Archive for March, 2007

The Neuroscience of Choice

The April 2007 issue of Scientific American has a “Skeptic” column (by Michael Shermer) titled “Free to Choose: The neuroscience of choice exposes the power of ideas.” The column reminds me of my concept of energonomics:

Life, like the economy, is about the allocation of limited resources that have alternative uses (to paraphrase economist Thomas Sowell). It all boils down to energy efficiency. To a predator, [Read] Montague [author of Why Choose This Book?] says, prey are batteries of energy: “This doctrine mandates that evolution discover efficient computational systems that know how to capture, process, store, and reuse energy efficiently.” Those that do so pass on their genetic programs for efficient computational neural processing to make efficient choices. As a result, our brains consume only about one-fifth the energy of a lightbulb.

He then continues with talk of how addictions take over the reward-system and also suggests that ideas do the same:

Ideas do something similar, in that they take over the role of reward signals that feed into the dopamine neurons. This effect includes *bad* ideas, such as the Heaven’s Gate cult members. . . The brains of suicide bombers have been similarly commandeered by bad ideas from their religions or politics.

Ths suggests that “meme management” is an energonomic practice: keeping tabs on the ideas/memes to which we give our brain-energy is an important part of overall personal energy management.

24 March 2007 at 8:51 pm Leave a comment

Books as Dragon’s Teeth

I attended a seminar on “Emerging Libraries” a couple of weeks ago in Second Life where I heard Michael Keller of Stanford mention “the Library of the Mind” as something that 21st century technology will expand.  He was referring to technology as what I call a “mnemonic prosthesis” which extends our memories and other aspects of our mindbrain beyond the body.  In an email clarifying comments about this concept of the “Library of the Mind” he made at a different conference (“the future is here; what are we waiting for?”), he recommended an old book called The Sources of Western Literacy by Felix Reichmann.  Browsing the book, I found this quote from John Milton’s Areopagitica:

Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve, as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.  I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive as those fabulous Dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.

This captures something of the sense that I have of books being energonomic conduits: they capture and store brainenergy, which is released when another reads them.  The physical energy that one uses to write ideas, compose a book, and publish and distribute that book, is stored in the form of the book.  The book therefore comes to embody all of the energy (or “emergy“) used to produce it, including the years and decades of the writer’s education as well as the fruits of cultural and political infrastructure.  Positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi recognizes this in his book Creativity, in which he provides 5th century Greece, 15th century Florence, and 19th century Paris as three exemplary milieu in which surplus attention led to remarkable achievements and advancements (see pp. 8, 32-36, 332-35).  Such surpluses come about when a convergence of economic, political, and cultural factors allow for a particular matrix of individual, field of study, and domain of knowledge to give birth to a creative (i.e. culture-changing) phenomenon.

One thing Milton forgot to mention:  the dragon that has books for teeth is green.

23 March 2007 at 7:31 pm 1 comment


While juxtaposing the Brian Swimme book The Universe is a Green Dragon and Manuel DeLanda’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History in a previous post, I noticed an interesting commonality:  the call for a shift in perspective from an anthropocentric viewpoint to a cosmocentric viewpoint.  As Swimme writes,

The switch out of an attitude where the human is the center of everything, to a biocentric and cosmocentric orientation where the universe and the Earth are the fundamental referents, is *the* radical transformation that we are presently involved with. (107)

DeLanda makes much the same point in his incredibly clear explanation of an incredibly complicated concept in the philosohy of Deleuze and Guattari–the “Body without Organs” or BwO:

The flow of genes and biomass are “unformed” if we compare them to any individual organism, but the flows themselves have internal forms and functions. Indeed, if instead of taking a planetary perspective we adopted a cosmic viewpoint, our entire planet would itself be a mere provisional hardening in the vast flows of plasma whcih permeate the universe. (261)

His introduction points out that “Many historians have abandoned their Eurocentrism and now question the very rise of the West (Why not China or Islam? is now a common question), and some have even left behind their anthropocentrism and include a host of nonhuman histories” (12).  DeLanda’s task is to “allow physics [the physics of far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics, nonlinear combinatorics, emergence] to infiltrate human history” (13) and to engage in “a sustained philosophical meditation on some of the historical processes that have affected these three types of ‘materials’ (energetic, genetic, linguistic)” (21).

22 March 2007 at 12:09 pm 2 comments

The Origin of Brain-Power

While browsing through the Brian Swimme book The Universe is a Green Dragon, I came across a passage that reminds me of something I often think about–how the flow of energy from the sun is channeled into our brains (3% of our body which consumes 20% of the body’s energy).  I also like to think about what happens next:  how is this energy converted (because there is no energy loss according to physics)?  Where does brain-energy go? 

Swimme starts by talking about how our thoughts result from electricity flowing through our nervous system and how thoughts result from ion flows in the brain:

Ions don’t move by their own power: they have to be pushed and tugged about. A close examination shows that an energy-soaked molecule in the brain is responsible for the ion movement. Closer examination shows that this molecule is able to push ions around because of energy it got, ultimately, from the food that you eat. The food got the energy from the Sun; food traps a photon in the net of its molecular webbing, and this photonic energy pushes  and pulls the ions in your brain, making possible your present moment of amazing human subjectivity. Right now, this moment, ions are flowing this way and that because of the manner in which you have organized energy from the Sun. (168)

Swimme continues to trace this energy back to the ultimate source of all:

But we’re not done yet. Where did the photon come from? We know that in the core of the Sun, atomic fusion creates helium atoms out of hydrogen atoms, in the process releasing photons of sunlight. So, if photons come from hydrogen atoms, where did the hydrogen get the photons? This leads us to the edge of the primeval fireball, to the moment of creation itself. (168)

Part of energonomics is tracing the trajectories of energy flow, knowing its source and purpose.  If economics is the study of “who gets what, and why,” then energonomics is the study of “who gets what energy, and why.”

21 March 2007 at 10:00 pm Leave a comment


I just picked up Brian Swimme’s book The Universe is a Green Dragon and was reminded of what an amazing, beautiful, important book it is.  Here is a long quote that shows why I think it could and should be a contemporary bible:

Most amazing is this realization that every thing that exists in the universe came from a common origin. The material of your body and the material of my body are intrinsically related because they emerged from and are caught up in a single energetic event. Our ancestry stretches back through the life forms and into the stars, back to the beginnings of the primeval fireball. This universe is a single multiform energetic unfolding of matter, mind, intelligence, and life.

This reminded me of Manuel DeLanda’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History which he says is “a meditation on the history of matter-energy in its different forms and of the multiple coexistences and interactions of these forms,” for, in his point of view,

reality is a *single matter-energy* undergoing phase transitions of various kinds. . . . Rocks and winds, germs and words, are all different manifestations of this dynamic material reality, or, in other words, they all represent the different ways in which this single matter-energy *expresses itself*.

Swimme’s book speaks joyfully of the ways that one might express one’s “matter-energy.”  He concludes his book like this:

Fires from the beginning  of time empower you *right now–this instant*.  What you are thinking and feeling this very moment is possible only through the cosmic fire. . . In each moment, we face this cosmic responsibility: to shape and discharge this fire in a manner worthy of its numinous origins. . . .We have the power to *forge* cosmic fire. What can compare with such a destiny? (169-170)

In other words, burn, baby, burn.

20 March 2007 at 8:30 pm Leave a comment

March 2007
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