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.

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