"The Organized Mind" by Daniel Levitin, Allen Lane, 2014.

The author is professor of psychology, behavioural neuroscience, and music at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. This is his most recent book.

Two big things have happened in the last twenty years: the internet and the emergence of neural imaging technologies such as positron emission tomography, functional magnetic resonance imaging, and magnetoencephalography. What's new about the imaging technologies is that they are sufficiently precise in time and space to be able to observe the brain at work when the subject is asked to perform mental tasks or to think particular thoughts.

The subtitle of the "The Organized Mind" is "Thinking straight in the age of information overload". Though the age referred to could have been the past century, what is meant specifically by Levitin is the onslaught of the internet. The effect of this onslaught is to defenestrate the mainstays of education: memorization, individual learning, and learning how to use books. The educational establishment seems to assume vaguely that these mainstays are being replaced by something more powerful, a generation of "nonlinear thinkers" who have all the world's information at their fingertips. After reading Levitin, one realizes that the "nonlinear thinkers" are more likely to be nonlinear nonthinkers and that in the absence of a ready means to distinguish information from disinformation on the internet, it has become harder rather easier to be informed than it was in the age of paper-based libraries.

Specifically, Wikipedia is widely assumed to be a replacement for traditional encyclopedias. While there are a lot of excellent articles on Wikipedia, it does not take a large proportion of bad ones to render the whole lot useless when one does not know which is which. Only experts can tell, and experts, as such, are not welcome in Wikipedia (see the disagreements between Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, the founders of Wikipedia). This is the topic of Andrew Keen's controversial "The Cult of the Amateur". In his essay "Digital Maoism" Jaron Lanier criticizes the tendency away from individual learning to group "learning". Another warning comes from Maggie Jackson's "Distracted", which argues that constant and instant access to a massive mixture of information and disinformation results in fractured attention preventing thought. And thought is the only way in which information can be digested and distinguished from disinformation.

Daniel Levitin might be surprised to find a review of his book introduced by criticisms of the internet full of dark forebodings. Yet this is the only way in which I can read the final two chapters of "The Organized Mind". At the same time, Levitin is a cheery fellow who looks at the bright side of things. But his bright side consists of coping strategies against the internet rather than a whole-hearted embrace of it.

In his indirect way he hits hard at vague notions of nonlinear thinkers with distributed attention being a replacement of old-fashioned thinkers. The idea that the mainstays of education: memorization, individual learning, and learning how to use books can be replaced might be plausible if the brain were like a computer with a large memory. One could imagine that an alternative mode of education might somehow program the brain differently than was the case in earlier generations. Levitin describes how the brain actually works, as revealed by the revolution in neural imaging. What is revealed is that the mechanisms of thought (attention, memory) are not like a computer running different programs on the same massively large memory. Rather, these mechanisms are apparently tightly linked to the intricate anatomical structure of the brain. This structure is genetically determined, has not changed for thousands of years, and is not going to change any time soon. As knowledge and thought are tightly linked to the idiosyncratic brain anatomy, changes in media and education should be approached warily and should be carefully monitored.

To characterize the onslaught of the internet on our work habits as "information overload" is to put it mildly. Consider this passage on page 96:

Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new—the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies and kittens. The irony here for those of us who are trying to focus amid competing activities is clear: the very brain region we rely on for staying on task is easily distracted.

A little anthology of specifics. Glenn Wilson of Gresham College found that being in a situation when you are trying to concentrate on a task while knowing that an e-mail is sitting unread in your inbox can reduce your IQ by ten points (page 97). Russ Poldrack, a neuroscientist at Stanford, found that if students study and watch TV at the same time, the information from their schoolwork goes into the striatum, a region specialized for storing new procedures and skills, not for facts and ideas. Without the distraction of TV the information goes into the hippocampus where it is organized and categorized in a variety of ways, making it easier to retrieve (pages 97-98).

But, as I said, Levitin is a cheery fellow, and leaves the intimations of doom to those readers who are so inclined. He has valuable hints for coping. Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Harvard, has promoted the idea of e-mail bankruptcy (page 102). When you realize that you are never going to catch up, you could delete everything and set up an automatic reply saying that you are hopelessly behind and that you will try to get to the message within the next week; if it concerns something that requires immediate action, please telephone.

Levitin seems familiar with what he calls HSP's (Highly Successful Persons). It helps that he has moonlighted as a management consultant. Jimmy Carter, Stevie Wonder, Steve Wynn, an unnamed Fortune 100 CEO, make an appearance at various points. What's common to these people is that they have executive assistants who arrange their lives to be protected against interruptions and have their massive incoming information filtered and organized. In other words, what distinguishes these Highly Successful Persons is that they are insulated from the blessings of the internet. Ironically this requires an elaborate, and of course very expensive, infrastructure, which is only available to a highly select group. Levitin's book can be read as addressed to the rest of us as a possible substitute.

There was an intoxicating delusion that energized Wired magazine when it was young in the 1990s: all the world's information would be at your fingertips. The mantra was "information wants to be free". Not only in retail and management the middle man would be redundant, but also in the world of information where the same fate was gleefully anticipated for middlemen such librarians, editors, and journalists. As a result reliable information is now harder to obtain than before. When there are no experts to do the necessary authentication, validation, and evaluation, everyone has to do it for himself. Even if possible, what a waste! It was Levitin (page 331) who pointed me to Lawrence Sanger whose 2010 "Individual knowledge in the internet" gives an update on the current situation.

In his final chapter Levitin describes the importance of browsing and serendipity. He observes (page 377) that even before the internet, bigger was not necessarily better: beyond a certain size, libraries are no good for browsing. A small library, carefully curated and tended by a librarian has made expert choices about what books to include. When you reach for a copy of one book, you'll see books adjacent on the shelf that may spark your interest. Note the role of the middleman, the librarian. Similar serendipidity arises from a refereed journal, carefully tended by an instance of that other endangered species, an editor. A reference sends you to a specific issue, which often contains valuable unanticipated articles elsewhere in that same issue.