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The Organized Mind - Book Review

1 July 2016
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

"The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload" is a book by Daniel Levitin in 2014. Levitin was a student of Prof. Tversky, a research colleague of Nobel Prize-winning Kahneman, who tragically passed away at an early age. The book delves into the theme that in today's era of information overflow, we often struggle with memory retention and offers insights into how we can enhance our cognitive abilities.


The book covers a wide array of topics, including:

1. The Challenge: Information Overflow

2. The Brain's Role in Thinking

3. Attention

4. Cataloging

5. Externalization of Memory

6. Alternative Methods

7. Enhancing Memory for People

8. Decision Making

9. Vigilance Against Biases

10.  Seeking Satisfactory Solutions


With a practical approach, the book provides numerous actionable recommendations. While it occasionally lacks focus, readers can undoubtedly extract valuable ideas from its content. Enjoy your reading!


The Challenge: Information Overflow

It comes as no surprise that we inhabit a world overflowing with an abundance of information. Ever since the evolution of the Internet, we find ourselves residing in an information-rich environment and constantly bombarded with copious amounts of it. At any given moment, we can access as much information as we desire, often surpassing our immediate needs, covering a broad spectrum of topics, from studies and research to attitudes, opinions, and beliefs. The term "Big Data" aptly encapsulates this formidable challenge.


On one hand, it presents numerous opportunities to acquire more knowledge, enhance our memory, and facilitate improved decision-making. On the other hand, it poses a substantial challenge. Our brain's capacity to effectively manage this influx of information falls short of our expectations.


The paramount challenge lies in taming this deluge and avoiding being submerged by it. It entails remembering amidst the information flood and making decisions despite the overwhelming data surrounding us.


The Brain's Role in Thinking

The brain's mechanisms for thinking can be examined at various levels, from physiological and neuronal to perceptual aspects. This summary will primarily focus on these levels. In the context of memory retention, three core processes come into play:


1. Absorption of Information

2. Storage

3. Retrieval


Surprisingly, despite the overwhelming volume of data and information we encounter, our brains can absorb and store nearly everything we choose to take in. The challenge arises when we attempt to retrieve this information, pulling it from its storage location. This issue manifests in two distinct ways: forgetfulness, where we fail to recall specific details or the context, and errors, where we remember incorrectly.


Recognizing that the brain organizes received information into categories is crucial to understanding what leads to such errors. While the same information may be stored under multiple categories (e.g., "blue object" and "gift I liked"), the fundamental principle is categorization by family resemblance. Consequently, remembering a unique event is relatively straightforward, whereas recalling a specific routine event becomes more challenging. For instance, recalling what one had for breakfast last Wednesday is difficult if the brain tags it as a regular breakfast without distinctive attributes (resulting in cognitive savings). However, suppose that breakfast included unusual elements, such as a special meal or an unexpected phone call. In that case, the categorization expands beyond just "breakfast," increasing the likelihood of remembering the details, especially the unique ones. This categorization method also contributes to memory errors, as items cataloged together may be retrieved incorrectly, leading to mixed recollections.


In contrast, the calculation and decision-making processes are rooted in systems commonly called System 1 and System 2. System 1 operates swiftly, offering answers with minimal energy and time expenditure. For example, when asked to compute 5 times 10, we instinctively retrieve the pre-established answer without actual calculation. In contrast, System 2, the more resource-intensive system, takes charge when System 1 deems a request too complex or demanding. System 2 engages in deliberation, computation, and thoughtful analysis to arrive at a response.



Whether conscious or subconscious, attention plays a crucial role in aiding memory. If nothing enters the brain, there will be nothing to retrieve and remember later. When we use the term "attention," we encompass its broad meaning, encompassing what our mind becomes aware of, whether through the senses of hearing or other sensory channels. Our attention operates alongside a filtering mechanism; not everything we hear is processed and retained in our minds.


Two critical criteria heavily influence this filtering process: change and importance. Our brain constantly detects change compared to the existing state, even when unaware. This encompasses changes in movement, content, or voice—changes perceptible through any of our senses. The second criterion is subjective importance, related to what resonates with us personally, such as specific words, individuals, or objects that hold relevance in our lives.


We cannot attend to everything simultaneously because attention is a finite resource. Furthermore, shifting our attention from one subject to another consumes significant cognitive resources. At any given moment, attention is directed toward one focal point, inevitably diverting it from something else.


So, what's the recommendation? If there are specific things we wish to remember, it's imperative to assist our brain by proactively directing our attention. We should contemplate how we intend to remember a particular action, task, or experience as it unfolds. This is a constructive starting point, as without our conscious guidance, our brain may independently shift its attention toward other stimuli, or it may not.



So, we've made the conscious decision to remember something. We've actively turned our attention to ensuring its absorption into our minds. Indeed, whether we are aware of it or not, much information is absorbed by our minds. The primary issue arises when we fail to recall something or misremember it; it's not that we haven't initially absorbed and stored it in our brains, but rather, we encounter difficulty retrieving it. While there is an undeniably strong link between attention and memory, there is a crucial third component in this equation: the catalog.


Our brain systematically catalogs each memory within a mental "drawer," which coexists with related memories. Individual pieces of information absorbed into our brain are not allotted independent spaces; instead, they are cataloged, closely associated with their defining characteristics. Much like virtual folders on a computer, our memories are typically labeled based on several identifying features that classify them. These labels ultimately aid or hinder our capacity to comprehend and retrieve them. For example, if we had an egg and salad breakfast on a particular Wednesday, it would be categorized with numerous other breakfasts. We might not retain their memory if egg and salad breakfasts are routine. Conversely, if we deviated from our usual breakfast schedule and had it at lunchtime, the memory would also be tagged as "unusual." This cataloging system streamlines our mental organization, and we humans tend to thrive on order as it simplifies our lives.


The multi-catalog approach helps us streamline perception and determine the significance of various memories. Our knowledge of the world allows us to discern if something resembles others, requires minimal attention, or possesses distinct qualities that warrant heightened attention, contemplation, and action. The catalog also enhances memory accuracy and facilitates information retrieval when needed. Suppose we only recall that it was breakfast. In that case, we may struggle to remember accompanying details (such as the color of the shirt we were wearing), or we might erroneously associate unrelated details with a memory from another day. This occurs because the brain has stored the item as part of a cluster of information, retaining only what is essential for comprehension during the initial storage.


What's the practical recommendation? If we intend to remember something, more is needed to think about it to ensure absorption. We must also focus on its distinctive details, embedding them into our memory. This holistic approach enables us to retrieve the entire memory when needed accurately. Moreover, we should tailor these categories to our individual preferences and not rely solely on universal categories. It's recommended to group 5-20 items together, with up to four types of items within each category, especially when the connections between the things could be more robust. The more we delve into a particular subject, the more we'll subdivide our descriptions and categorizations into finer subcategories (e.g., tools > types of nails > thickness, etc.) and vice versa.


Externalization of Memory

Up to this point, we've elucidated ways to enhance brain activity and improve memory. However, life could be considerably more straightforward if we didn't rely solely on our memory and someone else remembered for us. Why do we frequently forget where we've placed our keys? As previously discussed, it often pertains to a mundane, routine activity lacking significant change or importance. We tend to set our keys aside while preoccupied with more pressing matters, cataloging the information without additional details (or not cataloging it at all), leading to subsequent forgetfulness. How can we liberate ourselves from the burden of remembering?


The first approach involves establishing a permanent place for items like keys. Allocate a designated spot where these items belong and strictly adhere to this arrangement. The book's author even presents photographs of homes featuring specially designed holders matched to keys (or other easily misplaced items), each tailored to its specific purpose. Externalizing our memory to a fixed location obviates the need to remember the specifics of each event, ultimately enhancing overall memory capacity, as you'll consistently know where to find what you need.


The second application capitalizes on making forgetting essential tasks or items difficult. For instance, if you want to remember to buy milk after work, place an empty cardboard box next to the driver's seat. It will catch your eye and serve as a compelling reminder. This concept extends to commonplace items, such as a pillbox containing medicine for each day, a widely familiar example.


The third application suggests adhering to established standards and conventions, simplifying decision-making, and reducing the need to remember specific details. For instance, keep the top turned on, and the bottom turned off, or designate red for danger and green for normalcy.


The fourth application involves leveraging technology. Scan documents into your computer, transfer them using optical character recognition (OCR) and let the computer remember and manage them.


The underlying idea is straightforward, and its implementation is equally so. Externalizing our memory liberates cognitive resources for more critical matters while enhancing our memory even in routine aspects of life, which are often susceptible to forgetfulness due to their inherent lack of novelty or significance. These strategies alleviate the daily, and often hourly, burden of remembering such routine tasks.


Alternative Methods

The Junk Drawer


Who among us doesn't have a "junk drawer" at home? There's usually at least one, whether in the kitchen, garage, or utility room (which often turns into a catch-all closet). And most of us have one or more on our computers as well. Levitan argues that having a junk drawer isn't bad; it's necessary in our daily lives and on our computers.


Every attempt to meticulously engineer every aspect of our lives is bound to fail from the outset. The solution will always feel forced and ultimately won't succeed. It's advisable to keep such a drawer, give it some organization, and recognize its value when you can't locate something elsewhere. It's crucial to remember that having something in the wrong place or cataloged improperly is much more troublesome than leaving it unfiled in the junk drawer. In this summary, the junk drawer even lends its name to a chapter called "Other Methods," encompassing everything that doesn't fit neatly into other categories.


The Duplicates


When we need something in our home in multiple locations, we often dart between places to locate it. The easiest solution is to buy another one and have duplicates (e.g., scissors in the study and kitchen). This approach eliminates the need for constant searching and wondering where we last left the item. In the digital realm, we've been implementing this for years through hyperlinks between folders or within websites. The same principle can be applied in our daily lives (akin to the multiple catalogs), and there's no reason not to do so. The savings are more substantial than one might anticipate, as uncertainty itself consumes significant mental resources and the time spent searching for misplaced items.


Embrace the Trash Can


Dispose of everything unnecessary; this reduces the number of things that need to be remembered.


Separate Whenever Possible


Create distinct environments for different purposes, including dividing a room, organizing your computer, managing email accounts, or using a tablet. You create separate contexts by employing multiple domains designated for a specific purpose (e.g., work, play, household chores), making it easier to remember and associate tasks with the appropriate setting.


Enhancing Memory for People

So far, we've explored methods and tools to aid in remembering information, but what about people? Many of us struggle with recalling faces or names of individuals we've encountered. Here are some recommendations:

1. Detailed Documentation: During your initial meeting with someone, make it a practice to add as much detail as possible to their business card or accompanying note. Additionally, scan this information into your computer. The act of recording aids memory, and the contents of your notes provide valuable context. Utilizing digital tools assists in retrieval when needed.


2. Categorization in Group Settings: In situations where you meet many people within the same context (such as a reunion or work meeting), consider associating an additional memory category with each person and their association with the larger group. This helps distinguish individuals and improves recall.


3. Focused Attention: When engaging with someone, be attentive to the person standing before you. Make a conscious effort to commit their face and name to memory actively.


4. Name Repetition and Association: When introduced to a new person, repeat their name several times during the conversation. Try to associate with someone you already know who shares the same name. If you don't have such an association, politely ask the person to spell their name, and then repeat the spelling to reinforce your memory.


These strategies can significantly enhance your ability to remember people's names and faces, making social interactions more enjoyable and meaningful.


Decision Making

Brain organization involves accessing stored information and employing knowledge effectively when making decisions.


In this regard, Levitan provides critical recommendations for understanding the causes of confusion in thinking and facilitating decision-making:


1. Avoid Hasty Judgments: Sometimes, people behave in ways that may appear inappropriate, leading us to form negative opinions about them. It's crucial to recognize that their actions might result from situational difficulties rather than inherent character flaws or ill intentions.


2. Promote Direct Communication: People often communicate indirectly. Engage in active listening and strive to steer conversations toward direct communication without resorting to manipulation.


3. Avoid Generalizations: Guard against making overly broad generalizations or stereotypes about individuals or groups.


4. Task Simplification: Acknowledge that complex tasks can be overwhelming, causing stress and confusion. To manage this, break them down into smaller, more manageable tasks.


5. Separate Planning and Execution: Understand that the brain processes planning and execution in different areas. Make a deliberate effort to separate these two phases.


6. Task Grouping: Recognize the challenge of handling numerous and diverse tasks. Organize similar tasks into groups and tackle them sequentially (e.g., paying all bills simultaneously) before moving on to the next group.


7. Task Analysis: Realize that tasks often comprise multiple components, and it's only sometimes necessary or possible to address all of them. Analyze tasks to identify and prioritize the most critical elements for successful completion.


8. Scheduled Breaks: Acknowledge that the brain isn't a machine and requires breaks. Incorporate quality sleep during learning processes, such as initial learning followed by repetition or deepening the next day. Include rest breaks in your workday routine to rejuvenate and promote a state of flow that enhances creativity.


9. Self-Confidence and Task Significance: Recognize that task success is heavily influenced by both the importance of the task and our self-confidence in accomplishing it. Employ self-persuasion techniques to bolster self-confidence when it's lacking and necessary.


By implementing these recommendations, you can optimize your cognitive processes, enhance decision-making, and navigate complex tasks and social interactions more effectively.


Vigilance Against Biases

As many are already aware, thanks to the teachings of Prof. Daniel Kahneman, Prof. Dan Ariely, and others, people commonly tend to make erroneous decisions based on available information.


Here are some recommendations to counteract these biases:


1. Mitigate Small Number Statistics Bias: Recognize that our decisions are often biased because we give too much weight to statistics from tiny sample sizes. Consider complementary statistics to gain a more balanced perspective.


2. Manage Decision Overload: Acknowledge that an excess of decisions can lead to bias. Make immediate decisions with clear answers, and delegate some decisions to others. Focus your attention solely on what remains.


3. Evaluate Information Sources: Be aware of our inclination to favor professional information, regardless of its ability to aid the decision at hand. Avoid over-reliance on diagnostic information and prioritize existing statistics, especially in cases of uncertainty.


4. Vet Internet Information: Understand that misinformation on the Internet can bias our decisions. Verify sources, and when verification is not possible, approach the information with caution and limited trust.


5. Recognize Spurious Correlations: Be vigilant regarding statistical details that may seem like cause-and-effect relationships but are not (correlation between parameters does not necessarily imply causation). Critically evaluate such findings and consider the potential influence of third-party factors.


6. Combat Confirmation Bias: Realize our tendency to perceive information related to our experiences (e.g., assuming everyone is pregnant or has a car). Raise awareness of this bias and try disregarding such information as it may not reflect reality. Consider involving others in your decision-making process.


7. Avoid Projection Bias: Understand that we often attribute projections from stories to broader statistical realities. Exercise caution in making such assumptions.


8. Manage Fear of Regret: Acknowledge our fear of future regret, which can drive us to make decisions, even if they are incorrect, to avoid that regret. Be mindful of this bias.


9. Address Emotional Decision-Making: Recognize our tendency to make emotionally driven decisions. Approach emotionally charged decisions with extra care and consideration.


By implementing these recommendations, you can reduce cognitive biases and make more informed decisions based on available information.


Seeking Satisfactory Solutions

One of our limitations in decision-making is the allocation of resources required for this process. These resources encompass both the information available for the decision and the cognitive functions, including calculations for numerical data. These resources are abundant and naturally impact our capacity to handle concurrent tasks. In some cases, they may even affect our confidence or lack thereof in completing the original task.


How can we support our mental faculties and ourselves? The solution is simple: redefine the objective of the decision-making process. Instead of pursuing the exact answer to the original question, consider seeking a satisfactory answer—an answer that is "good enough."


How can we place trust in satisfactory answers? In quantitative queries, we can rely on orders of magnitude. In qualitative matters, we can assess the range of potential answers and recognize that the answer lies within that spectrum.


Relying on good enough answers conserves valuable cognitive resources and occasionally propels us from uncertainty and indecision to clarity and resolution. This approach aligns with how System 1 operates in the first place. By emulating this process, we assist our brains in helping us reach our destination swiftly and securely.


Ultimately, what truly matters is reaching the desired outcome.

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