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This is a review of The Organized Mind, by Daniel J. Levitin.

The problem with this book is that the author has an extremely limited and mechanistic notion of how our minds work.

You assume that this book will help you to deal with the complexity and volume of information, stimuli, expectations, tasks that can feel overwhelming, but it is actually more like a collection of magazine articles on how to organize information, and not how to “organize” your mind in any way to limit, or set priorities on the amount of “information” you should be organizing in the first place.

The problem is that our minds do not simply process information, like computers. We are social creatures, we are cultural creatures, we have highly sensitive psychological and emotional processing, and this book leaves all that out.

If we are feeling overwhelmed by information, the solution is not more information, on how to categorize it.

The only useful thing in this book are his tips (which are straight from airport how-to-organize books), which boil down to, write things down and organize your home and office so you can find things easily. The one thing I found useful is how switching from one task to another, or making decisions on what to keep and what to throw away, takes a lot of mental effort, so it’s better to keep on one task at at time.

Some of his tips are goofy – like, in the last chapter, the numbering system for interstate highways, such as “One- and two-digit highway numbers less than 100 identify major routes that cross state lines,” that will supposedly help you navigate (p 371).

He also devotes quite a bit of space to reasoning errors, where we make decisions that seem rational but are actually based on a misperception of the facts, all of which I’ve read elsewhere. He also has a lot of household organizing tips that are not going to be worthwhile for most people, and are found in books on organizing your home or office, if that’s what you want.

Because this book was written when it was, the issue of electronic information is huge. There is no way to deal with all the information we are confronted with now. You have to step back and think about how to limit it, without letting others limit it for you – as he does, when he enthuses about Reddit.

His understanding is demonstrated in his description of the rise of civilization, stating that all humans did was “procreate and survive” until 10,000 years ago, and that literature arose from accounting (p 13), because writing did. Literature is much older, from ancient oral traditions that are essential to our humanity. To me, this is the interesting question: before writing, for most of human time, we kept all we needed in our minds. So, why not look to art, to literature, to non-literate cultures? To truly “organize our minds.”

Another mistake is when he states that new knowledge can stave off Alzheimer’s disease (p 19). No, not new information – new ways of thinking, new kinds of activities. Learning more facts in some area you are already familiar with does nothing, you have to learn a whole new thing, like ping pong or music or social dancing.

He does touch on the human element in how we think, but barely, and it is not coherent. We function well when we feel like we matter, that we have some control over our lives, that others think highly of us. So human relationships and leadership that empowers members of the group are more critical than your filing system, but he calls this “communications (and) competent and ethically-based authority,” as if it’s one more system for organizing a company or the Army; even though his examples of success actually involve giving authority and autonomy to those at lower levels.

I compulsively read this entire book, because it was intriguing to me how he talks about “the organized mind” as if it is simply information management. This is not the only author I’ve read with this limited approach to success. It’s been helpful to me to define what it is that’s missing in this approach, to define what it is that really is at play, in people or organizations that function well. I believe those elements are going to be defined through the exposition of more and more subtle and sophisticated cognitive science, coming full circle to what great artists and leaders have understood and communicated since humans became human.

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