The Energonomics of the Brain

9 October 2007 at 8:44 pm 2 comments

I started another book by a neuroscientist–Read Montague’s Why Choose This Book?  How We Make Decisions (I’m always starting books!) and discovered my concept of energonomics to be a guiding principle of his exposition of decision-making.  He speaks of the need for evolving creatures to be efficient in order to get “the best long-term returns from the least immediate investment.”  Montague presents the brain as a “computer that cares” and speaks of “principles of efficient computation” as a way of connecting neural function to psychological function (in a “computational theory of mind”–CTOM).  He introduces the concept of energonomics when he begins to talk about evolutionary theory:  “Life is unforgiving, and so life’s mechanisms had a constant pressure to be efficient–to capture, store, and process energy efficiently. . . . Organisms that manage energy efficiently will do better than those that don’t” (17, 24).  He also launches into a fascinating passage comparing the energy efficiency of the human body to a light bulb:

The energy efficiency of operation for the entire human body is staggering.  The average hundred-watt lightbulb costs about a penny an hour to run, at average market rates for electricity in the United States in 2005: around ten cents per kilowatt-hour. . . . A human being sitting comfortably in a chair consumes energy at a rate of about a hundred watts, roughly equivalent to the average lightbulb! And this consumption is running literally everything–digestion, blood pumping, breathing, mental function, and a myriad of other processes. The brain consumes about a fifth of this rate; therefore, while sitting, the brain costs about a penny every five hours to operate, less than a nickel a day–now, that’s an efficient machine! (25-26)

This reminds me of a book I started a little while back called In the Beat of a Heart: Life, Energy, and the Unity of Nature, (see my entry “On Growth and Form” from June 2007) which I am now eager to pick up again and finish. 

I was also reminded of Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee while reading of the second principle of efficient computation, (“save space”), where he concludes, “The moral of this story: The smallest representation is not always the best in the presence of limited resources, that is, all real-world situations” (41).  My entry titled “The Energonomics of Evolution” touches on this same point in light of energonomics.

I’m looking forward to reading more about how our decision-making (a form of goal-setting and pursuit) reflects a form of energonomics at the level of cognitive neuroscience.

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Entry filed under: books, energonomics, neuroscience, science.

Energy as Divine Memory in the Age of Electracy

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