Daniel J. Levitin on Organization: Chapter 1

Categorize to save yourself.

Chapter one is titled “Too Many Information, Too Many Decisions: The Inside History of Cognitive Overload“.

“A tornado flew around my room before you came. Excuse the mess it made, it usually doesn’t rain in Southern California, much like Arizona.”

Opening lyrics of the song “Thinking ‘Bout You” by Frank Ocean

Award-winning cognitive psychologist Daniel J. Levitin tells me in his book, The Organized Mind, that I’m about to drown in an ocean of data.

He would insist in our imaginary conversation that I can’t keep all that information in your head or else I”ll suffer from information overload.

Try me, I say in defiance. I don’t want to do the hard work of organizing. I keep 5 languages in this cranium plus — most impressive — the names of dozens of different tea varieties such as Borjuli, Assam, Darjeeling…

You’re already categorizing, he retorts, and by doing so you prove one of my points that we are driven, even wired, to categorize (13).

Notably, “all languages and cultures – independently – came up with naming principles so similar that they strongly suggest an innate predisposition toward classification” (32).

We categorize to cope with immense quantities of information or — and this is an opposing view from anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss — “because the human brain has a strong cognitive propensity toward order” (31).

Then the clincher: “what if I told you that unproductivity and loss of drive can result from decision overload” (7)?

And that “fundamentally, categorization reduces mental effort and streamlines the flow of information” which can reduce the amount of mistake you’re making or important details you’re forgetting (13).

He has captured my attention and I learn from Levitin the following:

  1. that “in order for something to become encoded as part of your experience you need to have paid conscious attention to it” (7),
  2. that “attention is created by networks of neurons in the prefrontal cortex (just behind your forehead) that are sensitive only to dopamine” (16); and
  3. that “brains evolved to receive a pleasant shot of dopamine when we learn something new and again when we can classify it systematically into an ordered structure” (32).

What you pay attention to matters because we don’t have the capacity, or bandwidth, to pay attention to all the stimuli that comes our way. Attention is a limited-capacity resource (11).

Our brains created an attentional filter which keeps us from being distracted by irrelevancies and “two of the most crucial principles used by the attentional filter are change and importance” (10).

The attentional filter is a brain’s change detector. Neural circuits monitor and notice if somebody moved the papers on your desk, especially if these papers are personally important to you. It’s the attentional filter that lets through what it thinks you will want to know about.

Unfortunately, this means that sometimes we experience a cognitive blind sport because we don’t know what our brain is honing in on and what it is we’re missing.

Due to the attentional filter, we end up experiencing a great deal of the world on autopilot, not registering the complexities, nuances, and often the beauty of what is right in front of us” (11).

This is where the act of categorization comes in to save the day. Categorization helps us focus on what we can pay attention to and remember.

Physical organization and mental organization

Levitin notes that beyond appearances we often categorize “based on conceptual similarities rather than perceptual ones” (23).

An ordered structure is made up of physical organization (books go on a bookshelf, the fruit is placed in a fruit bowl), but also mental organization (that person is my cousin, that person is a stranger). Kinship terms, in particular, “allow us to reduce an enormous set of possible relations into a more management smaller set, a usable category” (25).

For example, strawberries and grapes are categorized as “fruit” and you may place them together in a fruit bowl even though they look very different. When you’re picking ingredients to add to your sandwich you may think of an avocado as a vegetable, although it is technically a fruit.

UPDATE: I’ve since learned that a banana is technically a fruit, but a strawberry is not a fruit.

Beyond making distinctions between various different types of fruit, knowing how to organize information helps us organize our time better so that we can “be more efficient, but also so we can find more time for fun, for play, for meaningful relationships, and for creativity” (xxi).

The most fundamental principle of the organized mind, the one most critical to keeping us from forgetting or losing things, is to shift the burden of organizing from our brains to the external world

Levitan on page 35.

One of the ways we can organize information is by active sorting or “Triage”.

You do this by separating those things you need to deal with right now from those things you don’t need to deal with right now.

But how to determine what you do and don’t need to deal with?

That’s the next chapter in the series:

The First Things to Get Straight: How Attention and Memory Work

Source: Levitin, D. J. The organized mind: Thinking straight in the age of information overload. New York, NY, US: Plume/Penguin Books. 2014.