Daniel Levitin: How to Organize Your Mind – Transcript
Ben: Welcome to Simplify. I’m Ben Schuman-Stoler…
Caitlin: And I’m Caitlin Schiller. Simplify is for anybody who’s taken a close look at their habits, their happiness, their relationships or their health, and thought, there’s got to be a better way to do this.
Ben: This week’s episode… Oh, man. You talked to a neuroscientist! You love neuroscientists.
Caitlin: I did! Neuroscientist and musician, Daniel Levitin.
Ben: Yeah, Daniel Levitin. He’s the author of The Organized Mind which is about how our brains “organize the world into meaningful pieces.” He also wrote This Is Your Brain on Music. He’s got a new book out, it’s called Weaponized Lies which is about critical thinking in the information age. Yeah, we’re super excited to have him.
Caitlin: And that book is amazing. It basically is a handbook on how to read the news and not get taken. These days Levitin braids together his interest in the mind, and how we make meaning and tell truth, and the neuroscience of music into these incredibly intelligent science books that read like… Well, they kind of read like music. I’ve never so deeply enjoyed reading a book about science. And I like science!
Ben: Yeah, I had your copy of The Organized Mind this week to prepare for this, it has like a thousand blue post-it notes in it. My favorite ones just have giant arrows and the word “THIS.”
Caitlin: I’ve never felt more millennial in my entire life.
Ben: I think you used every post-it that we have in the office.
Caitlin: I think that might be true. Yeah, I mean I enjoy reading all of our guests’ books, but I actually wanted to read this book from cover to cover and really take my time with it. I feel like now and after this conversation I have a much more intimate understanding of why our brains do what they do and how to keep my brain sharp.
Ben: Yeah, and apropos brain sharp, we will talk about more stuff people can read after the interview if they want to. But let’s get into the talk with the Daniel Levitin and Caitlin Schiller. And see you guys in The Bookend!
Caitlin Interviews Dr. Daniel Levitin
Caitlin: Could you please start out by introducing yourself?
Daniel: Hi, Caitlin! I’m Daniel Levitin. I’m a neuroscientist and an author, and also musician, and record producer.
Caitlin: I wish that we could cover everything because you have such a breadth of expertise, but… I wanted to talk to you today about The Organized Mind and, I guess, more of your work in neuroscience. You start out ––I think it might even be in the introduction–– you contend that our brains are wired to want to organize things, which seems kind of counterintuitive, given the disarray into which many of us slip if we’re left to our own devices. Could you talk a little bit about how our brains are wired to want to organize things?
Daniel: I think we humans and many other species do have an urge to organize. Now, it may not seem that way when you walk into a messy kitchen or a messy apartment with clothes strewn around, but in a more macro way, we are organizing the world around us. I mean, we can have messy apartments and kitchens and such, but we still manage to ––most of us, most of the time–– show up at work at least sufficiently often to get paid, and so we’ve organized our time. And, you know, we tend not to leave the house in our pajamas, so we’ve organized our getting dressed in the morning and things like that.
The biological imperative is to have the kind of order in your life that will facilitate your goals. Now, that might be more apparent, say, in the bowerbird – a species of bird that arranges rocks, and pebbles, and twigs, and decorative items around its habitat in a symmetrical way so that if an intruder comes by, while the bowerbird was out, the bowerbird will know that something has breached the defensive perimeter. And so, that’s a way that even a bird organizes its environment to help it, to know what’s going on in the world.
Caitlin: The way that you talk about organization is the way that I think a lot of us don’t think about organization. When I hear the word “organization,” I think about having a tidy desk or having a limited amount of stuff in your junk drawer. But organization is really just the way that we think about things.
Daniel: Yeah, I agree with that conceptualization. And it’s interesting because I had two professors when I was a student ––who I think we’re equally brilliant, far smarter than I’ll ever be–– and they had very different organizational styles.
One of them had piles and piles on his desk and on the floor. You’d walk into his office, and you’d have to, you know, step carefully across the pile. Some of the piles were waist-high. But I remember walking into his office, and I said one day, “You know, I never got back that paper that I wrote for you ten years ago.” He said, “Oh, yeah. Yeah, I’m sorry. I know right where that is.” And he goes to one of the piles, and he goes down about fifth of the way and he finds it within 30 seconds.
And then I had this other professor whose desk was spotless and his office was spotless. You know, there’d be one folder on his desk at a time, and that’s what he’d be working on. And, you know, one of them had the organized system in his filing cabinets, the other had it in his head. That’s the only difference.
Caitlin: Well, I think our mutual friend David Allen would really dislike that first method.
Daniel: David inspired me greatly to write The Organized Mind. I wanted to uncover and share the neuroscientific basis for so much of what he recommends and prescribes in his Getting Things Done book and had a series of books in fact. And I also wanted to explore some topics that he doesn’t get to, like this this broader conception of what it means to be an organized species or what it means to us as individuals.
But I do practice the David Allen method. I’m making lists, and I’m prioritizing them, and I’m doing the different levels of analysis of what I need to get done, you know, the 30,000 foot view versus the one inch from the topic view.
Caitlin: Yeah, absolutely. He just really has it figured out. He’s one of the most relaxed people I’ve ever met.
Daniel: Well, that’s the thing, right. You started out using a phrase, something like, what most people think of when they think of as organization. And I think most people think that being organized requires ––what we used to call a Type-A personality–– a really nervous sort, who’s constantly vigilant and looking around for a piece of paper on the table that’s 2 degrees askew, a kind of compulsive sort, an OCD kind of sort. And I suppose that that can be some organized people.
But what I found is that organizing my life, my world, my social world, my time, and organizing things in my head actually has calmed me down a great bit because my brain isn’t constantly reminding me of things it’s afraid that I’ll forget. I now have a system that prevents me from forgetting things or from doing things in the right order. And that was a lot of what I wanted to share with The Organized Mind.
Caitlin: Yeah, what I loved about it was that it also feels practical. It’s written in a super approachable way, and I felt like I took things away from it that I can use in my life. I’ve been talking about the sleep section to anybody who will listen to me for the past week or so. I was shocked reading that rebound sleep is not a thing you can get, that we can’t borrow sleep time. What is something that you wish people better understood about sleep?
Daniel: Well, a lot of the things that we heard growing up ––what you might just call folklore about sleep–– just isn’t true. There’s been a great uncovering of information within the science of sleep in the last 10 years or so. Most of that information hasn’t trickled down to the public, which I think is a shame. In fact, I’d say a lot of what neuroscientists, neurobiologists have found in the last 10 or 20 years hasn’t reached the public. And I tried to pack as much of that as I could into The Organized Mind, not just about sleep, but about how memory works, and how attention works, and strategies for being productive, and strategies for avoiding procrastination, and that kind of stuff.
On the sleep side of things, good sleep hygiene is really important. Your body responds best, if you can figure out a way to go to sleep at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning. And, of course, that’s not possible every single day. But it’s important to understand that, for 99% of the population, if you deviate from that, you’re going to effectively lose IQ points, you’re going to lose your ability to be your best self very quickly.
Caitlin: Yeah. That was a total shock to me. And the other thing that I thought was interesting was that parts of your brain can take little naps. How is that possible? Can you talk about that a little bit?
Daniel: Yeah, we tend to think of consciousness as an all-or-nothing state: I’m either conscious or I’m unconscious, I’m awake or I’m asleep. In fact, it’s better to think of these things as falling along a continuum: you’re various degrees of alert, you’re various degrees of conscious. And there’s quite a lot of experimental research now that shows this to be true.
And so yeah, part of your brain can fall asleep. This is often what happens when you’ve forgotten a word or a name, or if you’re driving on the freeway ––where you are the autobahn, I suppose–– and you suddenly realize you don’t know where you are. You’re still on the road, but you think you might have missed your turn off, but you don’t remember whether you saw it or not – that part of your brain was asleep.
Caitlin: I find that sort of charming and sort of scary at the same time.
Daniel: Well, usually if the part of you that’s driving the car falls asleep, you feel it coming on, unless you have narcolepsy or something. The part that you’re most focused on is harder to fall asleep without you knowing it. But there are hundreds of background processes going on in your mind that fall asleep. You might skip a meal because you’re so absorbed in what you’re doing. Well, the part of you that keeps track of your blood sugar fell asleep.
Caitlin: For me the part that usually falls asleep is the part that puts the water in the coffee pot before putting it on the burner.
Daniel: There’s a whole other thing about repetitive actions or things that we’ve done many many times.
Caitlin: What do you mean?
Daniel: Well, I don’t know how old you are, but you’re probably over 18.
Caitlin: Oh, yes!
Daniel: You’ve probably walked up and down stairs many many times.
Daniel: Now, when you were 3 years old, you hadn’t walked up that many stairs, and you paid very close attention to where you put your feet, and maybe your hands if you were hand-and-footing it. And it was kind of an event to be on stairs for most kids of that age. And as you get older, you’ve climbed so many stairs that it’s become routine, you’ve become complacent about it, you don’t pay close attention. And next thing you know you’ve fallen. Because you’ve allowed it to recede into the background.
Taking pills in the morning for a kid, unless the kid is really sick. You know, a kid having to take a pill as an unusual event. Kids are not going to forget that they took a pill this morning. Somebody who’s 70 is. They’ve taken so many pills in their life, there’s nothing unique about the event, that’s why they’ve got these little pill reminders. It’s not because they’re going to forget to take the pill, it’s that they might forget that they already took it.
Caitlin: Right. Yeah. Actually this reminds me of the section on memory ––I think it’s the second memory in your book–– when you talk about how… Or it was the organization of time, I think, how time seems to go so much more slowly when you’re young than when you’re old because memories are more novel. Could you talk a little bit about that actually? Because I think that something that people think about a lot is why it feels like time goes so much faster as we age.
Daniel: Well, it’s two reasons. The idea is that your conception of time is nonlinear and ––for the non mathematical among our friends and listeners–– what I mean by that is that the same minute doesn’t feel the same at the different phases of your life.
And by analogy, think about wealth. If you are indigent, a homeless person, if you have no money, $5 means a whole lot to you, because it it’s an enormous proportion of your wealth. If you have only $5 to your name – another $5 is a big deal. If you only have $100 to your name, another $5 is still a big deal, but not quite as big a deal. If you’re a millionaire, you know, walking down the street, you might not bend over to pick up a $5 bill if it’s in the sewer, and you’re afraid your suit might get dirty, right.
So time kind of functions in this nonlinear proportional way. When you’re 5 years old, a day is a substantial portion of the amount of time you’ve been on the Earth compared to when you’re 70. I mean the days are precious as you get older because there’s fewer of them, but they zip by, partly because they represent such a small proportion of your conscious awareness.
There are other factors: when we’re older we tend to take on projects that take longer to finish. When I was eight ––I don’t know about you, but when I was eight–– I would come home, I would read a couple of comic books, do some finger painting, go out and play in the sand, maybe watch a TV show all before dinner time. Now, you know, when I get home from work, home from school, by the time I start thinking about it being dinner time, the afternoon or the early evening has zipped by. And I can’t think of the last time I actually finished a project in a day – most of the things I work on have a very long event horizon. And I think that’s true of many adults – working on projects that span over time. And so that makes the time fly more quickly.
Caitlin: Totally true. I never have time to fingerpaint before dinner.
Daniel: Yeah, it’s too bad, isn’t it? And a third factor in what makes times zip is that so much of what we do is routine. It’s not novel and so it recedes into our attention. And because we’re not fully present for it happening, it zips by.
Caitlin: Actually, you know what, you just said “being fully present,” and it touched on something that I wanted to talk with you about earlier when we were talking about David Allen and about being relaxed actually. In your section about organizing work you talk about a thing that you’ve found that highly successful people had in common was that they had external brains and it allowed them to be really present. What do you mean by external brains?
Daniel: Well, what I’m talking about is doing things that we all do to externalize your memory, basically. So, one thing we do is we write ourselves notes, shopping lists, to-do lists – that’s externalizing your memory. It’s relieving your brain of the burden of reminding you of these things. And it’s a very important thing! The great psychologist B.F. Skinner from Harvard used to say that if he heard on the news in the evening around dinner time that it was going to rain the next day, in that moment in the evening before he would go take his umbrella out of the closet and hang it on the front door knob. So now the environment is reminding him to bring the umbrella.
Other things too. People lose their car keys or their house keys, whatever, people lose their keys. And the reason is that we are not really paying attention to what we do with them when we put them down. And there’s so many places that we could put them down and the solution to that is another form of externalization, which is just to designate rigidly a place in the house where they’re going to put them. What matters is that you’re consistent and that you don’t violate it, and then they’ll always be there.
Caitlin: Yeah. That’s definitely important. I think somewhere in the book you write that the kinds of things that we lose and go missing like, keys or, I think, shoes was an example, versus the kinds of things that don’t go missing like, pants and desktop keyboards. So the kinds of things we lose say a lot about how our brains work. What do you mean by that exactly?
Daniel: It is kind of funny, right? I mean, you might forget where you parked your car, but you don’t forget that you have a car. You know, I’m trained as a neuroscientist, so I delighted in the little ways that our foibles can open a window to the way our brains are organized and the way our thoughts are constructed. The kinds of things we lose, or lose track of, really give a window into the normal functioning of the brain. The brain does well with rules, with putting things in a certain place.
Ody: Hey listeners, this is Ody, audio editor on Simplify. I wanted to chime in and recommend a companion episode, I think, to this interview with Daniel Levitin. And it’s an episode from Simplify Season 1 with productivity expert, author of Getting Things Done, David Allen. Here’s a clip from the episode:
David Allen: Don’t keep stuff in your head. It’s in the wrong place. Your head’s a crappy office. It’s for having ideas, not for holding them. As a matter of fact, research has shown that if you keep more than four things just in your head, you’ll lose track of them, you will not have the appropriate relationship with them, with each other etc and you know, basically, you’ll be driven by latest and loudest. So, just trying to convince people that you need to build the external brain to be able to manage the complexity and sophistication and subtlety of our life and our commitments these days is… I don’t know how long I’ll be preaching this but folks just don’t seem to be doing it. It’s a big habit to change.
Ody: That was David Allen from an episode from Simplify Season 1 and it’s really worth checking out, the whole episode, if you’re anything like me and you need some kind of system to organize your life and your mind. OK, back to the interview with Caitlin Schiller and Daniel Levitin.
Caitlin: I really wanted to ask you about the nature of memory, and how actually vulnerable and iffy it is. Could you talk a little bit about that? Should we be trusting our memories as much as we do?
Daniel: No! Emphatically not. Our memories seem to us as though they are video recordings of the world. And they’re not. They are flawed, they’re fallible, their self-serving in many cases, their self-defeating in others. The first myth to explode, as we explore this, is that the degree of confidence you have in a memory that is the certainty that you have that it’s accurate, in many many cases is no judge of how accurate it’s going to be. They are completely decoupled in so many many cases.
And we’ve seen this play out most publicly in trials, where somebody will be convicted because somebody remembered seeing him there at the scene of the crime or something like that. And then years later, you know, DNA evidence will not only show that somebody else did the crime, but the person who was alleged to be there was somewhere else, as he had been saying all along, right? And so, the witness’s memories are bad. But people misremember things about themselves and their past. You know, you just can’t trust it, and you can’t trust your feeling that tells you you can trust it.
What ends up getting stored in memory is often a distortion. And even if it was stored accurately, a funny thing happens in the act of remembering, when you’re metaphorically pulling that memory out of your brain. At that point, any new interpretations, or contexts, or ideas that occur to you or that somebody mentions to you just as you’ve retrieved the memory can impact the way it gets restored, and so you no longer have it in its original state. It’s like what we saw in in Orwell’s book 1984, which is now called Orwellian Revisionism – the memories just get re-written with no trace to what the previous version was.
Caitlin: Oh man, I think in the book you talk about how it’s like every time we recall a memory we’re opening in edit mode.
Daniel: That’s right. And it’s not like edit mode on your computer where you deliberately go in and say, “Oh, well, I think I can come up with a better word for that” or “Now that I think about it, it wasn’t red, it was blue”. It’s not just like that. It’s more like, you open up the computer file in edit mode and suddenly from out of nowhere somebody spills coffee on the keyboard and a bunch of gibberish gets put in the file. Or a prankster comes and changes a bunch of words in the middle of the night, and you don’t know which words were changed in which word.
Caitlin: It’s just amazing to me that we put so much trust in our own memories, and they’re really this fallible.
Daniel: Well, this is a lot of what goes into training a judge, and an attorney, and a journalist, such as yourself, a respect for the idea that yes, you want people to tell their story, but you need to verify it.
Caitlin: In The Organized Mind you said you wanted to expose some of the neuroscience behind the GTD® David Allen’s method, but where did this book come from for you? What started you along the road to writing it?
Daniel: Actually, I wanted to write a book about the history of filing cabinets. And my editor was interested in that, and I was interested in it, and I spent some time doing research interested in the different… How did filing cabinets develop? How did we end up now with the sort of standard hanging file folder on a metal rail with a little tab that sticks up? And what are the principles for filing? How do you know when to create a new folder? And what should the folder headings be and how do you group your folders?
That’s really what I wanted to write about and it turned out there wasn’t much on it. I managed to find a patent for the guy who came up with the hanging file folder idea, but I couldn’t find out anything about him or his life or he’s dead now. It didn’t really go anywhere, but then I started thinking that maybe my brain was trying to tell me something that the filing cabinet thing was a metaphor for how things are organized in general. And the more I thought about what I teach as a professor to undergraduates about how the brain works, the more I realized there’s a whole bunch of stuff about memory and perception, about attention, about how we form ideas – that is a standard part of my undergraduate courses that the students love and I love teaching it. But I’d never read a book about it, and so I thought, well, I want to put all of that into a book.
Caitlin: I’m really glad you did because I had never read a book about it, and I feel like I’ve been missing it all my life. What do you, what do you wish that people understood better about their minds?
Daniel: Well, there are several things. One is I think that a great deal of human suffering could be alleviated if we understood that a lot of the ways that people behave are influenced by their upbringing, their childhood, their neurochemistry, their diet, and things happening in the world outside of them, as well as things happening inside their bodies. And I say that because humanity has a history of torturing people who somehow manifest as different. Centuries, millennia of torturing and killing gay people who really don’t decide to be gay. There’s a complex biological set of conditions.
Schizophrenia was so misunderstood that, you know, in my grandparents lifetimes people who heard voices would be considered to be inhabited by bad deadly spirits, and they would call an exorcist, not a doctor. We now understand there’s a neurochemical basis for this, and we know how to treat it. And much schizophrenia can be treated. As I say, all kinds of human suffering would be, I think, reduced if more people understood that there’s a brain basis for behavior, as opposed to some metaphysical or devilish origin.
Caitlin: From a neuroscience perspective ––not from your necessarily musical perspective–– what’s the biggest favor that we can do for our minds?
Daniel: What a great and provocative question? I think, well, care for them is the blanket answer. And that includes things like being sure that you eat a diet that’s got enough protein to help your neurons to regenerate, to function properly ––not regenerate, it’s not the word I meant, but to function properly–– and to do their cellular housekeeping.
Caitlin: What a wonderful phrase!
Daniel: Exercise, oxygenating the brain is good, however you do it, as long as you don’t oxygenate so much that you end up passing out and hitting your head. Good sleep hygiene… And as we get older, I think, one of the things that we can do for our brain that’s underappreciated is try to avoid complacency. Seek out the novel, seek out the new, that’s the way to stay young.
Caitlin: That would be a great answer to end on, but I also wanted to ask you, what do you think the 20-year-old you would think of the work that you doing today?
Daniel: Oh, I think the 20-year-old me would be delighted. I mean, I’m doing all the things now that I started doing when I was 20. And so, the only thing that I’ve given up is working on my own engine in my car, but everything else I do is pretty much the same: I play the guitar, I sing, I hang out with friends, I read, I write. The last 40 years haven’t been that different than what I wanted to do when I was 20.
Caitlin: That’s pretty awesome! That seems like a win to me.
Daniel: The only unanticipated part was the joy of being able to talk to you, and people like you, you know, to have the opportunity to do these kinds of sharing experiences in a more public way.
Caitlin: Yeah, having a good conversation is one of, I think, life’s truest deepest delights. Yeah. So, what are you reading lately? Could you recommend any interesting books for our listeners? This is a podcast for people who do love to read and love new ideas.
Daniel: I read very broadly. I have just finished reading Becoming Leonardo which is a fantastic book about Da Vinci by Mike Langford. I reviewed it for The Wall Street Journal by the way and loved it. And I’ve been recommending that to everybody, find copies for people.
I’ve read everything now by Haruki Murakami. And my wife just got me for my birthday a Murakami book, I didn’t even know about which I adored. It is called Absolutely On Music, and it’s conversations between Murakami and the great conductor Seiji Ozawa. A lot of good stuff in there.
And then, you know, I’ve got a pile of books on the floor that I need to read for my next book, for me to extract the wisdom of others and try to build on it.
Caitlin: What’s your next book about?
Daniel: It’s called Successful Aging: Getting The Most Out Of The Rest Of Your Life.
Caitlin: Okay, well. I’ll be definitely calling you back for that.
Daniel: Yeah, well in thirty years, when you need it!
Caitlin: I think more the world needs it more than just me, I’ll call you in two years about it.
Caitlin: Um, but I guess that’s it. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk. It’s been really such a pleasure.
Daniel: For me too! Thank you, Caitlin!
Caitlin: Awesome. Great. Alright. Have a good night!
Ben: Welcome to The Bookend… where we end with books. We did it! We got Levitin on here. Super excited to have him on. And now, like, for all the people who are not as familiar with neuroscience, or as passionate about neuroscience is you are, like, let’s break it down a little bit. Why did you want to have… First of all, why did you want to have Daniel Levitin on here?
Caitlin: Okay, well, as you already know, I really like neuroscience and if my life had not taken the course it had, I’d either want to be a perfumer or a neurolinguist, which I guess is kind of like neuroscience. And on a less personal note, I think that investing in understanding how your mind works can be a really powerful way that you can help yourself get more done, and relax better, have better friendships, pretty much anything else. And I figured if there was someone who could tell us about the mind in a way that felt relatable, it was this extra cool musician scientist.
Ben: Yeah, and this is sort of the scientific basis on so much of the productivity stuff that we like: the David Allen, you know, write stuff down, get it out of your brain, your brain is a thinking tool, not a storage device. This is like the foundation for that. Plus, like, with the bonus of ‘I studied with Daniel Kahneman’s people’, and it’s yeah. It’s our like sweet spot.
Ben: So, what really stood out to you from the interview? Like, what’s the one thing we should remember?
Caitlin: Well, there are a lot of things like, how important sleep is and it’s really really really important, and how just fallible and crappy human memory is. But I think that the thing that stood out to me the most was how important novelty is to the mind. We remember novel things better, as in our first encounters with stairs, or escalators, or bees as children are more memorable and surprising. And novelty helps keep our minds sharp and young when we’re older too. So seek out the new and avoid complacency, and you’re already doing your mind a giant service. So yeah, we need novelty. We like it. Our brains crave it.
Ben: Right, and check out this segue.
Caitlin: I’m so ready.
Ben: If you want to do something novel like, maybe read new books, so let’s give him some books to read.
Caitlin: Yeah, that was smooth, Ben.
Ben: Confront yourself with new ideas.
Ben: What have you got?
Caitlin: All right, so book number one is about sleeping. It’s called Dreamland by David K. Randall. And sleeping… When you think about it, sleeping is a pretty weird thing, we basically unconscious for roughly a third of our lives.
Ben: While the brain cleans itself.
Caitlin: While the brain cleaned itself. It does its “cellular housekeeping” as Levitin says. So third of our lives we’re lying there, our brains are doing their cellular housekeeping, we’re just dead to the world. And yet, we and all other animals in the planet, we need sleep to survive, and Dreamland gives some scientific background on why it’s so important.
The author is a British journalist, his name’s David K. Randall, and he got interested in this topic when he injured himself by sleepwalking into a wall one day. And because he had a vested interest in figuring out how to sleep better, he asked experts, and he did. And their ideas about how to do that are in this book. Have you ever sleep walked, Ben?
Ben: No, never in my whole life.
Caitlin: Me either, not that I know of. I don’t think I talk in my sleep either. I’m a pretty boring sleeper.
Ben: I’ve mumbled in my sleep.
Caitlin: OK, so second book. Levitin’s next book is on aging and presumably focuses on the mind. So there’s another book that complements it, because it focuses on the lifestyle of people who live long and healthy all over the world.
Ben: Isn’t it, like, about the people who’ve lived over 100?
Caitlin: Exactly, yeah. Centenarians. So, it’s about not just old people, but really old people, who are, like, still living pretty OK lives. Apparently a lot of them are in Sardinia. But anyway it’s called The Blue Zones and it’s written by a National Geographic fellow. It covers everything from why red wine and veganism might actually help you live longer to how putting your family first can help with that goal too.
Caitlin: Yeah. Ben, give us one. Do you have one?
Ben: Yeah, I got one. I’m pretty excited about actually. In the book, in The Organized Mind, Levitin talks about the fallibility of memory, or as you would say, why memory’s such bullshit. And I interviewed Daniel Schachter who’s a professor at Harvard. He wrote a book called The Seven Sins of Memory, and we spoke in April 2017 for the old Blinkist podcast back in the day. And so, the seven sins of memory are transience, absent-mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence.
And, like, when I spoke with him we talked about all sorts of stuff. And there’s an anecdote, for example, in the book about people who are asked about a video of a plane crash in Amsterdam and, like, two-thirds of the people describe the detail in detail the video, including, like, the angle at which the plane hit the building in Amsterdam. There’s no video of this plane crash at all. So he talks about the dangers of memory that people like, ‘Yeah, I remember when the video came out.’
Anyway. We also talked about how to actually embed memories. I don’t have to replay the whole interview, but just one quick quote from him. He says, “The best way to remember things is to quickly embed what you want to remember in your brain by connecting it to other things.” So when you want to remember something you just learned, try to ask yourself questions about the information: how much do I like it? How does it relate to other things? If I say, here’s a word “democracy”, remember this word “democracy.” You should be like, how does this apply to me? OK, yeah. There’s an election in Germany coming up or something. And if you link it just like that, or if you say democracy that reminds me of, I don’t know, the American political system that gives me weird feelings. OK, you’ve already probably encoded it enough. And so, there are ways to kind of work with this with memory and with its fallibility bullshitness. But it’s interesting how weak it is.
Caitlin: Yeah, you know, what I really loved about reading Daniel Levitin’s book and talking with him and what I like about a lot of like practical neuroscientists in general is that it doesn’t deny the fact that the brain is a weird kind of beautiful, but relatively rickety structure, and you have to just kind of like learn how to work with it. Just like you know how to close your crappy car door so it doesn’t squeak it like 2 a.m. when you get back and pull into the garage. You have to, like, learn little tips and tricks that will help your brain do its job because it’s this thing that you love and have to take care of, and, presumably, want to have for a long time and work with. So it’s like learning its little weirdnesses and quiddities and ins and outs, and I think that’s really really cool.
Ben: Nice. It is a nice note to end on.
Caitlin: Work with your brain its rickety, but nice.
Ben: Alright, thanks for listening to this episode of Simplify. It was produced by me, Ben Schuman-Stoler, Caitlin Schiller, Nat Darozhkina and Ody Constantinou, who once helped solve a crime by opening up a colleague’s MacBook Pro, where the stolen money was found.
Ben: It was… You had to be there.
Caitlin: God. That must’ve been one of those days when I worked from home. Alright, so if you heard something that stuck with you in this episode because you embedded it. I hope that you will share it with someone. Podcasts are a great way to start a conversation, so share it was somebody you like.
Ben: Yeah, and thanks everyone who subscribed to Simplify on Google Play, Overcast, Apple podcast, Stitcher, Pocket Casts, wherever you listen. We really appreciate it if you also leave us a rating or give us a shout out there, it helps us spread the word, and we’re thankful for that.
Caitlin: Yeah. Thank you. And we are also on Twitter. I’m @CaitlinSchiller and you can find Ben at…
Caitlin: Great. OK. Cool, so last thing. Simplify is made by the same people who make Blinkist. Blinkist, if you didn’t already know, is a learning app that takes insights from the world’s best-selling non-fiction books and creates something better than summaries, it condenses them into these focused little capsules of knowledge that you can listen to or read and just about 15 minutes.
Ben: Right. And if you want to try it out, we made a voucher code, so you can check it out for free. You get 14 days for free, if you go to blinkist.com/friends and type in the voucher code orwell at blinkist.com/friends. So go check it out if you want to.
Caitlin: Right. And OK, this is the real last thing. Thank you for sending in all of your answers to the question ‘What have you learned was much simpler or easier than you initially thought it was?’ We would like to have more of them because we love having you guys and your voices in our midrolls. Plus, the stories are interesting. So, if you would like to be on a future episode of Simplify, then record a voice memo with your answer to the question ‘What have you learned was much easier/simpler than you thought it was?’ and email it to me and Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ben: Yeah, we appreciate that also.
Ben: Alright. Well, we’ll be back next week with another episode of Simplify. In the meantime, be good. This is Ben…
Caitlin: And Caitlin! Checking out.
Ben: Checking out. See you guys!