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Texts, emails, cellphone messages, tweets, news alerts, apps and fit bits. We are expected to process much more information than ever before. It is no surprise that the average American reports feeling worn out by the effort to keep up with everything. In a new book, the best-selling neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says new research on memory and attention can help us learn how to navigate this tremendous amount of data each day. He argues that with a little effort, we can regain a sense of mastery in how we organize our lives in the age of information overload.
- Daniel Levitin Professor of psychology and neuroscience at McGill University; Dean of Social Sciences, Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute (San Francisco); author, "This is Your Brain on Music."
Daniel Levitin Answers Your Questions On Information Overload
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's recovering from a voice treatment. Multitasking, it's become a habit. With all the emails, texts and calls we receive, we often end up trying to do several things at once. But neuroscientist, Daniel Levitin says multitasking is a myth and he warns that trying to do several things at once releases a stress hormone in the brain.
MS. SUSAN PAGEIn his new book, Levitin argues that recent research shows there are better strategies to deal with the demands of modern life. The title of his new book is "The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight In The Age Of Information Overload." Author, Daniel Levitin joins me in the studio. Welcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. DANIEL LEVITINNice to see you again, Susan.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation. Later in this hour, we'll open the phones. Our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email to email@example.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Now, during the break between the first hour of "The Diane Rehm Show" and the second hour, you and I were sitting here. You were trying to send a tweet. I was looking at my email. Is this an example of what you've written this book about?
LEVITINWell, you know, you notice that you and I were very focused on doing that and we weren't trying to have a conversation with the producer and read the newspaper and read the internet at the same time. So that's an example of uni-tasking when you're doing one thing. Multitasking, where we're juggling a bunch of different things, we're driving, we're maybe having a conversation with the kids in the back seat. The radio's on.
LEVITINThe GPS is going and telling you where to turn and you're surreptitiously looking at your text messages on your phone, even though you're not supposed to, that's bad, as we know. But what we have just uncovered in the last couple of years, this is largely based on the work of Earl Miller at MIT, is that although we think we're multitasking, we're not. The brain doesn't actually work that way.
LEVITINWhat we're doing is timesharing our attention. We pay attention to one thing for a second or two and then another thing and then another thing and we come back around to the first. We fracture our attention to little itty-bitty bits without really focusing on any one thing.
PAGEAnd is that an effective way to go about business? Do you end up accomplishing a lot in a fractured way?
LEVITINWe sure think that we're accomplishing a lot, but that's an illusion. What's really happening is we're getting less done and, you know, a number of workplace and laboratory studies have shown this. People who uni-task, at the end of the day, their work is judged as being of higher quality and more creative and they've gotten more done than the multitaskers. But the multitaskers are thinking that they got a lot more done.
LEVITINSo why this pernicious illusion? Well, as a neuroscientist, I can tell you one thing the brain is very good at is self-delusion. I've experienced this myself. I happen to think that after five or six single malt scotches, I'm uproariously funny, but people tell me that's not so, just self-delusion.
PAGEYou know, here's an interesting, if alarming, fact from your book or assertion in your book. You say, "having your email program open while you're trying to work, lowers your IQ."
LEVITINWell, I'd like to be precise about this. It lowers your effective IQ. Of course, you IQ is stable over the lifespan, more or less, and it's stable from day to day, hour to hour. But your effective IQ, the amount of intellectual power that you've got can be, well, I would say it can be mediated by other factors, like whether you've had a good night's sleep, whether you're distracted and yes, having your email going and knowing that there's an unread email there can really lower your attentional focus and your effective IQ because there's a part of your brain that isn't truly engaged with what's in front of you.
PAGEYou're thinking maybe I should look at that email. Maybe that email is something important. Maybe it's more interesting than whatever the job is I'm doing right now.
LEVITINExactly. How many times have you sat down at your computer and started working and then thought, well, maybe there's something more important I should be doing.
PAGEYou know, there are a lot of important things on Twitter, I find, that I need to look at through the day when things get boring. Well, you know, you were on "The Diane Rehm Show" and I was actually guest hosting nine years ago when you had a book out about music. "This Is Brain On Music," a really interesting book. Why did you decide to switch your topic of study to information overload?
LEVITINWell, it's a great question. You know, to me, it doesn't feel like such a switch because my training is in cognitive neuroscience. That's the field that tries to understand the biological basis, the brain basis for behaviors in general, why it is we do the things we do, why do we have the thoughts we have. I look at expertise and at attention and memory. And in "This Is Your Brain On Music," I was trying to look at music through the lens of neuroscience to explain what it is that neuroscientists had learned about musical behaviors.
LEVITINAnd in the new book, it was more of an effort to say what has neuroscience learned in the last few years about attention and memory. We've learned a lot. And is there a way that we can use the knowledge in our everyday life? Does the science help us in some way? And that's what the book's about.
PAGEYou know, how different is it today for people who are in businesses like ours where you're using your mind and you're dealing with a lot of -- your digital platforms and you're carrying a Smartphone? How different is that in terms of the amount of information that you are expected to process compared to, say, just 20 or 30 years ago?
LEVITINWell, it's interesting. We can look at data on this. I'm a scientist. I like to look at the data before forming a conclusion. So Americans took in five times as much information every day last year than we did in 1986. That's the equivalent of reading 176 newspapers from cover to cover. In our leisure time, on average, we take in 34 gigabytes of information. We watch an average of five hours of television per day, the average American.
LEVITINAnd continuing this theme of information overload, Google estimates that the world now has 300 exabytes of human-made information. That's a 300 followed by 18 zeros. And if just one person's share of that information, just your share, Susan, was put onto a little 3X5 index cards, your share of the world's information would cover all of Connecticut and Massachusetts combined.
PAGEYou know, you'd think we'd be a lot smarter if we're processing so much more information, but I'm not sure I think we are a lot smarter than we were in 1986.
LEVITINI guess it depends on what you mean by smarter. I mean, since 1986, we've decoded the human genome. We've seen, in many areas of the world, fewer aggressions and greater peace. We've helped a number of people who were in poverty to come out of poverty. So, in some ways, we're smarter. I think the problem is that information overload is a very real thing. It's defined by the brain trying to process more thing than it can actually process.
LEVITINAnd we have a new appreciation for this. Twenty years ago, we thought that the brain could handle five to nine things at once. We now know that that was an unrealistic estimate. Really, you can handle two or three things at a time and that's it.
PAGEYou talk about information overload leading to decision fatigue. What is decision fatigue?
LEVITINSo it turns out from our study of -- studies of the biology of the brain, the neurons that are actually doing the work to make decisions in your life, you know, they're living cells with a metabolism and they require nutrients in order to function. They require oxygen carried by the blood and glucose, the fuel of the brain. And they don't distinguish. These neurons don't distinguish between making an important momentous decision and a trivial one in terms of the amount of energy they use.
LEVITINIt's almost the same amount. So, you know, if you've got an important decision to make, like whether to put your retirement money into stocks or bonds, whether -- if you've got a medical condition, you know, what kind of treatment to take, do I get the radiation or the surgery or the chemical, you know, pharmaceutical treatment, those are important decisions that have a big impact and your brain uses up just as much energy making those as should I use a red pen or a blue pen, should I use a yellow legal pad or a white pad of paper to make the, you know.
LEVITINAnd think about email. You have a certain number of decisions you can make before your brain starts getting tired. Every email that comes in represents a bunch of decisions. Do I look at it now or later? Do I forward it? Do I -- is it spam? Do I file it away? Do I get somebody else to help me with the answer? That's five decisions right there.
PAGEAnd so we want to talk about strategies. How can you deal with this? And one of the strategies you talk about is called -- and I'm not sure I'm saying this right, "satisficing"?
PAGETell us what that is.
LEVITINWell, so it turns out from the happiness literature, and there's now a science of happiness, you've probably read the books by Sonja Lyubomirsky and Daniel Gilbert and the many others, Daniel Kahneman has written about happiness, the happy person is the person who's happy with what they have. And satisficing is a way of organizing your time and your life so that you're not spinning your wheels wasting time on things that won't bring you a real benefit.
LEVITINAn example, if you live in a major city, there are probably 10 or 20 choices of dry cleaners within, you know, a mile or two of your house. What are you gonna do? Are you gonna try every single one and try them twice, once for dry cleaning, once for laundry, maybe one's for wool, one's for silk, see who does the best? We don't do that, right?
LEVITINYou go to a dry cleaner, if you're unhappy, you try another one. And at some point, you're satisfied and you don't try to incrementally increase. We do this with restaurants that we like, with food products we like and it's a very effective strategy. Warren Buffet does it, one of the richest men in world. He lives in the same rather modest house he's been in for 40 years.
PAGEWe're gonna talk about more strategies to live with the age of information overload. When we come back after a short break, we'll continue our conversation with Daniel Levitin and we'll take your calls and questions. Our phone lines are open, 1-800-433-8850. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio, Daniel Levitin. He's an author and neuroscientist. He's written a new book. It's called, "The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in an Age of Information Overload." And I wanted to let you know that he will continue taking your calls live on Facebook after our show. You can post your questions now at Facebook.com/drshow. We'll start at Noon, Eastern Time. So before the break, we were talking about strategies that you might have to try to deal with the overload of information that many of us feel.
PAGEWendy has sent me a tweet with some ideas. She writes, go off the grid, tend your garden, cook from scratch, call your kids, run a mile, write a letter. Good ideas?
LEVITINThose are great things. You know, as -- one of the things that neuroscientists have realized -- and a lot of this information hasn't trickled down to the average person, which is why I wrote the book -- there are two principle modes of attention. The way our brain works is, we have the central executive mode, when you're focused and you're not distracted and you're getting work done. And we have a kind of an opposite state, which is when your mind is wandering, you're not in control of your thoughts, one thought meanders into another and you're sort of just going along for the ride. And these two work in opposition to one another, but they help one another.
LEVITINHave you ever had the situation where you were at work and you felt your attention wandering?
PAGEI've never had the feeling at work where my attention was not wandering. So, yes.
LEVITINAnd you might stare out the window. And, you know, somebody has to come by and run their hand in front of your eyes because you're completely off somewhere else. That's a very restorative mode. We call it the daydreaming mode. My colleague, Marcus Raichle, discovered this in the year 2000. And my laboratory, with Vinod Menon, discovered that the switch that takes you between the two states is in a part of the brain called the insula. If you put your finger on the top of your head, it's just an inch below the surface. That's what's switching back and forth.
LEVITINSo if you're at work and your mind is pulling you -- Marcus Raichle called this daydreaming mode the default mode, that's how important it is for thinking -- if you feel that your mind is wandering, rather than reaching for another cup of coffee, give in to your brain. Let your mind wander and you'll find that after 10 or 15 minutes of that, you're completely refreshed. You've restored some of the glucose that's been taken up with decision making, calmed the cortisol release, the stress hormone. And people who take breaks like this, 15 minutes every couple hours -- although their bosses think that they're being lazy -- at the end of the day, they've gotten more work done and their work has been more creative.
PAGESo you're not wasting time, it's really effective use of your time to occasionally do this.
LEVITINI would say so. In fact, we could take a tip from air-traffic controllers -- a very stressful job, lots of things going on at once, you make a mistake, it's disaster -- they're required to take breaks like this. And a break isn't, as Wendy says, a break isn't, you know surfing the Web. A break is engaging with art or literature, immersing yourself in nature, getting some exercise -- tremendously restorative. Your brain is telling you when it needs it.
PAGEWendy, thanks so much for that tweet. Let's go to Jeff. He's calling us from Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Jeff, hi, you're on the air.
JEFFGood morning. I just had a quick question for you. I know, you know, earlier this morning you said there was no such thing as multitasking. I'm a computer programmer and, you know, I can't tell you the number of times that I've been thinking about a problem at work that I wasn't able to solve, you know, that day, but I'll wake up in the middle of the night with, you know, the solution to what I, you know, I couldn't figure out earlier that day. Is that -- how does that differ -- how is that different from, you know, kind of the multitasking that you were talking about earlier?
LEVITINI think we've all experienced this. What's happening is when you're working on a problem and you can't solve it, you've tried everything you can think of and then you put it away, and then the mind-wandering mode kicks in. And what's happening in this other state -- the default mode, the mind-wandering mode -- is that your thoughts are not linearly related. You're making connections between things that you hadn't seen as connected before and that's how the problem gets solved. And that's sort of -- I wouldn't say that that's a product of multitasking. It's a problem of relaxing your brain.
LEVITINSome of this happens when you're shopping for cereal and you're picking up a Cheerios and then there, suddenly, there's the answer to your problem. Also, as you begin to fall asleep and begin to wake up, this mind-wandering process occurs and often delivers to us the solution to our problems.
PAGEYou know, when we have -- to make a decision, which dry cleaner do you use or what to have for lunch, not so important, even if you make the wrong decision, who cares? But sometimes, as you mention, we have to make really important decisions. And I'm thinking about when you're getting medical information. You've gone to a doctor, you've gotten a diagnosis that's alarming to you. He or she is sort of outlining your options. It's hard to even hear what they're saying. What's the approach that you could use in a situation like that so that you make -- so that you make the right decision or at least you think through the decision in a good way?
LEVITINSo I think, at some point, you or someone you love is going to be facing a big medical decision. That's likely. And the problem is that when you're under stress and cortisol is released, the stress hormone, it causes adrenaline to be released, it causes your thinking to become a bit cloudy -- cortisol is part of the fight or flight response, so you've got to either run or fight, but, you know, you don't have a lot of time for logical thought in the moment. And logical thought is what you need when facing a medical decision. You need to weigh the different options very carefully. And what I recommend is that you think about these ahead of time. I devote a chapter of the book to how to prepare for big medical decisions. And, if you like, maybe we could run through a quick...
PAGEYeah, what would you do? So I'm going to go to the doctor tomorrow -- not really, but let's say I am. And I'm a little worried about what he or she is going to tell me. What should I do?
LEVITINSuppose your doctor tells you, Susan, that your cholesterol is a little high and she wants to start you on statins. Now, you're thinking, oh, I've heard of statins. I know a lot of people take them and I know that having high cholesterol is bad. So, sure, sign me up. But there's a question you should always ask your doctor when a treatment is recommended -- and it's for a statistic and I know that you're a statistician by profession at USA Today -- so the question you should ask your doctor is, what is the number needed to treat?
LEVITINNow this is a statistic that most doctors don't like talking about and the pharmaceutical companies like even less. The number needed to treat is how many people is how many people have to undergo a treatment -- surgery, take a medication -- before one person is helped? Now, you're probably thinking, that's kind of a crazy number. The number should be one. My doctor's not going to recommend something that won't help me. But medicine doesn't work like that. GlaxoSmithKline, the big pharmaceutical company, tells us that 90 percent of the medications work on only 30 to 50 percent of the people. So the number needed to treat for the most-widely prescribed statin in the country today, what do you suppose it is?
PAGEI don't know.
LEVITINHow many people have to take it before one heart attack or stroke is...
PAGEI guess it's not one, which is the number we were hoping for.
LEVITINIt's 300 -- 299 people take it and show no benefit. So the next question you need to ask is...
LEVITIN...what are the side effects?
PAGEYeah, oh, well, yes. That'd be a question.
LEVITINAnd for this particular product, the side effects -- well, in 5 percent of the patients, there's gastrointestinal distress, debilitating muscle and joint pain -- and, you know, if you think about the numbers carefully, we said 300 people have to take it before one person is helped, 5 percent are going to have side effects. You think, well, 5 percent, it's not likely it's going to be me. But 5 percent of 300 people is 15. Fifteen people have side effects, one person is helped. You're 15 times more likely to be harmed by the drug than helped by it. Now I'm not saying whether you should take a statin or not. It's a very personal decision. It's a conversation you have to have with your doctor.
LEVITINBut all of us should be prepared to ask these two questions -- the number needed to treat and the side effects. And work out these numbers to have an intelligent, rational conversation with your doctor and your loved ones, where you talk about risk and quality of life and other things.
PAGEAnd then you could apply this to other conversations with the doctor over whether to have surgery or whether to see a physical therapist. You've got back trouble. They can either have surgery or you can go to physical therapy. For any of these kinds of decisions, you could take this general approach.
LEVITINAbsolutely. Now, for the most-widely performed surgery in the country on men over 50, prostate cancer removal, the number needed to treat is 49. A friend of mine called me last night and he wanted to know whether he's the one that's going to benefit or he's in the 48 that won't. His doctor is adamant that he has to have the surgery because he's young and healthy. Doctors don't want to perform surgery on people who are older or not healthy. But the doctor's pushing the surgery has less to do with my friend's actual medical statistics than with the fact that he's a good candidate for surgery.
PAGESo what did you tell him?
LEVITINWell, I told him it's a very personal decision but, statistically, you know, there's only a 2 percent chance he's going to benefit.
PAGELet's go to Wichita, Kan., and talk to Becky. Becky, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
BECKYI'm here. I just want to say that I followed Oliver Sacks most of my life -- I'm 65 at this point -- and I discovered Daniel about five years ago, in a project we were doing. And I love the convergence of possibilities here for redeeming probably the high school generation, which I work with very, very carefully -- stories where Oliver Sacks' science is Dr. Levitin's. I just want you to give a strong thought to parents that might be listening today about their children and what could possibly help their children, not become more intelligent, but become more able to cope with the world that's ahead of them.
PAGEGreat question, Becky. What do you think?
LEVITINWell, first, I'd like to say I was close with Oliver Sacks. We had shared collaboration on some patients and he helped me with "This is Your Brain on Music" and I helped him with "Musicophilia."
PAGEAnd he passed away just the other day. Yes.
LEVITINWe enjoyed eating sushi together and playing piano for one another. It was a terrible loss of a trusted colleague and a dear friend. And, fortunately, I know that there a couple of books still in the hopper and some article to come out. And, Becky, I'm so glad you asked what we can do for our children. I've devoted my life to being an educator. I'm now a dean at the Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute, a new undergraduate program where we're trying to put in place some principles based on the science of learning. And I devote a chapter of "The Organized Mind" to what we can teach our children.
LEVITINAnd, in a nutshell, I think that we're facing a very different educational challenge than we ever have before. It's that we no longer have to teach facts and figures to the next generation. They can get that instantly on their phone. Things that used to take us from hours to weeks to months to acquire, we can acquire in a second or two. What we need to teach our children is how to use that information critically, how to use it creatively to solve the world problems, how to work well with another, so that they can solve problems as part of a team, and how to communicate effectively so that their solutions are adopted by others.
PAGEBecky, thanks very much for your call. I'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's take another caller. We'll go to Mike. He's calling us from St. Louis, Mo. Mike, hi, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MIKEHi, Susan. And what a great show. I'm almost 69 but I've been a fan of future technologies for about 40 years and have followed Ray Kurzweil and have these futuristic ideas. But I wonder if your guest can sort of validate two of the premises that I tell people about all the time. One is that computers sort of define why we can't multitask. The old computers of maybe 5 to 10 years ago, if you started running too many programs, they would slow down. And I think -- and we're probably not even that good.
MIKEThe other premise is that biologically, we operate at a clock speed that our psynapses travel at 200 feet per second, and electricity travels 186,000 miles a second. And we can't compete with that directly. We have to figure out a way to manage the future information and we need quiet brains for that. Or, that's my premise. So I wonder if you can validate those two ideas.
PAGEAll right, Mike. Thanks for your call.
LEVITINWell, I think that the computer metaphor goes only so far. We're finding that computers operate differently than the brain. There's a whole community of people, as you know, Mike, that are trying to make computers more brain-like. And I think what we're realizing is that computers are very good at doing things that humans can't, like sifting through enormous amounts of data. You've heard the phrase, big data. We're probably going to solve cancer in the next five years by being able to analyze enormous amounts of data with computers that can find matches between particular genotypes in a tumor and pharmaceutical solutions.
LEVITINI think having a quiet mind is absolutely very important. When I think about the great achievements of human history -- the Sistine Chapel, Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, Shakespeare, Moliere, and, you know, finding the cure for polio and sequencing the human genome -- these were not things done by people who spent five seconds thinking about them and then checked Twitter and Tumbler and vine and Instagram and Facebook and came back around for another five second. I think sustained attention is worth cultivating in the next generation.
PAGEYou know, you talk about strategies to help people deal in their daily lives with this onslaught of information. Some of them are pretty low tech. You have, in front of you, some index cards and I know one of your strategies involves this extremely low-tech item. How can people use that?
LEVITINWell, I do want to emphasize that the suggestions that I share in the book are low-tech. I'm not saying that to be organized, you have to go and buy a whole bunch of expensive computer programs or new technology. It's just some very simple strategies. One of them, in umbrella terms, is called externalizing. Externalize your memory. Externalize your brain. Use the environment or use things outside of your brain to help you get quieter, more focused thoughts. One of them is writing things down. Humans discovered about 5,000 years ago how to write. Literacy is that new. And it's very powerful.
LEVITINWhat I advocate is an exercise that's promoted by the efficiency guru, David Allen, author of the "Getting Things Done" books. He calls it the mind-clearing exercise. Every day -- sometimes more often, sometimes less often, depending on how much chatter there is in your head -- you just write down everything that's in there. Things like, I've got to work on the Penske file, and I've got to apply for this new credit card, and it's time to think about whether to put Aunt Tillie in a home, and I have to call back my friend Jack, who left three voice messages, I got to pick up the dry cleaning at the dry cleaner that I like because I've satisficed with them, pick up milk on the way -- all these little thoughts, write them down.
LEVITINAnd then the important, essential step is prioritize them. Now, the thing I like about index cards is that if you put one idea per card, you can actually physically put them in order, and you might change your mind and decide, oh, I'm going to, halfway through the day, this one's become more important. I'm going to put this at the top of the pile. More difficult, but not impossible to do that if you just one long list on paper or a computer.
PAGEAnd do you do this yourself?
LEVITINI do. And the beauty of it is, once you prioritize, when you sit down to do something -- whether it's at work or just having a meal with friends and family -- you know that there's nothing more important you should be doing. What you're doing now is the most important thing you could be doing. It's tremendously liberating because you become fully immersed in what you're doing. And I think that that's part of the key to happiness is being here and now in the moment.
PAGEWe're talking to Daniel Levitin about his new book. It's called "The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload." We're going to take a short break and when we come back we'll go back to the phones and take your calls and questions. 1-800-433-8850. Give us a call.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio, Daniel Levitin. He's an author and neuroscience. He's a professor of psychology and neuroscience at McGill University. He wrote the bestselling book, "This is Your Brain on Music." In fact, I interviewed him about that book on the Diane Rehm Show nine years ago. His new book is called "The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload."
PAGEWe've been taking some of your questions, but I want to let you know that he'll be -- continue taking questions live on Facebook after the show is over. You can post your questions now at facebook.com/drshow. We'll start at noon Eastern time. So we've got some great emails here. Here's one from Dave, who writes, being 71 years old, I feel like my short-term memory loss is more attributable to my brain being so full of information from the years that some of it doesn't get pushed out, and newer things get forgotten sooner instead of degrading the brain cells, although I feel like some of that is going on, too. What do you think?
LEVITINWell, I think it's true that a lot of people of a certain age begin to wonder when they misplace their car keys, or they lose their reading glasses, if it's early onset Alzheimer's. And in most cases, I think it's not. It's just that we're being asked to process more and more. I'm reminded of the line by Homer Simpson, who said, I can't learn anything new anymore. Every time I learn something new, it pushes out something old I used to know, like the time I took that home winemaking course and forgot how to drive.
PAGEHere's an email from James, who's writing us from Raleigh, North Carolina. He said, I have found that playing chess on a computer is helpful before starting to draft something. Does this qualify as the kind of break that you were recommending earlier in the show?
LEVITINThat's a good question. I don't know of any studies on this, but if it works for you, I would say keep doing it. You know, we human beings differ from one another in thousands of different ways. For me, playing the piano helps me to restore, if -- and to have a good break. If you get the same kind of reset button from playing chess, I think that's great.
PAGEAnd here's a tweet from Mickey, who writes, I'm a writer, and my work can be very complicated. Why do so many of us seem to function better with background TV on? Now that would seem to be just another distraction that would keep you from fully focusing on the task at hand.
LEVITINWell, so there are two schools of thought about this. A number of studies have shown that if you work with TV or music on in the background, although it's more fun and more entertaining, it's not actually as effective or efficient as having no sound in the background. Thousands of studies show this. The problem is it's another one of these self-delusions, where it feels good, and so we do it.
LEVITINNow, there's an exception for driving and for other tasks that are kind of automatized, that is we don't have to really focus unless something goes wrong. I mean, we're kind of on autopilot. There, driving can -- especially long-distance highway driving can be so boring that you need something going on to keep the arousal level of your frontal lobes high enough that you don't drift off to sleep. And music or talk radio can be very effective for that.
LEVITINAnd as long as it's not distracting you in the case of -- you know, you've probably had this experience, you're looking for a parking place, you turn down the radio, or something happens in the road, and you've got to react quickly, you might turn down the radio. You know that you can't really be doing both at once if there's a disaster. But under normal circumstances, the background helps.
PAGELet's go to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and talk to Eric. Eric, hi, welcome to the Diane Rehm Show.
ERICHi Diane, thanks for having me.
PAGEYes, go ahead.
ERICSo my question for Daniel is, how do certain prescription drugs affect the brain? And I'm saying this as a two-part question, one in the information-overload aspect, and the drugs I'm talking about specifically are Adderall, Focalin, Vivan. And my second part of the question would be, how do they affect the nutrients of the brain during and after the drug has worn off?
PAGESo those are drugs used to treat attention deficit disorder. Is that right? And we have another caller, Nathan , from Cincinnati, who is saying, have you done research on attention deficit disorder, and how does it impact information overload? So let's deal first with the question of attention deficit disorder. Does it affect this whole phenomenon you're talking about, of information overload?
LEVITINSo there is this real disorder called attention deficit and a related one called attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADD and ADHD, and they really exist. And some percentage of the population are afflicted by this, not nearly as many people as are taking drugs for them, however. These are wildly overprescribed drugs, not just in my opinion but in the opinion of many medical professionals.
LEVITINHow they affect the brain, in many cases we don't really understand the precise action or why they have the effects that they do. They appear to modulate the dopamine system, and in the frontal lobes of the brain, that is the part behind your forehead, dopamine helps you to sustain attention. So that can be a good thing. The downside is that some people crash after and have a very hard fall, where they lose mental capacity or mental focus and become kind of stupid or clumsy if the drug wears off, and you enter into this cycle of being hyper-effective and then being hypo-effective, you know.
LEVITINThat depends on the kind of person. Some people like those ups and downs. Some people don't.
PAGEI wonder if there are strategies that can be used, say, for -- that can help people with attention deficit disorder, which as you say is a real thing, that it also helps people just deal with kind of the onslaught of information that everybody is having to deal with now in a way that does divide your attention.
PAGEWell, so for -- both for people who have actual attention deficit disorder and those who just feel as those they do or behave as though they do, one important strategy is filtering. One important strategy is filtering. Impose some filters on your life so that you're not constantly distractible. What I recommend, for example, is to turn off email for an hour or two and, you know, you might have to work up to it, turn off the Internet, turn off your phone for an hour or two and enforce what in the '80s they used to call productivity hour.
LEVITINSome people with ADD are distracted by having their file folders out, and so they hide them in a cabinet. Others with ADD find that they need to have them out, or they forget that they're there, and there are different strategies for color coding so that you can direct your attention to the ones you need. I describe in "The Organized Mind."
PAGEThere's -- you talk also about a strategy that just involves, and again I'm really struck by how low-tech some of these solutions are, things that you just do, not -- you don't have to buy anything, you don't have to take a course. This involves making piles, piles of different projects. How does that work?
LEVITINYeah, so there are two kinds of people in the world.
PAGEProbably more than that, but yeah.
LEVITINI guess the old joke is there's those who think there's two kinds of people and everybody else. There are pilers, and there are filers, right? There are people who pile everything in their office or at home, and there are people who file everything. And one is not right and the other wrong. They depend on personal style. I had a professor who had so many piles in his office when I was a student that you could barely walk in to sit down at the chair. They're just...
PAGEI think they're called hoarders, but...
LEVITINYeah, but he knew where everything was. He -- it was kind of like, you know, geological time scales. He knew where things were, and that works for a lot of people.
PAGELet's go back to the phones. Nate's been holding on. He's calling us from St. Mary's, Georgia. Nate, hi, you're on the air.
NATEYes, hello. I have a question about multi-tasking, if you can actually learn it, like whether you need to be, like, young to learn it or not or if it's going to take, like, an evolutionary mutation in order to actually develop the ability for multi-tasking.
PAGEOkay, Nate, thanks very much for your call.
LEVITINWell, so from what we've seen, multi-tasking really doesn't work, but women are better task-switching than men in general, and younger people are better than older people at task-switching, to give the -- it gives the appearance of multi-tasking. But you're right, we may -- there may be an evolutionary adaptation. What I see, you know, I'm in the lucky position of having a new crop of 18-year-olds come to school every year, and what I've been seeing for the last few years is that first of all, for those of us who are my age and older, the next generation, who are going to be running things when we're in our dotage, they're great.
LEVITINThey're competent. They're smart. They can do all kinds of things that we can't do. But many of them complain that they can't do anything for more than a few minutes at a time. You know, what YouTube told me, a statistic, the average amount of time that people watch a YouTube video is 16 seconds. Even the long videos, you know, the two-hour ones, are thrown into that statistic.
LEVITINSo I think that without drugs, we can train ourselves to sustain attention for longer and longer periods of time and work up to 20 minutes work up to 40 minutes and an hour, and I think that that's valuable to do.
PAGEYou know, you said that women are better at switching back and forth, tend to be better than men at switching back and forth. You also talk about research that indicates men and women look at clutter or disorder in a different way. How does that work?
LEVITINSo it turns out that when women, in general, this is on average, when women see messes around the home, clutter, piles of things, their cortisol levels spike. That's the stress hormone we've been talking about.
PAGEThey don't like what they're seeing.
LEVITINRight. Men have a much higher tolerance for clutter before the cortisol kicks in.
PAGEI think this is not going to be a surprise to a lot of women in our audience. Let's go to Betty. She's calling us from Mount Vernon, Washington. Betty, you've been really patient. Thanks for holding on.
BETTYOh, how nice. In the past 10 years, I listened to more than 1,000 talking books while I work in my garden and do other work. Is this considered multi-tasking?
PAGEAll right, Betty, thanks for your call.
LEVITINI guess I wouldn't consider that multi-tasking. I would consider that a great way to spend your time. Gardening is, I think, the number one most popular hobby in the United States. Being out in nature is tremendously restorative to the biology of the brain for reasons we don't understand. Having audiobooks is mentally stimulating. And so I would say it's not typical of multi-tasking because you're not asking your brain to engage in similar activities at the same time. You're engaging in different activities at the same time. It's more like driving and listening to music.
PAGEBetty, thanks very much for your call. Let's go to Louisville, Kentucky, and talk to Cynthia. Cynthia, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
CYNTHIAThank you so much for taking my call. I have a question for Daniel. I suffer from a chronic pain syndrome, and between medication and dealing with the daily challenges of dealing with that pain, I just found out -- find that I'm really having trouble doing sustained thinking. And I wondered, I'm looking right now into maybe meditation and also the practice of mindfulness. And I wanted to know what you thought about those two and how it ties in with your concept of being able to pay attention for longer periods of time and concentration.
LEVITINWell, I'm so sorry, Cynthia, to hear about the chronic pain. That's just awful, and it's one of the most difficult things to treat and to live with. And yes, meditation has been shown to help, and in fact there's some research that shows that music can help to raise our pain thresholds. In one study, people in a preoperative room in the hospital were given either music or Valium, and the music recipients felt less anxiety and less pain than the Valium takers.
LEVITINAnd, you know, music has fewer side effects, and it's more enjoyable, probably. I would work on that, and I would say keep your chin up.
PAGECynthia, thanks for calling, and we hope things go well. I'm Susan Page, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. We've been taking your calls, 800-433-8850. One of the things you write about in your book, "The Organized Mind," is about how business leaders handle the onslaught of information, the flood of information and data that they have to deal with. One of them, Steve Wynn, how does he do this?
LEVITINWell, so in preparing the book, I had the opportunity to shadow a number of business leaders throughout their days, and it was wonderful. Steve Wynn spoke with Stanley McChrystal, General McChrystal, with former Secretary of State George Shultz, and there were a number of strategies that they're all employing that are corroborated by neuroscience.
LEVITINOne of the ones that Steve Wynn does that I found particularly interesting is that he really empowers those below him, and General McChrystal has written about this. He has a new book out called "Team of Teams," where he describes his new management strategy for the information age. Wynn says that by hiring good people and giving them the power to make decisions, he reduces his workload enormously.
LEVITINThe only time somebody comes to him with a decision is if there's really something big at stake, like somebody's going to lose their job, or the company's going to lose a lot of money, and the solution is usually between choosing between two bad outcomes because if there's a good outcome and a bad outcome, they don't need his advice, they just choose the good one. And in most cases, Wynn doesn't make the decision himself, and McChrystal says something similar.
LEVITINWynn will say, ask them to review their core values. What is it that we value here as a company, that you value as an individual? And which of these two bad solutions minimizes the negative?
PAGELet's talk to Alan, calling us from Atlanta. Hi Alan.
ALANHello. How are you today?
ALANI was calling -- I was listening, and I just got a chuckle at myself. I had ADHD, and I was listening, and I didn't know Daniel, and then talking about "The Organized Mind" and the book, and I was, like, oh yeah, there's a book that I'm reading that sounds like this would be helpful to. Anyway, my question was...
PAGEWas it this book? You mean you were reading "The Organize Mind," the book we're talking about?
ALANCorrect. And I didn't realize it at first, and I kind of chuckled at myself. It was, like oh, it's the author who wrote the book who is on. So the one thing I wanted to ask was, a lot of times I will have different trains of thought, and I can skip from one subject to the next, and I'm in my MBA program right now. Do you have any suggestions because I've been trying to use categorization to help me stay organized with my papers and things and just try to stay focused, but it doesn't always work. Do you have any suggestions there?
LEVITINI have two. One is to try and work out a prioritization system where you really and truly prioritize what you have to do and then do the one thing that's at the top of the list, either until you've run out of time or until it's finished. The second thing is there are a number of people with ADD who have become very successful in business. You mentioned you're in an MBA program. And one of the ways they do it is by pairing up with people who actually get the things done.
LEVITINThe ADD people tend to be the idea people, and then they need an implementer. And we've seen this many, many times, that one person is actually the source of all of the innovation and ideas, and the other is the one who knows how to get them done and finish them.
PAGEWell, we've all seen how effective partnerships can be. You write some about what couples do sometimes to increase their effectiveness by relying on each other.
LEVITINI just love this concept, and Dan Gilbert, the psychologist from Harvard who wrote "Stumbling on Happiness," told me about this. Couples engage in what a neuroscientist would call transactional memory. In other words, couples divide up the memory load, and they do this usually without -- completely unspoken, without having, you know, discussed it or planned it.
LEVITINSo if members of a couple are at a cocktail party, and somebody says oh, you know, we're having a barbecue next Saturday, it's at my house, one member of the couple will keep track of the appointment and the other the directions on how to get there, just automatically.
PAGEWe've been talking about "The Organized Mind." It's by Daniel Levitin. "Organized Mind" is a New York Times bestseller. It's been translated already into 10 languages. Thanks so much for being with us.
LEVITINThank you, Susan.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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