Bulleting “The Organized Mind”—Empathy and Fiction Reading

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My office mate, Barb, is in the habit of announcing, “I don’t trust anyone who does not read fiction.” I usually take offense because I do not read fiction. I, instead, read non-fiction books like Daniel Levitin’s 2014 book entitled The Organized Mind—Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. As fate would have it, Levitin provides evidence that suggests that we should not trust non-fiction readers as much as we trust fiction readers. Damn! It would seem that my office mate is correct in expressing her bias. Bad news for me (and non-fiction readers among us). I’ll tell you why we should place our trust in fiction readers in a moment. For now I’d like to say a few introductory words about the topic for the next several posts: Levitin’s The Organized Mind.

I found The Organized Mind by browsing the shelves at a local bookstore next to my favorite restaurant while waiting for a friend to arrive. How I found Organized Mind is an example that supports Levitin’s model of the organized mind (a topic I will cover in a latter post). I decided to buy The Organized Mind because from the introduction it was clear that Levitin would talk about one of my favorite subjects: Executive Function Skills. As I have blogged about many times before, EF skills include such things as being reflective, planning, mental modeling, mental time travel, empathy, focusing attention, and appropriately shifting attention (among others). However, Levitin covers myriad subjects that go way beyond a discussion of EF skills. Here’s a sampling:

  • What the Internet and the digital age are doing to the organized mind. This is a topic that others have written about, Nicholas Carr chief among them. And, yes, Levitin does mention Carr’s work. I’ve covered this topic in my blog posts.
  • Attachment theory makes an appearance but in the form of how the neurotransmitter oxytocin plays a role in bonding. The often used prairie vole example pops up. (Prairie voles tend to be monogamous and mate for life.)
  • Levitin spends considerable time looking at statistics. Levitin’s treatment of how the organized mind needs statistics reminded me of another (non-fiction!) book I read recently: Richard Nisbett’s 2015 book entitled Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking.
  • Levitin takes a veiled stab at postmodernism. He uses the history and functioning of the web site Wikipedia as a backdrop. Levitin essentially asks the question: “Which bridge would you prefer to drive over: one designed by a modernist, or one designed by a postmodernist?” Levitin bemoans the growing disrespect and disregard for experts and expertise (which is a hallmark of postmodernism).
  • Levitin repeats a message concerning EF skills that I have made in these blog posts: one needs robust EF skills to be successful in life. Others have made this same message. Russell Barkley, writing in his 2012 book entitled Executive Functions—What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved, would be an example.
  • Offload mind onto the environment. This is the overarching message that runs throughout Levitin’s book. As Levitin puts it, “[T]he 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.”
  • Dream Interpretation. Levitin provides one of the best models for interpreting dreams. I found this section to be most fascinating. Turns out that dreams are an important process whereby the brain organizes itself.

The above is just a sampling. Levitin talks about a number of other equally important topics. As a matter of fact, Levitin makes the same point I made in my two-part blog post entitled The Care and Feeding of Vinyl Records. As Levitin puts it, “Because record albums had to be purchased one by one [by traveling to a music store], because they were relatively expensive and took up space, music lovers compiled such libraries deliberately, with thought and planning [and care].” So, my plan is to talk about various bullet points taken from The Organized Mind in upcoming posts. To start things off, let’s return to Levitin’s comments concerning non-fiction.

Levitin points to research that supports the following: “[P]eople who read literary fiction (as opposed to popular fiction or nonfiction) [are] better able to detect another person’s emotions….” Being able to detect another person’s emotions is one of the Executive Function skills. So it would seem that people who read literary fiction have better developed EF functioning as compared to those who read non-fiction. Why would this be? Drawing from his research on the subject, Levitin reveals, “[T]he theory proposed [is] that literary fiction engages the reader in a process of decoding the characters’ thoughts and motives in a way that popular fiction and nonfiction, being less complex, do not.” Decoding thoughts and motives (e.g., reading someone else’s mind) are EF skills. It would appear that reading literary fiction engages the prefrontal cortices, home to the EF skills. Decoding thoughts and motives are part and parcel of empathy. Allow me to quote Levitin at length:

Empathy requires the ability to switch between different perspectives on the same situation or interaction. This requires using the brain’s daydreaming mode [1] (the task-negative network), and it involves the prefrontal cortex, cingulate, and their connections to the temporoparietal junction. Republicans and Democrats don’t use these empathy regions of their brain when thinking of one another.

As Levitin points out, reading literary fiction is one way to develop robust EF skills. Levitin also points out that parents should start early getting their kids attached to reading literary fiction. Sadly, the current move in education is away from reading literary fiction in school. I read one article that talked about how it was OK for teachers to now assign just one chapter in a book of literary fiction because reading an entire book was such an intellectual (and cognitive) burden for kids. How truly sad, especially for kids. Gone are the days of having to read Catcher in the Rye or Slaughterhouse-Five.

Now, I cannot end before making a case for how reading non-fiction may also serve to develop and improve EF skills. Levitin talks about “popular” non-fiction. Newspapers would probably fall under this category. Here I will agree. Newspaper reading will probably do little for the development and improvement of EF skills. How about Levitin’s book? Would reading Levitin’s The Organized Mind, supported by science and targeted at the general population, help out EF skills? I would say yes. Why? Well, for one thing, throughout my read of Levtin’s book I found myself trying to intuit his motivations for talking about the various topics that he does. I hate to say this but science is shot through with biases of various sorts. As an example, John Bowlby very much believed in systems theory and took a dim view of the reductionistic nature of behaviorism. Bowlby also tried to go beyond where Freud went by attaching to such disciplines as ethology, biology, evolution theory, information theory (a topic that Levitin takes up), and others. Too really understand the history of science, the story of science, one has to be able to look at and consider different points of view as well as different worldviews.

As another example, Levitin takes a stab at postmodernism (stabs that I have also made). Modernism and postmodernism espouse different worldviews. To understand why Levitin is taking a stand against postmodernism (although he does point out a few good aspects), one would have to be able to keep different worldviews in mind, different points of view. Only in this way can one come to his or her own view of things.

Science has many dramas to it and they do play out like good fiction at times. One reason I so enjoy reading John Bowlby’s books is because they play out like a good murder mystery. Is literary fiction the royal road to EF skills? Probably so. But I would suggest that to really get the full story out of science, one needs to bring their analytic as well as reflective skills to bear. So, maybe a better way to frame all of this is to simply announce, “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t bring their EF skills to the reading table.” As Levitin and others (like Nicholas Carr) make clear: reading snippets of text off the Internet will definitely keep EF skills away from the reading table. Maybe a corollary should be: “I don’t trust no snippet readers.”

In my next post I’ll take a look at another bullet point from Levitn’s The Organized Brain. And please bring your EF skills….


[1] We’ll look at Levitin’s take on the brain’s daydreaming mode versus the executive mode in a future post. I actually found this discussion to be most fascinating. Why? Well Levitin delivers a message that most EF experts do not: The brain’s EF centers cannot do their work without help from brain centers at lower levels like the amygdala, which most times delivers fear signals. To use a music analogy, a conductor cannot lead an orchestra that has no musicians. Without ever using the term, Levitin approaches many topics using a systems perspective. Like Bowlby, I enjoy a good systems explanation, so many of Levitin’s descriptions were music to my ears. My belief in a systems perspective is clearly a bias, one that others may not share.