The Simple Thermodynamics of Enlightenment

The Simple Thermodynamics of Enlightenment


When S+H was conceived, evolutionary neuroscientist Peggy La Cerra, PhD, awakened to a new understanding of the nature of the mind created by evolution. It’s not widely taught, but the science seems pretty obvious.

My awakening happened in January of 1996. I’d done a postdoctoral fellowship in evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience, and now I was trying to understand a brain circuit involved in learning and clinical depression. It was a time of extreme focus on this project, and I let go of a serious relationship—a man I had considered marrying. What happened next was, in retrospect, neither uncommon nor surprising: I lost the desire to work, my ability to focus diminished, and I spent a lot of time in bed. But then, as I paused to consider this new state of mind, something remarkable happened: a flash of insight. What I realized is that the circuit in my brain that I had been studying, the circuit responsible for learning behavior and depression, must have downshifted with the loss of the relationship. This was why my mood had darkened. And then, suddenly, the thrill of having had this insight reversed all my symptoms.

In an instant, I grokked that this learning circuitry in my brain was doing a remarkably complex accounting of the things that mattered to my present and future wellbeing. The loss of a potential life partner had dropped me down physically, behaviorally, emotionally, and cognitively. But the insight that proved critical to my professional future raised me back up.

Why, I wondered, would we have evolved to downshift and upshift so quickly in response to such different life experiences? What was the adaptive pressure that had created such a mechanism in our brains? My mind started to race across all that I knew from basic science as well as years of research on the brain and behavior, trying to understand what evolution had wrought here. I went back to the most obvious facts of life.

Obvious Fact 1

In biology, you probably learned that all living things require a continuous input of energy. Plants photosynthesize chemical energy from nutrients and water in the presence of sunlight. Animals, including humans, get their energy input from eating plants or other animals. Both plants and animals have evolved systems that ensure that this energy is managed and doled out appropriately to do the continual work required to grow and develop, survive, and reproduce.

Not-So-Obvious Fact 2

In physics, you may have learned the Laws of Energy called Thermodynamics. The First Law of Thermodynamics—conservation—states that energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be transformed. In the process of transformation, some amount of energy is lost as heat. The Second Law of Thermodynamics addresses the fact that this transformational heat loss results in increasing randomness, or entropy, in the system. Entropy only increases with time, and the system becomes increasingly disordered. To stay alive, all living things require an input of energy equal to, or greater than, the amount of energy used for work and lost as heat, or entropy wins, and they die. At its most basic, life is a constant struggle to gain energy so as not to lose to entropy.

Obvious Once You Think About It Fact 3

Unlike plants, we humans and other animals need to move about to acquire energy. We also need to find shelter and to find mates with whom to reproduce. In other words, we need to behave. Behavior is critical to sustaining our lives, but of course our behavior also requires energy. So, unlike a plant, we need a predictive accounting system to ensure that the “goods” we get from our behavior will be worth the energy we expend. We have to get at least as much energy as we expend or entropy wins and we die. That’s obvious. However, the goods we need to get are not just food. Finding a good mate, for example, is worth expending a lot of energy. Losing a mate is a huge energetic loss.

Giant Leap to the Now-Obvious Fact 4

To ensure that our energetic cost/benefit equation stays “in the black,” evolution crafted a behavioral intelligence system—a complex energy accounting system—that can evaluate such widely different energetic outflows and inputs as breaking up with a potential life mate and visualizing a new evolutionary model of the mind that will get published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. The goal of this accounting system is to sort out which behaviors work the best in terms of getting and using energy to meet the various goals of life—and to use that information to stay ahead of entropy.

This accounting system is built on neural representations of our behav-ioral experiences, what we typically call memories. They’re capturing the essential information about our goal state (Did we need food, water, love?); our sensory surroundings (Where were we in the world? What resources were available? Who was there?); what behavioral actions we took; how much energy we expended; and what we gained in return for our effort (Did we achieve our goal?). Each includes all the information required to repeat a behavior that had a good result in the past, should we find ourselves in a similar circumstance. They can be also updated if a behavior that produced a good result in the past ceases to provide the same benefit. All of this is operating automatically, associatively, with one set of neurons firing others, in a continual energetic flow.

The ongoing results of this accounting produce various physiological and psychological effects that ultimately register as energetic feelings. For example, losing my relationship literally shut me down. I didn’t feel the desire nor the energy to get out of bed. What I didn’t realize at the time was that my inability to move was literally self-protective: My accounting system had determined that I could no longer afford to waste any more energy on that path. And then Eureka! My mind came up with a solution to a seemingly unrelated problem and I was ecstatic, staying up practically all night for weeks working out the details. Why couldn’t I rest? Because the same accounting system that had previously shut me down now predicted an energetic payoff; not just a research paper, but a book called The Origin of Minds.

The Irony of Modern Depression

While our system shutting down might seem maladaptive, we should keep in mind that our behavioral intelligence system evolved when our ancestors were nomadic hunter-gatherers. In tribal society, exhibiting depressive symptoms from the loss of a spouse or child would be a clear signal that the individual needed care. Relatives would step in to help, and this input of social energy would start to effect a positive change in the affected individual. Depression was not then, and is not now, a manifestation of a broken system, but a well-designed one, working to prevent a person from suffering an energetic crisis on a dead-end behavioral path. This model isn’t taught in medical schools or championed by big pharma because there’s no financial payoff in it—which is depressing, but also supports the theory.

The “Neural” Take on Enlightenment

The value of this energetic model of the mind extends far beyond a new understanding of depression. The pinnacle of the neural representations of our behavioral experience as processed in the outermost layers of our brain—is a ‘meta-representation’, what we experience as our autobiographical self—our sense of “I”. The conscious awareness of the transient energetic nature of the “self” arising from representations of experience is the threshold of enlightenment.

The Buddha didn’t grow up with Thermodynamics nor evolution, but he did figure out that the self is constructed by skandha—thoughts, feelings, sensory perceptions. What’s now clear to me is that everything we can perceive is a manifestation of energy, orchestrated by universal laws. And everything is connected—not in some poetic metaphorical sense, but in physical reality. Despite entropy, degradation, and death, the energy manifest in everything and every being will remain a part of this masterwork in some form. Energy, as the law states, cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed.

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The Simple Thermodynamics of Enlightenment

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