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What type of energy are our thoughts? Answered

After reading lemonies instructable on frequently asked questions ( i really enjoyed the chapter on energy ) ive been thinking about what our thoughts are.The brain works in a bio chemical manner but what exactly are the actual thoughts? Are they energy at all?


It's a good question. One could easily argue that it's simply electrochemical impulses. But that's a mechanism, not the actual "thing", ie, the thought. Not sure. Not sure anyone REALLY knows what a "thought" is. Scientists can see evidence of thought, but I don't know that one can at this point successfully argue that thought is merely a set of electrochemical processes.

To me, it's like asking whether the mind is simply the brain or something more than the brain.

Thoughts are assembled information. Is information energy? I don't know. It may require energy to assemble, to transmit, etc, but I can't say that it IS energy.

There's a nice news report in Nature today about the information-energy-thermodynamics connection.

Hey. Well, I read both, but something seems a bit off. I can't quite place what I find "wrong" about their conclusions, but it has something to do with the assumption that by applying a virtual ratchet that they're not applying energy (potential anyway). To me, information vs energy is more analogous to impulse vs force. Impulse is NOT force, it is a force derivative wrt time, yes, but not force itself. And thought...well that goes at least another step into the derivative, although I'm not sure what that'd be in respect to.

Shame I'm not younger and richer or I'd go back to school and beef my degree so I could say something without sounding ignorant/obtuse. Too many years spent away from doing the math (maths for our UK readers) to be able to present a cogent explanation of what I'm getting at.

I don't disagree with you about the interpretation. The articles point out that the whole "energy balance" argument doesn't bother to include any of the (much larger!) energy required to run the equipment, do the monitoring, flip the voltage, etc.

I think the argument is supposed to be that while they are applying energy to raise the barrier to motion (reverse the bias), they are not applying that energy directly to the moving bead (they aren't kicking it in any direction, or rotating it, etc.). To me, it's a pretty weak argument.

"I think the argument is supposed to be that while they are applying energy to raise the barrier to motion (reverse the bias), they are not applying that energy directly to the moving bead (they aren't kicking it in any direction, or rotating it, etc.). To me, it's a pretty weak argument."

Agreed. that's what I meant by "ratchet. They might not be actually imparting spin or otherwise directly, but as far as I'm concerned, altering the boundary conditions dynamically, ie, providing a momentum barrier, IS a defacto input.

I'm hesitant, only because I would think people far more qualified, or at least having more credible credentials than me, would have said something about it already, which imparts doubt on my certainty.

Yes, but consider the following model (I don't know if it's actually what the authors used, but it gives the flavor).

Set up a staircase -- equally spaced potential levels, with each level having a finite width. Suppose that you can manipulate the stairs in such a way that any particular step can be kept in it's exact position, but you can move it's neighbors (on pistons, say) so that the direction of the staircase is reversed (down becomes up and vice versa).

Now start a ball bouncing on the stairs. It's a peculiar ball, because even though most of the time it bounces down from step to step, but every once in a while it bounces back up. Maybe it's got a little pager motor inside it like a vibrobot. Whatever.

Now watch the ball with a camera. Any time you see it bounce up a step, activate the pistons so that all the other steps switch direction, but the one the ball it sitting on doesn't move. You never touch the ball, you never change its potential energy (the height of its step), nor its momentum or whatever. You do use a big chunk of energy moving all those pistons, of course, but you haven't put any energy into the ball.

Its own random motion (maybe Brownian motion from the environment) causes it to occasionally jump up, and you take advantage of that to "encourage" it to be moved upward more than random kinetics would predict.

That seems to be the system the authors created. Notice that they did use a macroscopic bead (300 nm), and not some quantum system. You can treat their experiment entirely classically, just the way I described above. They are, in that sense, affecting the motion of the bead using just information about it, not by pushing it directly.

Also, see Physics World's write-up of the spiral-staircase experiment. They quote Szilard's derivation of kT ln2 as the energy of a single bit of information.

Information must be energy, since you can define an entropy (Shannon entropy) related to the "creation" and "destruction" of information. You might also look up Wheeler's "it from bit" philosophy.

Can you or anyone tell me what exactly IS information. From Wheeler and Teylor, it can't travel faster than light, and is something about people shining torches at each other. Is what I think at the moment INFORMATION?
Also in the last issue of Science Illustrated that reached me there was an article about Black holes or something, and it says that information can't simply DISSAPPEAR.
A sad question: if someone pours acid on my brain and it dissolves in two seconds, than where does all the information from my brain go? If it can't travel faster than light, than we can draw a sphere in with it actually exists at every exact moment. It's sort of weird...

Physics World just posted their write-up of the "spiral staircase" experiment. There's a nice paragraph on the energy-information connection,

Among the many responses to this conundrum [ Maxwell's Demon ] was that of Leó Szilárd in 1929, who argued that the demon must consume energy in the act of measuring the particle speeds and that this consumption will lead to a net increase in the system's entropy. In fact, Szilárd formulated an equivalence between energy and information, calculating that kTln2 (or about 0.69 kT) is both the minimum amount of work needed to store one bit of binary information and the maximum that is liberated when this bit is erased, where k is Boltzmann's constant and T is the temperature of the storage medium.

I didn't know that Szilárd predated Shannon by almost twenty years! It's also nice that they show the numerical relation between information and energy (kT×ln2 per bit), which is what you had been asking about.

Thanks, that was a fun one. I liked the idea, but isn't it the same when you simply hold the thing with your finger when it turns where you don't want it to?
This doesn't (or at least noone says it) have much to do with information. Also, what do they mean by energy delivered directly or indirectly? To hold it in place with a finger you also need information to do it in the right times, but the energy is delivered directly, if I understand what "directly" means.

We had a major conversation about it at school today. Imagine twenty terrible teenagers (15 boys and 5 girls) of which 2 are "well read" about 4-5 are "well told" by the "well read" ones, and others are not sure what are they talking about, but all of them are "being contrary to each other just because they can" instead of sitting down quietly and doing programming...

Well, you could go back to Shannon (see the information theory article in Wikipedia for a reasonable set of references). The brief, and poorly referenced, description of "information in physics" is okay, but not great.

The comment that "information can't disappear" has two different oversimplifications, both of which are misleading in different ways.

First, quantum information (that is, the decomposition of any given quantum system into eigenstates) is conserved by unitarity -- as a quantum propagates, it's relative composition may vary, but the total norm (amplitude squared) is always 1. If you throw a quantum into a black hole, does that unitary propagation continue? If not, where does it become non-unitary? If the propagation is unitary, then the information content must (by definition) still exist. If not, then we have a bit of a paradox.

Second, as discussed in the information theory article, information may be treated quantitatively as a form of energy. As you well know, energy can be transformed from one form to another (electrical or chemical to heat, mass to gamma rays, etc.). So, classically, one may presume that information may be interchanged with other forms of energy. In your example, some (tiny) part of the energy output of the chemical reaction came from the information stored in the brain.

Well.............................................. I'd be meditating on the topic for a few days, because I obviously need to read everything more then once :). I have two points right now:
First, in the "information in physics" they say that Maxwell's demon turns information into heat. What sort of information, and where does he take it from?
Second, in the information can't disappear article, they talked about throwing that exact copy of Science Illustrated in the Black Hole. It isn't quantum information, sort of... And it will leave quite a lot of identical copies on Earth, so it won't be gone anyway :)

You wrote, "In the "information in physics" they say that Maxwell's demon turns information into heat. What sort of information, and where does he take it from?"

You're familiar with the Maxwell's demon thought experiment, right? In order to function, the demon has to know the position and velocity vector of each gas molecule. He can then use that information to decide when to open his trap door, and collect the fast ones on the "hot" side, and the slow ones on the "cold" side. That converts information into heat.

You wrote, "in the information can't disappear article, they talked about throwing that exact copy of Science Illustrated in the Black Hole."

Ah. And that's what is wrong with popularizations of complicated ideas -- they usually end up being wrong. That picture involves throwing classical information in to a BH, and is entirely analogous to simply throwing it into a fire and mixing up the ashes with water. The classical information content (the words and pictures) is completely gone, having been converted into the heat, light, and sound energy of the fire (along with the physical material they were printed on). Throw a book into a BH, and you can make the same argument. The information merely converts to another form of energy, a tiny increase in the black hole's mass.

The thing about this kind of picture is that its utterly non-quantitative. The amount of energy actually stored in this sort of classical information is negligible (a few thosuand kilobytes) compared to the energy (and information!) stored in the positions and velocities of all the 1024 atoms making up the physical object. The difference in scale is 20 or so orders of magnitude!

Do you mean that if you burn something, the energy is not only bracking and rearranging molecular bounds, but also information on where each atom had been?

I mean that in principle. As I noted in my last paragraph, the "information energy" is quantitatively irrelevant, being 0.00000000000000000001 or so (roughly) of the total.

As a programmer, I'd call the mind the brain's state.

I don't completely agree with Seandogue's analysis (that doesn't mean he's wrong, just that I disagree), but I'm a professional physicist, and therefore a materialist.

There is a surprising amount of published, peer-reviewed results which relate very specific "thoughts" (intentions and perceived choices) to specific neural activity in the brain. In some classic studies, EEG and functional MRI have both shown that activity in the brain to prepare for a movement happens anywhere from several hundred milliseconds to as long as ten secondsbefore the subject reports their "free will" decision to move (in this case, moving a finger to press a button).

To me, these results are more conclusive than any philosophical argument that whatever we describe as "thoughts" are no more and no less than neurological activity in the physical brain. That means that in terms of "energy," thoughts are some combination of chemical and electrical energy.

I can accept your disagreement. No problem there. I don't think I have all the answers, just my own personal opinion. And it was no analysis, just a quick response. Had it been an analysis it would have been far far longer than a few sentences or even what little I'm writing here.

As to thought, I wasn't really thinking about thought prior to action, but more in pure thought, for instance, closing ones' eyes and conceiving/dreaming/scheming/planning/etc, which I suspect, but don't know is far closer to instant, even if not exactly instant.

For thought-to-action, I can see why there would be large delays, and in fact it should be quite obvious to anyone who has a physics degree and any minor in electrical engineering or mechanical engineering or biology, or any understanding of delayed response, since there is a finite amount of time necessary to go from a thought to a given action, dictated by the physical mechanisms in humans, as would also be the case in responding to any external command to think about something, which is the case for most if not all EEG and MRI experiments I've read about or seen documentaries about, whether that command is aural, visual or uses one of the other senses... (one I recall seeing recently was related to "mind reading", in which researchers asked volunteers to think of specific concepts, object, words while mapping the brains' response)

eh...If I had any sense, I would have glanced at the question and stepped quietly away. it's really not something I think about all the time. Just an interesting question within a question that neither science nor anyone else has answered to my satisfaction. hence my latest off the cuff answer

As a non-professional but degreed physicist that is. (we all can't get jobs in physics, there aren't enough to go around, or at least weren't when I graduated...)

Ah, but the "thought-to-action" is even more interesting, and closer to what you imagine as "pure thought." That's why it really startled me when I read the 2008 paper.

What the authors did was to set up a free choice experiment: subjects watched a computer display, and when a particular item showed up, they could decide whether or not to push a button. They also asks the subjects to indicate when they made that decision (I don't recall now, how that indication was done; my apologies for vagueness).

What they found was that the initial frontal lobe activity (where decisions happen) which then fed into the premotor cortex for translation to actual movement, happened several seconds before the subjects claimed to have made their decision! In other words, the delay is not in the setup and processing to actual muscle control, but rather between when the brain "makes up its mind," compared to when we ourselves believe we have made a free will decision!

The fact that the delay is so long (much, much longer than the hundreds of milliseconds needed for signal transmission) makes it almost inescapable that our belief in some "mind" making decisions and then triggering the brain to act is wrong. Not just wrong, but completely backwards. The brain does all of its processing, gets everything in shape to go, and then feeds a little story to the "mind" to make the latter think its in control.

There's nothing wrong with off the cuff answers, especially not from a properly trained physicist (who can figure out anything from first principles :-). The only difference here, I think, is that I remembered those two papers I cited.

No apologies required. I'm the last one to need that for these kinds of discussions I'm never going to get anywhere citing papers. I stopped getting professional rags when I left my last "real" job three years ago due to erm...budgetary restraint, and my learning process is more conceptual and less detail oriented these days, whether due to aging or brain dysfunction or just plain modern life TMI. I try to absorb and store the primary gist of a presentation, and if it's interesting and seems to have "steam" behind it, I followup for more details.

What does puzzle me in what you just said is that the brain essentially makes its decision prior to us believing we've made that decision. Somewhat disturbing, don't you think? Kinda puts the kabosh on the idea that we exist as something more than spectators. I'm still not sure I buy the experiment and would have to read the paper and have proof of subsequent experiments that confirm its proposition, since it would imply that we are in fact being duped into believing that we're something more than a grunting animal. I just can't fathom the idea that what I'm writing right now is essentially prescripted and being fed to me as a story, or that when I think I think of a new tune in my head, that my brain has actually constructed a tune to fill in some dead time between mundane feeding tasks and fed it to me as though "I" thought of it.. (although anything is possible...)

Perhaps, with regards to motive tasks, some precognition is going on,. I can accept that. But for creation thought? (And by that my brain hopes that your brain doesn't think that my brain means some religious principle forwarded by some other brain out of history attached to some other figurehead bag-of-water wrapper it encased itself inside)

You have hit the absolute core of the matter! It puzzles and disturbs me, too. "I" still believe that I have, and exercise, "free will," regardless of the data.
Nevertheless, the data is there, and has to be dealt with.

Of course, as a materialist, I don't have any clue how "I" could possibly exercise anything without the physical brain as the be-all and end-all. So I'm conflicted.

Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes.

I think the best answer today is that we are just scratching the surface. We don't have enough information to draw any sort of general conclusion yet. The philosophers can still sit in their chairs, with their cigars and port, and happily pontificate on who we are. But someday soon...

And you have hit on exactly where my quandary lies. If it is simple physicality, then "we" do not exist and are mere phantoms of our brain's self-preservation tactics.

I choose to deny this possibility. Perhaps the brain is protecting itself, or perhaps it's just a support mechanism like all the rest... I like to think that "I' (The I mind) exist somewhere else, slightly above the physical muck that keeps me on this plane, regardless of whether "I' will still exist after the chemistry stops or not. For me, it gives me something solid to stand on I would not feel quite stable without.

Funnily enough, I had a conversation with my brother the other night in which I forwarded a theory I've toyed with for years regarding who's really in charge...Perhaps we're all being duped by our white blood cells...all else is there to support their life, or our eyes, or the skin cells, or those little advanced coral polyps we call bone cells (My first thread was the teeth..we somehow got onto a conversation about medical progress in growing teeth, ie, for replacement...). Or... that big ugly tub-wrinkled mass of grey sponge tissue.

Oh great, now I can add primitive sponges to the list of what really evolved.

Self-preservation tactics? Not necessarily. It is quite conceivable that any sufficiently complex system with feedback, homestasis, and proprioceptive systems must eventually include a construct of "self."

This could simply be in order to have a way of organizing and mapping all of the complex inputs and outputs, and also to have a representation on which to "simulate" activities prior to physically engaging them.

We know (again, from fMRI studies) that the same motor-cortex systems are activated when "thinking about" a movement or speech, as when actively making the same movement or speech. There's clear an "interrupt" system that prevents the cortical signals from reaching the muscles, but the cortex is still part of the process.

It's not implausible that the "self" is the integral of such representations, and is essential for the brain to be able to explore different alternative courses of action without executing them.

Well, by 'self-preservation tactics', I *did mean a necessary construct designed to handle some "task" the brain needed handled.

We haven't even touched on the reptile brain that sits quietly snuggled inside all that excess tissue, handling autonomic systems and instinctive reactions like peripheral threat detection. There ARE two brains after all...In fact, there are three, although two are simply Siamese twin "elder siblings" of the first. In this, I'm starting to stretch my knowledge base. I know too little about the primitive brain to speak much on it or its "attachment" to the higher brain past what I just said without doing a review of brain info I purged years ago to store other things I've had to learn.

And then there are the multiple minds that psychology tells us exist within our consciousness, which I guess I should just shut up about because it overtly complicates what's already become a quagmire of deep brain activity.
That "must eventually include a construct of self" is quite interesting, doncha think, considering what folks are doing with robotics and AI and what that means for the near future...? My brain is more terrified of that than the imaginary me is of being a support mechanism for my master, uber brain.

Im sure some of you guys must have read arthur koestlers KALIEDESCOPE?
one of my favorite all time books.

No, I'm afraid not, or better said, not to the best of my recollection. Is that the one by Bradbury? And if so, is that a short story or an entire book? I found a few references to it, but no book title, just references...(I've read a LOT of scifi over the years, and if it's a short story, then the title may have been lost to me...In fact, even if it was a book, the title may have been blurred by time. Star Trek is burned in but although I've read alot of other Bradbury work - was StarTrek even a series of books before the TV series? - none of their names stuck)

If it's in a compendium, you don't happen to have a title I can search at the library do you? (Best Scifi of 1974, etc, etc.)

you will find on amazon also keywords...drinkers of infinity....heel of achilles

IT was a compendium of short essay and stories by arthur koestler entiteled kalaidescope,thats all i can tell you im afraid.No idea who published it but i think you especially will enjoy it.Not sure if youd call it sci fi although it has some.Perhaps the word chimeras may jog your memory ,who could ever forget that story?

lol, for a lucky/gifted/determined/whatever few, yes.(astrophysics, high-energy physics, etc.)

Ha! I'm glad you took that the way it was intended, I was expecting a barrage of comments when I logged on this morning : D

This may depend on how you define thought, but I would certainly go with the electrochemical answer for active processing of information. Some of the information storage, especially stuff at the reflex level, is hardwired, but it still takes electrochemical energy to push inputs through those systems and get outputs in response.

Personally, I don't feel any need to speculate beyond that; I don't pretend to be anything but a smart ape. Your milage may vary.

(Well, actually I sometimes pretend to be a cat, but that's a different matter.)

yeah imagine having the ability to catch a 3cm long shrew in the middle of a field on a pitch black night.........and climb a wall thats 20 times your size in one bound ..............i have cats and super powers are real.

When you pretend to be a cat, are you alive or dead? Or just sleeping?

So far the subjective evidence is "alive", but remember, we're part of the same system until something opens the box that contains both of us...

My take would be that while our brains operate electro-chemically our thoughts are less about how much energy our brain is using versus how the action of that energy is controlled.

On the whole I don't imagine (though I can't say for sure) that a smart person's brain uses a great deal more calories than a less intelligent person's brain.

Since energy cannot be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another, any energy that would represent our thoughts would have to come from our food (caloric intake). Therefore the energy in the food is the same (actually greater than due to waste) than the energy of our thoughts.

I think the point of the question has something to do with the idea that our thoughts have some special quality to them that seems like energy. We can send rockets to the moon with less caloric intake than a whale's brain uses and last I checked their space program consists of getting beached on shores occasionally and we have to undo their "science" to get them back to a more watery place.

So what is that? What makes our brains do more with less energy? I would say it's not about how much energy the brain is using. I wonder if it's that our brain uses energy more efficiently than other animals. Are our brains the Prius of the animal world? Even that doesn't seem like it's a good enough answer.

To look at it another way, old calculators (really old, adding machines really). Used more energy than my iPod, but my iPod has a calculator that is better than those adding machines. It's mainly an issue of complexity and having more paths for energy to travel down (transistors) than the raw amount of energy used.

So it's the number of possible states that our brains can be in that accounts for what they accomplish rather than the amount of energy they consume or put out. A gallon of muriatic acid probably has more total chemical energy in it than my brain has but let's see it get this far in answering this question! Ha! I win gallon of acid!

I kinda look at it the way you stated in your opening sentence "how the action of that energy is controlled".

And that for me is where the murk lies. Thinking to me, is something that resides above the electrochemistry that it both requires to operate and which it causes to occur. Not simple bio-mechanical response which all organisms have, (hot..move hand...look at pretty picture of blue. ok, now I snapshot with MRI), simply because they are un-isolated, like a combustion process in gravity with it's diffusive properties quite neatly hidden by convection, but abstract thought, separate from physical action. To the best of my knowledge, although many experiments have been done that utilize interaction with sight, sound, touch, etc and brain response, no such experiments have been done on pure abstract thought.

"To the best of my knowledge, although many experiments have been done that utilize interaction with sight, sound, touch, etc and brain response, no such experiments have been done on pure abstract thought."

I don't think you can, because you need some sort of interaction in order to know what to trigger on, and what to measure. Stick someone into an fMRI (or an EEG) with no explicit inputs, and their brain is constantly firing. Unless you ask, how do you know what all that activity means, or what it's correlated with? Unless you provide a gate (start trigger, measure, stop trigger) you don't have any information from which to draw conclusions or do science. You just have the same pointless philosophizing we've had since Berkeley.

Exactly. A quasi-Heisenbergian paradox (I think). If you ask the participant to tell you what they're thinking about, then they have to interact, which means a physical response, which means delays.

Pointless? eh...idk about that. my brain likes it. Like getting into a cold lap pool. uncomfortable at first, but as the swimming heats things up, it becomes a happy place, or can anyway. One thing that philosophical meanderings are good for is stimulating the brain. Forces us to think beyond convention.

Why on earth do you think le agente provocateur (aka afridave) asked?...

I think Afridave asked a really good question. The New Agey mumbo jumbo artists are constantly talking about "energy this" and "energy that." Well, fine. If our thoughts really are "energy," then they should be subject to the same physical laws as every other kind of energy. So what kind of energy are they?

Take a look at the thoughtful, intelligent discussion this topic engendered. There's clearly something worthwhile involved (and hence my thank-you post).

I don't think that you can have a truly "abstract thought" unless under the influence of mind altering drugs. I think Bono said it best, "Every artist is a cannibal. Every poet is a thief." Which means to me that all our thoughts are derivative of something. Abstract to me would mean a thought so random that it is not derivative of anything, otherwise you're just daydreaming. Correct me if I'm thinking about that wrong.

We stand on the shoulders of giants

I think what Seandogue meant by "abstract" or "pure" was more along the lines of "not conected to bodily movement." In other words, "I'm to move my finger" is more concrete than "I think the sky is blue."

Ah, I get it. Yes they have, in fact the big deal is that they can sort of read your mind with MRI now. They had a person remember something they saw and they were able to not only tell what they were thinking about but they were able to re-create a fuzzy image of it.

Now you can say "that's something you saw before" which is true, but goes back to my thought on everything being derivative. Everything is something you saw/heard/touched/etc before.

Electrical impulses between neurons. Each brain cell communicates with an extremely complex soup of neuro-transmitters (chemicals that convert from a chemical reaction to a brief electrical impulse, or vise versa).

Simple answer to your question, Electricity. We are starting to understand quite well the chemistry, and what different parts of the brain do, but how it all ties together is still a nearly complete mystery.

I highly reccomend parusing http://www.ted.com/search?q=brain (or all the ted videos for that matter) - you can learn so much that way!

a youtube search for neurotransmitter has cool stuff too
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90cj4NX87Yk explains how nerves transmit electricity visually without just shocking everything.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DF04XPBj5uc explains the brain overall

Did you catch the Nature article when it came out a couple of years ago? Ten seconds seems like a huge amount of time between when your brain decides to do something vs. when it bothers to tell you about it :-)