At the Intersection of Physics and Emotion

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From left to right: Kevin Behan, Willem Larsen and Adrian Bejan

The Thermodynamics of Emotion

In my quest to understand dogs, animal behavior (and therefore human behavior), as well as trauma and somatic healing, I recently found myself at a conference called The Thermodynamics of Emotion. On my way from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon, a few friendly travelers asked me where I was going and what was nature of my trip. Trying to explain what physics has to do with emotion, and furthermore what either has to do with dog training, proved to be a difficult task.

To begin with, there were three keynote speakers at the conference, starting with JA Jones Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke University, Adrian Bejan. Professor Bejan had originally caught the attention of organizer Willem Larsen with his book, Design in Nature, which is an exposition of his discovery of the constructal law:

“For a finite-size flow system to persist in time (to live), its configuration must evolve in such a way that provides easier access to the currents that flow through it.”

And here is one of my favorite quotes from the introduction of Design in Nature:

“Life is movement and the constant morphing of the design of this movement. To be alive is to keep on flowing and morphing. When a system stops flowing and morphing, it is dead… The constructal law teaches us that nothing operates in isolation, every flow system is part of a bigger flow system, shaped by and in service to the world around it.”

Willem, being a tracker, has very beautifully summed up how the constructal law can improve the art and science of tracking in this video series:

Willem’s desire to apply the constructal law to animal behavior led him to Kevin Behan, who uses Bejan’s work as a springboard for his model of the canine mind. Kevin postulates that “the experience of flow, a principle of conductivity which self-elaborates into complex manifestations of behavior and social structure, is the guiding principle of action, learning, and evolution.” This is the basis for how dogs, humans, and other animals move, behave, and interact with each other and their environment.

So we have a few concepts bouncing around now: the first having to do with the constructal law and how it shapes everything on earth that moves, animate and inanimate alike, from lungs and trees to riverbeds.

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The second idea is that we can study animal movement according to this law and find patterns in the flow of movement (which would be either turbulent or laminar) in order to become better trackers.

And thirdly, there is a principle of emotional conductivity that dictates our behavior, and our behavior can be observed as movement over the landscape. Emotion is what moves us, and that movement is shaped by the constructal law.

During his keynote at the conference, Bejan gave us an official definition of emotion from the dictionary:


–to agitate/to stir up

–strong feeling/excitement

–complex reactions, mental & physical: love, hate, anger, fear, beauty, attraction

He further explained:

“Emotion originally meant movement. This is why even in English when we get emotional we say, ‘I was moved,’ or ‘I was taken aback.’ Emotion, by the way, sends entire peoples to war. Emotion is why cars move out of the showroom… you fall in love with a particular model, and it moves! Movement begins with a decision or a trigger.” 

From there the conference explored the synthesis of the principles of physics, the behavior of dogs, and organizational behavior. We looked at flow patterns in nature as well as large companies. It was a joy to spend the weekend with so many intriguing minds striving for a unifying principle. But for me, the question remained, what is emotion?

Emotion as Valve-Opener

To delve deeper, I wanted to understand the difference between emotion, drive, and instinct. Are emotions instinctual? Do emotions “drive” our behavior? Are they simply neurochemical signals?

Following up on these lingering questions, I spoke with Professor Bejan over the phone and he shared with me his own personal view of the subject.

I asked him, “What is emotion, and what is driving us, our actions and behavior?”

Bejan clarified for me: “Emotion is actually the flipping of a switch, it is what sets the movement on–as opposed to off–and then, of course, the movement happens because there’s a force that pushes, there’s power that’s spent during the movement. But emotion is the trigger, or I think of it as opening a valve for the flow…

“You see this in technology evolution: everybody is being taught the principles of physics and mechanics, but very few have the guts to do something with these things. The ones who have the guts are the doers: the inventors, the investors, the tinkerers, you know, the Thomas Edison type. And then along the way, as if against their wishes, they end up getting rich. Because it is through them that the new flow flows. They attract the business effortlessly.”

So what Bejan describes is the person who feels an emotion so strongly that it triggers action. The entrepreneur is the one who, Bejan says, “puts emotion on display.” They have the “guts” (or gut feelings, in the second brain) to create something new. He also explained to me that knowledge “is not possessing information alone, it is know-how, meaning to have the information, but also to put your hand on the handle and move it, that is knowledge.” So information is transformed into knowledge, and this know-how, combined with guts and an emotional trigger, becomes action which opens a valve (in the economy or culture) and therefore allows greater flow. Somehow the doer, or entrepreneur, has granted greater access to a current, whether that current is water, information, technology, money, etc.

Bejan gives an example:

“When somebody invents a new, cheaper way to lift water out of the well, somewhere in the countryside, then all the villagers come to this person to give them the cheaper water, and then that person gets rich.”

Of course, actions and decisions triggered by emotion can also close valves, and that would stop the flow, or change its direction. For the sake of our diagram, I kept everything in the affirmative:

action and emotion

Betrayed by a Rooster

“I have another example, one that is both interesting and sad,” says Bejan. “In the last 10 years before I left Romania, I was a teenager, and meat disappeared from stores–that was by design, under communism. And my father, the veterinarian, decided to raise egg-laying chickens in the basement of our house. That was a very challenging project, but he did it. Pretty soon, everybody in the city had heard that Dr. Bejan was selling eggs, and they came out of the woodwork these people, you know, wanting eggs. You get it? I mean this was weird but beautiful. And then, of course, my father multiplied the number of the chickens by a factor of ten and started a business that was against the government, because private enterprise is not allowed under communism.

“Maybe two years later, the city bosses came and told him to get rid of the chickens.” Here he interjects a Russian fable about a man wanting to kill his neighbor’s goat and then continues: “This is the communist government against my father. Instead of getting the message to start a chicken-raising industry and alleviate hunger, they destroyed the example, which was making them feel bad because they were envious.” So here we have an example of how emotion and decision-making can open a valve: creating access to eggs, food, meat, but it can also close that same valve, thus blocking the flow of goods.

To conclude Bejan says, “I tell this story, which is semi-personal, but I think understandable with regard to what emotion means and how good it is to connect it with the power that drives the flow, or the force that pushes the flow…

“My father, he was a doer, and he was angry. He was willing to take a risk and go against the regime. You know, he said, ‘If I go hungry, it’s time for me to raise chickens, nevermind my diploma.’ He was the peasant in the city.

“And how did the city find out that he was raising chickens in the basement? I don’t know if you grew up on a farm, but chickens are not happy unless they have a rooster. So my father had one or two roosters, and of course, they were making a racket early in the morning. So he was betrayed by the rooster.”

I ask him, just to clarify one more time: “I think I see now. Where there’s a need, it creates a hunger for something, whether it’s actual food, or a hunger for knowledge. And then whoever the doer is, whoever comes in to fulfill that need, is the person who grants access to a current and therefore creates flow?”

His answer: “The doer is actually doing something a lot more modest in the short term, this person flips the switch. That’s why I liken it to opening a valve or pulling a lever to open a gate.” We talk about another example and in this case, the doer is the one who stops the train when the train is heading to Auschwitz. This is a person, a resistance fighter, who literally opens the door of a train car and gives people their freedom. “It’s a person who says, basta, enough. And so you see, action is life.”

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