I was talking with my pal Gino Yu at his daughter Oneira's birthday party yesterday … and Gino was sharing some of his interesting ideas about mental energy and force…
Among many other notions that I won't try to summarize here, he pointed out that, e.g. energy (in the sense he meant) is different from arousal as psychologists like to talk about… You can have a high-energy state without being particular aroused -- i.e. you can be high-energy but still and quiescent.
This started me thinking about the relation between "mental energy" in the subjective sense Gino appeared to be intending, and "energy" in physics.
I have sometimes in the past been frustrated by people -- less precise in their thinking than Gino -- talking about "energy" in metaphorical or subjective ways, and equating their intuitive notion of "energy" with the physics notion of "energy."
Gino was being careful not do to this, and to distinguish his notion of mental energy from the separate notion of physical energy. However, I couldn't help wondering about the connection. I kept asking myself, during the conversation: Is there some general notion of energy which the physical and mental conceptions both instantiate?
Of course, this line of thinking is in some respects a familiar one, e.g. Freud is full of ideas about mental energy, mostly modeled on equilibrium thermodynamics (rather than far-from equilibrium thermodynamics which would be more appropriate as an analogical model for the brain/mind)…
Highly General Formulations of Force, Energy, Etc.
Anyway... here is my rough attempt to generalize energy and some other basic physics concepts beyond the domain of physics, while still capturing their essential meaning.
My central focus in this line of thinking is "energy", but I have found it necessary to begin with "force" ...
Force may, I propose, be generally conceived as that which causes some entity to deviate from its pattern of behavior ...
Note that I've used the term "cause" here, which is a thorny one. I think causation must be understood subjectively: a mind M perceives A as causing B if according to that mind's world-model,
- A is before B
- P(B|A) > P(A)
- there is some meaningful (to M) avenue of influence between A and B, as evidenced e.g. by many shared patterns between A and B
So, moving on ... force quickly gives us energy…
Energy, I suggest (not too originally), may be broadly conceived as a quantity that
- is conserved in an isolated system (or to say it differently: is added or subtracted from a system only via interactions with other systems)
- measures (in some sense) the amount of work that a certain force gets done, or (potential energy) the amount of work that a certain force is capable of getting done
Now, in the case of Newtonian mechanics,
- an entity's default pattern of behavior is to move in a straight line at a constant velocity (conservation of momentum), therefore force takes the form of deviations from constant momentum, i.e. it is proportional to acceleration
- "mass" is basically an entity's resistance to force…
- energy = force * distance
However, the basic concepts of force and energy as described above are pertinent beyond the Newtonian context, e.g. to relativistic and quantum physics; and I suppose they may have meaning beyond the physics domain as well.
This leads me to thinking about a couple related concepts...
Entropy maximization: When a mind lacks knowledge about some aspect of the world, its generically best hypothesis is the one that maximizes entropy (this is the hypothesis that will lead to its being right the maximum percentage of the time). This is Jaynes' MaxEnt principle of Bayesian inference.
Maximum entropy production: When a mind lacks knowledge about the path of development of some system, its generically best hypothesis is that the system will follow the path of maximal entropy production (MEP). It happens that this path often involves a lot of temporary order production; as Swenson said, "The world, in short, is in the order production business because ordered flow produces entropy faster than disordered flow"
Note that while entropy maximization and MEP are commonly thought of in terms of physics, they can actually be conceived as general inferential principles relevant to any mind confronting a mostly-opaque world.
Sooo... overall, what's the verdict? Does it make sense to think about "mental energy", qualitatively, as something different from physical energy -- but still deserving the same word "energy?" Is there a common abstract structure supervening both uses of the "energy" concept?
I suppose that there may well be, if the non-physical use of the term "energy" follows basic principles like I've outlined here.
This is in line with the general idea that subjective experiences can be described using their own language, different from that of physical objects and events -- yet with the possibility of drawing various correlations between the subjective and physical domains. (Since in the end the subjective and physical can be viewed as different perspectives on the same universe … and as co-creators of each other…)
In What Sense Is Mental Energy Conserved?
But ... hmmm ... I wonder if the notion of "mental energy" -- in folk psychology or in whatever new version we want to create -- really obeys the principles suggested above?
In particular, the notion of "conservation in isolated systems" is a bit hard to grab onto in a psychological context, since there aren't really any isolated systems ... minds are coupled with their environments, and with other minds, by nature.
On the other hand, it seems that whenever physicists run across a situation where energy may seem not to be conserved, they invent a new form of energy to rescue energy conservation! Which leads to the idea that within the paradigm of modern physics, "being conserved" is essentially part of the definition of "energy."
Also, note that above I used the phrasing that energy "is conserved in an isolated system (or to say it differently: is added or subtracted from a system only via interactions with other systems)." The alternate parenthetical phrasing may, perhaps, be particularly relevant to the mental-energy case.
(Note for mathematical physicists: Noether's Theorem shows that energy conservation ensues from temporal translation invariance, but it only applies to systems governed by Lagrangians, and I don't want to assume that about the mind, at least not without some rather good reason to....)
Stepping away from physics a bit, I'm tempted to consider notion of mental energy in the context of the Vedantic hierarchy, which I wrote about in The Hidden Pattern (here's an excerpt from Page 31 ...)
In a Vedantic context, one could perhaps view the Realm of Bliss as being a source of mental energy that is in effect infinite from the human perspective. So when a human mind needs more energy, it can potentially open itself to the Bliss domain and fill itself with energy that way (thus perhaps somewhat losing its self, in a different sense!). This highlights the idea that, in a subjective-mind context, the notion of an "isolated system" may not make much sense.
But one could perhaps instead posit a principle such as
Increase or decreases in a mind-system's fund of mental energy, are causally tied to that mind-system's interactions with the universe outside itself.
This sort of formulation captures the notion of energy conservation without the need to introduce the concept of an "isolated system." (Of course, we still have to deal with the subjectivity of causality here -- but there's no escaping that, except via stopping to worry about causality altogether!)
But -- well, OK -- that's enough musing and rambling for one Sunday early afternoon; it's time to walk the dogs, eat a bit of lunch, and then launch into removing the many LaTeX errors remaining in the (otherwise complete) Building Better Minds manuscript....
And so it goes...
-- This post was written while listening to Love Machine's version of "One More Cup of Coffee" by Bob Dylan ... and DMT Experience's version of "Red House" by Jimi Hendrix. I'm not sure why, but it seems a "cover version" sort of afternoon...