Emotional thermodynamics

In psychological thermodynamics, emotional thermodynamics is the thermodynamical study of emotions, particularly in regards to viewing emotion as a type of energy that acts, in the mind, according to the conservation of energy or the conservation of force.

The concept of emotional thermodynamics, according to emotion theorist James Hillman, originated in the 1943 theories of American psychologist Helen Dunbar, based on the foundational energy psychology theories of Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud, considers emotion as energy analogous to the way in which heat is generated chemically and electrically. Her oft-quoted enunciation of this logic is as follows: [1]

“The basic law of Freud’s work, which now is a basic law of general psychiatry as well, may thus be called the ‘first law of emotional thermodynamics’ or conservation of vital energy.”

In this passage, to note, which seems to have caused a certain amount of stir in psychology community, is a misattribution, in the sense that Freud, a student of the anti-vitalism Helmholtz school, did not believe in the concept of “vital energy”, and thus this although he did believe in the concept of the conservation of emotional energy, as explained in his id, ego, super ego theory, the above passage seems to have been a slanted version of Freud’s theory suitable to Dunbar’s agenda, which seems to have been religious in underlying matter, as evidenced by the fact that her undergraduate work was in theology, and what have been called her later “interests in integrating religion and science”. [2]

Interestingly, vital issues aside, Dunbar devotes about six pages of discussion to her concept of “emotional thermodynamics”, discussing the likes of Sadi Carnot, James Joule, and William Thomson, and postulating how somatic short circuits may occur when certain “quantums of energy” get discharged in the wrong directions or are blocked.

In a 1945 book review of Dunbar’s emotional thermodynamics theory, psychologist Franz Alexander, supposedly, “challenges the application of the laws of thermodynamics in this way to the theory of emotion. [3]

1. (a) Dunbar, Helen Flanders. (1943). Psychosomatic Diagnosis (thermodynamics, 7+ pgs; emotional thermodynamics, pgs. 650-57). New York.
(b) Hillman, James. (1999). Emotion (emotional thermodynamics, pg. 70-71, 78). Psychology Press.
2. (a) Helen Flanders Dunbar – Psych.YorkU.ca.
(b) McGovern, Constance M. (2000). “Helen Flanders Dunbar”, Webster.edu.
3. (a) Alexander, F. (1945). “Book Review of Psychosomatic Diagnosis”, in Psychosomatic Medicine, pg. 46.
(b) Hillman, James. (1999). Emotion (pg. 71). Psychology Press.

TDics icon ns

More pages