How the Slacker Brain Conserves Energy

I heard this piece on NPR the other morning describing an experiment in which people asked to memorize numbers of varying lengths (some memorized two numbers; others memorized seven) were offered the choice of a snack on the way to recite the numbers.  One snack was healthy, and the other was not.  The study found that those whose brains were consuming energy in trying to memorize the longer number were unable to resist the temptation of the unhealthy choice of snack, whereas those who weren’t burning as much mental energy in memorizing only two numbers did resist the temptation.

It turns out, Jonah explains, that the part of our brain that is most reasonable, rational and do-the-right-thing is easily toppled by the pull of raw sensual appetite, the lure of sweet. Knowing something is the right thing to do takes work — brain work — and our brains aren’t always up to that. The experiment, after all, tells us brains can’t even hold more than seven numbers at a time. Add five extra digits, and good sense tiptoes out of your head, and in comes the cake.

The concept of “psychoenergonomics” (of managing mental energy) offers insight into what is happening here:  because the energy in their brains was directed toward the rational part of the mind, it wasn’t in the part of the brain that helps with resisting such temptations.

30 January 2010 at 5:19 am 1 comment

The Poetry of Psychoenergonomics

While an undergraduate at the University of Tampa, I was assigned to read Leaping Poetry, which is subtitled An Idea with Poems and Translations chosen by Robert Bly.  The one concept that stuck with me from the book was the “lizard brain”:  for Bly, the wild, “leaping” poetry of Spanish poets like Federico Garcia Lorca, Cesar Vallejo, and Pablo Neruda manifests a kind of emotional surrealism that leaps among the three brains Bly identifies as the “lizard brain,” the “mammal brain,” and the “new brain.”  These three brains are all present in our 21st century mind and manifest the evolution of the brain from its beginnings.  When I picked up Bly’s work again, I discovered that he employs the language of energy flow in presenting this idea, and he hints at the possibility of directing energy from one part of the brain to the other, much like the concept of “psychoenergonomics” I have put forward in this blog.

According to Bly, the  lizard brain is equivalent to the limbic system, the emotional part of the brain that I call “the fear factory.”  This is the part of the brain focused on survival and “fight or flight”:  “The presence of fear produces a higher energy input to the reptile brain” (60).  Then the mammal brain evolved, wrapping itself around the limbic node; this newer brain focused on communal love and care.  “Evidently in the mammal brain there are two nodes of energy: sexual love and ferocity. (The reptile brain has no ferocity: it simply fights coldly for survival.)” (60).  The “new brain” is equivalent to the neo-cortex, the brain tissue of which “is incredibly complicated, more so than the other brains, having millions of neurons per square inch.  Bly speculates that “the parables of Christ, and the remarks of Buddha evidently  involve instructions on how to transfer energy from the reptile brain to the mammal brain, and then to the new brain. A ‘saint’ is someone who has managed to move away from the reptile and the mammal brains and is living primarily in the new brain” (62).

Bly goes on to suggest that “the three brains must be competing for all the available energy at any moment. . . Whichever brain receives the most energy, that brain will determine the tone of that personality. . . .” (62).  Spiritual growth, he continues, “depends on the ability to transfer energy.  Energy that goes normally to the reptile brain can be transferred to the mammal brain, some of it at least; energy intended  for the mammal brain can be transferred to the new brain” (64).  He suggests that meditation is a way to transfer energy from the reptile or “lower” brain center to the mammal and new or “upper” brain centers (similar to a previous post about the Dalai Lama).

The poet is one who should try to inhabit all three brains, tapping all of them in the process of writing a poem: the poet as brain-energy-manager.

17 October 2009 at 2:06 am Leave a comment

Energonomics and Pop-Culture

I have encountered a handful of instances where the idea of energonomics, or energy management, plays a pivotal role in pop-cultural contexts.  I believe this signals an emergent sensitivity to the need for humankind to pay attention to energy flow at all levels, especially the global but also the personal and local.

My first example is simple enough:  two very popular CCGs (“collectible card games”) have cards to represent the energy required to take action in the game.  The CCG that put CCGs on the pop-cultural map, Magic: The Gathering, requires the dueling wizards to draw their energy or “mana” from various land forms:  mountains, water, forests, swamps, or plains.  Pokemon cards are even more blatant:  their cards are simply labeled “energy.”

The second example comes from a Disney movie called Atlantis: The Lost Empire. This movie features a great blue Crystal dangling from the hidden city of Atlantis.  This crystal, the “Heart of Atlantis,” is an energy source that powers the city and citizens of the realm; without the Heart, the city and the citizens, who all wear blue gems that seem to be shards of the great blue crystal, would die.  Bad guys are trying to steal the power of the Heart.  The crystal was hidden away because it was used for warfare… Are you thinking nuclear energy?

The third example comes from a more sophisticated, popular movie called The Matrix.  The revelatory moment comes when tells Neo that (spoiler alert!) the Machines have created a computer-generated dreamworld  to control humans in order to change them into batteries:  “the human body generates more bio-electricity than a 120-volt battery and over 5,000 BTUs of body heat.”  After humans “scorched the sky” in the war with the AI machine/s, it was thought that the machines wouldn’t have enough energy, since they derived most of it from solar energy.  But they managed to grow humans for the purpose of providing their energy needs…

My final example is from a set of fantasy novels by Christopher Paolini.  The first is Eragon.  In these books, magic requires the energy of the spellcaster to fuel its effects, and if a spell isn’t worded properly, the spell will burn up all of the caster’s energy and kill him or her.  Late in the third novel Brisingr, Eragon learns of the heart of dragons (or “Eldunari”), which can store energy.  Dragons can transfer their consciousness to this Eldunari.  While Eragon learns of this, he asks, “how do they produce the energy he [Galbatorix, the main baddy] uses? Every living thing eats and drinks to sustain itself, even plants. Food provides the energy our bodies need to function properly.  It also provides the energy we need to work magic. . . .How can that be, though, with these Eldunari?  They don’t have bones and muscles and skin, do they? They don’t eat, do they? So then, how do they survive? Where does their energy come from?”  The answer:  from magic–“If one defines magic as the manipulation of energy, which properly it is, then yes, magic.”

Do you know of any examples from pop culture that we can add to this list?

24 September 2009 at 1:03 am 1 comment

Cultural Evolution: Energy and Information

I looked in to Robert Wright’s Non-Zero:  The Logic of Human Destiny, which has an appendix explaining “What is Social Complexity?” as a phenomenon of cultural evolution “calibrated in terms of energy” (344).   Then I flipped to chapter 17, “The Cosmic Context,” which takes up the question of life and claims that evolution “isn’t just a catchy metaphor for cultural change; at some basic level, cultural evolution and biological evolution have the same machinery” (243).  He shows how societies are similar to organisms in their conversion of energy into more and more complex structures, and he then relates energy and information, asserting that “though both information and energy are fundamental, information is in charge.  In human societies, energy (and matter, for that matter) is guided by information–not the other way around” (247).

He finds a “further analogy between organisms and societies” in considering this relationship between energy and information:

It isn’t just that in both cases energy is marshaled in a way that sustains and protects structure.  And it isn’t just that this marshaling is always guided by information.  It is that *it is the function of the information to guide the marshaling.* (249)

He concludes that

In societies, in organisms, in cells, the magic glue is information. Information is what synchronizes the parts of the whole and keeps them in touch with each other as they collectively resist disruption  and decay. Information is what allows life to defy the spirit, though not the letter, of the second law of thermodynamics. Information marshals the energy needed to build and replenish the structures that the entropic currents of time tirelessy erode. And this information isn’t some mysterious ‘force,’ but, rather, physical stuff: the patterned sound waves that my vocal chords send to your ear, the firing of neurons in a brain, the hormones that regulate blood sugar, the cyclic AMP molecule in a bacterium. Information is a structured form of matter or energy whose generic function is to sustainand protect structure. It is what directs matter and energy to where they are needed, and in so doing brushes entropy aside, so that order can grow locally even as it declines universally–so that life can exist. (250)

This makes me think of a previous blog entry which mentions a book called The Bit and the Pendulum:  From Quantum Computing to M Theory–The New Physics of Information, which posits that information is a physical thing just as real as energy and matter, as well as Stuart Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred, which also speaking of linking matter, energy, and information.  Kauffman sees “agency, value and meaning” (the title of chapter 6) at all levels of life, from single-celled creatures to human beings, and these agents, at whatever level, are what require and act upon information:  “information requires an *agent, a non-equilibrium self-reproducing system doing work cycles,* to *receive* the information, *discriminate* it, and *interpret and act* on it” (96).

Both Wright and Kauffman start with Schrodinger’s What is Life?, and both speak of purposeful behavior as fundamental to life:  for Wright, it is the “logic of human destiny” that he speaks of in his sub-title.

For the study of energonomics, this notion of information therefore asks us to consider how memes (ideas, concepts, information) steer cultural evolution, thereby channeling energy into more and more complex structures.

26 August 2009 at 10:47 pm Leave a comment

Energonomics and Morphogenesis

I recently read through a couple of essays by Manuel DeLanda, whose writing I find to be some of the most lucid in terms of explicating the difficult concepts and style of Gilles Deleuze.  It might be that I find it clear because I’ve been reading about complexity theory and chaos theory since the early 1990s, and in this decade turned my attention toward the study of the physics of energy flows.  So when DeLanda puts Deleuze’s work in the context of these scientific disciplines, I have a context in which to put his explications.  It’s hard to describe the pleasure of actually comprehending these difficult concepts!  I’m not sure I have a good enough grasp to lecture about them to an audience of college undergraduates, but I’m able to read through his essays pretty quickly, because I recognize the (un?)commonplaces of his arguments.  Enough on this.

In the two essays that I read, he mentions energy a number of times, so I wanted to tie his concept of “morphogenesis” (the genesis of form) to my concept of energonomics, or “energy management.”  The first essay is titled “Deleuze and the Genesis of Form”  and explains how recent work in complexity theory and far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics demonstrates that “no God need apply” when it comes to the “spontaneous self-generation of form”:  “the resources involved in the genesis of form are not transcendent but immanent to matter itself” (paragraph 2).  The simplest example of this is a soap bubble:  “The spherical form of a soap bubble. . . .emerges out of the interactions among its constituent molecules as these are constrained energetically to ‘seek’ the point at which surface tension is minimized.”  He also notes how other geometrical forms emerge from this same process of minimizing energy (one might say “managing energy”):  “if instead of molecules of soap we have the atomic components of an ordinary salt crystal, the form that emerges from minimizing energy (bonding energy in this case) is a cube” (paragraph 3).  He points out how Deleuze, in invoking these areas of studies in his own philosophy, discusses more complex processes like embryogenesis, “the development of a fully differenciated organism starting from a single cell.  In this case, the space of energetic possibilities is more elaborate, involving many topological forms governing complex spatio-temporal dynamisms” (paragraph 6).

I guess the point I want to make is how central energy flow is to DeLanda’s presentation.  In fact, it is “material systems which are traversed by a strong flow of energy” that are crucial to many of Deleuze’s concepts, according to DeLanda (paragraph 7).  He concludes:

Deleuze’s work is, from the beginning, concerned as much with physics and mathematics, as it is with art.  But it seems to me, only when we understand the Deleuzian world of material and energetic flows, and the forms that emerge spontaneously in these flows, can we begin to ask, ‘what is a novel or a painting or a piece of music’ in this world? (last paragraph)

The other essay that reinforces this connection between energonomics and morphogenesis is titled “Uniformity and Variability:  An Essay in the Philosophy of Matter.”  Here DeLanda approaches the subject from the perspective of materials science and the lost skills of craftsmen who had intimate knowledge of the materials they used as dynamical systems.  As he writes, “it is precisely this ability of matter and energy to self-organize that is of greatest significance to the philosopher” (paragraph 7).  The reason this is significant is because the “emergence” of self-organized structures is a pattern that arises at all levels of aggregate behavior:

An even deeper philosophical insight is related to the fact that the dynamics of populations of dislocations [i.e. defects or imperfections in a material that cause cracks or fractures] are very closely related to the population dynamics of very different entities, such as molecules in a rhythmic chemical reaction, termites in a nest-building colony, and perhaps even human agents in a market.  In other words, despite the great difference in the nature and behaviour of the components, a given population of interacting entities will tend to display  similar collective behaviour as long as there is some feedback in the interactions between components (that is, the interactions must be non-linear) and as long as there is an intense enough flow of energy rushing through the system (that is, the population in question must operate far from thermodynamic equilibrium).  (paragraph 10).

Matter-energy flow is deeply at the heart of DeLanda’s new “philosophy of matter” and Deleuze’s “neomaterialism.”  My concept of “energonomics,” of “energy management,” provides a different way of viewing the phenomena of self-organization and emergent, spontaneous morphogenesis:  it assumes that we as a species have some control over where energy flows and what develops as a result.  The future, that is, is up to us; it is open-ended and a matter of creation, a creation no longer in the hands of a transcendent God but in our hands as co-creators of the unfolding universe.

8 July 2009 at 1:03 am 2 comments

Controlling Toxic Thoughts

While browsing the new books section of the Haverhill Public Library the other day, I found Who Switched Off My Brain? Controlling Toxic Thoughts and Emotions by Dr. Caroline Leaf.   This looks to be a self-published book meant to promote the self-help workshops of its author.  The book includes occasional references to scripture as well as a dedication “To Jesus Christ:  My Lord and Savior, my source of inspiration and strength” and reference to “two important groups of emotions” she calls “positive faith-based emotions” and “negative fear-based emotions” (19).  She further explains that “Faith and fear are not just emotions, but spiritual forces with chemical and electrical representation in the body” (19, my emphasis).  This blend of psychologism and spiritualism makes it a kind of hybrid source, in my mind, questionable and potentially problematic.  The subtitle caught my attention, though, and made me think of the concept of psychoenergonomics which I’ve been developing in this blog.

The book therefore is another example of this emergent meme that suggests we can channel the energy in our brains.   The challenge, in my mind, is to find the scientific basis of and explanation for this kind of control, rather than relying on spiritual explanations and guidelines.  Leaf references the work of Dr. Candace Pert, author of Molecules of Emotion and “father” of the legitimate mind-body approach to health that this book frames in a spiritual context.  It seems that the book straddles the divide between a religious/spiritual paradigm and the scientific paradigm it invokes to legitimate its claims.

As our world drifts further away from simplistic religious belief, human beings will need strategies for managing fear, strategies previously provided by common and pervasive mutual spiritual practices.  With the increased awareness of brain functioning that neuroscience provides, hopefully such strategies will become readily apparent.  Some are already being confirmed, as I have reported in other posts on the power of meditation in overcoming fear.  These will probably end up being as common-sensical as some of Leaf’s suggestions for how to detox our brain:  exercise, eat properly, meditate/relax, etc.

30 June 2009 at 1:56 am Leave a comment

Local Food and Energy Management

After reading Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, I wanted more.  So I went straight on to his In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.  And after that on to Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. There is so much relating to the concept of energonomics–of managing energy–in these books that I could probably populate a year or two of monthly posts with these materials.  I already did a post on Omnivore’s Dilemma called “The Energonomics of Eating” a few months ago.  As a result of reading this for our Green Sanctuary Committee book group at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Haverhill, we focused on local eating during our third annual Earth Day Service and Fair.  The reading for the service was from Kingsolver’s book, a passage by her husband Stephen Hopp that makes many of the same points that Pollan does in a sidebar titled “Oily Foods.”  “Americans put almost as much fossil fuel in our refrigerators than in our cars,” Hopp starts, and after describing how food travels an average of 1,500 miles to get to our plate, he concludes:

A quick way to improve food-related fuel economy would be to buy a quart of motor oil and drink it.  More palatable options are available.  If every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week.  That’s not gallons, but barrels.  Small changes in buying habits can make big differences.  Becoming a less energy-dependent nation may just need to start with a good breakfast. (5)

Pollan makes a very similar point about directly consuming oil:  “Instead of eating exclusively from the sun, humanity now began to sip petroleum” (Omnivore’s Dilemma 45).

But, of course, we can’t just drink petroleum oil…So the alternative, as both authors suggest, is to try to buy locally grown foods.  So I’m checking labels on everything we buy now.  Where is it from?  Is there a more local alternative that I can choose?  And we’re making other changes.  The garden got bigger this year.  And there’s six chicks in the kitchen, waiting to grow into egg layers (that “good breakfast” Hopp mentions).  We’ll continue with our subscription to a local CSA (“community supported agriculture”), and I hope to organize a buying group of people who want to pay a little more for “grass-finished beef” and other properly raised meat animals (these farmers can be found at   The hope is that, with some of these small changes, we will help to make the big difference that many of us will need to start making if we are to keep the planet intact for our descendents.

30 April 2009 at 7:22 pm Leave a comment

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