September 16, 2019


Thinking Straight in the Age
of Information Overload

by Daniel J. Levitin.
Dutton. 2014
(i-xxvi, 496 pages = 522 total pages)



(1) "We humans have a long history of pursuing neural enhancement --- ways to improve the brains that evolution gave us... Through the sheer force of human ingenuity, we have devised systems to free our brains of clutter, to help us keep track of details that we cannot trust ourselves to remember." (xiii)

Many "innovations are designed either to improve the brain we have, or to off-load some of its functions to external sources." (xiii)

"One of the biggest advances in neural enhancement occurred only 5,000 years ago, when humans discovered a game-changing way to increase the capacity of the brain's memory and indexing system... The invention of written language has long been celebrated as a breakthrough, but relatively little has been made of what exactly were the first things humans wrote --- simple recipes, sales receipts, and business inventories mostly." (xiii)

"It was around 3,000 BC that our ancestors began to trade nomadic lifestyles for urban ones, setting up increasingly large cities and centers of commerce." (xiii)

"The increased trade in these cities put a strain on individual merchants' memories and so early writing became an important component of recording business transactions. Poetry, histories, and war tactics, and instructions for building complex construction projects came later." (xiii-xiv)

"Prior to the invention of writing, our ancestors had to rely on memory, sketches, or music to encode and preserve important information. Memory is fallible, of course, but not because of storage limitations so much as retrieval limitations." (xiv)

"Some neuroscientists believe that nearly every conscious experience is stored somewhere in your brain. However, the hard part is finding it and pulling it out again." (xiv)

"It is helpful to understand that our modes of thinking and decision-making evolved over the tens of thousands of years that humans lived as hunter-gatherers." [For 40-60 thousand years!] (xiv)

"Our genes have not fully caught up with the demands of modern civilization." (xiv)

(2) "The first humans who figured out how to write things down around 5,000 years ago were in essence trying to increase the capacity of their hippocampus, which is part of the brain's memory system." (xiv)

"They effectively extended the natural limits of human memory by preserving some of their memories on clay tablets and cave walls, and later, papyrus, and parchment." (xiv-xv)

"Later, we developed other mechanisms --- such as calendars, filing cabinets, computers, and smartphones: to help us organize and store the information we have written down. When our computer or smartphone starts to run slowly, we might buy a larger memory card." (xv)

"That memory is both a metaphor and a physical reality. We are off-loading a great deal of the processing that our neurons would normally do to an external device that then becomes an extension of our own brains, a neural enhancer." (xv)

"These external memory mechanisms are generally of two types, either following the brain's own organizational system or reinventing it, sometimes overcoming its limitations." (xv)

"Knowing which is which can enhance the way we use these systems, and so improve our ability to cope with information overload. Once memories became externalized with written language, the writer's brain and attentional system were freed to focus on something else." (xv)

"But immediately with those first written words came the problems of storage, indexing, and accessing: Where should the writing be stored so that it (and the information it contains) will not get lost?" (xv)

(3) "Here we come upon two of the most compelling properties of the human brain and its design: richness and associative access." (xv)

"Richness refers to the theory that a large number of things that you have ever thought or experienced are still in there, somewhere." (xv)

"Associative access means that your thoughts can be accessed in a number of different ways by semantic or perceptual associations. This means that memories can be triggered by related words, by category names, by a smell, an old song or photograph, or even seemingly random neural firings that bring them up to consciousness." (xv)

"Being able to access any memory regardless of where it is stored is what computer scientists call random access. DVDs and hard drives work this way; videotapes do not... To get to a particular point in a videotape, you need to go through every previous point first," called sequential access." (xv-xvii)

"Our ability to randomly access our memory from multiple cues is especially powerful. Computer scientists call it relational memory. . . In addition to neural networks in the brain that represent attributes of things, those attributes are also connected associatively to other things." (xvii)

"Thinking about one memory tends to activate other memories. If you are trying to retrieve a particular memory, the flood of activations can cause competition among different nodes, leaving you with a traffic jam of neural nodes trying to get through to consciousness, and you end up with nothing." (xvii)

"A key to understanding the 'organized mind' is to recognize that on its own, it does not organize things the way you might want it to. It comes preconfigured, and although it has enormous flexibility, it is built on a system that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to deal with different kinds and different amounts of information than we have today." (xviii-xix)

"To be more specific: the brain is not organized the way you might set up your home office or bathroom medicine cabinet. You cannot just put things anywhere you want to. The evolved architecture of the brain is haphazard and disjointed, and incorporates multiple systems, each of which has a mind of its own (so to speak)." (xix)

"Evolution does not design things and it does not build systems--- it settles on systems that, historically, conveyed a survival benefit... There is no overarching, grand planner engineering the systems so that they work harmoniously together... Evolution has no will, no plan... Evolution did not decide to give you memory for where you put things." (xix)

"Your 'place memory system' came about gradually, through the processes of descent with modification and natural selection, and it evolved separately from your memory for facts and figures." (xix)

"The two systems might come to work together through further evolutionary processes, but they are not necessarily going to do so, and in some cases, they may be in conflict with each other." (xix)


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