Posts filed under ‘psychoenergonomics’

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

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

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

Educating People How to Feel

I just finished reading Jeanette Winterson’s new sci-fi novel The Stone Gods, a profound book in many ways, dense with meaning layered via allegory and allusion.  It is set in a post-apocalyptic world we have destroyed by nuclear war, consumerism, pollution, and it’s about the longing for a “place to land,” a new beginning after the shipwreck of our birth.  At one point, the main character, Billie Crusoe (alluding to the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe), is explaining to a Robo sapiens why World War III occurred.  It’s worth quoting at length:

The theory is that this latest war was a crisis of over-emotionalism.  Fanatics do not listen to reason, and that includes the religious Right. Since the Enlightenment we have been trying to get away from emotionalism….all those so-called gut feelings that allow us to blame our aggression and intolerance on what comes naturally.

Yet the evidence suggests that rational people are no better than irrational people at controlling their aggression–rather, they are more manipulative. Think of the cool, calm boss at work who has no care for how his workers might be feeling. Think of the political gurus who organize mass migration of people and jobs, home and lives on the basis of statistics and economic growth. Think of the politicians who calmly decide that it is better to spend six hundred and fifty billion dollars on war and a fraction of that on schools and hospitals, food and clean water.

These people are very aggressive, very controlling, but they hide it behind intellectualization and hard-headed thinking.

For my part, I think we need more emotion, not less. But I think, too, that we need to educate people in how to feel. Emotionalism is not the same as emotion. We cannot cut out emotion–in the economy of the human body, it is the limbic, not the neural, highway that takes precedence.  We are not robots…but we act as though all our problems would be solved if only we had no emotions to cloud our judgment. (141-42)

Winterson echoes the findings of recent neuroscience on the centrality of emotions in thinking (think Damasio, Minsky, LeDoux).  The point she makes about educating people how to think is simple but significant.  It reminds me of a previous post about “mind control,” about learning how to control our emotions, channeling the energy flow through our brain (“psychoenergonomics”).

A recent book by Thich Nhat Hanh, titled The Art of Power, has exercises in its appendix for learning how to control intense emotions.  Perhaps we should have classes in meditative practice in public school, as the Dalai Lama suggests in Destructive Emotions.

27 July 2008 at 11:26 am Leave a comment

Cognitive Surplus

I found Clay Shirky’s address at the Web2.0 Expo today and found an intriguing argument for Web2.0 technologies (there’s an edited transcript version of it too).  It’s similar to what I’ve said about my haphazard and occasional attempts over the years to write novels:  “It’s better than watching TV.”  Shirky suggests that, even if kids are playing World of Warcraft or some other silly video game, they are at least not passively consuming the shows that he and I consumed as kids (for him–“Gilligan’s Island”, and I did watch my fair share of that as well!).  He suggests that it takes a while to figure out what to do with the “cognitive surplus” that results from economic changes that leave people with leisure time, and until we do, we waste our time getting drunk or watching mindless television (his blog post is titled “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus”):

Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened–rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before–free time.

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

I mentioned in a previous post the work of positive psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, who speaks of those historical moments when “surplus attention” (a different way of conceiving “cognitive surplus”) allowed for explosive creativity in the culture (5th century Greece, 15th century Florence, 19th century Paris).  Fusing Shirky and Mihaly with my concept of energonomics, we see the way that this excess psychic energy is being channeled now into experimental communicative practices of collective intelligence.

Just a note about how I came upon the Shirky speech:  I “twitter” now and follow a number of educational technologists.  One of them mentioned this speech in a “tweet” and so I pursued the link.  In my presentation on “mnemonomics,” I suggest that by connecting in this way to other people via social networking I have linked to their minds which have become an extension of my own:  “social networking as collective intelligence.”

2 May 2008 at 10:56 pm Leave a comment


While developing a presentation for a group of librarians about social bookmarking as public memory, this neologism “mnemonomics” occurred to me as a way to organize my presentation.  What I have been trying to do with bloglines and is to “manage my mnemonic prosthetics”:  if we think of technology as a prosthesis or extension of our memories, then scanning headlines from the WALL STREET JOURNAL, NEW YORK TIMES, NPR, etc. and adding ones I want to keep into my delicious account become a way of laying down my cyborg memories.

Mnemonomics:  a fusion of mneme (“memory”) and nomos (“management”).  A bit tricky on the tongue, however.  Try saying mnemonomician, for example!

8 April 2008 at 12:10 am Leave a comment

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