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Daniel Levitin on the organised mind

Photo: Owen Egan / McGill University

There’s a lot of information out there. Three hundred exabytes of it, to be precise. At least that’s what American cognitive neuroscientist Daniel Levitin believes. Three hundred exabytes means 300 followed by 18 zeros.

We consume a lot more information now than we did in the past, says Levitin. Five times as much as in 1986, he estimates. Or the equivalent of reading 175 newspapers every day.

It’s difficult to verify Levitin’s numbers, but it’s equally difficult to dispute his argument. And the problem is that our brains haven’t caught up. “Information overload to a neuroscientist is a mismatch between how much information the brain can consciously handle and how much it is exposed to,” says Levitin. “It’s like drinking from a fire hose.”

Here at DG, we try to make sense of all these exabytes floating around by distilling the quarter’s most important events in 120 pages. Levitin has some other ideas. He recently published ‘The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload’, in which he synthesises neuroscientific research to explain how successful people stay productive and keep away from making bad decisions.

This week, he presented some of his ideas at the London School of Economics. Here are some of the main things we took away from his talk.

Multitasking is a myth. The brain can only pay attention to three or four things at the same time and that includes things like background noise. When you’re trying to multitask at work, Levitin explains, you’re actually just very rapidly shifting attention. This makes you produce cortisol, the stress hormone which can make you anxious and clouds your judgment. Focus on one thing at a time and your work will be done sooner and better.

Make decisions early. We make decisions almost constantly. “Each of those decisions exacts a biological price,” says Levitin. Neurons need glucose to function, and every decision – be it big or tiny – requires the same amount of glucose. At some point, you hit decision fatigue. “People in the White House who have important decisions to make have adopted a rule,” says Levitin. “If they can, they make the decisions early in the morning before decision fatigue has set in.” Follow their lead.

Let your mind wander. People who take breaks get more stuff done, says Levitin. According to him, the brain has two dominant modes of attention: the central executive mode (when you get stuff done) and the mind wandering mode (when you zone out). Taking a break to let your mind wander when you’re stuck might be the quickest way to get a solution.

Want more of Levitin’s science-backed recommendations? LSE has made a podcast of his lecture available here.

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