Sunday, May 19, 2013

Musing about Mental vs. Physical Energy


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(B)
  • 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...


Stephen Paul King said...

check out
Recent advances in fields ranging from cosmology to computer science have hinted at a possible deep connection between intelligence and entropy maximization, but no formal physical relationship between them has yet been established. Here, we explicitly propose a first step toward such a relationship in the form of a causal generalization of entropic forces that we find can cause two defining behaviors of the human “cognitive niche”—tool use and social cooperation—to spontaneously emerge in simple physical systems. Our results suggest a potentially general thermodynamic model of adaptive behavior as a nonequilibrium process in open systems.

Ben Goertzel said...

Stephen: Yes, I read that paper on causal entropy.... I suppose it's an interesting part of the story. The relation btw their notion of causal entropy and Maximum Entropy Production remains to be unraveled so far as I know, but I'm pretty sure it's a tight one...

Mel. said...


Lots of silliness in that paper. That's what happens when physicists enter a field they know very little about. And know even less about the current progress.

Here's a great review of that paper:

Linas said...

You might be able to get some mileage out of the formal definition of energy from statistical mechanics. Its just the logarithm of the probability! More precisely, if you have a probability P(X,Y,Z...) then the corresponding energy E(X,Y,Z, ...) is given by

P(X,Y,Z...) = (1/Z) exp(-\beta E(X,Y,Z,...))

where \beta and Z are constants. Z is simply there to make sum P = 1 work out. \beta is the so-called "inverse temperature."

Its also interesting to contemplate the expectation value of the energy. If you scratch this out on paper, and work it, then, in about three lines you will notice that the (expectation value of the) energy (aka the "free energy") is just minus the entropy, up to a few constant(s). (The constants are boltzmann's const, the temperature, and the log of Z which is called "the internal energy").

That is, energy and entropy are more or less the same thing, modulo a certain amount of "devil in the details". This is not new, it was worked out in the 19th century, although we have a much clearer view of it now that we understand probability a bit better.

Linas said...

Put in words, this says that high-energy things are unlikely. (literally true, for an "ideal gas", and many other systems as well.)

But this does work as an analogy to mental states and arousal: it takes a person with a lot of energy to make something unlikely happen :-) High-energy people are the exception, not the rule. Its much easier to be a low-energy couch potato.

Unknown said...

"The world, in short, is in the order production business because ordered flow produces entropy faster than disordered flow" <--- This is interesting to me. I have tended to think that nature is in the business of longevity with probability as it's engine. I'm now struggling to decide which is more circumstantial or experiential. Considering the ubiquity and value of variation, I'm now seeing more measurable value in entropy. This is a serious mindjob...or maybe I just need sleep.

Anonymous said...

P(B|A) > P(A)

How does this reflect causality?

Maybe you meant P(B|A) > P(B) ?

Stephen Paul King said...

+Mel From the paper you linked: "The paper seems to be an obtuse way of saying that “agents prefer to maximize their future possibilities”. This is definitely true in some cases, but false in others. However, it is not news to psychologists. Further, the authors abstraction misses the features psychologists care about while stressed irrelevant ones. It is a prime example of interdisciplinitis, and raises the main question: how can we avoid making the same mistake?"

The reviewer is missing the key idea of the Wissner-Gross and Freer paper. Intelligence is behaviour that tends to maximize their future possibilities. There is no "preference to maximize ..." as such an interpretation is assuming that intelligence is required to act intelligently: an obvious case of assuming what one wishes to explain.

Stephen Paul King said...

Correcting my comment above:

Intelligence is behaviour that tends to maximize future accessibility of possible states.

Jim Whitescarver said...

What a wonderful article and discussion! However the leaps are huge in my experience. And it misses key points concerning all audiences. It is too good to be true for many I would think.

Although the nature of potencia was known by the ancients it is not yet common sense. The nature of truth at maximum entropy is the Yin Yang, quantum truth, in a superposition of state both true and false, having zero information/knowledge, but with the potential to become determined where the synthesis of the thesis and antithesis becomes the greater truth by relating two inconsistent contexts synthesizing a Vedantic like fractal hierarchy of context distinction.

Consider that time, distance and mass are all related to energy by constants. In that respect they are all manifestations of the same thing. There are even direct relations between energy and color and temperature. The nature of time and energy becomes one of frequency, inverse to delay exhibited quantumly, not frequently except by stochastic experience.

In the quantum, energy conservation is not enforsed, but probable in the short term. We expect conservation in the short term, but inflation in the long term because no information is really lost in the global view, it is just obfuscated by the chaos. We ought only consider energy conservation essential with respect to the present and is need not apply to the accelerating expansion of the future of our world, not other worlds, which in my view is what science ought to be about. The present immediately becomes the dead past which only existed if it is propagated into the future in our experience.

Finally, I would like to promote the notion of manifest information equals energy, according to frequency, where information consists of communications, or interactions, among a set of participants who exhibit an independent frame of reference in an information ecology that determines what is from our perspective by its prevalence.

This reality is an ecology of synchronizations that embody common logical possibly consistent logic decentrally which may yet to be determined.

Jim Whitescarver said...

The enigma becomes how potential infinite logical possibilities becomes finite energy in the here and now. Considering all possibilities is a daunting task which nature obeys mindlessly as it cannot do anything else. Least action, first opportunity, delayed choice happens automatically, though it be contradictory objectives. Only no action, equal and opposite happens globally in Hilbert space, but the distortion of nothingness, we perceive, from a biased perspective, becomes actual from that perspective, and is logically entangled such that it always was, and always will be true from that perspective on possible worlds (truth) with identity that has been bitwise discriminated and is thus entangled to be extant and immutable.

And so, potentially infinite possibilities actualize finite energetic being. The potencia is fundamentally infinite across time but finite with respect to actually communicated interactions, and generally conserved in the here and not thus locally perceived to be conserved despite the long term contradiction.

The discrepancy comes from the delusion that 51% controls the 100%. In real chaortic systems it is the one percent, by the butterfly effect, that controls the 100% in the resultant hierarchy of causality controlled by catalysts, not random possibility. How we control the direction of the movement of our arm despite the apparent laws of motion testifies to such causality. What is considered the most probable turns out to not be what exhibits energy necessarily in the long term.

While our thoughts may have a low frequency and no measurable effect on short term quantum effects, they clearly can constrain the future world very definitely by our choices where we have control.

Wikipedia says "The Lagrangian formulation of mechanics is important not just for its broad applications, but also for its role in advancing deep understanding of physics. Although Lagrange only sought to describe classical mechanics, the action principle that is used to derive the Lagrange equation was later recognized to be applicable to quantum mechanics as well." The important thing, I contend, to recognize is that it represents summary information, not discrete communications and a useful but limited linearity of a multidimensional system. It is a sort of eigenfunction or Gauge theory predicting our stochastic experience from a particular perspective or logical context.

The absurd statement of Anonymous, "Maybe you meant P(B|A) > P(B) ?", is not that absurd if you consider that "A" may catalyze "B". and the prior P(B) is greater than P(B|~A) but less than P(B|A).

Anonymous said...

Since the brain communicates through electrical impulses, you could give a more traditional physics interpretation to it. It tries to maximize its efficiency of the energy used. There are figures that suggest the brain consumes 20% of the body’s energy resources, and consuming more would lead to possible deterioration in the body that sustains it. Also, too much activity within the brain would cause too much heat, and the field of computer chip manufacturing puts a lot of emphasis on heat reduction, usually through clever architectures of the chip (multi-core models). So, the brain could be represented from a traditional physics standpoint based upon how it allocates resources within the brain, and how it maximizes neurotransmitter flow along with connection patterns (both of which can be described through physics, based on energy requirements to make a connection or release neurotransmitters). MRI scans of people with high level computational abilities or expertise have shown that they are able to perform those tasks in which they excel with less usage of the brain, and therefore less energy resources. Basically “Less is More”.

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