August 28, 2014


The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. By Daniel J. Levitin, Ph.D. Dutton. $27.95.

     Five hundred dense grey pages of type after you start this book, you will certainly feel the information overload referred to in its title. True, it will be directed information overload, and, moreover, directed by an author with considerable skill in scientific and rational analysis. But if ever the image of a fire hose of information pouring into a teacup of a mind were apt, it surely is here. In seeking to guide readers through the by-now-clichéd notion that we live in the midst of an information explosion with which we are ill equipped to cope, Daniel J. Levitin has given readers – an information explosion with which we are ill equipped to cope.

     To be fair, Levitin, the James McGill Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at McGill University, has thought long and hard about the breadth and width of the information river – more like an ocean – in which we now wallow daily; and he has come up with some ways, if not to keep us dry, at least to make us more likely to float than sink. And he has communicated his thoughts in fresher, more readable prose than one might expect from a book that draws heavily on scientific research and mathematical modeling. It is just that there is so much here that the book itself becomes unwieldy. In the 50 or so medically focused pages on “Organizing Information for the Hardest Decisions: When Life is on the Line,” for example, Levitin provides specific questions and models to show that “both gains and losses are nonlinear, meaning that the same amount of gain (or loss) does not cause equal happiness (or sadness) – they’re relative to your current state.” He gives examples of ways of expressing identical data sets about treatment options for cancer, then explains, “These two formulations of the problem, or frames, are clearly identical mathematically – 10 people out of 100 dying is the same as 90 people out of 100 living – but they are not identical psychologically. …The framing effect [on psychological response] was observed not just in patients but in experienced physicians and statistically sophisticated businesspeople.” From this example and many others, Levitin eventually produces the comment that “to get organized in our thinking about life, we are ultimately going to have to let go of our abiding distaste for what sometimes seems like the inhumanity of probability analysis and mathematical calculations,” adding that “you need to understand how to take the information the doctors give you and analyze it in these [previously presented] fourfold tables, applying [previously explained] Bayesian reasoning, because that will take a lot of the guesswork out of medical decision-making, turning it into numbers that we can easily evaluate, since most of us don’t have the refined intuitions of a Dr. Gregory House [the TV character].” All this represents one small part of one page of one chapter of The Organized Mind, and it shows both the strength of the book and its weakness: it is highly sensible and well-thought-out, but it is jam-packed with material that requires considerable thinking and analysis; and it is presented in a form in which page after page after page of type, rarely leavened by tables or subheads or anything else to break up the flow, quickly becomes mind-numbing – just when a fresh and engaged mind is what Levitin requires.

     Consider “Organizing Our Social World: How Humans Connect Now,” in which Levitin tackles the issue of why people are indirect in communicating with each other: “A large part of human social interaction requires that we subdue our innate primate hostilities in order to get along. …One way of helping to keep large numbers of humans living in close proximity is through the use of nonconfrontational speech, or indirect speech acts. Indirect speech acts don’t say what we actually want, but they imply it. …The simplest cases of speech acts are those in which the speaker utters a sentence and means exactly and literally what he says. Yet indirect speech acts are a powerful social glue that enables us to get along.” Levitin then gives examples ranging from an indirect one involving office interaction about opening a window to “certain utterances [that] have, by social contract, the authority to change the state of the world. A doctor who pronounces you dead changes your legal status instantly, which has the effect of utterly changing your life, whether you’re in fact dead or not. A judge can pronounce you innocent or guilty and, again, the truth doesn’t matter as much as the force of the pronouncement, in terms of what your future looks like.” Later in the same chapter, Levitin explains that “in-group and out-group effects have a neurological basis. Within an area of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex, there is a group of neurons that fire when we think about ourselves and people who are like us.” And so on – and on and on.

     This material is frequently fascinating and almost always worth contemplating and studying, but there is so much of it, coming at matters of everyday life from so many angles and so many perspectives, that digesting this book becomes a real chore. Whether it is a chore that readers should undertake for the sake of becoming better able to stem the information flood is a matter of individual choice and individual toleration. Levitin comments at one point that “items that are processed at a deeper level, with more active involvement by us, tend to become more strongly encoded in memory.” And certainly such deep-level processing will help – indeed, will be needed – to follow and absorb the material in The Organized Mind. This is not a book to be undertaken lightly, and certainly not one to be read straight through in a single sitting; it is doubtful that that would even be possible. The Organized Mind requires extended contemplation, substantial time to think about the points Levitin raises, and plenty of active, deep-level processing to allow the insights and recommendations to have even a chance of flowing into a reader’s everyday post-book life. In other words, it requires a very considerable investment of time for absorbing a very considerable, perhaps even overwhelming amount of information – becoming an example of the very situation that it is intended to help remedy.

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