Updated: Jan 3
This article connects the dots between time and entropy. We start by providing some entropy and economics background. Next, we explore how time and entropy impact us across our life - from childhood to old age. We conclude the article by exploring and providing ideas to manage your entropy time in the present. We discuss various flow states and accessing your brain's right hemisphere. Our curiosity-enabled approach is grounded in physics, neuroscience, psychology, and economics.
We make the case - given our life's purpose includes to "fight entropy" - that using tools and techniques to both measure and reduce entropy are critical to increasing our life's quality.
This article is presented in the following sections:
Entropy and our life cycle time perception
In the present time perception
Conclusion and Notes
James Gleick is a historian. He has authored several technology and science books. Mr. Gleick said:
"It sometimes seems as if curbing entropy is our quixotic purpose in the universe."
In my experience, our life's purpose and relationship with entropy are directly connected. We spend much of our life in the service of reducing entropy.
“Our life's purpose includes the epic human struggle against the inexorable march of entropy.”
Simply, a necessary goal of life is to "Fight Entropy."
When referring to entropy, I am thinking of the classic physics definition of entropy, or the Second Law of Thermodynamics. [i] Entropy is defined as a measure of randomness or disorder in a system. Most important, the universe is generally moving toward higher entropy or higher disorder. Have you ever heard the saying that "Nature abhors a vacuum?" In the physics context, this saying suggests that "Nature abhors lower entropy." Entropy is the same natural physics law that:
Helps you stir coffee without a stirrer,
Enables you to smell cigarette smoke in advance of seeing someone smoking, or
Helps you defrost tonight's meal without adding heat.
When referring to time, I am thinking of our everyday perception of time. We will explore how time sometimes feels faster or slower, depending on our age or based on our current brain state. Our variable time perception is based on a comparison to standard clock time.
George Dyson is an author, technology historian, and the son of the late physicist Freeman Dyson and the late mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson. He suggests a useful economic approach to help bridge the interaction between life, time, and entropy:
“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 [ii]
To take Dyson’s argument further, money serves to mediate efficiency at which competing organizations reduce entropy. Over time, a product or service's lower entropy success is revealed as its value is signaled by money. [iii] Dyson’s commentary tellingly connects two definitions of reality that are normally considered separately. That is “objective reality” and “fictional reality" as presented by Yuval Harari. [iv] Dr. Harari is an Oxford-trained historian, professor, and author. The connection occurs as human culture's fictional reality-based money allocation serves to optimize nature's 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 to reduce entropy in our life.
Thorstein Veblen was an economist and sociologist born in the 19th century. Veblen famously remarked that
"Invention is the mother of necessity."
Veblen is suggesting that it is our insatiable human nature that drives us to constantly seek improvement in our lives. [v] Not surprisingly, Veblen was influenced by Charles Darwin and the application of evolutionary theory. In this context, it is our evolution-based nature that drives us to seek lower entropy in our lives. [vi] In the "music machine" graphic example, it was the timely invention of streaming services like Spotify and Pandora that enabled people to improve the method by which they listen to music - that is - the music listening method that lowers entropy. While the invention of streaming services did not start as "necessary," they ultimately created "necessity" as consumer demand grew and validated the streaming music service via value signaling.
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. We provide examples along the way.
2. Entropy and our life cycle time perception
We now turn to the first stop on our journey relating time to entropy. We start by considering entropy over time and using our typical life cycle as a basis. We start by connecting our time perception to each step of our life stage's brain development. 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 (or slowing) 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. [vii]
This chart shows the relationship between the net increase in brain synapses and time perception. The supporting time perception data were collected via observation and informal interviews with people at these different life stages. This suggests that 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 brain's hemispheric location of cognitive processing and
the brain's ability to increase synapses. This is also known as neuroplasticity.
Regarding the hemispheric location, a child starts with a lower number of synapses. Other than synapses provided or created in association with the earliest years of life, synapses are built mainly via the left hemisphere's (LH) analytical cognition processes. Compared to the right hemisphere (RH), the LH is slow. [viii] It is challenging to build those neural pathways. Once the memory is well trained, more of the LH processing may 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 memorable 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 may be delayed by good sleep hygiene, proper diet, exercise, and continuing education.
The following chart is my high-level deduction for an “average” person’s entropy. The chart shows estimated entropy by both body and brain. Plus, we show the entropy estimate for a brain with or without brain disease. [ix] 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, that our death is the single greatest increase in individual 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 is, that 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 .... that if the universe is moving toward higher entropy as per the Second Law of Thermodynamics, how is it even possible for life to happen? This is because this physics entropy law is actually a statistical law, which means there may be exceptions. As the graph shows in the early years, life is a fast-moving negative entropy event. You may thank your mom for hosting an amazing explosion of negative entropy when her egg was transformed into a zygote by your dad's sperm. However, your zygote was a rare exception. 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. [x]
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 provides 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 between the 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, may 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 the brain and the body. A less healthy body may pull down the brain's entropy curve. Thus, pushing the curve higher and to the right is a balance between brain and body health.
This chart may also remind you that life is a cycle. [xi] Our body and brain start at, and ultimately return to, higher levels of entropy. This notion of entropy as a natural renewal cycle is found in ancient philosophies and world religions, including Christianity. Common burial rights include "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," which is derived from the bible, Genesis 3:19:
"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."
Related to the difference between clock time 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 much longer game. However, in the much shorter human lifetime, if the purpose of life includes to “fight entropy” then why do our time measures not better align with life’s purpose?
Dr. Lisa Genova, in a reference to a long-term and ongoing Nun Study, [xii] 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 higher and 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 a result of brain disease. However, we may reduce the speed of entropy time by following some healthy behaviors. In effect, we may outrun brain disease with a lifetime of healthy sleep hygiene, learning, and physical fitness. Use your entropy clock awareness to help bend clock time. This will help you live a longer and more fulfilling life.
The balanced brain: 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 LH. There is a positive reinforcing loop of growing your synapses that promotes balance across both hemispheres. We call this "Mental Bootstrapping." [xiii] This occurs by:
Practicing engages the left hemisphere (LH), then,
Improvement is manifest in the RH via your LH-trained memory, the improvement drives
Positive feedback, which is reinforced by the "feel-good" neurotransmitter dopamine, in turn, encourages more
Practice and more synapse growth via your LH, then
The "mental bootstrapping" loop continues.....
Mental bootstrapping is enabled by our curiosity. [xiv]
An approach to "learning something new" - Please see my article Curiosity Exploration - An evolutionary approach to lifelong learning. This article shares my approach to curiosity fulfillment. This is my approach to keeping my brain young, plastic, and curious. The article starts with my background and personality, to help you understand my motivation. Then, I share the approach and step-by-step method to satisfy my curiosity. This includes helpful tools to improve the speed and quality of curiosity exploration. Along the way, I provide "DIGGING DEEPER" references in the event your curiosity is stirred. I’m sharing a curiosity-enablement method that works for me. I hope my approach will be helpful to you, as you make your own curiosity exploration journey.
Switching gears: Up to this point in the article, we have explored the connection between time and entropy over time and as impacted by life stage and health level. But we also appreciate, at a particular fixed point in calendar time, we may perceive the passing of time very differently. The remainder of this article explores our ability to change our perception of time in the present. Next, we will consider both flow state and time dilation.
3a. In the present time perception - Flow State
A related impact on perceived time relates to the flow state. [xv] 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. [xvi] The flow state is where both our attention (consciousness) and cognitive resources (information needs or training) are completely in the present. Being in the present is synonymous with full emersion in the RH. As we discuss in the next example, the flow state may only be partially reached. This depends upon the degree to which both attention and cognitive resources are concentrated in the RH. For this article, we define either partial or full flow state as the degree to which increased entropy time is achieved. We believe that at least some increase in entropy time is desirable. Increased entropy time is where we increase the speed of our time perception as compared to the clock time reference. A flow state may be reached in a number of different contexts.
For example, I have reached a partial flow state driving a car on an empty highway. I may hardly remember driving but well recall the conversation or other focus. In this driving example, I "lose time" because my automatic RH-based brain functions handle the cognitive resources required for the driving task, but not necessarily because my attention was fully present. I could simply be lost in thought with my attention engaging my LH. I call this example "partial flow." In this article, "flow state" is considered along a continuum, like "partial flow" or "full flow."
The point is when the flow state is reached, the relationship between 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 challenging 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 for the person reaching the flow state is to trust the state. It may become challenging to trust something one cannot put into words. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist. She is also a best-selling author and stroke survivor. Dr. Jill said:
"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. " [xvii]
Since the left hemisphere is associated with structure or order, there is some intuition that reducing one's existence in the left hemisphere, as with the flow state, will have an increasing impact on time perception. As Dr. Jill also suggests, the right hemisphere is most focused on the current moment and connecting with others 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.
3b. In the present 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. [xviii] This is consistent with the flow state. Perhaps, in total isolation, the mind induces a flow state as a protective mechanism. The mind will naturally seek safe harbor within the brain’s right hemisphere. This is to protect the mind from psychosis associated with sensory deprivation.
Dean Buonomano is a psychology and neurobiology professor at UCLA. Dr. Buonomano comments regarding the slowing down of one’s surroundings in a high-stress / highly dangerous situation [xix]:
“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 are meant to be as fast as possible to maximize the chance of survival. [xx]
Another flow-like state example is related to cars and traffic as we introduced earlier. 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 in movement. Whereas, path B has a longer distance with no traffic and ease of movement. My experience is, that path B will “feel” faster, though clock time is the same. The perceived time difference traffic effect likely has more to do with allowing most of the driving functions to be handled by your more automatic RH. This then gives you the freedom to be "lost in thought" while possibly accessing cognitive resources in your LH. This is different than the full flow state, where both attention and cognitive resources are processed in the RH. We provide several examples in our soccer training article called "Soccer Brain." As suggested in this article, RH access provides a perceptually faster relative time length than LH processing. [xxi]
Improving entropy time example: About 10 years ago, my primary daily work commute was accomplished by driving myself. My commute time was about 45 minutes each way or 1.5 hours per workday. Often the driving was in heavy traffic, thus the flow state and resulting entropy time were negatively impacted on both flow state dimensions:
Cognitive resources impact - High and negative impact with the cognitive load in the LH. This results from the demands of driving in traffic.
Attention impact - High and negative impact with the attention required in the LH. This results from the opportunity cost of not using my attention for more valuable activities.
It was also a significant investment of my time - almost 10% of my waking workday week was dedicated to commuting.
I then switched to a combination of subway and ride-share for transportation to work. My flow state (partial flow) and entropy time increased dramatically.
Cognitive resources impact - Low and positive impact with the cognitive load in the RH. Commuting was outsourced and resulted in a very low commuting cognitive impact.
Attention impact - Low and positive impact with the attention optionality in either the LH or the RH. This results in the deployment of attention to more valuable activities.
So, for a relatively modest cost that my employer helped offset, I was able to dramatically improve my entropy time by 10% of my day! Super important byproducts of this improved entropy time example are:
Reduced Carbon Dioxide emissions because of reduced car usage.
Lower cost of car ownership because I used a car much less so maintenance costs and gas were lower.
Increased exercise and health because I walked more.
Also, this example could be a use case justification for adding capabilities to GPS providers to optimize driving routes based on entropy (perceived) time, as well as clock time. 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 entropy time and faster clock time. [xxii]
This article connects the dots, between entropy and time. We started at the lifecycle 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. By viewing your life through an entropy time lens, you have the opportunity to develop your own entropy time strategies. You may then move your entropy curves higher and to the right.
[i] 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 challenging for people to think about time because it is difficult 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 of taking the reader on a time outsider (Archimedean) journey. Also, I provide a practical example of thermodynamics, both the 1st law and the 2nd law, in the article:
Hulett, Physics thinking - a skiing example, The Curiosity Vine, 2021
[ii] Dyson, Darwin Among The Machines, 1998
We also provide the "How do you listen to music?" graphic to illustrate Dyson's point about the connection between money and entropy. We can quibble over the exact value produced today by each music machine, but in general, the value is increasing over time for the lower entropy music machines as ordered on the graph. As a means to measure value, I consider the advertising revenue associated with different music delivery channels. The next "ad evolution" graph shows that today, digital-based advertising (associated with digital channels like streaming), is far higher than traditional channels, like radio. Think of this like an auction market, where the buyers are voting for the most valuable delivery channel based on consumer demand.
Also, as a point of clarification regarding music streaming being a "lower entropy" solution than, say, a record player. You may be the kind of music person that could argue all day about the superiority of vinyl records over streaming music quality. The point of our entropy observation is not to suggest people may not have different individual preferences... they certainly do! The point is to observe entropy-reducing solutions in aggregate or as a collection of individual preferences. Generally, utility (also known as "self-interest") is the weighted combination of many individual criteria. Quality is but one criterion - convenience, portability, speed of access, and many other criteria are likely to define overall utility as well.
[iii] We expand the concept of the economic connection to Entropy in the following article. We define individual "smartness," in part, as "The market size (consumer demand) for the products or services supported by the entropy-reducing subject governs the number of people that may perceive one as smart."
Hulett, The case for range: Why “polymathic” people are so valuable, The Curiosity Vine, 2021
[iv] Harari, Homo Deus and a description of fictional and objective reality, 2016.
[v] Veblen's theory of social change is essentially a technological theory of history. He believed that in the last analysis the"state of the industrial arts," that is, the technology available to a society, determines the character of its culture. Invention was the mother of necessity.
MIT Economist David Autor describes Veblen's "insatiable principle" in the following article. Autor calls this the "never-get-enough principle," and that it determines how many jobs there are to build a particular entropy-reducing solution.
Autor, Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The History and Future of Workplace Automation, Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 29, no. 3, 2015
[vi] Richard Dawkins is a British evolutionary biologist and author. Dr. Dawkins suggests that human beings are "survival machines" at the service of our genome. It is ultimately via natural selection that our gene's become fine-tuned to reproduce themselves in the next generation of children.
“The chicken is only an egg’s way for making another egg.”
- Richard Dawkins
Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1976
We take a long-term view of humanity and the universe in the following article. We describe the "4 resilience scales" as a means to show that even though individual humans are fragile and sensitive to high entropy, as we increase scale, we are able to reduce entropy and increase the human species' time in the universe.
Hulett, Navigating the four scales of resilience, The Curiosity Vine, 2020
[vii] For a more fulsome description of the interaction between our neurons and synapses, please see:
Hulett, Dreams are a window to our memories and healthy thinking, The Curiosity Vine, 2022
[viii] For more context regarding the different brain functions, please see:
Hulett, Our Brain Model, The Curiosity Vine, 2020
[ix] Graham, Forstadt, Bulletin #4356, Children and Brain Development: What We Know About How Children Learn
[x] 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.
Certainly, there is more to life than the statistically rare event of an egg being converted to a zygote. In the following article, we address the neurotransmitter and neurohormone oxytocin as a key body and brain biochemical driving tribal-related family development.
Hulett, Origins of our tribal nature, The Curiosity Vine, 2022
[xi] For an examination of reducing entropy in the context of working through our life and providing kindness to others, please see:
[xii] Genova, What you can do to prevent Alzheimer's, TED Talk Podcast, 2017
Snowdon, Aging and Alzheimer's disease: lessons from the Nun Study, The Gerontologist Volume 37, Issue 2, 1997
[xiii] For the application of the mental bootstrapping model in the context of decision-making and changing our minds, please see:
Hulett, Changing Our Mind, The Curiosity Vine, 2021
[xiv] For tools and methods for enabling your curiosity, please see:
Hulett, Curiosity Exploration - An evolutionary approach to lifelong learning, The Curiosity Vine, 2021
Mental Bootstrapping is subject to our behaviors. The self-reinforcing loop may be interrupted by a variety of factors. Robert Sapolsky is a neuroendocrinology researcher, author, and Stanford University professor. Dr. Sapolsky discusses the importance of managing stress levels that cause cortisol hormone build-up. Cortisol build-up may be destructive, especially to children. Too much cortisol will interrupt mental bootstrapping and reduce the brain's ability to create synaptic connections.
Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, 2017
[xv] For highly relevant flow state examples, including soccer training, securities trading, and vaccine development, please see:
Hulett, Soccer Brain - the making of the beautiful game, The Curiosity Vine, 2020
[xvi] For a reference to the right hemisphere/system 1 and left hemisphere/system 2 discussed in this article, please see:
Hulett, Our Brain Model, The Curiosity Vine, 2020
[xvii] Taylor, My Stroke of Insight, 2006
[xviii] For more context on time dilation, including the experiments of Siffre, Le Guen, and Follini, please see:
Buonomano, Your Brain Is A Time Machine, 2018, chapter 3
[xix] Buonomano, Your Brain Is A Time Machine, 2018, chapter 4
[xx] For the high emotion tag & low language case for the related brain pathway, please see:
Hulett, Our Brain Model, The Curiosity Vine, 2020
[xxi] Hulett, Soccer Brain - the making of the beautiful game, The Curiosity Vine, 2020
[xxii] Hulett, Nudge for making good decisions about driving routes, The Curiosity VIne, 2017