Friday, November 29, 2019

95. The Organized Mind by Daniel J. Levitin

You know things are starting to get weird here at Olman's Fifty when I'm reading bestseller non-fiction books read by business tycoons.  It had actually been on my list for a long time and now that I am reading so much, I have allowed myself the luxury of buying new books every now and then (only from independent bookstores).  I was near Paragraphe here the other day and picked this up as well as two other (gasp) literary fiction novels.

Levitin is a pretty succesful dude and one of those guys who has had tons of jobs.  The rare part about him is that after all those jobs, he ended up quite high in academia.  He started out in the music scene and produced albums for some pretty big names. He rubs shoulders with rock starts and CEOs.  He is also a professor and dean in psychology and behavioural neuroscience at McGill and KGI (I don't know what that is). 

It is sort of hard to encapsulate The Organized Mind, as it covers a pretty wide range of topics.  The subtitle says "Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload" and this theme was one of the reasons I added it to my list.  I had been struggling myself with distraction and time-wasting on the internet.  This part of the book was really interesting and super helpful for me.  He explains what we understand now about how the brain works and how that impacts the way we interact with the world. I have mostly gotten on top of my internet addiction these days, but I still tend to be very distracted in my work.  It is in the nature of my job to have multiple projects and many little tasks to do as well as longer-term goals.  Much of my work time was spent "multi-tasking".  What I learned from this book is that multi-tasking is actually quite tiring, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for focus uses up a lot of energy switching between different modes.  On the flip side, finishing minor tasks like responding to an email or chat, fires off a bit of dopamine and this becomes addictive.  So you think you are getting stuff done and feeling good about it, but you are actually exhausting yourself.  It's a bit more complicated than this and I am probably getting it wrong, but just understanding this has made me much more conscious and seemed to really motivate me to stick to one job at a time.  It's only been a week and it could be the placebo effect but I honestly have felt much less tired at the end of the day since I stopped jumping around from task to task at work.

I found the other elements in the book to be mostly good, but not so helpful for me.  I am a pretty organized person (and used to be extremely organized before having a family) and I have worked as an executive secretary and office manager, so much of the advice about organizing one's time, home and office was rudimentary to me, likewise most of the technical info about passwords and skepticism on the internet.  He argues strongly for expertise in information and uses wikipedia as an example of where amateurs creating info can go wrong.  This already seems dated, as wikipedia has addressed a lot of those issues, though his central concern was spot on as we see that it has gotten far far worse since 2014 since this was written.  I do think he betrays his own privilege and class position and doesn't take into consideration the profound power imbalances that we see much more starkly in the post-Trump world when he argues that the New York Times is an objective, unbiased source of info.

Far, far worse, are some very snobby (and very typical for a McGill professor, the ultimate in Canadian intellectual elite class) assumptions about fiction where he cites some study that claims that reading "literary fiction" develops empathy much more than reading pulp fiction or non-fiction.  I get and agree with the overall point he is making, that reading fiction allows your mind to wander and uses the unconscious daydreaming mode.  But to make this false dichotomy between two class-based marketing categories of books is just embarrassing.  He claims that literary fiction has subtler characterization and thus makes the brain think more than rote pulp fiction.  This is class-based garbage. There is good literary fiction and there is good pulp fiction.  Likewise, there is a ton of fake high-browed literary fiction that is as boilerplate as any Harlequin romance (another genre that also has a range of quality, to be fair).  Very disappointing.  Otherwise, a pretty interesting read and I am better for it.

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