Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

"The Organised Mind" by Daniel Levitin (Penguin, 2015)

There's little raw material in this book that I haven't already read in other popular science books and magazines, but the anecdotes and reminders are worth a read. The conclusions aren't revolutionary, amongst them being: quality time is useful; you don't need to remember where things are if they're in the right place; the way that we classify (in drawers, supermarket shelves, and memory) is worthy of study and benefits from a junk drawer; procedures and organisation that work in an office are useful for personal situations too. He shows how psychology experiments help us better understand chunking, time management, dealing with e-mail, decision-making, jet-lag, dating, back-ups, probabilities, and guestimates.

What's in this for writers? Quite a lot. "Flow" (for artists, musicians, sports-people, etc) is a topic that's attracting research attention. I'm sure most writers develop ways to maximize it (see the Neil Young note below). And more generally, the less time spent dealing with everyday life, the more that can be spent on creative activities. He mentions the value of constraints to writers, and how more than daydreaming is needed in order to be usefully creative. Here are some quotes -


  • "our 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" (p.32)
  • "An essential component of setting up any organisational system in a business environment is to allow for things that fall through the cracks, things that don't fit neatly into any of your categories - the miscellaneous file or junk drawer" (p.300)


  • "[the daydreaming mode's] discovery - a special brain network that supports a more fluid and nonlinear mode of thinking - was one of the biggest neuroscientific discoveries of the last twenty years ... The tendency for this system to take over is so powerful that its discoverer, Marcus Raichle, named it the default mode" (p.38)
  • "The mind-wandering mode works in opposition to the central executive mode: When one is activated, the other is deactivated ... And again, whether you are in the mind-wandering or central executive mode, your attentional filter is almost always operating, quietly out of the way in your subconscious" (p.41)
  • "There are four components in the human attentional system: the mind-wandering mode, the central executive mode, the attentional filter, and the attentional switch, which directs neural and metabolic resources among the mind-wandering, stay-on-task, or vigilance modes modes" (p.45)
  • "neuroscientists have recently discovered that parts of the brain can fall asleep for a few moments or longer without our realising it. ... This applies just as well to the four parts of attentional system" (p.48)
  • "Daydreaming also takes less energy than multitasking. And the natural intuitive see-saw between focusing and daydreaming helps to recalibrate and restore the brain. Multitasking does not" (p.170)
  • "In many tasks, both creative and mundane, we must constantly go back and forth between work and evaluation, comparing the ideal image in our head with the work in front of us.
    This constant back-and-forth is one of the most metabolism-consuming things that our brain can do. We step out of time, out of the moment, and survey the big picture. We like what we see or we don't, and then we go back to the task, either moving forward again, or backtracking to fix a conceptual or physical mistake
    " (p.174)


  • "Creative people often arrange their lives to maximize the possibility that flow periods will occur, and to be able to stay in flow once they arrive there ... The singer and songwriter Neil Young ... pulls over to the side of the road, abruptly leaves dinner parties, and does whatever it takes to stay connected to the muse, to stay on task. If he ends up getting a reputation for being flaky, and not always being on time, it's the price to pay for being creative" (p.207)


  • "the brain's arousal system has a novelty bias ... Humans will work just as hard to obtain a novel experience as we will to get a meal or a mate" (p.170)
  • "Movies use the cut in three different ways, which we've learned to interpret by experience. A cut can signify a discontinuity in time (the new scene beginning three hours later), in place (the new scene begins on the other side of town), or in perspective. ... They are actually cultural inventions that have no meaning for someone outside our culture" (p.178)
  • "Perhaps surprisingly, the U.S. Army has been among the organisations most adaptable to change, and has thought deeply about how to apply findings of psychological science to organizational behaviour " (p.278)
  • "it is no coincidence that many great leaders are also great storytellers - they motivate others around them with a compelling narrative, one that they themselves embody" (p.284)

There's repetition of key findings. Sometimes I think it's the result of careless writing - e.g.

  • "These are skills that can be nurtured beginning at a young age" (p.364)
  • "This type of thinking can be taught and practiced, and can be nurtured in children as young as five years old" (p.365)

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