The Organized Mind: Summary, Notes and Review

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In a world with so much information how do you sort through all the noise and make sense of what actually matters? Here are my notes from The Organized Mind by Daniel Levitin which aims to answer that question.

For the month of May I read the book The Organized Mind by Daniel Levitin. I actually originally went to the library to read Presuasion but came across this book when I saw the byline/subtitle: “Thinking Straight in an Age of Information Overload”. I sometimes feel like I am bombarded by so much information and keeping my head organized with all this information can be a challenge. I was intrigued to see a book that helped address this issue.

You can find all my book note drafts on my Github:


  • “AI/social media/ the internet is ruining everything”, they said the same thing about books and the printing press [14]
  • Why Multitasking is overrated and the true cost of multitasking [16]
  • Using Bayesian probability to make smarter bets [229]
  • A framework to use for deciding wether to undergo a surgery procedure [240]
  • How to lie with statistic [247]
  • How to teach children to thrive in an information society
  • The role of doctors in modern medicine, why some doctors justify lying to their patients and why most doctors may end up getting replaced by machine learning algorithms [249]
  • How to organize your digital files: Make search a forethought, how will I look for this when I need it [320]
  • The importance of developing both the left and right side of your brain, why National Cancer Institute invited artists to a cancer brainstorming session
  • The story of Salvatore Iaconesi, an engineer that open sourced his medical data to help crowdsource solutions to his cancer [380]
  • How a team of MIT scientists found 10 balloons hidden by US Militiary DARPA hidden accross America [114]
  • Do wet roads cause rain? Correlation vs Causation [348]
  • Sleeping more efficiently with bimodal sleep [189]

Books are Evil

When the written word was introduced 5,000 years ago people complained that it would ruin society. [14]

Many of these similarities sound interestingly similar to many of the complaints people have about modern technology.

People said it would make people lazy, how would you detect fake news, they worried the technology could rot the mind.

Plato’s King Thamus decried: dependence on written would “weaken men’s characters and create forgetfulness in their souls”.

Greek poet, Callimachus said books were a “great evil”. Roman Philosopher Seneca said that “the abundance of books is a distraction”.

When the printing press came in the 1400s, many complained that this was was the end of intellectual life. Erasmus complained that there were a swarm of books. Leibniz said there was a “horrible mass of books that keeps on growing” which would cause a “return to barbarism”. Descartes recommended ignoring accumulated texts and instead relying on one’s observations.

These are all very smart people, yet they were unable to see the benefit of books

This is very prescient because the current vogue thing to do is complain that technology and social media is making our society worse. When in reality these technologies, for the most part are making our societies better and the real problem is how humans occasionally misuse them.

This is why I like to study history, because the more lessons I can draw from the past. I can get a clearer understanding of what happens in our modern society.

Attentional Switching, Why Multi Tasking is Overrated

Levitin makes a point about how attention is a limited-capacity resource and there is a cost when you switch your attention between multiple tasks. This is why I always tell people that multi tasking is massively overrated and really what most people is doing a series of tasks individually but switching back and forth between them and thus doing neither effectively. If you want to be very productive, I personally recommend focus on one task, finish the task, then switch to another task. [15]

Down the Categorization Rabbit Hole

The author spends a lot of pages talking about the science and structure of categorization [28]. Talking about how humans categorize words and why some languages have different words for animals and other languages only have 2 words to distinguish between land and sea animals. I think this section could have been shorter because I personally wasn’t interested in it but it’s hard to fault a book for such a subjective, personalized criticism.

I think there was a missed opportunity to add that Eskimos have 300 words for snow and the reason for why that is.

Our Brain Tries to Understand Our Brain

[Insert brain diagram from page 42]

An interesting thing about this book is that the author goes fairly deep on cognitive neuro-science which is a topic, along with genetics that I am gradually learning more about. There are some similarities between this book and Ray Dalio’s Principles which I have shared notes on as well.

I’m a bit conflicted because I feel like when explaining technical concepts you must walk a fine line between simplified enough for a general audience but rigorous enough to validate that your science is legitimate. I don’t know much about cognitive neuroscience yet but I wonder if we oversimplify our understanding of the brain.

I am also implementing a lot of neural network machine learning algorithms in my computer science research work with Atila so drawing parallels between the human brain’s biological neural net and a computer’s digital neural net is very interesting exercise in multidisciplinary, latticework thinking, if you find this interesting strongly encourage you to check out Charlie Munger’s latticework of mental models.

Story Time: DARPA Missing balloons.

The story he tells on page 114 is one of the best stories I have ever read in a book [114]:

In December 2009, The US military advanced research Group (DARPA) offered $40,000 to anyone who could find the 10 balloons they had placed around the United States. This is the same group that created the internet, or at least the model for what became the internet.

A lot of very smart researchers involved pointed out that traditional intelligence gathering techniques would not work.

A team from MIT was able to solve the challenge in under nine hours. I also have to personally add that their solution was extremely clever. How did they do it?

Aside: Before you keep reading, I would encourage you to take about a minute to think about how you would solve this problem. Imagine you have been tasked to find 10 balloons placed in plain sight all over your country, how would you go about solving this problem?

The MIT team allocated $4,000 to finding each balloon. If you found the right balloon you would get $2,000. If you recruited a friend to join the program, your friend would get $2,000 and you would get $1,000. If a friend of the friend you recruited found the balloon, you would get $500 and so on. It took 4,6665 people less than nine hours to find all the balloons. If that’s not genius, I don’t know what is!

This to me was so fascinating. The author cleverly draws connections to how the same idea inspires things like Wikipedia and Kickstarter. I also drew parallels behind how this idea of collaboration and incentives, inspires the crowdsourced scholarships and media content on Atila.

Interesting anecdote on an engineer, Salvatore Iaconesi who open sourced his medical records to find treatment options for his brain cancer. [118]

Another interesting anecdote is a science experiment by Stuart Vallins where a group of undergraduate college men were placed in a chair and wired up with electrodes nd microphones. They were then showed pictures of attractive women, with the their heartbeat being monitored and a loudspeaker that played back the participant’s heartbeat. The heartbeat would audibly increase or decrease in response to how attractive they found the woman’s picture [150].

Here’s the catch, the heartbeat they heard was completely fake!

Levitin says that sleeping 6-8 hours a day is a relatively modern invention and that our ancestors did segmented or bimodal sleeping. They would sleep four or five hours after dinner, stay awake for one or more hours in the middle of the night, then another four or five hour round of sleep. [189]

I just think this is an interesting experiment to try and for people who have trouble sleeping or feeling rested after sleeping, this might help.

Quick puzzle for you!

What word can be joined to all of these to make three new words? [201]

crab sauce pine

A tennis player named John McEnroe used to compliment players on things they were doing well, drawing attention to it, the player would overthink it and start messing up.[207]

Sompe simple tactics for getting things done and productivity [211]

  • if something takes up mind space, write it down
  • take walks every once in a while
  • Schedule some form of daily physical activity
  • if something takes more than five minutes, do it now
  • Figure out what your time is subjectively worth, so you can spend time more efficiently by asking “does it make sense to just pay someone $50 to do this for me” (E.g. I used to pay my sisters to wash the dishes when it was my turn. My mom hates when I do this. ?)

Life Time (Or how to Stay Young) [215]

  • As people get older they often perceive that time is racing by
  • Often because their cognitive processes also start to slow down so life feels like it is going quickly
  • Younger people tend to view life as open ended and discover what they like
  • Older people view life as constrained and want to preserve what they already know they like
  • One way to stay young mentally and physically is to keep your mind and body interactive
  • Learn a new hobby, spend at least an hour a day socializing, one hour of physical activity a day
  • As people start to live longer, healthier lives, (and outsourcing and automation continues to progress) I thank that the “post retirement rebranding” will result in more people having the opportunity to retrain themselves later in their lives

Organizing Information for the Hardest Decisions

This section was really good and a bit intense. He talks about how to organize information for the very important decisions in your life, your health and the health of those around you.

How to Lie with Statistics

He explain how people misunderstand statistics, for example if I flip a coin and lands on heads 3 times in a row. What odds would you be willing to take that the next flip is a tails. Most people would be very confident that after landing on head 3 times in a row, “We’re “due” for a tails anytime now” but this is of course false.

It’s very deep and I won’t go too much into the details but that a basic understanding of statistics is something that I think is very important yet widely misunderstand. I myself I’m trying to get better at this because you realize how often you can get mislead or confused because you misunderstand a statistic you saw on the news or social media. Some topics to look into is conditional probability, bayesian probability.

Some books that I am looking into for more on this is Antifragile by Nassim Taleb (which I’v read), Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke (which I just bought and tweeted about) and How to Lie with Statistics.


Bayesian Probability [229]

An eighteenth century mathematician and Presbyterian minister, Thomas Bayes suggested a method to combine prior information to arrive at refined probabilities, called Bayesian inferencing.

Update: I had a hard time understanding Bayes’ theorem but this Better Explained post on Bayes’ theorem explains it simply and excellently.

Excellent quote: “There is a tendency to shut down our decision-making processes when we feel overwhelmed, something that has been documented experimentally. People given a choice along with the opinion of an expire stop using the parts of the brain that control independent decision-making and hand over their decision to the expert”.

That is a very interesting insight but the brain is a very complex system. When authors and scientists make claims like this, I wonder how objective and deterministic is their research. I wish he added a footnote to the paper, so we can do our own research to “trust but verify” his claims [239].

Disorganization and Misinformation in Medicine

This was probably the strongest part of the entire book. Where he talks about his experience in the medical industry. It’s amazing how medicine is such a highly regarded medicine but doctors are prone to make mistakes, cognitive biases just like other humans.

He talks about decision making with regards to something like Prostate cancer and the framework for if it makes sense to get treatment for prostate cancer if there is an 80% chance of you suffering from erectile dysfunction afterwards but only a 2% chance the treatment will actually extend your life [240,242].

The entire section is very fascinating and it’s hard to put it in a concise way but it’s very interesting how doctors can manipulate their patient’s cognitive weaknesses.

It also got me thinking about automation of white collar jobs. And how the process of becoming a medical doctor takes about 12 years from undergrad to after residency, hundreds of thousands in student loans yet many doctor’s job is essentially pattern recognition [249] that will be automated by AI. But that’s another topic for another day.

If you find this section interesting I would also recommend Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto and Vinod Khosla’s “20 percent Doctor Included” Article and Do We Need Doctors or Algorithms.

Some of this section definitely went over my head but it seems very reminiscent of the criticisms Nassim Taleb had of the medical establishment in Antifragile . In order to make more sense of this section I’m thinking of reading a book I heard of recently that’s on my To Read List, How to Lie With Statistics.

If you’re still interested in the medical field and biotech I would also strongly recommend Martin Shkreli’s Youtube videos. He is a very controversial figure and I disagree with many of the things he has said and done but I do think we can learn a lot from him.

Organizing your Files

Organizing the business world was a bit boring, to be honest. Organizing your local files had some interesting insights: [325]

Make sure your documents are saved in an open source format: e.g. saving word files as .txt or .md instead of .docx

Try to back up as much as you can to the cloud, your devices should just be “dumb terminals” meaning, you should be able to pick up right where you left off if I gave you a new laptop today or if you lost your laptop, you should not be completely compromised.

Use Google Photos to save your photos, this isn’t in the book but I am adding it because it’s such an awesome service and their image index and searching features are very cool.

Google VP and CIO Douglas Merrill says that when creating files make search an afterthought. Ask yourself “How will I find this when I need it later” [320]

This book finally did the impossible and explained information theory in a way I can understand: The minimum amount of information required to express a piece of information, developed by Claude Shannon in 1940s [314]. The Kolmogorov complexity theory states that a string is random if you cannot express it in fewer words [314]. I love when people are able to explain complex ideas, concisely with minimal meaning loss.

Random tangent, I read a blog post by Naval Ravikant that proposed going on a dopamine diet. I think that could be a very effective way of dealing with information and sensory overload.

Lee Ross, from Stanford University conducts a test to show that people tend to see the media bias in favour of their opponents. Showed a series of news reports about the 1982 Beirut massacre to students who had self-identified as pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. Both groups of students complained that the reporting was biased in favor of the other group and were worried that a neutral may turn against their side after reading the biased news. Yet, when neutrals were given the same articles their opinions fell in the middle of both groups [340].

Clever, but bad mail fraud trick where you send a group of people a mail, 50% of the group gets a prediction saying one thing and another 50% of the group gets the opposite prediction. For the group that got the correct prediction, you send 50% of them another prediction and the other 50% the opposite. You repeat a couple more times.Suddenly 50%^N of the people think you are a genius and you ask them to do something for you [345].

Wet Roads Cause Rain

Interesting story on correlation versus causation. In 1980, Center for Disease Control was concerned that Leukaemia occurence was higher in certain parts of Rural Denver. They found that these were also areas with above ground power lines. They thought the electromagnetic waves was causing the cancer. Turns out that the power lines is tied to poor neighbourhoods and that socioeconomic status was causing both [348].

Here’s a funny graph about pirates and global warming that is actually relevant [348]

Left Brain Right Brain

Great Einstein Quote: “The greatest scientists are artists as well. When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come close to the conclusion that the gif of imagination has meant more to me than any talent for absorbing absolute knowledge. All great achievements of science must start from intuitive knowledge. I believe in intuition and inspiration… At time I feel certain I am right while knowing the reason.” [380]

Apparently he had the motto, “Inspiration is more important than knowledge”. In the words of twitter Influencers, let’s unpack that.

This article actually supports my thesis that the ability to develop both your right and left brain thinking skills are very important for truly creative and novel insights. I am an engineer so I am typically very right brained, data driven and analytical. Doing things like starting a podcast where I talk to people and edit creative videos and painting, help me develop the left side of my brain and actually make me a better engineer. See Charlie Munger’s Multidisciplinary approach for more on this topic.

Reminds me of a great quote by David Shaw about Jeff Bezos, on why Bezos is so successful: “Jeff is one of the few people I know that has a fully developed left and right brain.”

The National Cancer Institute sponsored a brainstorming session in 2012, where they got artists, scientists and other creatives in Cold Springs. The non-technical people were asked to simply generate ideas with no constraints. Some of the ideas were thought to be brilliant by the experts and collaborations are underway to implement them. This is brilliant because often when you’re too deep into a field you may dismiss some ideas that a total novice with different perspective may spark an idea. The MIT Media lab does this very well. The irony is that I tweeted a while ago that scheduled brainstorming may be slightly overrated ?.

What to Teach Our Children?

This section was also very fascinating because it talks about how to raise children that will thrive in an information age. I really admire when authors write about how we need to prepare and take care of the future generation. I spend a lot of time in the childhood education field, so a lot of this was reading things I already know and agree with. For example, focusing on teaching children critical thinking and locating information skills instead of memorizing things that are three keystrokes away.

In an information rich world, one of the most important skills will be the ability to distinguish credible versus fake new sources. The ability to understand statistics and synthesize large data sets and patterns will also be important skills. Also, learn to code!

Side note, remember how growing up teachers wouldn’t allow us to cite Wikipedia and now Wikipedia is the start and end of most online research. ??‍♂️

Overall, the book, The Organized Mind was pretty decent, maybe a 7/10. I think these days I consume so much information on productivity, cognitive neuroscience, etc. It’s actually hard for me to find a book with new and surprising information. So most of this book was reaffirming things I already know and agree with.

I think Daniel Levitin has a lot of interesting ideas and I would have liked the book if it was a bit more counterintuitive, surprising and maybe even slightly controversial, not for the purpose of outrage but for the purpose of sparking novel thoughts.