Archive for March, 2008

Economic Decision-Making as Energonomics

Read Montague’s 5th chapter of Why Choose This Book? is about “The Value Machine” and discusses the brain as a system that assigns value.  For Montague, “Once life has started, valuation mechanisms were an inevitable consequence. . .” and every decision becomes an economic decision.  He traces such valuation even back to E. coli, which he uses as a simplified example of the human capacity to care.

Even single-celled E. coli are capitalists; they follow the money.  They follow the asparate, a source of energy and raw materials. . . .E coli has committed a large number of its internal resources to build, value, and respond to a model of the “aspartate world” around it. (120-21)

He then posits a hypothetical dumber version of E. coli (playfully called D. coli) that just consumes aspartate whenever it comes upon it.  Which would survive?

If aspartate were always available in excess, D. coli might well be more adaptive than E. coli, since it doesn’t waste energy trying to build “aspartate models” and control its behavior to run toward gradients of this energy source. However, D. coli is “dumb” because the real world is simply not that accommodating. External energy sources aren’t uniformly distributed, nor are they always plentiful. E. coli’s energetic investment into model-building is sensible, and amounts to splitting the net energy from each aspartate molecule consumed into two separate streams:  one for fuel and one for information to be used to build a better model of its “aspartate world”–a modeling stream. (121-22)

Now if a little single-celled creature is doing all that, imagine the energy that big-brained humans are expending!  In fact, I recall reading that the complexity of human brains emerged as a result of the complexity of surviving among a social species.

The challenge in studying human decision-making is in understanding how the economic decisions we make “follow the energy” in the same way that E. coli does.  A further challenge–the ultimate challenge?–is in getting people to make the right decisions, ones that lead to optimal physical and mental health.  An article in today’s Boston Globe addresses this challenge among the poor.


30 March 2008 at 10:06 pm Leave a comment

The Energonomics of Memes

I have picked up Why Choose This Book? again (which I first mentioned in “Energonomics of the Brain“). Chapter 4, titled “Sharks Don’t Go On Hunger Strikes,” speaks of the power of memes, of abstract ideas, to circumvent our instincts for survival. He starts with the Heaven’s Gate cult tragedy as a way to introduce the chapter:

The amazing part of the Heaven’s Gate story is that the cult members used an abstract idea–going to the “next level”–to veto their powerful instincts to survive. This act defines a behavioral superpower–the capacity to veto survival instincts to the point of death. . . . A mere idea hijacked the controls of these people’s brains and drove their bodies off a cliff (88-89).

Montague then explains how abstract goals become substituted for fundamental instincts like eating and procreating:

Ideas gain the power of rewards and become instantly meaningful to the rest of the brain. . . . Now, this kind of trick provides for an extremely creative learning machine. It can choose to ignore its instincts momentarily and pursue a thought to the exclusion of everything else. It is easy to see how such a power could be useful for generating cognitive innovations. An idea with the beckoning power of ice cream can control a succession of thoughts for some time. The effect is just like foraging for food hidden under rocks and behind bushes in a field. . . . Cool trick. Redeploy foraging in the pursuit of cognitive innovation. Foraging fields for food becomes foraging a mental storehouse for new ideas. (111)

Now anyone associated with academia will recognize this process: how one can go for hours without eating and without thinking about it as one pursues an idea to its limits. Here, ideas become equivalent to the goals of basic instincts: finding food, or having sex.

Memes, then, become a way of channeling brain energy toward particular goals which may or may not be in the best interests of one’s survival, as in the case of the Heaven’s Gate cult members. Montague’s work goes a long way toward understanding the process of how such a system can evolve, as well as what makes us as humans so different from other animals.

29 March 2008 at 1:18 pm Leave a comment


The March/April 2008 issue of Psychology Today had a number of stimulating articles, many of which might fall under this sub-category of energonomics I’m calling “psychoenergonomics.” (See my previous posts on this meme under a new tag by the same name). One titled “Second Nature” is about how we can change habits of personality (i.e. manage the energy in our brains) to make us more optimistic, passionate, joyful and courageous. I recently posted on this emergent field of “Eudaimonics.” There is the act of what Loyola University psychologist Fred Bryant calls in his new book (Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience) “savoring”: “the art of managing positive feelings. Whereas coping well means dealing successfully with problems and setbacks, savoring–glorying in what goes right–is an equally crucial emotional competence” (78).

A different article, titled “The Making of a Perfectionist,” is about how the way children are praised can affect their emotional stability, their ability to be satisfied. As a reformed perfectionist (haven’t quite got the reform part down perfectly just yet, though…), I recognize myself in this article and the kind of familial dynamics that produces a perfectionist. We have to learn how to be parents, learn what to say and how to say to our children, to avoid causing major problems in the way energy flows through their brains.

A third article, titled “Consuming Passions,” is also about managing mental energy–the evolutionary tendency to overeat and binge. The ultimate form of energonomics for each of us is managing caloric intake–how much energy do we take into our bodies? Is there a balance between what we take in and what we burn off? Evolution has also pre-disposed us to enjoy and reward gluttonous behavior with the use of dopamine such that “obesity, eating disorders, and even the ordinary urges of appetite might resemble addiction” (100).  In fact, “brain hunger” (when we want food but don’t need food) has some of the same neural pathways as orgasm!  One doctor says, “Now we’re not just talking about energy balance… We’re talking about human psychology” (100).

So the ultimate point here is that personal energonomics becomes psychoenergonomics:  in order to manage the influx of calories, we have to learn how to manage the energy in our minds.

12 March 2008 at 12:49 am Leave a comment

The Energonomics of Leadership

I read an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe today titled “The Power of Charisma” which introduces the work of Joseph Nye, who invented the concept of “soft power” and has a new book out called The Powers to Lead  This is an area that I wish to investigate further.  It is a question of where the manifestations of physical energy (that trajectory from our sun to plants to calories to human brain) go after entering the brain.  I have suggested in previous posts that concepts or memes are transmitted via language, which acts as a form of energy storage (in the case of written language) or serves as a kind of catalyst (in the case of spoken language) to concentrate the brain-energy in the mind-brain of another on a certain subject or meme.  I have wondered about the sociology of mass movements, whether for the good (MLK) or for evil (Hitler) and how it is that leaders are able to focus the energies of many to make things happen in the world.

And so I wonder:  what is the psychology of charisma?  How does one become charismatic (assuming they have the “good looks” required of the charismatic)?  Perhaps Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” could point the way to answering this.

I bet there was an evolutionary advantage to certain people being leaders and most others being followers.  Obviously, the well-organized band of pre-humans was able to get more work done more effectively; they were able to manage the collective energy of the group so as to maximize its potential.

11 March 2008 at 8:02 pm Leave a comment

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