Sunday, July 18, 2010

Psychic Entropy

Psychic: of or related to the psyche (mind)
Entropy: :a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder, also: chaos, disorganization, randomness.

"Negative emotions like sadness, fear, anxiety, or boredom produce 'psychic entropy' in the mind, that is, a state in which we cannot use attention effectively to deal with external tasks, because we need it to restore an inner subjective order." (Finding Flow, Csikzentmihalyi).

Every second, human senses receive hundreds of millions of bits of data, and a large function of what the mind does is to filter those sensations, to insure that the conscious mind is aware of the ones that are most important for it to focus on. According to scientists who have studied it, the conscious mind is capable of processing about 120 (give or take a little) bits of information per second. That may seem like plenty, but when you take into account that a single conversation takes about 40 bits of information per second, it becomes obvious that there is a limit to how much information we as humans are capable of handling at once.

If you've ever experienced being worried or concerned about something and not being able to deal with the rest of life as well because of it, then you've experienced what Csikzentmihalyi calls "psychic entropy". If there are only 120 bits of information processing available to you at any given second, then anything that distracts from the specific task at hand lessens significantly your effectiveness in what you're trying to accomplish. Sometimes it's a material distraction, something going on around you that pulls at you, but even more often it's internal things that are the distractions. An example is what David Allen, in Getting Things Done, calls open loops, things you've said you'll do or committed to, that nag on the corners of your consciousness till you do them, consuming processing capabilities that you need to use to function in day to day life.

Often, it's the solution is simply a function of identifying the thing that is causing anxiety or inattention, whether internal or external. Unfortunately, due to the same sort of apathy I talked about in the last post, even if we do identify the things that cause us anxiety, that nag at our consciousness, we don't fix them. I've realized recently that often when there is something I need or want to do, even something simple, that I spend far more energy trying to ignore the fact that it's wearing on me mentally than I would if I just did it or fixed the problem, thus reducing psychic entropy in my mind, allowing me to give more complete focus to the task at hand.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Self Sabotaging Creatures

"If we really want to live, we'd better start at once to try;
If we don't, it doesn't matter, but we'd better start to die."
William H. Audent

I've been thinking recently about how often humans set themselves up to be miserable. In a lecture for TED, philosopher and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi spoke of his experience as a child during WWII, observing that most the adults around him fell to pieces when they lost their jobs or possessions, and realizing that the average human being doesn't actually know what it takes to have a happy or meaningful life. In It's All Too Much, a book on home organization by Peter Walsh, the author begins his process of helping people take back their homes from clutter by asking them to think about what their ideal life would be. If your life and your home could look like whatever you wanted it to, what would that be? He observes that most of the people he works with are owned or controlled by their stuff, rather than owning it. They passively acquire, without thought as to whether the things they are buying will actually contribute to the life that they want. A good example of this propensity is watching television. In Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert, he references a study done on the impact of TV viewing on happiness. In most studies of this sort, happiness increasing with a limited amount of whatever activity is being observed, then the increase drops off after a certain amount of time spent. However, this is not the case with television. There is a direct and immediate correlation between TV watching and unhappiness. The more TV a person watches, the less happy on the whole they will be. That's not to say that they are not temporarily happy while watching, rather, their lives as a whole are less happy as a result. And yet we continue to watch. Paul speaks to the same idea in Romans 7:15, when he says, "For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate." (NASB) I think we've all experienced this at some point. I'll sit on the couch, knowing that I'll be happier and feel better at the end of the day if I get up and go do or accomplish something, and yet I continue to sit. The impetus for success has less hold over me than the power of apathy. So I'm curious, as self sabotaging creatures, which we all seem to be, how do we think and act in such a way that we live intentionally, running our lives rather than letting our lives run us?