The Overflowing Brain by Torkel Klingberg, M.D., Ph.D. (Paperback, 2008)|
(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you
want a hardcopy)
Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.
over 150 pages in paperback form, The Overflowing Brain is a bit on the thin side
for the academic work that it is. But what's there is (mostly) good. The book
contributes to the existing literature on the brain and attention,
complementing such previous works (by other authors) as
The New Brain (excellent) and
The Brain That Changes Itself
The Overflowing Brain isn't a "self help"
book on overcoming inattention. If it were, I wouldn't have read it. The market's
full of insubstantive self-help books that claim to solve "information overload."
They tend to dress up the obvious with psychobabble, and some just go
off into lala land. How some of these make the nonfiction list is a
wonder. Many have cute
names and are written by some consultant who pushes them at a seminar. If you
share my "how to do the obvious" fatigue, you can pick up Dr.
Klingberg's book and not worry that it will turn your shoes brown.
In The Overflowing Brain, Dr. Klingberg
looks at the inability of people to deal with an overload of data. He
refers to this situation as "information overload," but information is
something useful. If you examine what passes for "information," you'll
find that most of it is just useless, distracting data. Another word for
that is "noise." Tuning out and turning off the sources of this noise is your
first defense. In fact, it's pretty much your only defense. And if you
do it right, it's the only defense you need.
Dr. Klingberg glosses over looking at any particular sources of
noise, and consequently cannot provide solutions to dealing with them. So, let's look briefly at those for the critics of this book who expect a "solutions" tome instead of what Dr. Klingberg wrote.
Television, for example, is about 98% useless noise. That's why I stopped watching it
entirely. The folks who run most of the newspapers have decided to publish
disinformation rather than news, so that also is noise. Solution: tune
it out. If the ringing cell phone interrupts you, why do you leave the ringer on
or even have the phone with you in the first place?
Obviously, we don't need a book telling us how
to turn off and tune out (you either do or you don't). And this book doesn't attempt to tell us that. So, what does this book tell us? Essentially, it
looks at two aspects of what is commonly referred to as "our ADD
society" (not good clinical terminology, and not the way Dr. Klingberg
would describe it):
- The amount of input (erroneously called
"information") available to a person today.
- The actual capacity of the brain to process
All of this is based on research, rather than
speculation or anecdotes. And, it's put in layman's terms so that
ordinary people can understand the main indications arising from the current
research. I think this reading will also help people understand such
- The fallacy of multitasking. In light of the
Fannie/Freddie scandal, let's call it "subprime tasking."
- Why you can choose to be a competent driver, or talk on
a cell phone. It's either/or.
- Why a clean desk is not a sign of a
sick mind. Signs saying so are simply wrong.
From all his extensive research, Dr. Klingberg draws some interesting conclusions.
But a couple of those are incorrect.
One conclusion is that computer games aren't
harmful to the intellect. Per the metrics Dr. Klingberg looked at, that
is correct. However, he failed to examine the effects of relying on
video as a primary medium (as opposed to print), and that's a problem. This has been
thoroughly examined in the literature, and I'm surprised he missed this. He did
refute several negative misperceptions about video games, and that's good. But he provides an
incomplete and inaccurate picture. There are significant differences in
the brains of people who read and people who watch.
Whether you consider video reliance to be good or bad depends on
whether you value the ability to work in the
abstract. More on that, in a bit.
Another conclusion is that humans are getting smarter.
He bases this
on rising IQ scores. This erroneous conclusion was a minor point in the
book, so I'll provide only minor rebuttal. We are, in fact,
in the midst of a stupidity epidemic. IQ tests measure only seven areas
of intelligence, and there are many more. As a genius IQ holder myself,
I have a strong personal interest in this subject and am no stranger to
You can't extrapolate from a limited test of
intelligence that overall intelligence is rising, especially when the
meta data overwhelmingly point to an upward trend in stupidity. One
explanation for the coincident increase in both stupidity and IQ scores is the dumb are getting dumber and the
smart are getting smarter. The many flaws in IQ testing also undermine
Dr. Klingberg's conclusion.
This book consists of fifteen chapters, a foreword, and
backnotes. The backnotes are about 15% the size of the text itself,
which indicates the degree of researched behind it.
The first eight chapters look at working memory, brain plasticity, brain
bandwidth, and other issues germane to assessing how much data
processing capacity the brain has. As noted earlier, the author
says "Information" when he means "data." For someone looking for
practical applications of this research, the key is to strip out the
useless data so your brain processes information. There
are techniques for doing that. You can find these techniques described
in a variety of sources, such as project management training, time
management books, and the
Chapters 9, 10, and 11 look at the
issue of ADHD and the possibility of expanding the capacity of the brain.
It looks at certain thresholds and experiments in which people cross
them. Or not.
Chapter 12 tackles the hysteria surrounding
computer games, and corrects some of the disinformation spewed
repeatedly by the mudstream media. As mentioned earlier,
Dr. Klingberg leaves out some key concerns. However, it should be noted
that the author correctly makes the case that these games do not inherently make people stupid. In fact,
they can have the opposite effect. The risk here is that too
much video input causes a rewiring of the brain in a way that diminishes
the brain's ability to process in the abstract. You may know abstract processing
by another name: thinking. This is the "more" mentioned in the
"flawed conclusions" area.
Chapter 13 discusses the Flynn
Effect. It's interesting, but here Dr. Klingberg
really loses his way. That chapter then segues into Chapter 14, which
discusses improving the capacity of the brain. In dealing with today's
data overload, however, the answer does not lie what Dr. Klingberg is
discussing. It lies in simply
cleaning up the input to the brain. In the final chapter he looks at how
people may actually be addicted to increasing amounts of input, and how
this relates to the concept of "flow" that elite athletes talk about.
But this discussion is misplaced, for any
practical purposes. Since Dr. Klingberg makes frequent analogies to
computers, here's one to help frame the issue of whether to
"upgrade" the brain. In many IT (Information Technology) departments,
there's a ban on running a specific vendor's suite of "protection" products (I
won't mention the name). These products run enough Windows services that
they seriously bog down the computer. Uninstalling this software has the same
effect as leapfrogging the processor by a couple of model years. Put
another way, eliminating unnecessary loads on the brain will improve its
ability to handle the loads it really needs to handle.
And, just to make the point very clear, consider
this. You never see Tiger Woods walking around the golf course with an
iPod in one ear or a cell phone glued to the other.
Essentially, Dr. Klingberg is looking where the light
is better, rather than looking where the actual problem is. But often in
research, this is necessary so that the real problem-solving can begin. If
Dr. Klingberg were consulting and answering, "How can we make our employees
smarter," he would probably say not to bother. He would suggest first removing distractions
and then filtering data into information. In fact, this very concept is where
businesses are moving already.
entire discipline called "Business Intelligence." IBM,
Microsoft, SAP, and Oracle have invested heavily in this over the past
few years (we are talking in the billions of dollars). For example, SAP
bought Business Objects and IBM bought Cognos. What SAP and IBM bought are reporting systems that distill mountains of data into
small amounts of useful information. The industry name for this entire
market is business intelligence.
brains today really overflowing with information? No. They are
overflowing with data. The problem is one of input management, not
processing capacity. Many state and local governments have
recognized this fact, and thus have made it illegal to drive and talk on a
cell phone at the same time. Those governments force drivers to
manage their mental input, since we have overwhelming evidence now that
humans lack the processing capacity to competently drive and yak at the same time. You
have to switch back and forth, and driving is a full-time job.
Dr. Klingberg may trying to point to input management as the
solution to problems resulting from distraction, simply by exposing just
how limited the brain upgrade solution really is. The answer to the
stupidity epidemic is an entirely different matter, and not within the
scope of this book or this review.
For more good reading on the topic on inattention, I recommend
Distracted, by Maggie Jackson.