Posts Tagged ‘Levitin’

Everything Else: The Power of the Junk Drawer

January 14, 2015

The final chapter in Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload is “Everything Else The Power of the Junk Drawer.” He begins by reiterating the most fundamental principle of organization, the one that is most critical to keeping us from forgetting or losing things is this: “Shift the burden of organizing from our brains to the external world. If we can take some or all of the process out of our brains and put it into the physical world, we are less likely to make mistakes. But the organized mind enables you to do much more than merely to avoid mistakes. It enables you to do things and to go places you might not otherwise imagine. Externalizing information doesn’t always involve writing it down or encoding it in some external medium. Often it has already been done for you. You just have to know how to read the signs.

Levitin then uses the example of the numbering ot the U.S. Interstate Highway System. Frankly, I have only understood a portion of this numbering system and not the whole system. So I learned something here. It is quite ingenious.

He then goes on to discuss the periodic table of the elements. This ingenious organization of the chemical elements has led to the discovery of new elements. Moreover, given this ingenious organization, there are already defined places in which they fit.

Next he discusses mnemonic systems for remembering names. You can find the technique he discusses in the healthymemory blog post “Remembering the Names of People.” (Use the healthymemory blog search block to access it).

Now the power of the junk drawer can be found as the result of browsing and serendipity. Browsing should be slow and leisurely. You need to be able to assess the content and potential value of what you are browsing. The reward might be the very real phenomenon of serendipity in which you discover something valuable that was not the objective of your original search. I suppose we can leisurely browse with the objective of some serendipitous finding. is one of a number of websites that allow us to discover content (new websites, photos, videos, music). Try it, you just might experience a serendipitous finding.

What to Teach Our Children

January 11, 2015

The penultimate chapter in Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload is titled “What to Teach Our Children.” He considers the world into which today’s children are born in contrast to the world in which we older adults were born. In that world information was both hard and slow to come by. In contrast, today’s world information is much easier to come by. But although vast amounts of information are easily and quickly accessible, this can make finding the exact information needed difficult. And there is the question of assessing the veracity of the information. I would wager that today the most commonly used encyclopedia is the Wikipedia, but anyone can make an entry to the Wikipedia. The vetting process is that the entry can be corrected or elaborated, but the vetting process can produce errors and the original author can change reintroduce the original error. Nevertheless, the Wikipedia works pretty well and I am a frequent user, although I always try to keep these caveats in mind.

Levitin recommends comprehensive instruction in critical thinking for our children, and I would add also for ourselves for the process of critical learning should not end, but should continue as long as we live. So children should be taught how to think critically about an article. They should also consider sources of possible bias. Some journals and websites do make an effort to identify political sources as being conservative or liberal and might even go on to assess the extremity of the political belief. Of course political leanings are not the only source of bias, there are also religious biases, academic biases, and even strongly held biases within different fields of endeavor. For healthymemory blog posts on critical thinking, enter “critical thinking” into the healthymemory blog search box.

Levitin also recommends understanding orders of magnitude to aid understanding how large or how small an object or quantity is. Being able to understand orders of magnitude estimates is important. Basically these are estimates of how many zeroes are in the answer. So if you were asked how many tablespoons of water are in a cup of water. Here are some “power of ten” estimates: 1,10, 100, 1000,etc etc. There are also fractional powers of ten such as 1/10, 1/100, 1/1000, etc. Basically these estimates help us understand the magnitude of size under consideration.

Enrico Fermi was a famous physicist who was famous for making estimates with little or no actual data. This involves sophisticated approximating sometimes called guesstimating. Regardless of its name, it is an important creative thinking skill. Examples of Fermi problems are “How many basketballs will fit into a bus?” “How many Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups would it take to encircle the globe at the equator?” and “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?” Here is a four step solution to the last problem.

  1. How often are pianos tuned (How many times per year is a given piano tuned?)

  2. How long does it take to tune a piano?

  3. How many average hours a year does an average piano tuner work?

  4. How many pianos are in Chicago?

One can find the answers to these questions and come up with an approximate answer. Then one can criticize this analysis and propose a different solution. This is a good exercise for developing both creative and critical thinking.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Organizing the Business World

January 7, 2015

“Organizing the Business World” is another chapter in Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. It provides a nice historical overview of how organizations have developed driving down to technologies of organizations such as filing systems. There is a large amount of material, and I am going to attempt to focus on portions that I think will be of special interest to readers of the healthymemory blog.

One of these topics of interest I think will involve Area 47 in the lateral prefrontal cortex. It is an area no larger than a pinky finger that contains prediction circuits that it uses in conjunction with memory to form projections about future states of events. If we can provide some, but not all aspects of how the job will go, we find it rewarding. However, if we can predict all aspects of the job, down to the tiniest minituae, it tends to be boring because there is nothing new and no opportunity to apply discretion and judgment. Opportunities to apply discretion and judgment have been identified by management consultants and the U.S. Army as components to finding one’s work meaningful and satisfying. If some, but not too many, aspects of the job are surprising in interesting ways, this can lead to a sense of discovery and self-growth. Levitin writes that finding the right balance to keep Area 47 happy is tricky, but that most job satisfaction comes from a combination of these two. We function best when we are under some constraints and are allowed to exercise individual creativity within those constraints.

Levitin discusses the toxic consequences of negative leadership that can result in the collapse of companies or the loss of reputation and resources. He notes that this is often the result of self-centered attitudes, a lack of empathy for others within the organization, and a lack of concern with the organization’s long-term health. The U.S.Army has recognized this in both military and civic organizations: Toxic leaders consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce or unfairly punish to get what they want for themselves.” The latest version of the U.S. Army’s Mission Command manual outlines five principles that are shared by commanders and top executives in the most successful multinational businesses:

  • Build cohesive teams through mutual trust

  • Create shared understanding

  • Provide a clear and concise set of expectations and goals.

  • Allow workers at all levels to exercise disciplined initiative

  • Accept prudent risks

Levitin returns to multi-tasking in this chapter. He notes that we do not multi-task. Rather what we do is rapidly switch our attention from task to task. Consequently two bad things happen:we don’t devote enough attention to any one thing, and we decrease the quality of attention applied to any one task. Doing one task results in beneficial changes in the brain’s daydreaming network and increased connectivity. He notes that, “Among other things, this is believed to be protective against Alzheimer’s disease. Older adults who engaged in five one-hour training sessions on attentional control began to show brain activity patterns that more closely resembled those of younger adults.”

So people should not be forced to multi-task. But why, then, do we multi-task ourselves? Levitin attributes this to a cognitive illusion that sets in, fueled in part by a dopamine-adrenaline feedback loop, in which multi-taskers think they are doing great. Levitin writes that we are Balkanizing the vast resources of our prefrontal cortices, which has been honed over tens of thousands of years of evolution to stay on task. He further writes, “This stay-on-task mode is what gave us the pyramids, mathematics, great cities, literature, art, music, penicillin, and rockets to the moon. Those kinds of discoveries cannot be made in fragmented two-minute increments.

He notes that companies that are winning the productivity battle are those that allow their employees productivity hours, naps, a chance for exercise, and a calm, tranquil orderly environment in which to do theit work. Research has found that productivity goes up when the number of hours per week of work goes down.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Organizing Information for the Hardest Decisions

January 4, 2015

“Organizing information for the hardest decisions” is a chapter in Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. The primary focus of this chapter is on medical decisions. The subtitle is “ When Life is on the Line,” but Levitin structures the decision making in terms of probabilities and statistics. Given that we live in a world of uncertainty and constantly deal with, whether we realize it or note, probabilistic information, the advice in this chapter can be generally applied to the vast majority of decisions we need to make.

Levitin begins by discussing objective probabilities, probabilities regarding things we can count. For example, what is the probability of drawing an the ace of spades out of a pack of 52 playing cards. This can be computed by dividing the number of aces of spades in a legitimate pack of playing cards, but the total of number of cards in the deck, that is 1/52=0.019. The probability of drawing an ace from the deck of 52 cards requires that the 0.019 probability be multiplied by 4, as there are four aces in a deck of cards to yield 0.076.

Or consider the probability of rolling a six on a fair die. As there are six sides to a die the probability wold be 1/6=0.0967. To compute the probability of rolling two sixes, we need to multiply this probability by itself to get 0.0082.

To compute the likelihood of winning a pick three lottery you divide 1 by the number of numbers in the lottery, 1/1000=0.001, 1/10000= 0.0001, 1/100000=0.00001. 1/1000000=0.0000001.

Remember that in these rollover lotteries, where the winnings can assume astronomical amounts, the reward will be shared among the winners. Moreover, very often the prize is paid out over time, which effectively reduces the amount of the earnings. I remember one of these times when the prize had reached some astronomical amount and people were waiting in line for hours just to buy a ticket. When one woman was asked what she thought her chances of winning were, she answered, “about fifty/fifty.” Although she might represent an extreme case, few people can understand these extremely low odds. First of all, they would not waste their money. But it is also a waste of effort and time. Nevertheless, it keeps a fantasy alive for some. There is a term for this phenomenon and it is known as denominator neglect. People ignore the magnitude of the denominator, when evaluating risk or a bet.

There is an error most people commit when dealing with objective probabilities that is known as the gambler’s fallacy. This stems from a failure to appreciate how random random really is. For example, when people are asked to write down what they think a random sequence would look like for 100 tosses of a coin. Rarely will anyone put down runs of seven heads or tails in a row, even though there is a greater than a 50% chance that they will occur in a 100 tosses. Statisticians have argued that there is no such thing as a hot hand in basketball or other sports because hot streaks are likely just as a matter of random chance. The gambler’s fallacy is related to the notion that something is due. For example, if a fair coin is tossed five times and comes up heads five times, people will think that the sixth toss will be tails because it is “due.” Well each of these coin tosses is independent, so the probability that the sixth toss will be a tail is 50%, just as it was for the first toss. Now it is true that the probability of six straight heads is 0.008.

The preceding were objective computable probabilities. Whenever possible or relevant, you should be familiar with or compute them. However, we must also deal with subjective probabilities. Subjective probabilities are estimates, or guesses, regarding the likelihood of particular events or outcomes. We need to deal with these subjective estimates all the time. For example, how likely is it going to rain? How likely is it that I could get a job offer? What is the probability that my car will break down. What is the probability that I’ll miss my flight? I hope when you do this you are better calibrated than the lady who thinks she as a 50/50 chance of winning the lottery. And you need to combine these subjective probability estimates with respect to both favorable and unfavorable outcomes.

Levitin divides decisions into the following four categories:

  1. Decisions that you can make right now because the answer is obvious. (Here I would add that it is a good idea to do a mental check to see if you are overlooking any relevant information or risks. In retrospect you might find a risk that was obvious that was initially overlooked.)

  2. Decisions you can delegate to someone else (your spouse, perhaps?) who has more time or expertise than you do.

  3. Decisions for which you have all the relevant information but for which you need some time to process or digest that information. This is frequently what judges do in difficult cases. It’s not that they don’t have the information—it’s that they want to mull over the various angles and consider the larger picture. It’s good to attach a deadline to these.

  4. Decisions for which you need more information. At this point, either you interest a helper to obtain that information or you make a note to yourself that you need to obtain it. It’s good to attach a deadline in either case, even if it’s arbitrary, so that you can cross this off your list

Much medical decision-making, particularly important medical decisions, falls into category 4. You need more information. Doctors can provide some of it, but doctors have their own biases, are usually poor at computing or expressing probabilities. Moreover, much of this information is wrong (see the healthymemory blog post “Most Published Research Findings are False.”). If you read that post you should remember that many doctors cannot inform a woman who has tested positive, the probability that she actually has cancer. The probability is still only 10%. The reason for this is that the base rate of cancer is quite low. So many mammograms result in false positives. If you have read that blog post you should also realize that the successes of cancer screening are reported via cancer survival rates. There has been no analogous improvement in mortality rates. When making decisions you should not overlook the option of doing nothing. Ignoring base rates is an all too common human fallacy. So determining accurate base rates is critical to many decisions.

Making decisions regarding conditional probabilities involves using Bayes Theorem. Levitin provides a simple example that can be used as a template. That example follows.

Suppose that you take a blood test for a hypothetical disease, blurritus, and it comes back positive. However, the cure for blurritus is a medication called chlorohydroxelene that has a 5% chance of serious side effects, including a terrible, irreversible itching just in the part of your back that you can’t reach. Five percent doesn’t seem like a big chance, and you might be willing to take it to get rid of this blurry vision.

Here is the available information.

The base rate for blurritis is 1 in 10,000 or .0001.

Chlorohydroxelene use ends in an unwanted side effect 5% of the time or .05.

What we need to know is the accuracy of the test with respect to two measures

The percentage of the time the test falsely indicates the presence of the disease, called a false positive.

The percentage of time that it fails to report indicate the presence of the disease when the disease is present, called a false negative.

Draw a table of two rows and two columns, a fourfold table.

The columns represent the test results, positive or negative.

The rows represent the presence of the disease, Yes or No.

There are test results for 10,000 people. There is one positive test, and no negative tests for people who did not have the disease. So in the first row of the table there is a 1 in the left portions and 0 in the right portion.

In the “No” row there are 200 positive tests and 9,799 negative tests.

So to determine the probability that you have the disease, you add up the total positive test results and find that there is only a 1/201, 0.49% that you have the disease. So there is a 9.51% chance that you do not have the disease. Levitin provides an appendix in the book elaborating on the development and use of these fourfold tables. They are absolutely essential when conditional probabilities are involved and there are always conditional probabilities involved in medical tests. No medical test is infallible and it is important to have data regarding both false positives and false negatives.

Biopsies provide a good example of the fallibility of medical tests. They involve subject judgment in what is basically a “Does it look funny test.” The pathologist or histologist examines a sample under a microscope and notes any regions of the sample that, in her judgment, are not normal. She then counts the number of regions and considers them as a proportion of the entire sample. The pathology report might say something like”5% of the sample had abnormal cells,” or carcinoma noted in 50% of the sample. Pathologists often disagree about the analysis and even assign different grades of cancer for the same sample. So always get, at least, a second sample on your biopsy.

These medical decisions are example of making decisions are the basis of expected values and expected costs that can be generally applied. Suppose you need to decide whether you should pay to park your car. Suppose that the parking lot charges $20 and the cost of a parking ticket is $50, but there is only a 20% chance that you’ll get a ticket. So the expected value of paying for parkins is a 100% chance of losing $20 (-$20). Not paying for parking has a 25% chance of losing $50 (-$12.50). So for today the smart money says do not pay for parking (excuse me for avoiding the ethical problem of disobeying the law and inconveniencing workers by parking in a loading zone. This is only being done as an illustrative example).

What is current in the news is a big problem, because often we are lacking information regarding the frequency of events and confuse the frequency and urgency of reporting with the actual frequency of occurrences. One of the best examples of this occurred after the 9/11 tragedy many people decided to drive rather than fly. As driving is more dangerous than travel by commercial aviation, this resulted in an increase in deaths due to changing modes of transportation. People are alarmed by crime and envision frequent shoot outs between criminals and police. They feel a need to arm and protect themselves. Well check the actual frequency of crime in your neighborhood versus basing it on the programs and news reports on television. You probably are much safer than you think you are. In contrast to what we see on television, it is my understanding that the majority of police retire from their jobs without ever having fired their weapons on duty. And guns are used in more suicides than in homicides, to say nothing of accidental shootings.

This post has probably been disturbing for many readers. Well unfortunately, there is much missing information, much misinformation, and problems in accurately computing probabilities in making decisions. It is hoped that this post will inform on what to worry about and what to ignore, on what questions to ask, and how to combine probabilities to make decisions.


December 23, 2014

Procrastination is a section of the chapter Organizing Our Time in Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. He begins this section by discussing the film producer Jake Eberts whose films have received sixty-six Oscar nominations, and seventeen Oscar wins. H said that he had a short attention span, very little patience, and was easily bored. He might well have been diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder . Here is how he conquered his problem. He adopted a strict policy of “do it now.” If he had a number of calls to make or things to attend to piling up, he’d dive right in, even if it cut into leisure or socializing time. Moreover, he’d do the most unpleasant task early in the morning to get it out of the way. He called this, following Mark Twain, eating the frog: Do the most unpleasant thing first thing in the morning when gumption is highest, because willpower depletes as the day goes on.

At this point, nothing more needs to be written on procrastination. The preceding is the formula for dealing with it. Moreover, at bottom, procrastination is due to a lack of willpower, so it should be attacked when willpower has not yet been depleted, because exercising our willpower has the effect of depleting out willpower. We have finite amounts to spend that need to be replenished once they are depleted. So, if you have tasks you need to attend to, stop reading and attend to them now!

However, if you have nothing on your to-do list, or if your willpower has already been depleted, keep reading.

The brain region implicated in procrastination is the prefrontal cortex. People who suffer damage to the prefrontal cortex have problems with procrastination.

There are two types of procrastination. Some of us procrastinate in order to pursue restful activities. Some of us procrastinate certain difficult or unpleasant tasks in favor of those that are more fun or that have an immediate reward. Of course, many of us engage in both types of procrastination.

The organizational psychologist Piers Steel says that there are two underlying factors that lead us to procrastinate. One of those factors is our low tolerance for frustration. When choosing what tasks to undertake or activities to pursue, we tend to choose not the most rewarding activity, but the easiest. Consequently unpleasant or difficult matters get put off. The second factor is an ego protective mechanism. We tend to evaluate our self-worth in terms of our achievements. If we lack self-confidence in general or confidence that a particular project will not turn out well, we procrastinate because that allow us to delay putting our reputation on the line until later. In this context it is important to disconnect one’s sense of self-worth from the outcome of a task. Most successful people have had a long track record or failure, yet they persevered and succeeded. And even if you’re successful, part of the reason is likely a matter of luck, the cards happened to play your way this time.

There are also some people who have no problem starting tasks, but do not seem to be able to complete them. This situation is not necessarily bad, and technically this is not procrastination. If you find that starting a task was a mistake, there is no requirement to finish it. Indeed, it might be some type of compulsive neurosis to complete everything you have started. Of course, too many abandoned tasks might indicate that more consideration should have been given before starting it. However, some people do not finish tasks because they are perfectionists. Now striving for perfection is not necessarily bad, but striving to achieve the unattainable is. And the perfect can be the enemy of the good.

Sleep Time

December 21, 2014

Given that around one-third of our lives is spent sleeping, sleep must be considered for effective time management. I believe it’s a mistake to regard sleeping as wasted time and to work to keep the time we sleep to a minimum. I have a good friend who is quite proud to have gotten it down to four hours per night. I have never been able to understand why this is desirable. For me, sleeping is one of my favorite activities. Apart from being refreshing, I enjoy dreaming. We are able to slip the bounds of reality when we dream.

Levitin in his book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload notes other reasons sleep is important. Newly acquired memories are initially unstable and require a process of neural strengthening to become resistant to interference and accessible to us for retrieval. Usually there are a variety of ways that an event can be contextualized. The brain has to toss and turn and analyze the experience after it happens, extracting and sorting information in complex ways.

Recent research has given us a better understanding of the different processes that are accomplished during distinct phases of sleep. New experiences become integrated into a more generalized and hierarchical representation of the outside world. Memory consolidation fine tunes the neural circuits that first encountered the new experience. It has been argued that this occurs when we sleep because otherwise those circuits might be confused with an actually occurring experience. Moreover, all this consolidation does not occur during a single night. Rather, it unfolds over several sequential nights. Sleep that is disrupted even two or three days after an experience can disrupt our memories of it months or years later. Mathew Walker (from UC Berkeley) and Robert Stickgold (frm Harvard Medical School) notes three distinct kinds of information that occur during sleep.

The first is unitization, the combining of discrete elements or chunks of an experience into a unified concept. The second kind of information processing that takes place during sleep is assimilation. The brain integrates new information into the existing network structure of other items in memory. The third process is abstraction where hidden rules are discovered and entered into memory. Across a range of inferences involving not only language but mathematics, logic problems, and spatial reasoning, sleep enhances the formation and understanding of abstract relations to the extent that people often wake having solved a problem that was unsolvable the night before. Levitin writes that this might be part of the reason why young children just learning language sleep so much.

This kind of information consolidation happens all the time, but it happens more intensely for tasks in which we are intensely engaged. If you struggle with a problem for an hour or more during the day in which you have invested your focus, energy, and emotions, the it is ripe for replay and elaboration during sleep.

Sleep is also necessary for cellular housekeeping. Specific metabolic processes in the glymphatic system clear neural pathways of potentially toxic waste products that are produced during waking thought.

Parts of the brain sleep while others do not. Sometimes we are either half-asleep or sleeping only lightly. Sometimes people experience a brain freeze being unable to momentarily to remember something obvious. Should we find ourselves doing something silly, such as putting orange juice on cereal, it might be that part of the brain is asleep.

Levitin likens the sleep-wake cycle to a thermostat. Sleep is governed by neural switches that follow a homeostatic process that are influenced by our circadian rhythm, food intake, blood sugar level, condition of the immune system, stress, sunlight, and darkness. When our homeostats increase above a certain point, it triggers the release of neurohormones that induce sleep. When the homeostat decreases below a certain point, a separate set of neurohormones are released to induce wakefulness.

Our current 6 to 8 hour followed by a 16-18 hour sleep cycle is relatively new according to Levitin. He writes that for most of human history, our ancestors engaged in two rounds of sleep, called segmented or bimodal sleep, in addition to an afternoon nap. The first round of sleep would occur for four or five hours after dinner, followed by an awake period of one of more hours in the middle of the night, followed by a second period of four or five hours sleep. He notes that bimodal sleep appears to be a biological norm that was subverted by the invention of artificial light.. He writes that there is scientific evidence that the bimodal sleep plus nap regime is healthier and promotes greater life satisfaction and efficiency.

Admittedly, it would be difficult for most of us to be able to accommodate this bimodal sleep regime. Do what works for you and fits into your requirements. Do not overlook the beneficial effects of naps, even very short ones. And stay away from sleep medications that can do more harm than good. Should you have difficulty falling asleep, the worst thing you can do is to get upset about it. Relax. Try meditating on a word or phrase. If you have difficulty attending to the phrase, just relax and gently bring your attention back to meditating. If you are having pleasant thoughts or memories, just go with the flow. Remember that parts of the brain might be sleeping while other parts remain awake, so don’t panic. Be patient. You might be getting more sleep that you think you are getting.

In closing, Levitin notes that sleep deprivation is estimated to cost US. businesses more than $150 billion a year in absences, accidents, and lost productivity It’s also associated with increased risk for heart disease, obesity, stroke, and cancer. So sleep is important. Don’t shortchange yourself.. If you have a chronic problem sleeping, seek professional help.

Organizing Our Time

December 14, 2014

Organizing our time is another chapter in Daniel J. Levitin’s book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. This chapter is so rich and has so much information that I want to share with you that it will take multiple draft posts, which still will not fully do justice to this chapter.

The first thing to realize about time is that it is an illusion, a creation of our minds, as is color. There is no color in the physical world, just light of different wavelengths reflecting off objects. Newton said the light waves themselves are colorless. Our sense of color is the result of the visual cortex processing these wavelengths and interpreting them as color. Similarly, time can be thought as an interpretation that our brains impose on our experience of the world. We experience the sun rising and setting. We feel hungry at different times and sleep at other times. The moon goes through a series of phases approximately monthly. Seasons are experienced at even larger intervals, then recycle again.

I have long been puzzled as to why there are 24 hours in a day. As the world makes a complete circle of 360 degrees, I would have thought that there would be 36 hours in a day. Apparently this division of 24 hours is due to the ancient Egyptians who divided daytime into 10 parts, then added an hour for each of the ambiguous periods of twilight to achieve 12 parts. There were also 12 corresponding parts for nighttime yielding a 24 hour day. Then it was the Greeks, following the lead of the mathematician Eratosthenes who divided the circle into sixty parts for an early cartographic system representing latitudes. They then divided the hour into sixty minutes, and the minutes into sixty seconds. Still time was kept at local levels until the advent of the railroad that needed accurate timekeeping to avoid collisions. The U.S. Railroads did this in 1883, but the United States Congress didn’t make it into law until 35 years later.

As for organizing our time it is the function of the prefrontal cortex. We have a more highly developed prefrontal cortex than any other species. The prefrontal cortex is the seat of logic, analysis, problem solving, exercising good judgment, planning for the future, and decision-making. Unfortunately, our prefrontal cortex is not fully mature until we are well into our twenties, so there is time, perhaps even too much time, in which to make poor decisions. Not surprisingly the prefrontal cortex is frequently called the central executive, or CEO of the brain. There are extensive two-way connections between the prefrontal cortex and virtually every other region of the brain, so it is in a unique position to schedule monitor, manage, and manipulate almost every activity we undertake. These cerebral CEOs are highly paid in metabolic currency. Clearly, understanding how they work and how they get paid can help us to use our time more effectively.

It might be surprising to learn that most of prefrontal cortex’s connections to other brain regions are not excitatory, but inhibitory. One of the greatest achievements of the human prefrontal cortex is that it provides impulse control and the ability to delay gratification. Without this impulse control, it is unlikely that civilizations would have developed. And I can’t help speculating how there might be fewer wars, crime, and substance abuse if the prefrontal cortex were more fully engaged.

When the prefrontal cortex becomes damaged, it leads to a medical condition called dysexecutive syndrome. Under this condition there is no control of time. Even the ability to perform the correct sequence of actions in the preparation of a meal is impaired It is also frequently accompanied by an utter lack of inhibition for a range of behaviors, especially in social settings. Sufferers might blurt out inappropriate remarks, or go on binges of gambling drinking, and sexual activity with inappropriate partners. They tend to act on what is in front of them. If they see someone moving, they are likely to imitate them. If they see an object, they tend to pick it up and use it. Obviously this disorder wreaks havoc with organizing time. If your inhibitions are reduced and you have difficulty seeing the future consequences of your actions, you might do things now that you regret later, or make it difficult to complete projects you’re working on. As for organizing your time, engage your prefrontal cortex, and take care of and protect your prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is also important for creativity. It is important for making connections and associations between disparate thoughts and concepts. This is the region of the brain that is most active when creative artists are performing at their peak.

Levitin offers the following suggestion for seeing what it’s like to have damage to the prefrontal cortex. This damage is reversible provided it is not done too often. His suggestion is to get drunk. Alcohol interferes with the ability of prefrontal cortex neurons to communicate with one another, by disrupting dopamine receptors and blocking a neuron called an NMDA receptor, mimicking the damage seen in frontal lobe patients. Heavy drinkers experience a double whammy. Although they may lose certain control or motor coordination or the ability to drive safely, but they aren’t aware that they’ve lost them or simply don’t care. So they forge ahead anyway.

Organizing Our Social World

December 10, 2014

“Organizing Our Social World”is the title of another chapter in Daniel J. Levitin’s book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, when I completed my Ph.D. in cognitive psychology one of the leading problems was information overload, and that was in the era before personal computers. Now we have the internet aided and abetted by mobile technology so technology is omnipresent. It is apparent from this chapter that longstanding problems in social psychology and human interaction have been exacerbated by technology. I find it amazing when I see a group of four people dining together each preoccupied with their smartphones. And when I attend professional meetings where the objective is for direct interactions between and among human beings most people appear to be interacting with their smartphones.

The intention for social media is that they are not a replacement for personal contact, but a supplement that provides an easy way to stay connected to people who are too distant or too busy. Levitin hints that there might be an illusion to this, writing “Social networking provides breadth but rarely depth, and in-person contact is what we crave, even if online contact seems to take away some of that craving. ..The cost of all our electronic connectedness appears to be that it limits our biological capacity to connect with other people.”

Lying and misrepresentations become a much larger problem in the online world. A hormone has been identified with trust. It has been called the love hormone in the popular press because it is especially pronounced in sexual interactions. In such mundane experiments as having research participants watching political speeches rate for whom they are likely to vote. The participants are under the influence of oxytocin for half the speeches. Of course they do not know when they are under the influence of the drug. They receive a placebo, inert drug, for the other half of the speeches. When asked for whom they would vote for or trust, the participants selected the candidates they viewed while oxytocin was in their systems. [to the best of my knowledge such techniques have yet to be used in an official election].

Interestingly, levels of oxytocin also increase during gaps in social support or poor social functioning. Recent theory holds tht oxytocin regulates the salience of social information and is capable of eliciting positive or negative social emotions, depending on the situation of the individual. In any case, these data support the importance of direct social contact by identifying biological components underlying this type of interaction.

I was surprised that little, if any, attention was spent on Facebook the premier social media. As I like to periodically rant regarding Facebook, and considerable time has passed since my last rate, I’ll try to fill in this lacuna. I detest Facebook, although I understand that many find I convenient for keeping in touch with many people with little effort. Apparently, businesses also find Facebook to be necessary and find it profitable. I use Facebook for a small number of contacts, but I am overwhelmed with notes of little interest. At the outset I did not want to refuse anyone friending me out of fear that this someone might be somebody I should but don’t remember. Similarly I find it uncomfortable unfriending people, although at times that seems to be a better course of action. Perhaps there is some way of setting controls so that the number of messages are few and few people are offended, but I have no way of knowing what they are.

I find Linkedin much more palatable and even useful. Still one must regard endorsements and statements of expertise with some caution. That is, they are useful provided one looks for corroborating information. I like email and email with Listservs. However, I’ve learned that younger folks have developed some complicated and, in my view, unnecessary protocols for using email, texting, and social media. I’ll quit before I start sounding like even more of a cranky old man.