Daniel Levitin reveals the truth about how the brain functions most efficiently
As I sat down to write this article, I remembered that I’d requested some related information via email. While I was checking my email, I noticed one from a friend who asked me to participate in a survey. As I completed the survey, I thought of an important form I had to send out via snail mail. When I placed the form on my mailbox, I saw that the plant next to it needed water. When I went to get the watering can, I noticed that there was no water in the cat dish. Just then, my phone rang, the email arrived, a postal worker pointed out the stampless envelope, and I spilled water all over the kitchen floor. Article? What article?
Welcome to a typical day in America. It plays out in households and offices, via smartphones, Facebook, Twitter, and countless other distractions. We tell ourselves we’re “multitasking.”
But according to cognitive psychologist and bestselling author Daniel Levitin, author of the terrific book The Organized Mind, multitasking does not exist. Instead, we’re breaking our attention span into pieces so small that they prevent us from sustaining focus on any one thing.
“Multitasking can release the stress hormone cortisol,” he says, “which might make it feel like after a couple of hours your head has been in a salad spinner, but is also responsible for that mental fog you feel. So in the end, you’re not saving time, you’re wasting time. He also points out that working longer hours to make up for it doesn’t help much. “People who work 60 hours a week don’t end up getting an extra 20 hours of things done. On average, they get an extra seven.”
Rather than aiming to change our brains, Levitin advises, we’d do better to adapt our surroundings to accommodate the way they function best. In explaining, he points out two dominant modes of attention in the brain: the task positive network, which engages in tasks without distraction, and the task negative network, in which the mind wanders. This second mode is often called the brain’s default mode, and seems to be our natural state (I can vouch for that), but rather than relegate it to second-class status, he points out its essential qualities. “The mind-wandering mode is where thoughts that are loosely connected flow seamlessly into one another. It’s where your most creative thoughts are likely to occur. Problem solving depends upon this aspect of the brain.”
When we switch our attention, like we do in multitasking, we set the brain on a roller-coaster ride of undifferentiated decision-making, which depletes fuel, or glucose, for the important stuff. Daydreaming mode allows us to hit the reset button and build that fuel back up. What else can we do to make the brain happy? This is where Levitin reinforces all of our, it turns out, not-so-lazy inclinations. He tells us that the brain likes breaks in the work day, the occasional nap, regular vacations, and exposure to nature. It also likes reading, so yours is happy at the moment.
The Organized Mind highlights advances in brain science as well as keys to how highly successful people extend both their productivity and brain capacity. We have the power to make decisions we couldn’t make before and it can be overwhelming. “By some estimates, we’ve doubled the scientific information in the last 20 years,” Levitin says. “The difficult thing is trying to figure out what is good information and what isn’t.” He believes that the primary mission of education has to shift. “We used to teach students a bunch of facts. Now they can get the facts. We need to teach them information literacy. Lets face it, if the biggest problems in the world—aggression, poverty, climate change, had simple linear solutions—someone would have figured them out. It’s more likely that they’ll come from thinking outside the box, creatively. That’s not going to happen when you’re doing 10 things at once. It’s going to happen when you have a sustained period of time to deal with them.”
I plan to carve out that time, using his best tool first—the nap.
Daniel Levitin will discuss ‘The Organized Mind’ on Wednesday, Sept. 16, at 7 p.m. at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Free.
ORGANIZING PRINCIPAL Daniel Levitin discusses the secrets of ‘The Organized Mind’ at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Wednesday, Sept. 16.