December 1st, 2010
Do you ever feel overwhelmed? Chaotic inside?
Me, too. Everyone feels this way at times. Is this just bad luck? Crappy planning on the part of the universe? Or does overwhelm–that feeling that you might fall apart–play a positive role in life?
I’ve been thinking lately about the key ideas that have shaped my thinking. One is the principle of chaos and reorganization–a description of how complex systems, such as human beings, develop and change. If you’ve followed this blog, you’ve heard me say many times that we’re all caught in a giant matrix of cause and effect over which we have minimal control. The principle of chaos and reorganization is an elegant explanation of how that matrix of cause and effect–which ultimately includes everything in the universe–evolves.
It also explains how you’ve able to adapt to changing condition–and why you distress yourself so much when things don’t work out the way you want.
This principle, in fact, describes the main guiding force of the universe, whether you call that force God, natural law, karma, or something else.
You’ve probably heard the bible story of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus–a great example of chaos leading to a complete transformation.
Saul was the Roman equivalent of a bounty hunter. He hated the Nazarenes–the early Christians. After Jesus’ death, Saul devoted himself to hunting down Nazarenes so they could be put to death. When he ran out of prospects, he asked to go outside his usually territory, Palestine, to Damascus, to find more Nazarenes he could bring back to Jerusalem to be put to death.
Obviously a happy guy.
On the road to Damascus Saul was struck by a light (however such a thing happens) so bright that he was blinded, and heard what he claimed was the voice of God. His companion helped him to Damascus, where he sat in a stupor, blinded, for three days. Then, a Nazarene appears, claiming that he was sent by God, and calls him Brother Saul. Saul’s eyesight instantly returns. As a result of these strange and mind-blowing events Saul decides to become a Nazarene. He becomes the most influential and charismatic of the Nazarene preachers, St. Paul.
Though probably not so dramatically, we’ve all experienced situations where a problem spontaneously solves itself, or something we’re wrestling with suddenly falls into place. These are called “ah-ha” moments, or Eureka events, based on the story of Archimedes. The king asked Archimedes to figure out the amount of gold in a crown without melting it down. Failing to solve the problem, Archimedes became quite frustrated.
One day, however, while taking a bath, Archimedes noticed that his body caused the bathwater to rise. He suddenly realized that he could figure out the amount of gold in the crown by finding out how much water it displaced. Absorbed in this ah-ha moment, he ran naked down the street shouting “Eureka! I’ve found it!”
His wife, I suspect, was not amused.
Whether you call this a sudden insight, a flash of creativity, a brainstorm, a light bulb, or just say, “Well, duh,” it is a feeling that something has been rearranged, that something old has passed away, that something new has been born.
These moments change your brain. Brain waves are altered (you make bursts of theta waves). The number and shape of the dendrites and synapses connecting the neurons are changed. In fact, the entire neural network changes, creating new patterns of message transmission and new states of mind.
In a more mundane sense, this is called learning. When you learn, something new is born. Prior to learning situations, everything pretty much makes sense. If, however, you’re exposed to new information, new conditions, or a new situation, and the new information doesn’t fit with the old, or the old way of understanding can’t explain or make sense of the new information, things begin to NOT make sense.
Then, finally, after the ah-ha moment–after the shift, the insight, the reorganization, or whatever you want to call it–things make sense again, but in a new way that you never could have imagined before.
What causes these sudden shifts in awareness or knowing? Why do some stimuli have no significant effect, then suddenly a particular stimulus changes everything? Why does a particular stimulus affect different people in different ways?
An example from author Michael Hutchison: Three people drive by a red neon sign. The first person sees some red out of the corner of his eye. He drives on, and the red light has little, if any, effect.
The second person is an astrophysicist studying a problem about the size and age of the universe. The red light reminds him of a phenomenon called the red shift. It suddenly hits him that the expansion of the universe could be measured by measuring shifts in light frequencies, and the solution to a long-standing problem hits him.
The red light reminds a third person of the dress of a lover who just left him. He falls into a month-long depression.
Why does a stimulus lead to a higher level of order and complexity for one person, and to disorder and destruction for another? Why does the brain even need an external stimulus to experience new ideas or ah-ha moments? Could we intentionally trigger ah-ha moments?
Searching for answers to these and other intriguing questions, Ilya Prigogine, a Belgian theoretical chemist, won the 1977 Nobel Prize. Prigogine was studying thermodynamics, an area you probably don’t think of when considering personal or spiritual growth. But as you’ll see, there’s an intimate connection between thermodynamics and your life.
Please don’t let the word “thermodynamics” scare you. This is going to be easy to understand, and quite interesting. And, it has a lot to do with you, your life, and your happiness.
Thermodynamics is about the relationship between mechanical energy, or work, and heat. (I’m purposely using the most sensational issues to attract legions of readers to this blog.) Scientists began to study thermodynamics in the early part of the industrial revolution, after the steam engine was invented.
There’s an interesting relationship between heat and work: they can be converted into each other. If your big brother ever gave you what Bill Murray calls a “noogy” you know what I mean. Work can be transformed into heat. In fact, chemical, mechanical, thermal, and electrical energy can all be converted into each other.
Try to contain your excitement about this. I haven’t gotten to the good part yet, but I assure you, I will–and it will be worth the wait. Have I ever disappointed you?
Scientists noticed that when one form of energy is converted into another, the engine never yields as much energy as it consumes! I know what you’re thinking: Bummer. It’s true, though. Whenever work is done, some energy is irretrievably lost. In a steam engine, coal is burned, which boils water. The expanding steam turns a turbine, which causes the wheels of a locomotive, for instance, to move.
Some of the coal’s energy, though, isn’t converted into work. Instead, it becomes heat, light, and friction. In every energy exchange, some energy is lost to the system.
This might seem only mildly exciting to you–or perhaps not exciting at all. I assure you, though, that this has a lot to do with many of your life’s problems. So stay with me.
Scientists noticed something else: A machine, in transforming energy into work, becomes increasingly disordered. Friction causes the engine’s parts to wear out. The connections become loose. The engine begins to clank as the bolts come loose and the parts stretch. Unless energy is added–an overhaul, new parts, etc.–the machine eventually becomes a bucket of bolts—like a car I used to have.
This process is the reason why there’s no escape from impermanence. All machines, all systems–unless energy is added–eventually wear down, whether it’s your car, your cell phone, your toaster, the company you work for, or you. Unless energy is added, chaos takes over.
This idea is called the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It applies to all energy exchanges. Because of this law, the universe is moving irrevocably toward increased decay and disorder. (Thousands more websites just linked to this blog.)
It’s also called the Law of Increasing Entropy. Entropy is the amount of randomness or chaos in a system. The more order, the less entropy. In a new engine, the parts fit tightly. It runs well, and most efficiently converts energy into work. But as the engine runs it becomes more disordered and the engine’s ability to convert energy into work decreases, until eventually the engine falls apart.
As the engine runs, heat increases molecular motion. The moving molecules collide more, and are knocked into increasingly random paths, until they reach a state of maximum randomness. This maximum randomness is called equilibrium, or “heat death”. At this point, the tendency of the machine to become more disordered is offset by an opposite tendency for it to accidentally become more ordered, so it stays in this equilibrium state.
The grim truth (my role often seems to be giving you the grim truth) is that the amount of entropy (chaos) in the universe is always, irrevocably, increasing. There’s no dispute about this. It’s one of the most basic laws of the universe.
So, if you haven’t nodded out yet, here’s The Big Question:
How, in a universe irrevocably moving toward increased disorder, did something as complex and organized as life develop? Why do some things become more ordered?
This is more than just a fascinating question–it’s the question of a lifetime, and I’ll answer it in a few days when I post Breaking Up is Hard to Do, Part 2.
Until then, watch out for all that entropy.
And, be well.