This is your Brain on Big Data: A Review of “The Organized Mind”

In the past few years, several fine books have been written by neuroscientists. In this blog I’ve reviewed those that are most useful and placed Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast & Slow at the top of the heap. I’ve now found its worthy companion: The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

This new book by Daniel J. Levitin explains how our brains have evolved to process information and he applies this knowledge to several of the most important realms of life: our homes, our social connections, our time, our businesses, our decisions, and the education of our children. Knowing how our minds manage attention and memory, especially their limitations and the ways that we can offload and organize information to work around these limitations, is essential for anyone who works with data.

This excerpt from the introduction will provides a sense of Levitin’s intention:

We humans have a long history of pursuing neural enhancement—ways to improve the brains that evolution gave us. We train them to become more dependable and efficient allies in helping us to achieve our goals…Through the sheer force of human ingenuity, we have devised system to free our brains of clutter, to help us keep track of details that we can’t trust ourselves to remember. All of these innovations are designed either to improve the brain we have, or to off-load some of its functions to external sources…It’s helpful to understand that our modes of thinking and decision-making evolved over the tens of thousands of years that humans lived as hunter-gatherers. Our genes haven’t fully caught up with the demands of modern civilization, but fortunately human knowledge has—we now better understand how to overcome evolutionary limitations. This is the story of how humans have coped with information and organization from the beginning of civilization. It’s also the story of how the most successful members of society…have learned to maximize their creativity, and efficiency, by organizing their lives so that they spend less time on the mundane, and more time on the inspiring, comforting, and rewarding things in life.

Levitin describes the nature of our so-called information age, including the many ways that work done by information specialists in the past has been transferred to us (for example, making our own travel arrangements rather than relying on the services of a travel agent), resulting in overwhelming cognitive demands. He shows how the coping strategy of multi-tasking is in fact an inefficient form of serial tasking—attentional switching—that provides an illusory sense of productivity. Many of life’s challenges require focus—extended periods of uninterrupted attention. We also need the replenishment of neural energy that the mind-wandering mode provides, where associations and insights can form while the mind soars freely.

How we sort through incoming data in rapid triage to separate urgent matters from others, how we categorize and store it for later retrieval, how we protect ourselves from the din of distracting noise, and how we assess facts when making decisions, are all skills that we can learn. Levitin’s advice is practical, lucid, and firmly rooted in an understanding of the brain.

When organizations are chasing the latest so-called Big Data technologies, it’s important to recognize that more and faster isn’t necessarily better, and in fact, is often worse, because of the ways that our brains are designed. If you’re involved in business intelligence, analytics, data visualization, data science, data storytelling, decision support, or whatever you choose the call the work of data sensemaking and communication, books like The Organized Mind are more useful to your success than a hundred books about specific software tools. Do yourself a favor and read this book.

Take care,

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