  Asking the brain to shift attention from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel they need to stay on task.  The kind of rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time.  We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain.  This leads to compromises in both cognitive and physical performance.  Staying on task or using the mind-wandering mode uses less energy than multitasking and actually reduces the brain’s need for glucose.  We need to train ourselves to go for the long reward and forgo the short one.”

3)  Prepare for Failure

We use enormous quantities of metabolic resources in worrying about “what if” and coping with “what just did.”  Leviting suggests anticipating what could go wrong and preparing for when, not if.  Planning ahead saves as a lot of grief and frees up mental resources to focus on what we do want to create and produce.

Rather than spending precious mental energy on worrying about where things are or de-railing even more precious energy into searching for/replacing them when they are lost, Levitin devotes one section specifically to creating back-up “places” to store information crucial to the smooth flow of our lives:

  • Hiding a spare house key in the garden or at a neighbor’s house
  • Keeping a spare car key in your top desk drawer
  • Using your cell phone camera to take a close-up picture of your passport, driver’s license, and health insurance card, and both sides of your credit card
  • Carrying with you a USB key with all your medical records on it
  • [I asked a physician friend about this; he does already and thinks it’s a excellent idea for everyone]

And for our digital information:  “Hard disks, thumb drives, CDs, and other storage media eventually all fail.  Just having multiple copies of your files on the same hard drive doesn’t protect you if the hard drive fails.  Probabilities that a hard drive will fail within five years reach 50% or more.  A study by Microsoft engineers found that 25% of all servers suffer a disk failure within two years.  The recommended solution is to back up your files to at least two different hard disks, and check those hard disks regularly – once every three months is a good rule of thumb- to be sure they’re still functioning.   For individuals or small businesses without vast resources: if you’ve got a close colleague or relative in another city, you can hook up to a remotely accessible backup disk at their home or place of business and schedule automatic backups and restores from your home base.”  (Research discourages backing up to the cloud for now because of piracy and a shutdown of the entire cloud could cause you to lose all your data forever.  For now, keep your own data.)

Levitin covers many, many other topics in The Organized Mind:  information and complexity theory (the basis of computer programming) sleep (essential for peak performance, memory, productivity, immune function, and mood regulation, problem solving, procrastination, Alzheimer’s disease,  internal-external locus of control, etc.  A treasure trove of thought-provoking ideas presented with great clarity and wit.  Enjoy


Every day, millions of us lose our keys, driver’s licenses, wallets, or scraps of paper with important phone numbers.  And we don’t just lose physical objects, but we also forget things we were supposed to remember, important things like the password to our e-mail or a website, the PIN for our cash cards – the cognitive equivalent of losing our keys.  These are not trivial things; it’s not as if people are losing things that are relatively easy to replace, like bars of soap or some grapes from the fruit bowl. We don’t tend to have general memory failures; we have specific, temporary memory failures for one or two things.  During those frantic few minutes when you’re searching for your lost keys, you (probably) still remember you name and address, where you television set is, and what you had for breakfast – it’s just this one memory that has been aggravatingly lost.  There is evidence that some things are typically lost far more often that others.  We tend to lose our car keys but not our car; we lose our wallet or cell phone more often than the stapler on our desk or soup spoons in the kitchen; we lose track of coats and sweaters and shoes more often than pants.  Understanding how the brain’s attentional and memory systems interact can go a long way toward minimizing memory lapses.Six billion of the world’s 7 billion people have cell phones, while only 4.5 billion have toilets, according to a 2013 United Nations report.

Our cell phones have become Swiss Army knife-like appliances that include a dictionary, calculator, Web browser, e-mails, Game Boy, appointment calendar, voice recorder, guitar tuner, weather forecaster, GPS, texter, tweeter, Facebook, updater and flashlight.  They’re more powerful and do more things than the most advanced computer at IBM corporate headquarters thirty years ago.

When I think about all the money we spent on bombs and munitions, our failures in Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan and other places around the world…instead of advancing our agenda using force, we should have instead built schools and hospitals in these countries, improving the lives of their children.  By now, those children would have grown into positions of influence, and they would be grateful to us instead of hating us.

– George Schultz, former U.S. Secretary of State


[Not stories with characters and plots of triumph over adversity this time, but tidbits from Levitin’s book that illuminate one facet or another of coping with information overload.]Alzheimer’s

Many people over the age of sixty fear that they’re suffering memory deficits, fighting off early-onset Alzheimer’s, or simply losing their marbles because they can’t remember something as simple as whether they took that multivitamin at breakfast or not.  But – neuroscience to the rescue – it is probably just that the act of taking the pill has become so commonplace that it is forgotten almost immediately afterward.  Children don’t usually forget when they’ve taken pills because the act of pill taking is still novel to them.  They focus intently on the experience, worry about choking or ending up with a bad taste in their mouths, and all these things serve two purposes.  First, they reinforce the novelty of the event at the moment of the pill taking and second, they cause the child to focus intently on that moment.  Attention is a very effective way on entering something into memory.

We adults, when taking a pill, an act so commonplace that we can do it without thinking (and we do): we put the pill in our mouths, take a drink, swallow, all while thinking about six other things:  Did I remember to pay the electric bill?  What new work will my boss give me to do today at that ten o’clock meeting?  I’m getting tired of this breakfast cereal; I have to remember to buy a different one the next time I’m at the store.  All of this cross talk in our overactive brains, combined with the lack of attention to the moment of taking the pill, increases the probability that we’ll forget it a few short minutes later.  It’s not that we’re slipping into dementia.

Besides developing a Zen-like awareness of every moment of experience, including taking our morning vitamins, we can off-load the memory functions into the physical world: get one of those little plastic pill holders with the names of the days of the week written on them; load up your pills into the proper compartment, and then you’ don’t have to remember anything at all except that an empty compartment confirms that you took your dose.  You’ve unloaded mundane, repetitive information from the frontal lobes to the external environment, freeing your higher brain to do the more creative, productive tasks of your life.


What about those delicious afternoon stretches on the couch?  There’s a reason naps feel so good: They’re an important part of resetting worn-out neural circuits.  They can play a large role in creativity, memory, and efficiency.  But not all naps are created equal.  Those little micro-naps you take in between hitting the snooze button on your morning alarm?  Those are counterproductive, giving you abnormal sleep that fails to settle into a normal brain wave pattern.  Napping to close to bedtime can make it difficult or impossible to fall asleep at night.  But the benefits of napping in the afternoon are well established.  Even five- or ten-minute “power naps” yield significant cognitive enhancement, improvement in memory, and increased productivity. And the more intellectual the work the greater the payoff.  Naps also allow for the recalibration of our emotional equilibrium – after being exposed to angry and frightening stimuli, a nap can turn around negative emotions and increase happiness.  How does a nap do all that?  By activating the limbic system, the brain’s emotional center, and reducing levels of monoamines, naturally occurring neurotransmitters that are used in pill form to treat depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia.  Napping has also been shown to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, and heart attacks.  Any number of companies now encourage their employees to take short naps – fifteen minutes is the corporate norm – and many companies have dedicated nap rooms with cots.


The tendency to procrastinate has been found to be correlated with certain traits, lifestyles, and other factors.  Although the effects are statistically significant, none of them is very large.  Those who are younger and single (including divorced or separated) are slightly more likely to procrastinate.  So are those with a Y chromosome; this could be why women are far more likely to graduate from college than men; they are less likely to procrastinate.  Being outside in natural settings – parks, forests, the beach, the mountains and the desert – replenishes self-regulatory mechanisms in the brain, and accordingly, living or spending time in nature, as opposed to urban environments has been shown to reduce the tendency to procrastinate.

Problem Solving

Achieving insights across a wide variety of problems – not just word problems but interpersonal conflicts, medical treatments, chess games, and music composition, for example – typically follows a pattern.  We focus all our attention on the aspects of the problems as it is presented, or as we understand it, combing through different possible solutions and scenarios with our left prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex.  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 in 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 an 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 or long walks.


The companies that are winning the productivity battle are those that allow their employees productivity hours (periods of uninterrupted, focused and/or daydreaming work), naps, a chance for exercise, and a calm, tranquil, orderly environment in which to do their work.  Productivity goes up when the number of hours per week of work goes down, strongly suggesting that adequate leisure and refueling time pays off for employers and for workers.  Overwork – and its companion, sleep deprivation – have been shown to lead to mistakes and errors that take longer to fix than the overtime hours worked.  A sixty-our work week, although 50% longer than a forty-hour work week, reduces productivity by 25%, so it takes two hours of overtime to accomplish one hour of work.  A ten-minute nap can be equivalent to an extra hour and a half of sleep at night.   Giving employees environments like these seems to pay, and it makes sense from a neurobiological standpoint.  Sustained concentration and effort is most effective not when fragmented into little pieces by multitasking but when apportioned into big focused chunks separated by leisure, exercise, or other mentally restorative activities. And because attention switching is metabolically costly, it’s good neural hygiene for your brain to give it time to switch into the mind-set of your next meeting gradually and in a relaxed way before the meeting starts.

[Levitin devotes Part Two to these five areas of organizing information.  I’m presenting the information here in the exercise section because Levitin does offer many, many practical tools in each chapter.]

Organizing Our Homes: Where Things Can Start to Get Better

[An excerpt from the book and examples of off-loading – so simple:]

“Few of us feel that our homes or work spaces are perfectly organized.  We lose our car keys, an important piece of mail; we go shopping and forget something we needed to buy; we miss an appointment we thought we’d be sure to remember.  In the best case, the house is neat and tidy but our drawers and closets are cluttered.  Some of us still have unpacked boxes from our last move (even if it was five years ago) and our home offices accumulate paperwork faster than we know what to do with it.  Our attics, garages, basements, and the junk drawers in our kitchens are in such a state that we hope no one we know ever takes a peek inside of them, and we fear the day we may need to actually find something there.

“One solution is to put systems in place at home that will tame the mess – a way to keep track of things, sort them, and put them where they will be found and not lost….to provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort.

“Some things are typically lost far more often than others: We tend to lose our car keys but not our car; we lost our wallet or cell phone more often than the stapler on our desk or soup spoons in the kitchen, we lose track of coats and sweaters and shoes more often than pants.  Understanding how the brain’s attentional memory systems interact can go a long way toward minimizing memory lapses.

“A great deal of losing things arises from the various nomadic things of our lives not being confined to a certain location.  We seldom lose forks and knives because we have a silverware drawer in the kitchen where such things go.  We don’t lose our toothbrushes because they are used in a particular room and have a particular place to be stored there.  But we do lose bottle openers when we carry them from the kitchen to the rec room or to the living room and then forget where they last were.  The same things happens to hairbrushes if we are in the habit of taking them out of the bathroom.


“The neurological foundation of this is now well understood.  We evolved a specialized brain structure called the hippocampus just for remembering spatial location of things. There are even 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.  Take reading glasses – we carry them with us from room to room, and they are easily misplaced because they have no designated place.   This is why you remember where your toothbrush is but not your glasses.  It’s why you lose your car keys but not your car – there are an infinity of places to leave your keys around the house, but relative fewer places to leave the car.

“What we need are cognitive enhancers – taming the wandering ways of the objects we need to live while reducing the mental burden of keeping track of them. To harness the power of the hippocampus rather than fighting it.   A bowl or hook near the door for keys.  Whenever you are home, that is where the keys should be.  As soon as you walk in the door you hang them there.  No exceptions – the system depends on being a bit compulsive about it.  If the phone is ringing, hang the keys up first.  If your hands are full, put the packages down and hang up the keys.  One of the big rules in not losing things is the rule of the designated place.

“A tray or shelf that is designated for a smartphone encourages you to put your phone there and not somewhere else.  (The system collapses if you have several spots.) If you hear on the weather report in the evening that it’s supposed to rain tomorrow, put an umbrella near the front door so you won’t forget to take it.  If you have letters to mail, put them near your car keys so that when you leave the house, they’re right there.

“Finding things without rummaging saves mental energy for more important creative tasks.  It is in fact physiologically comforting to avoid the stress of wondering whether or not we’re ever going to find what we’re looking for.  Not finding something thrusts the mind into a fog of confusion, a toxic vigilance mode that is neither focused nor relaxed.  Off-load the information from your brain and into the environment: use the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done.”

Organizing Our Social World: How Humans Connect Now

We’re experiencing an explosion of social connections in our modern world as well as the explosion of information.

Levitin:  “Because our ancestors lived in social groups that changed slowly, because they encountered the same people throughout their lives, they could keep almost every social detail they needed to know in their heads.  A rancher in Wyoming or a writer in rural Vermont might still not encounter anyone for a week, but a greeter at Walmart might make eye contact with 1,700 people a day.


“Because the brain will implicitly categorize people we meet anyway  – family, friends, coworkers, service providers, professional advisors – cognitive neuroscience would suggest that we create a system for doing so, externalizing the information in order to clear the mind.  Contact files with: when and where we met, who introduced us, what we talked about, areas of common interest, why I would want to stay in touch, when will I stay in touch.  Then store the information in an external device, a file of index cards, a computer data base accessible through key words, social networking sites, or even in the transactive memory of a friend or partner who is more likely to remember the owner of a new great new restaurant than we are.”

Levitin does caution about the  illusion of connection through social networking.  “Social networking provides breadth but rarely depth, and in-person contact is what we crave, even if online contacts seems to take away some of that craving.  People in relationships experience better health, recover from illnesses more quickly, live longer; the presence of a satisfying intimate relationship is one of the strongest predictors of happiness and emotional well-being that has ever been measured.   In the end, the online interaction works best as a supplement, not a replacement for in-person contact.”

Organizing Our Time:  What is the Mystery

The prefrontal cortex – the central executive – is what organizes our sense of time and allows us to prioritize tasks sequentially, doing the most important things first and leaving less salient chores for later. This CEO of the brain operates mostly through inhibiting activities of various other parts of the brain than might take our attention off-track from what we need to focus on – the structure of impulse control. The prefrontal cortex picks and chooses and anticipates what it thinks is going to be important, what you should pay attention to.

Managing time brings us back to focusing our attention rather than multitasking.  It takes energy to shift your attention from task to task. It takes less energy to focus.  People who organize their time in a way that allows them to focus are not only going to get more done, but they’ll be less tired and less neurochemically depleted after doing it.  Daydreaming also takes less energy than multitasking.  And the natural intuitive see-saw between focusing and daydreaming helps to recalibrate and restore the brain.  Multitasking does not.


“Set aside a particular time of day to work, with the phone turned off and your e-mail and browser shut down.  Set aside a particular place to work that allows you to focus.  Make it a policy to not respond to missives that come in during your productivity time.  Adopt the mental set that this thing you’re doing now is the most important thing you could be doing. Difficult tasks benefit from a sustained period of concentration of fifty minutes or more, due to the amount of time it takes your brain to settle into and maintain a focused state.  Do a mind-clearing exercise, off-loading from your frontal lobes everything you think it is important onto 3×5 index cards or a Could Be Done list, and set that aside, to concentrate uninterrupted on the project at hand.

“Set aside certain times of day when you’ll do e-mail.  Experts recommend that you do e-mail only two or three times a day, in concerted clumps rather than as they come in. If you’re checking e-mail every five minutes, you’re checking it 200 times during the waking day. This interferes with advancing your primary objectives.  You might have to train your friends and coworkers not to expect immediate responses, to use some other means of communication for things like a meeting later today, a lunch date, or a quick question.”

In managing time, Levitin suggests:

* Break tasks down into manageable chunks – meaningful, implementable, doable chunks. Unless damaged or compromised in some way (the bane of ADHD), our prefrontal cortex can do this automatically without thinking about it too much.  Chunking creates well-differentiated tasks that are easier to monitor and assess how well we’re progressing, and gives us a hit of neurochemical satisfaction at the completion of every chunk.

* Put tasks in the right order, which involves mental rehearsal before actually embarking on a project.


* Assess whether what we’re doing is correct/effective and adjusting when necessary.  Constantly.


Levitin:  “This constant back-and-forth is one of the most metabolism-consuming things that our brain can do.  We step out of time, out of the moment, and survey the big picture.  We like what we see or we don’t, and then we go back to the task either moving forward again, or backtracking to fix a conceptual or physical mistake.

“In this assessment phase, we’re functioning as both the boss and the worker.  Planning and doing require separate parts of the brain.  To be both a boss and a worker, one needs to form and maintain multiple, hierarchically organized attentional sets and then bounce back and forth between them.

“Example:  It’s the central executive in your brain that notices that the floor is dirty.  It forms an executive attentional set for “mop the floor” and then constructs a worker attentional set for doing the actual mopping.  The executive set want the job done and done well. The worker does the mopping.  If the worker drops into perfectionism, overfocusing on details, the executive set pulls attention back to the bigger picture.  Shifting attention levels, from the big picture to the task and back to the big picture again, involves attention switching.  Attention switching is depleting; it uses more of the brain’s nutrients than staying engaged in a single task.

“Solution: If you have chores to do, put similar chores together.  If you’ve collected a bunch of bills to pay, just pay the bills – don’t’ use that time to make big decisions about whether to move to a smaller house or buy a new car.  Stay focused and maintain a single attentional set through to completion of a job. Organizing our mental resources efficiently means providing slots in our schedules where we can maintain an attentional set for an extended period.  This allows us to get more done and finish up with more energy.”



Organizing Information for the Hardest Decisions
In this chapter, Levitin offers suggestions for organizing information and making decisions about health care, learning to approach uncertainties and probabilities rationally (we can train our brain in an afternoon to do that) rather than relying on gut intuition (so valuable when we’re not emotionally overwrought, but often too contracted in a crisis to keep the big picture when faced with difficult medical decisions).
An example:
” A potent example of the pitfalls in medical decision-making come from the current state of prostate cancer treatments.  An estimated 2.5 million men in the United States have prostate cancer, and 3% of men will die from it.  That doesn’t rank it in the Top Ten cause of death, but it is the second leading cause of cancer death for men, after lung cancer.  Nearly every urologist who delivers the news will recommend radical surgery to remove the prostate.  And on first blush, it sounds reasonable – we see cancer, we cut it out.
“Several things make thinking about prostate cancer complicated.  For one it’s a particularly slow-progressing cancer -most me die with it rather than of it.  Nevertheless, the C-word is so intimidating and frightening that many men just want to “cut it out and be done with it.”  They are willing to put up with the side effects to know that the cancer is gone.

“But wait.  There is a fairly high incidence of recurrence following surgery.  And what about the side effects?  The incident rate -how often side effects occur among patients after surgery, are in parentheses:
* inability to maintain an erection sufficient for intercourse (80%)

* shortening of the penis by one inch (50%)

* urinary incontinence (35%)

* fecal incontinence (25%)

* hernia (17%)

* severing of urethra (6%)
“The side effects are awful.  Most people would say they’re better than death, which is what they think is the alternative to surgery.  But the numbers tell a different story.  First, because prostate cancer is slow moving and doesn’t even cause symptoms in most of the people who have it, it can safely be left untreated in some men.  How many men?  Forty-seven out of 48.  Put another way, for every 48 prostate surgeries performed, only one life is extended -the other 47 patients would have lived just as long anyway, and not had to suffer the side effects.  Thus, the number needed to treat to ge one cure is 48.  Now, as to the side effects, there’s over a 97% chance a patient will experience at least one of those listed above.  If we ignore the sexual side effects – the first two – and look only at the others, there is still more than a 50% chance that the patient will experience at least one of them, and a pretty big chance he’ll experience two.  So, of the 47 people who were not helped by the surgery, roughly 24 are going to have at least one side effect.  To recap: for every 48 prostate surgeries performed, 24 people who would have been fine without surgery experience a major side effect, while 1 person is cured.  You are 24 times more likely to be harmed by the side effect than helped by the cure.  Of men who undergo the surgery, 20% regret their decision.  Clearly it is important to factor quality of life into the decision.”
Levitin then teaches a simple way to use statistics and a probabilities matrix to calculate the risks for an individual person’s situation, encouraging patients to take charge of the process and make as objective a decision as possible, in a way that most medical doctors, while experts in the field of medicine, have usually not been trained in probabilistic thinking to do.
Organizing the Business World:  How We Create Value
Levitin is a business management consultant as well as a cognitive neuroscientist.  The explorations in this chapter are very much based in Levitin’s study with Amos Tversky, a brilliant and career-long research partner of Daniel Kahneman who won the Nobel Prize in economics for their work together, summarized in Kahneman’s best-selling Thinking Fast and Slow.

“Standard models of decision-making assume that a decision-maker – especially in economic and business contexts – is not influenced by emotional considerations.  But neuroeconomics research has shown this is not true: Economic decisions produce activity in emotional regions of the brain, including the insula and amygdala. Benefits are evaluated deep inside the brain, in a part of the striatum closes to your spine (which includes the rain’s reward center, the nucleus accumbens), while costs are simultaneously evaluated in the amygdala, another deep structure, commonly thought of as the brain’s fear center (the region responsible for the fight-or-flight response during threats to survival and other dangers).  Taking in this competing information about costs and benefits, the prefrontal cortex acts as the decider. This isn’t the same thing as the experience we have of consciously trying to decide between two alternatives; decision-making is often very rapid, outside our conscious control, and involves heuristics and cognitive impulses that have evolved to serve us in a wide range of situations.  The rationality we think we bring to decision-making is partly illusory.”
In this context, Levitin returns once more to the pitfalls of multitasking.
“It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.  They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping inform in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.
“We all want to believe that we can do many things at once and that our attention is infinite, but this is a persistent myth.  What we really do is shift our attention rapidly from task to task.  Two bad things happen as a result:  We don’t devote enough attention to any one thing, and we decrease the quality of attention applied to any task.  When we do one thing – uni-task – there are beneficial changes in the brain’s daydreaming networks and increased connectivity.  Among other things, this is believed to be protective against Alzheimer’s disease.  Older adults who engaged in five one-hour trainings sessions on attentional control began to show brain activity patterns that more closely resembled those of younger adults.


“You’d think that people would realize they’re bad at multitasking and would quit.  But a cognitive illusion sets in, fueled in part by a dopamine-adrenaline feedback loop, in which multitaskers think they’re doing great. At least until the next evolutionary leap in our prefrontal cortex, multitasking leads to not more work but less, not better work but sloppier work.  Part of the problem is that workplaces are misguidely encouraging workers to multitask.  A number of societal forces encourage multitasking.  Many managers impost rules such as “you must answer e-mail within fifteen minutes” or “you must keep a chat window open,” but this means you’re stopping what you’re doing, fragmenting concentration, Balkanizing the vast resources of your prefrontal cortex, which has been honed over tens of thousands of years of evolution to stay on task.  This stay-on-task mode is what gave us the pyramids, mathematics, great cites, literature, art, music, penicillin and rockets to the moon. Those kinds of discoveries cannot be made in fragmented two-minute increments.”

What to Teach Our Children

Part Three in the book, What to Teach Our Children, is the most powerful and most poignant for me.  On a dinner “date” last month, my 14 year old godson asked me, in all seriousness, “How will I know if I’m a computer addict?”


We talked that through.  Bottom line: could other activities – being with friends, writing a report for school (on the pro’s and con’s of computer games, interestingly) training for a marathon, taking a glass blowing workshop, helping his mom in the garden – hold his interest and be as rewarding for him as the constant hits of dopamine (he knew a lot about dopamine from writing his report) that he got from becoming more and more masterful at War of the Worlds?


Levitin focuses his concern on making sure kids learn how to think – clearly, critically, creatively.


“What matters today, in the Internet era, is not whether you know a particular fact but whether you know where to look it up, and then, how to verify that the answer is reasonable….Because the Internet is like the Wild West – largely lawless and self-governed – it is the responsibility of each Internet user to do his own shadow work.  The work of authenticating information used to be done, to varying degrees, by librarians, editors, and publishers.  In many universities, a librarian holds an advanced degree and a rank equivalent to that of a professor.  A good librarian is a scholar’s scholar, familiar with the different between a rigorously reviewed journal and a vanity press, and is up to date on controversies in many different fields that arise due to lapses in scholarship, credibility, and where to look for impartial perspectives.”


Now we do that work ourselves, and Levitin gives tips on how to research and verify the legitimacy of opinion and claims made on the Net.


And he argues for the necessity of schools to teach kids to find information and discover things on their own.


“This has to be what we teach our children: how to evaluate the hordes of information that are out there, to discern what is true and what is not, to identify biases and half-truths, and to know how to be critical, independent thinkers.  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.


“As soon as a child is old enough to understand sorting and organizing, it will enhance his cognitive skills and his capacity for learning if we teach him to organize his own world.  This can be stuffed animals, clothes, pots and pans in the kitchen.  Make it into a game to sort and re-sort, by color, by height, by shininess, by name – all as a exercise in seeing the attributes one by one.  Recall that being organized and conscientious are predictive of a number of positive outcomes, even decades later, such as longevity, overall health, and job performance.  Being organized is a far more important trait than ever before.


“There are three ways we can learn information – we can absorb it implicitly, we can be told it explicitly, or we can discover it ourselves.  Implicit learning, such as when we learn a new language through immersion, is usually the most efficient.  In classroom settings and at work, most information is conveyed in one of the two latter ways – being told explicitly or discovering ourselves.


“The last two decades of research on the science of learning have shown conclusively that we remember things better, and longer, if we discover them ourselves rather than being told them explicitly.  This is the basis for the teaching method used by physics profess Eric Mazur – he doesn’t lecture in his classes at Harvard.  Instead, he asks students difficult questions, based on their homework reading, that required them to pull together sources of information to solve a problem. Mazur doesn’t give them the answer; instead, he asks the students to break off into small groups and discuss the problem among themselves.  Eventually, nearly everyone in the class gets the answer right, and the concept sticks with them because they had to reason their own way to the answer.”


Levitin gives as an example of fostering this kind of exploratory creative thinking, an excerpt from Diane Ackerman in her book One Hundred Names for Love:
What can you do with a pencil, other than write?
Play the drums.  Conduct an orchestra.  Cast spells.  Ball yarn.  Use as a compass hand.  Play pick-up sticks.  Fasten a shawl.  Secure hair atop the head.  Use as the mast for a Lilliputian’s sailboat.  Play darts.  Make a sundial.  Spin vertically on flint to spark a fire.  Combine with a thong to create a slingshot.  Work a Ouija board.  Gouge an aqueduct in the same.  Rool out dough for a pie crust.  Herd balls of loose mercury.  Use as the fulcrum for a spinning top.  Squeegee a window.  Provide a perch for a parrot.  Use as a part in a model airplane.  Measure distances.  Puncture a balloon.  Use as a flagpole.  Roll a necktie around.  Tamp the gunpowder into a pint-size musket.  Test bonbons for contents.  Crumble, and use the lead as a poison.


“This type of thinking can be taught and practiced, and can be nurtured in children as young as five years old.  It is an increasingly important skill in a technology-driven world with untold unknowns.  There are no right answers, just opportunities to exercise ingenuity, to find new connections, and to allow whimsy and experimentation to become a normal and habitual part of our thinking, which will lead to better problem solving.”


And what else?  To be conscientious and agreeable.  To be tolerant of others.  To help those less fortunate than they.  To take naps.

The Organized Mind:  Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel Levitin, PhD. (Dutton 2014).

“Daniel Levitin has more insights per page than any other neuroscientist I know.  The organized Mind is smart, important, and, as always, exquisitely written.” – Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness


Levitin also has provided a most meticulous section of notes; the references and comments expand the knowledge offered in the book exponentially.

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