Posts filed under ‘books’

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

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

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

Deleuzian Thinking

I just posted over at my other blog called “The Electrate Professor” an entry on “How Concepts Function” which talks about “Deleuzian thinking” as being focused more on what thinking does than on what thinking is.  Rather than copy/paste, I thought I would just create the links to send my vast audience of readers directly to that post… I hope this isn’t cheating.

31 March 2009 at 8:36 pm Leave a comment

Managing Fear for Creative Thinking

A recent book I found at my local library is titled Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently.

While I haven’t had time to look deeply in to this book, I did read the dust jacket (first step in the process of “gutting a book”).  Here’s what it says:

What makes iconoclasts so astoundingly creative and successful? They overcome mental barriers that stop most of us cold. The brain has three natural roadblocks that stand in the way of  truly innovative thinking:  flawed perception, fear of failure, and the inability to persuade others.

This reminds me of a previous post in which I discuss “mind control” as a form of controlling the energy flowing through our brains.  It demonstrates another source that focuses on this same issue of “psychoenergonomics” and channeling the energy within our brains.

Aaron T. Beck, in his book Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence, writes of the evolutionary source of our brains as “fear-machines” and how counter-productive it can be in our modern lives:

Although the enemies of our prehistoric past, such as animal predators or bands of human marauders, are no longer a threat to our everyday existence, we are encumbered by the legacy from our ancestors, who were exposed to and feared these dangers. We unwittingly construct a phantom world composed of individuals who are poised to dominate, deceive, and exploit us. We are overly suspicious of actions that hint of manipulation or deception, and we may transform trivial or innocuous events or mild challenges into serious offenses. These automatic, exaggerated self-protective processes lead to unnecessary friction and pain in our contemporary lives. It probably was useful in our evolutionary past to react in an either-or fashion in discriminating friend from foe, prey from predator. It may have been adaptive to be on guard against the intrusive behavior of other members of the clan when our own survival was at stake, but we generally no longer need the margin of safety provided by these archaic mechanisms in our ordinary interactions. (33-34)

Gregoy Berns, author of Iconoclast, makes a similar point:

The human stress response, although sometimes rearing its head in the most inopportune times, is part and parcel of our evolutionary history. . . . But stress is different today. And while humans do not fend off saber-toothed tigers, we sure have our share of other stressors. The social fabric of society is far more complex than any culture that humans evolved in. And still, we carry the burden of millions of years of evolution.  (61-62)

Controlling our fear is essential if we are to release the energy of our brain from centering on the amygdala, the fear-center, and letting it flow throughout the frontal cortex, giving it the freedom to make associations across our senses and domains, juxtaposing the disparate areas of our experience to open the way to alternative solution.

Recognizing that fear can paralyze action, the iconoclast takes the automatic arousal associated with fear and uses it for something productive. The prefrontal cortex is largely responsible for this override control… (67)

Berns suggests “cognitive reappraisal” as a way of engaging the prefrontal cortex to inhibit the amygdala (i.e. replace negative reactions with positive ones):

The recent advances in neuroimaging show with increasing precision that cognitive strategies are highly effective at keeping the fear system under control, and these cognitive strategies have their origin in the prefrontal cortex. So rather than people needing to avoid the situations that cause fear or the circumstances that make them stress out, neuroscience is showing how the rational part of the brain can regain control over such toxic emotions like fear. (81)

The issue of controlling fear is complicated:  the book devotes three different chapters to the topic:  “Fear–The Inhibitor of Action”; “How Fear Distorts Perception”; “Why the Fear of Failure Makes People Risk Averse.”

I want to make one more point about this book.  The dust jacket speaks of the efficiency of the brain insofar as it minimizes energy expenditure in terms of processing recognizable perceptions:  “Did you know that when you see the same thing over and over again your brain expends less and less energy? Your mind already knows what it’s seeing, so it doesn’t make the effort to process the event again. Just putting yourself in new situations can make you see things differently and jump-start your creativity.”  Here, again, is the idea of energonomics:  managing energy flow, here in the brain:  the way to creativity in this case is to stimulate energy expenditure in the brain, to awaken the senses with new stimulation and input such that one is able to break out of conventional categories that the brain uses to simplify its task of monitoring the world for the purpose of survival.

The efficiency principle dictates that the brain will take shortcuts based on what it already knows. These shortcuts, although they save energy, lead to perception being shaped by past experience. How you categorize objects determines what you *see*. And because imagination comes from perception, these same categories hobble imagination and make it difficult to think differently. (57)

Again, conscious effort must be used to channel the energy in our brains in a different way such that it serves our purposes.

30 March 2009 at 6:22 pm Leave a comment

The Energonomics of Eating

Our Green Sanctuary Committee at the UU Church in Haverhill chose to read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals as our “book group” choice, and I’m finding it to be a seminal text of energonomics.  Pollan traces the energetic source of four different meals:  a fast-food meal, an “industrial organic” meal, a truly organic meal, and a meal that was “hunted and gathered.”  Of course, everything ultimately gets traced back to the solar energy of the sun itself–even twinkies!

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is about the three principal food chains that sustain us today:  the industrial, the organic, and the hunter-gatherer.  Different as they are, all three food chains are systems for doing more or less the same thing:  linking us, through what we eat, to the fertilility of the earth and the energy of the sun. It might be hard to see how, but even a Twinkie does this–constitutes an engagement with the natural world.  As ecology teaches, and this book tries to show, it’s all connected, even the Twinkie. (7)

It turns out that the industrial food chain links us indirectly to the sun via fossil fuels used to catalyze the production of chemical fertilizer, which means that “the basis of soil fertility shifted from a total reliance on the energy of the sun to a new reliance on fossil fuel. . . . Instead of eating exclusively from the sun, humanity now began to sip petroleum” (44-45).    Processing the corn grown with these synthetic fertilizers also binds us to Mid-Eastern oil:  “Wet milling is an energy-intensive way to make food; for every calorie of processed food it produces, another ten calories of fossil fuel are burned” (88).  The energy-dense foods now produced by this industrial food chain constitute the core of our dilemma as omnivores:

Natural selection predisposed us to the taste of sugar and fat (its texture as well as taste) because sugars and fats offer the most energy (which is what a calorie is) per bite.  Yet in nature–in whole foods–we seldom encounter these nutrients in the concentrations we now find them in in processed foods:  You won’t find a fruit with anywhere near the amount of fructose in a soda, or a piece of animal flesh with quite as much fat as a chicken nugget. (106-7)

Organically grown food isn’t necessarily better, if it relies on the industrial processes that the industrial food chain developed.  As Pollan notes,

A one-pound box of prewashed lettuce contains 80 calories of food energy. . . [whereas] growing, chilling, washing, packaging, and transporting that box of organic salad to a plate on the East Coast takes more than 4, 600 calories of fossil fuel energy, or 57 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food. (167)

Put another way, “the food industry burns nearly a fifth of all the petroleum consumed in the United States (about as much as automobiles do). Today, it takes between seven and ten calories of fossil fuel energy to deliver one calorie of food energy to an American plate” (183).

Throughout the book, as you can see, Pollan continually references energy as the forgotten factor in our daily accounting.  The implications of his book point to our need to manage energy much more efficiently if we are to negotiate the coming challenges that the planet faces in the 21st century.  The UUA‘s Study-Action Issue for 2008-12 is “Ethical Eating,” and this book definitely calls us to consider all that is behind every food choice that we make.

29 January 2009 at 2:12 am 2 comments

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