“We all go a little mad sometimes”
-Norman Bates, Psycho
You are slowly coming to. After a perturbed sleep characterised by restlessness, periods of deep dreamless repose, then frenetic and hyper-real scenarios in which you (delete as appropriate): flew free as a bird through the night sky/confronted family long deceased/turned up for a French exam inexplicably at your primary school bereft of trousers. You are exhausted. But more importantly, you are flummoxed. Your brain feels like there is a mini electrical storm and thoughts are whirling round untethered as like garments on a washing line captured in a passing maelstrom.
Slowly, gradually, stability restores, your bedroom resolves into its mundane but comforting familiarity. You realise you are not back in University digs. You haven’t lost twenty years. You have to get up or you’ll be late for work!!
What has happened? What did your brain get up to in those darkened hours where the cat wandered off and the mice were let loose in the attic?!
It is possible that your brain functioning has regressed into some kind of entropic state...
Entropy is a term associated with physical systems such as are characterised in the second law of thermodynamics (I.e. involving transfer of energy via heat and ‘work’) and which generally refers to the degree of disorder and ‘randomness’ of the system (uncertainty). An oft touted analogy is the higher probability that a glass tumbling from a table will shatter into a multitude of parts increasing the disorder of that system, than the reverse occurring (a multitude of shards and dissipated beer re-assembling and returning from the floor to a re-constituted pint upon the table). (Also being often mentioned as a convincing argument for why time tends to flow forwards rather than backwards – as in episodes of Red Dwarf.)
The concept of entropy has been mooted with respect to brain activity characterising conscious states (by the likes of Carhart-Harris, 2014; 2018). In the sense that entropic, disordered or aysnchronous brain activity (Muthukumaraswamy et al., 2013) appears to mitigate what may be referred to as ‘primary’ consciousness. Loosely tying in with a previous piece about recapturing the state of ‘wonder’ that captivates an infant’s experience of the world (based on less fixed and stable representations of a world that has not yet been consolidated into a meaningful and functional mental model), this primary state is said to be that which young children exhibit. A state that precedes our more sophisticated and developed ‘normal waking state’. Mainstream thinking in neuroscience views the brain as a ‘prediction engine’, and which perhaps conforms to the ‘free-energy principle’ as espoused by Karl Friston (2010). Everything we do, and perceive, in effect is based upon predictions from our internalised model of the world, and which we match against (confirming/disconfirming this) signals returning up through our sensory pathways. And which consequently either result in rejection (fixed thinking) or adaptation and refinement of the model (flexible thinking).
Of further interest is the contention, from the likes of Carhart-Harris's research into psychedelic compounds impacting upon brain function, that such ‘entropic signatures’ are observed in brain activation under exposure to substances including psilocybin (magic mushrooms), LSD, DMT (all of which bind to serotonergic receptors throughout key brain structures that are strongly involved in the generation of consciousness). In effect, the concomitant ‘asynchrony’ observed in brain wave activity appears to disrupt or ‘knock out’ ‘ordinary’ consciousness. I like to refer to this (perhaps bastardising the term in it’s true definition, - technically 'stopping' and shocking back into regular rhythm - but it feels useful nonetheless) as ‘defibrillating’ cognition. in the sense that by initially shocking the brain into an arrhythmic state, the system must compensate and bring things back ‘online’, I.e. by re-establishing the ‘natural’ rhythm that reconstitutes consciousness to it’s functional, waking state. And by doing so, having shaken things up so that when they fall back down ‘to earth’ something has changed, improved, resettled. Sometimes (frequently) it is very different to shake our fixed ideas, break old habits and patterns of thinking, and a shock is necessary to allow updating of the model.
It is argued that this is what happens when we are asleep and go into the hectic chaotic entropic state experienced when we dream. You might like to interpret groundbreaking significance into your dreams as messages from your unconscious providing insight whilst you slumber. But in some ways, it’s simply indicative of your brain shaking things up in order to allow cognitive structures, the model that helps you make sense of and successfully make your way through the waking day, to reconstitute and update additional information, as well as slew off redundant information gathered haphazardly whilst ‘awake’. As Norman Bates once intoned ‘we all go a little mad sometimes’, and indeed that appears to be what is happening whilst we sleep. Psychosis is experienced, but fortunately not acted out due to biological mechanisms that prevent our motor functions enacting out our fantasies, whims, terrors, in the depths of the night.
All systems require moments of downtime in order to repair, review, be subject to maintenance. It appears to be no coincidence that areas manifesting this ‘entropic’ pattern of brain activation whilst under ‘primary’ consciousness, as experienced in REM sleep, psychedelic states, include the default mode network: that neural basis of ‘selfhood’. Going to sleep, or ‘out of one’s mind’, allows an escape from ‘self’. Perhaps the most blessed holiday one can take. (Even though you may go to Benidorm, you must take that excess baggage of the self with you, and pay for the extra kilos – you can’t escape it that easily.)
But by taking the default mode offline, you can allow it to defibrillate, shock it out of (and back into) rhythm, then let the dust settle, let the self re-integrate, renew. A new you!
As I have previously opined, focusing, absorbing in, goal directed behaviour that activates the ‘task positive’ network, gives rise to a potentially highly productive state. And at the same time deactivates components of the default mode network, and the ‘self-indulgent’ facets of that network. Consequently, one takes a break from the self, so to speak, and when the self reconstitutes thereafter, there is ‘self-improvement’. In the sense that one has learned from the experience, one’s brain topology (DMN) changes and one’s capacity for future performance is enhanced (towards a more optimised functional state). And the potential capacity to be more in control of these networks (towards self mastery!).
I will explore this further, extending the model into the sphere of adventure experiences: how we can utilise the ‘need to accommodate’ perceptual cues from an overwhelming environment to shock us into this ‘defibrillated’, expansive, and progressive state. Refining our models and giving rise to a more motivated and adaptive mindset.
So welcome entropy, revel in it. When you awake and your brain feels scrambled, rejoice! For you ought to be acknowledging that you have improved during the night! Your server has rebooted, the system upgraded.
And the root of the term entropy?
It comes from the Greek for ‘transformation’....!
Carhart-Harris R.L., Leech, R., Hellyer, P.J., Shanahan, M, Fielding, A., Tagliazucchi, E., Chialvo, D.R., Nutt, D. (2014) The entropic brain: A theory of conscious states informed by neuroimaging research with psychedelic drugs. Front Hum Neurosci 8:20
Carhart-Harris, R (2018). The entropic brain – revisited. Neuropharmacology. 142:167-178
Friston, K. (2010). The free-energy principle: a unified brain theory? Nature reviews. Neuroscience 11, 127-38
Muthukumaraswamy SD, Carhart-Harris R.L., Moran, R.J., Brookes, M.J., Williams, T.M., Errtizoe, D., Sessa, B., Papadopoulos, A., Bolstridge, M., Singh, K.D., Feilding, K.D. , Friston, K.J. , and Nutt., D.J. (2013) Broadbandcortical desynchronization underlies the human psychedelic state. J Neurosci 33(38):15171–15183
The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.