Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Book Spotlight #6: The Organized Mind


"The Organized Mind"

By: Daniel Levitin

Quote Highlight: "The global economy means we are exposed to large amount of information that our 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 we've never heard before. Our brains are hungrily soaking all this in because that is what they're designed to do, but at the same time, all this stuff is competing for neuroattentional resource with the things we need to know to live our lives."          - Daniel Levitin

Do you ever feel as if the world is spinning faster and faster? This feeling that your life is increasingly flying past your eyes and you can't seem to put a finger on why. If you find yourself thinking “this must be new, it’s only just yesterday that everything seemed to move slower,” you may be correct. Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist at McGill University, uses his knowledge of human cognition to explain why this now common phenomenon may be taking place.

This feeling that time is moving faster, of us humans being tired and forgetful is not ephemeral. It is real and it hinges on the new information age we have recently created. As Levitin explains, our brains were hardwired thousands of years ago, to focus on tasks that required concentration. Where to locate food, where to find shelter, these were important things for our brain to remember. Today, our brains are much more likely to remember driving directions than your Facebook password. He goes on to explain that our brains are becoming overwhelmed by all the information that is insistently pushed into our laps. Levitin brings in stories and humorous examples to take the complexities or neuroscience and simplify it so the reader can better understand what is happening.
Everything from old times to the rate at which our brain can process information. Speaking to one person, our brain processes 60 bits out of a possible 120. Trying to talk to two people at once, is barely doable. Once a third enters the mix, our brains become overwhelmed, and the only possible way to conversate is to switch between tasks, in this case, between speakers. Levitin goes on to explain that if we think we are multi-tasking well, think again. What we are actually doing is switching between different tasks extremely quickly. An example that shows this to be true occurs when you are driving down the highway. As you drive, you chat with friends in the car, but as your exit approaches, you quiet down and you may tell your friends in the car to quiet down as well, or you instinctively turn down the radio volume. This is your brain attempting to focus on taking the exit. It cannot multi-task effectively enough to find the exit while driving 70 mph, talking to your friends, and listening to the radio all at once. You need to concentrate on one task. Once you are formally on the exit ramp, you turn the radio back on and begin chatting again.

This cognitive phenomenon, that our brains are hardwired to concentrate and not to multi-task, may be why we feel so tired at the end of the day. Today, society is built around multi-tasking. People are texting, watching TV, talking, surfing the web, and playing a mobile game all at the same time. Let’s imagine a common scenario, you get home from work and sit down to watch the latest Netflix original series. As you begin to watch, your smartphone buzzes, it's an email notification. You ignore it but then it quickly buzzes again, this time a text, you write back and glance back at the TV. All the while Netflix is playing. Then another alert pops up on your phone, Lebron James just finished the game with 40 points, thank you ESPN app, now back to Netflix. And this loop continues throughout the waking day in some form or another. As much as you think that in this scenario you are multi-tasking, it isn't. This is ultimately what is making us feel tired and overwhelmed by ordinary everyday life. Your brain is being overly taxed. There are millions of distractions and notifications every minute of the day.

If all this is bad, what is driving our incessant need to check our smartphone or social media apps? Levitin explains how our brain gets a hit of dopamine each time we look at the phone. Thus, we are actually rewarding ourselves for becoming easily distracted. This becomes a sort of negative feedback cycle. The more distracted you become, the more your brain craves dopamine and ever more distractions ensue. At the very end of the day, you find yourself exhausted at all the work your brain has been doing at switching between tasks all day. This proves to be invaluable insight into the effects of the modern communication age. The future of new technologies remains uncertain, but this book allows us to at least understand what is happening to our brain and attention at a scientific level.

This book was very enlightening to read and I personally took to heart the idea that less is more. Technology is great, so long as you can harness it for good. Levitin offers all types of advice to stay organized and stay on task in today’s world. Some of his ideas I will definitely look to implement into my own life such as setting aside certain times of the day for different activities. At a certain set time, leave all distractions behind and focus on that task. Whether it is to clean your room, answer emails, workout, read a book… whatever. Only that task should occupy you. Turn off the television, put away the phone. If you’ve heard this advice before, Daniel Levitin proves with neuroscience that it is good advice. Find the book on Amazon here.

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