Moraga native Dr. Daniel Levitin and the 'Organized Mind'
By Lou Fancher
Wouldn't it be terrific to turn off the digital world's high-speed noise but stay tuned to contemporary society's frequency? Daniel Levitin wants to tell us how.
The New York Times bestselling author and Moraga native has traveled the globe over the past four years penning his upcoming Aug. 19 release, "The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload."
Currently the James McGill Professor of Psychology, Behavioral Neuroscience and Music at McGill University in Montreal, Levitin has twice before used brain science to explain our attraction to music. He calls science "truth for now," and music "the most beautiful human obsession." In "This Is Your Brain on Music" (2006) and "The World in Six Songs" (2008), Levitin's hard science illuminates the auditory realm while his prose strives to preserve its mystery and magnetism. His new book targets the cognitive neuroscience of attention and memory, and charts a course for navigating 21st century pandemonium.
"The whole book is 300 pages of discoveries," he said in a recent interview.
Although he's cagey about revealing the book's exact, brain-busting revelations, Levitin is a generous, down-to-earth conversationalist. On the phone -- and on the pages of his books -- it's easy to forget he holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Oregon, worked for Paul Allen in Silicon Valley, taught at Stanford University for 10 years before moving to McGill and regularly writes and reports as an expert on neuroscience for NPR, The Wall Street Journal and other national news outlets. What's most apparent, is that Levitin is a listener.
Growing up in Moraga, he recorded or listened to everything -- his parents' conversations, the sound of leaves crunching under his feet on East Bay trails and his junior high school jazz band. He then listened to late-night 1970s radio broadcasts, and singer/songwriter friends he met after his family moved to Los Angeles two weeks into his high school career. Listening to music led to producing for rock groups like Santana and The Grateful Dead, and to 15 gold or platinum record awards. Playing guitar led to performances with David Byrne, Rosanne Cash, and Sting -- and custom amplifier modifications used by Blue Oyster Cult, Chris Isaak and others. His McGill lab's groundbreaking research has led him onto the world's academic stage.
But writing led him back to his "in the trees on the top of a mountain" Orinda home. Dividing his time between California and Canada, his East Bay retreat is secluded, offering a first hint of a topic he says fills a whole chapter in his new book.
"When we have a lot of things on our mind, they jockey for position in our immediate, working memory," he said. "Working memory can only hold four to five things at a time. If we hold too many things, we lose some."
It's an obvious point, but backed by his lab's rigorous research, the comment gains clout -- as does the research revealing people's limited capacity for making decisions. Levitin says his studies show that small decisions deplete as much neuroenergy as big decisions. Instead of answering emails, he suggests starting the day by doing work and accepting no phone calls.
Distractions, even music, are also worth evaluating. "I never listen to music while writing," he says. "I can't do anything other than listen if there's music on."
Still, Levitin needs artistic recharging, like any writer. He wrote for several weeks in his friend Joni Mitchell's homes in British Columbia and Los Angeles because, he says, "She's a wonderful gardener and has an inspiring landscape."
With the new book now well into final editing and production, Levitin has taken on a new challenge -- a position as Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute, a startup online university, he says training global thinkers is the four-year institution's goal.
"The purpose is to provide a top-tier (undergraduate) education that harnesses what we know about the science of human learning," he said. .