Updated: Sep 21
“Life is humanity’s epic struggle against the inexorable march of entropy.”
Simply, the goal of life is to Fight Entropy.
This article is about connecting the dots, between entropy and time. When referring to entropy, I am thinking of the classic physics definition of entropy, or the Second Law of Thermodynamics. (1) The same law that helps you stir coffee without a stirrer or the law that helps you defrost tonight's meal without heating. In terms of time, I'm referring to our everyday perception of time. Sometimes a little faster or slower, but always anchored to a clock based on the earth's rotation of the sun.
“The goal of life and intelligence, if there is one, is awkward to define. A general aim can be detected in the tendency toward a local decrease in the entropy of that fragment of the universe considered to be intelligent or alive……In human society, money serves to measure and mediate local markets for decreasing entropy, whether it measures the refinement of an ounce of gold, the energy available in a ton of coal, the price of a share in a multinational organization, or the value of the information accumulated in a book.”
- George Dyson, Darwin Among The Machines
To take Dyson’s argument further, money serves to mediate efficiency at which competing organizations reduce entropy. Thus, conceptually, a lower entropy / higher-ordered capability will be more successful as its value is revealed by money. Dyson’s commentary does a good job connecting two definitions of reality that are normally considered separately. That is “objective” and “fictional” reality as presented by Yuval Harari. The connection occurs as humanity’s fictional reality-based money allocation optimizes objective reality-based physical resource usage. This is like a constraint optimization problem, whose objective is to minimize entropy. Money becomes the arbiter of the objective. This article will challenge you to think about how you use your arbiter resources - money and time - to get the most out of your life as you fight entropy in your life.
Entropy and our perception of time
This article relates time to entropy. In general, a net increase in synaptic connection relates to lower entropy and a slower passing of time. With the inverse being true, a net decrease in synaptic connection relates to higher entropy and a faster passing of time. When I refer to our brain’s growth or decline, this is generally based on the net number of synapses connecting our brain’s neurons.
This chart shows the relationship between the net increase in brain synapses and time perception. That is, the younger you are, the higher the net increase in synapses, thus time perception is slower. To put a finer point on it, the entropy/time perception challenge relates to both:
the hemispheric location of cognitive processing and
the ability to increase synapses (e.g., neuroplasticity).
Regarding the hemispheric location, a child starts with a low number of synapses, those synapses are built mainly via the left hemisphere's (LH) analytical cognition processes. Compared to the right hemisphere (RH), the LH is slow. (See our Brain Model for more context regarding the different brain functions) It is hard work building those neural pathways. Once the memory is well trained, more of the LH processing can be bypassed to the RH. The RH is fast. The more proportional RH processing is done, the faster we perceive time.
This relates to increased synapses. As a bigger base of memory experiences is built, we may proportionally rely more on the faster RH. Thus, time goes faster as your experience base is built. The concept of higher RH interaction is grounded in a temporary mental condition known as the flow state. Once one reaches the flow state, our perception of time changes. The world around us slows as our RH-oriented processing speed accelerates. We will discuss the flow state more in the next section.
Today, clock time relates to a fixed natural reference, like the rotation of the earth and the revolution of the earth around the sun. It does make me wonder if an “entropy clock,” better tuned to our life cycles as described in the previous table, is perhaps a more useful time measurement. Using the entropy clock, people could stay better tuned to their own increasing entropy. This could, in turn, increase their lifespan and /or increase the quality of their life. This should occur by increasing awareness of the need to employ strategies to decrease their own entropy speed. Human entropy can be delayed by good sleep hygiene, exercise, and continuing education.
The following chart is my high-level deduction for an “average” person’s entropy, shown by body and brain and a brain with or without brain disease. The bottom axis is shown in decades, based on life stages and current life expectancy. Since this is a deduced average, your actual experience may differ. Keep in mind, our death is the single greatest increase in entropy. This chart shows changes in entropy with no death event, other than some life expiration time in the 10th decade of life. The point being, the actual time of death is random and unknowable. These curves suggest entropy levels before the death event. Presumably, the higher the curve (i.e., lower entropy) the lower the chance of the actual death event.
You may be wondering if the universe is moving toward higher entropy as per the Second Law of Thermodynamics, how is it even possible for life to happen? As the graph shows, life is a negative entropy event. This is because this law is actually a statistical law, which means there can be exceptions. Actually, the vast majority of eggs the human female has available for fertilization and life either never make it to her puberty or get washed out in her monthly menstruation cycle. Life is a statistically rare event, the exception, not the rule. (2)
The good news is, since you are reading this, a rare event does occur! Thus, the idea is to push the curves higher and to the right, maintaining lower entropy, as long as possible. This will have the added benefit of optimizing the perception of time and the quality of that time as lower entropy levels are maintained. Also, given the connection of body and brain, one needs to maintain both to keep overall entropy levels as desired. The delta between body and brain entropy, with body entropy higher, can be considered “a healthy brain trapped in a failing body.” This happened to my grandmother, when her senses (eyesight and hearing) were quickly declining, though she could still beat me in gin rummy. It was very frustrating for her. Also, we intuitively recognize the dynamic between brain and body. A less healthy body can pull down the brain's entropy curve. Thus, pushing the curve higher and to the right is a balance between brain and body health.
Related to the difference between clock and entropy time, there is the practical matter of day and night, seasons, and the earth’s revolution around the sun. Since we are all part of the same earth, clock time becomes an important common reference point. But it is also misleading. Entropy does not care much for the seasons, it is playing a long game. However, in the much shorter human lifetime, if the purpose of life is to “fight entropy” then why doesn’t our time measures better align to life’s purpose?
Dr. Lisa Genova, in a reference to a long-term and ongoing Nun Study, concludes that “learning something new” reduces the impact of brain disease and, as such, reduces the speed of entropy (as the graph metaphor, pushing the lower entropy curve to the right). The study’s researchers found that several nuns’ brains had the telltale Alzheimer’s lesions yet these women displayed no evidence of cognitive impairment while alive. These nuns also had very active cognitive lives, up until they died. The nun’s brains had built cognitive reserves via an increase in net synapses. While synaptic death was present, their brains rewired themselves via neuroplastic synaptic processes.
Like the nuns, we may not be able to prevent some synaptic death as the result of brain disease. However, we can reduce the speed of entropy time by following some healthy behaviors. In effect, we can outrun brain disease by a lifetime of healthy sleep hygiene, learning, and physical fitness. Use your entropy clock awareness to help bend time. This will help you live a longer and more fulfilling life.
There is an interesting paradox. As we age, our brain may become better trained, enabling faster passing of time because a higher proportion of cognition may occur in the faster RH. However, one must be careful to not over-rely on past learning. One must continue to build new synaptic pathways by engaging the left hemisphere. There is a positive reinforcing loop of growing your synapses by 1) engaging the left hemisphere, 2) then, engaging the right hemisphere via your LH trained memory, 3) then enabling more synapse growth via your LH, 4) ... continue the loop..... I call this mental bootstrapping.
Time perception - Flow State
Up to this point in the article, we have treated the connection between time and entropy as a fixed relationship at a particular life stage and health level. But we also appreciate, at a particular fixed point in calendar time, we can perceive the passing of time very differently. The remainder of this article explores our ability to change our own time perception. We will consider both flow state and time dilation.
A related impact to perceived time relates to the flow state. Please see our article Soccer Brain - the making of the beautiful game for highly relevant examples, including soccer training, securities trading, and vaccine development. The flow state, when reached, is the ability of the brain to bypass the left hemisphere and process sensory inputs and active outputs primarily through the right hemisphere. (3) A flow state can be reached in a number of different contexts. (For example, I have reached flow state driving a car on an empty highway. I may hardly remember driving but well recall the conversation or other focus.) The point is when the flow state is reached, clock time and perceived time changes. In effect, the “game slows” for those in a flow state. Their reactions become disconnected from the left hemisphere. Our world is generally perceived through our slower left hemisphere. With the speed of the right hemispheric processing so much faster, the rest of the world slows. Because the right hemisphere has no language, it is hard for the person that reaches a flow state to explain what happened. It “feels” good or it “feels” right. The responses become intuitive. The challenge to the person that reaches a flow state is to trust the state. It can become challenging to trust something one can not put into words. As Jill Bolte Taylor said in her book, My Stroke of Insight:
"To the right mind (hemisphere), no time exists other than the present moment, and each moment is vibrant with sensation. Life or death occurs in the present moment. The experience of joy happens in the present moment. Our perception and experience of connection with something that is greater than ourselves occurs in the present moment. To our right mind, the moment of now is timeless and abundant. "
Since the left hemisphere is associated with structure or order, there is some intuition that limiting one's existence in the left hemisphere, as with the flow state, will have an impact on time perception. As Bolte Taylor also suggests, the right hemisphere is most focused on the current moment and connecting with other entities in the current moment. Perhaps that is akin to a slowing of entropy as one loses connection with their ego and seeks connection with their surroundings.
Time perception - Time Dilation
Total isolation has been shown to create time dilation. That is, time slows for the individual in isolation, compared to clock time. See Your Brain Is A Time Machine by Buonomano, chapter 3. See the experiments of Siffre, Le Guen, and Follini. This is consistent with the flow state. Perhaps, in total isolation, the mind induces a flow state as a protective mechanism. That is, the mind will find a safe harbor within the brain’s right hemisphere. This is to protect the mind from psychosis associated with sensory deprivation.
From Your Brain Is A Time Machine by Buonomano, chapter 4. Comments regarding the slowing down of one’s surroundings in a high stress / highly dangerous situation:
“He (Swiss Geologist Albert Heim) gathered accounts from members of the Swiss Alpine Club who had experienced serious falls or other near-death events. Ninety-five percent of the group reported what Heim summarized as ‘a dominant mental quickness and sense of surety. Mental activity became enormous, rising to a hundred-fold velocity or intensity. . .. Time became greatly expanded. The individual acted with lightning-quickness in accord with accurate judgment of his situation. In many cases there followed a sudden review of the individual's entire past.’”
This strikes me as another example of a flow-like state induced by the stress of the situation. The right hemisphere is likely completely bypassing the left hemisphere to handle the high-stress situation via its parallel processing capabilities. The main process is: starting from sensory input to limbic memory to right hemisphere processing to action output. All meant to be as fast as possible to maximize the chance of survival. (see our Brain Model, The high emotion tag / low language case for the related brain pathway.)
Another flow-like state example is related to cars and traffic. My experience is as follows: Say there are 2 roadway paths to go from point A to point B. Both take the same time. However, path 1 has a shorter distance but with much stop-and-go traffic, with the difficulty of movement. Whereas, path B has a longer distance with no traffic and ease of movement. My experience is, path B will “feel” faster, though clock time is the same. The perceived time difference traffic effect likely has more to do with the freedom to access your RH and less processing in your LH. As I mention in my soccer training article and above, RH access provides a perceptually faster relative time length than LH processing.
Also, this could be another relative use case for my article: Nudge for making good decisions about driving routes. In this article, I make the case for GPS providers (Waze, Google Maps, etc), to create route decisions based on the individual's ability to engage their Right Hemisphere. This would be done with trade-off questions to indicate whether the driver wants the fastest perceived time based on hemispheric engagement. In effect, the algorithm would optimize the trade-off between faster perceived time and faster clock time.
This article was about connecting the dots, between entropy and time. We started at the lifetime level of our experience with time and entropy. We made the case to optimize your perceived time and quality of life by using an entropy clock. We concluded the article with ideas to increase your time in the present, via various flow states and accessing your brain's right hemisphere.
(1) It is helpful to have a conceptual understanding of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It would not hurt to read through this Wikipedia article. Much ink has been spilled on the connection between time and entropy. Especially, the influence of Ludwig Boltzmann and his statistical mechanics' entropy application. The time/entropy connection is very paradoxical owing to our natural anthropomorphic perspective. It is hard for us to think about time because it is hard for us to view our own time as an outsider. One of my favorite books is Time's Arrow and Archimedes' Point by Huw Price. Price does a good job taking the reader on a time outsider (Archimedean) journey.
(2) According to the Cleveland Clinic, the human female is born with about 1 million eggs. Today, globally, the average number of children is 2.5 per woman. Thus the human life exception rate is .0025%. Very rare indeed! Another way to look at it, the march of entropy is successful 99.9975% of the time, with life occurring only as a rare exception. It is no wonder the human spirit is so resilient, think of the extraordinarily long odds that you are even alive to read this!
By the way, if you would care to learn more about what drives life resilience, check out Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins does a nice job building on evolutionary biology to describe how our own genes are responsible for seeking replication. In effect, our bodies are "survival machines" serving the purpose of our genetic procreation.
(3) We make references to right hemisphere/system 1 and left hemisphere/system 2 in this article. For a quick read of brain functions and associated relationships, please review our Brain Model.