Psychic entropy


Published 2022-04-20.

In his book Flow, the psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi uses the term ‘psychic entropy’ to describe a person’s state of mind when they are idle and easily distractible.

The way I interpret the term (which is probably not quite how Csikszentmihalyi is using it) is that if you’re in a state of psychic entropy, then an outside observer would struggle to predict what your attention will be trained on five minutes from now. For example, if you’re scrolling through a social media feed, you are likely being exposed to a huge variety of stimuli, most from utterly different contexts. Even if I could see what you’re looking at now, I would probably struggle to predict what you might be looking at five minutes from now. That’s my understanding of psychic entropy. It reminds me of Bo Burnham’s song, Welcome to the Internet, in which he sings:

See a man beheaded
Get offended, see a shrink
Show us pictures of your children
Tell us every thought you think
Start a rumor, buy a broom
Or send a death threat to a boomer
Or DM a girl and groom her
Do a Zoom or find a tumor in your
Here’s a healthy breakfast option
You should kill your mom
Here’s why women never fuck you
Here’s how you can build a bomb
Which Power Ranger are you?
Take this quirky quiz
Obama sent the immigrants to vaccinate your kids
Could I interest you in everything?
All of the time?

By contrast, if you are reading a book, or solving a math problem, or playing the guitar, I could bet with some confidence that you will still be doing that five minutes from now. The state of your consciousness is probably fairly stable and harmonious. So Csikszentmihalyi refers to this as a state of psychic ‘negentropy’ (yuck—the physics envy…), which encompasses a broader category of conscious states than flow.

Csikszentmihalyi’s main recommendation for living a happier life, which I’ve found to be helpful, is to reduce psychic entropy as much as possible. One practical implication of this advice might be to regularly set aside time for ‘deep work’ (see Cal Newport’s book), and while you are in these periods of focus, minimize the probability of context-switching.

Reference

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (p. 36). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.


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