American cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin has carved out a respectable niche in the domain of pop psychology. In his best-selling 2006 book, This Is Your Brain on Music, the former musician and record producer – who has worked with the likes of Chris Isaak, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, Santana and the Grateful Dead – explored the neuroscience of our enjoyment of music. Levitin, who now divides his time between Montreal’s McGill University (he has cross-appointments in psychology, music theory, computer science and education) and the Minerva Schools at the Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, Calif., spoke with The Globe and Mail about our increasingly cluttered world and what science tells us about how to organize and free up our minds.
Why did you feel the need to write this book?
The fields of neuroscience and experimental psychology have learned a great deal in the past 20 years about why the human brain pays attention to certain things and not others. And why we remember some things and not others. Not all of that has trickled down to the world at large. But all of us can use that information in our daily lives to help us make better decisions, and to better organize our time, our homes, our workplaces, and to be more productive and happier.
How does your new book connect to your previous work on the relationship between music and the brain?
I became interested in structure when when I was in graduate school. How is it that the brain perceives structure in a sometimes disorganized and chaotic world? How and why do we categorize things? Why can things be categorized in so many different ways, all of which can seem equally valid? When it came time to set up a laboratory at McGill, I was advised to narrow my focus as a way to attract students, get published and get a lab going. And because of my background in music, I was interested in the way music gets organized in the brain and how people organize their music collections. All of that was studying organization in a narrowly defined context. But I’ve been interested more broadly in the subject of organization my entire career.
The writer Clive Thompson has suggested that technology has not only changed the ways we think, but it’s making us smarter, better informed, better connected, and often more profound. Do you agree?
I don’t think we should have less information in the world. The information age has yielded great advances in medicine, agriculture, transportation and many other fields. But the problem is twofold. One, we are assaulted with more information than any one of us can handle. Two, beyond the overload, too much information often leads to bad decisions. More is not always better. For example, if you want to buy a car and all you care about is safety, you know the parameters you need to examine – what happens in the event of impact to the front end or the sides, airbags, tires, etc. Then you start doing research on the Web and you are bombarded with information that is completely extraneous to safety – how good is the sound system? Can the leather be cleaned? What is its fuel efficiency? Colours, resale value. Wheel base. Sedan or SUV? There’s now a ton of research showing that introducing new information gets you off track and distracts you, and leads to poor decisions.
As weeks go, this was a particularly busy or distracting one – the continuing war in Gaza, the crisis in Iraq, the renewed Ukrainian-Russian tensions, the race issue in Ferguson, Mo., as well as hurricanes. Can our interest in these stories overload brain circuitry? Is it a bad thing to be consumed by the news?
Well, my answer needs to be contextualized. I believe in an informed electorate and we need to teach our children to become informed enough to have opinions on world issues, or at least to understand what the major issues are and who the players are. That’s needed to become a productive, voting member of a democracy. You don’t need to become a policy wonk. Just immersing yourself in these stories, or watching news broadcasts on TV for hours on end, isn’t necessarily bad, unless it interferes with your ability to spend time with and enjoy loved ones, or your ability to be spontaneous, or be efficient and productive at work. If the news becomes your hobby like golf or coin collecting, that’s different. So context is important.
Isn’t a key issue that we haven’t come to terms with the astonishing advances over the last century. Technology has changed, but our basic, human response to the world, our emotional DNA, hasn’t changed at all. The science treadmill keeps moving faster than our humanistic ability to keep pace. Agree?
I think that’s true, but it’s always been true. When people started writing, people worried that we’d lose the art of conversation. After the introduction of the printing press, people complained we’d be buried in an avalanche of books. The same sorts of fears were voiced after the arrival of television and computer games. Maybe there is a limit, and we do have problems, but we seem overall to be doing pretty well.
You argue that the human brain has two principal modes – an active, engaged, productive mode, and a natural or default mode that you call daydreaming. From an evolutionary standpoint, wouldn’t that daydreaming default mode have exposed our ancestors to more risk?
It is the default mode. It exerts a neuro-gravitational pull. But it’s not the only mode that was active in our ancestors or in us. There’s a pendulum swing or a seesaw effect. In our history, the path positive mode, in which we are not distracted, alternates with the daydreaming mode. The former taught us to harvest fire, dig wells, how to get toxins out of plants, build the pyramids and discover penicillin, through force of will and stick-to-it-iveness. But a lot of problems can’t be solved in that mode.
A common example we’ve all experienced is the solution to a vexing problem that comes to us seemingly out of nowhere, while shopping or driving or something not related to the problem itself. It comes from insights gleaned in a mind-wandering mode, which allow you to see connections you had not seen before. Many people say some of their best ideas come from dreams. Arguably the greatest Beatles song, Yesterday, came to Paul McCartney in a dream. And there’s the story of Joseph Haydn, who went to the first performance of one of his pieces and did not recognize it – that’s how suddenly it had come upon him in a burst of creative energy.
But the problems we see in the Ukraine or in Gaza, if they could be solved by simple logic, they would have been by now. These will require creative thinking and linking things not previously seen as connected. That’s why ceasefires are important. They give people time to take a step back.