Peggy La Cerra

Peggy La Cerra nsIn hmolscience, Peggy La Cerra (c.1959-) is an American evolutionary psychologist and neuroscientist noted, in psychological thermodynamics, for her 1996 energy theory of depression or “energetic model of the mind”, a mixture of evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, thermodynamics, and Freudian id-ego-superego psychodynamics.

In 1996, La Cerra began to glean her general theory that: “despite our differences, we are all the handiwork of the energetic universe, and each of us—and everything in the world around us—manifests its laws; and that everything is and always has been at one with the universe”, during the tail end of her undergraduate and graduate studies in the psychology and neuroscience of depression. She explains her awaking to this viewpoint as follows: [7]

“My awakening to this truth came like a bolt of lightning on a gray winter’s day in Southern California. It was January 9, 1996, and I was pacing the floor of my tiny apartment, adjacent to the University of California, Santa Barbara. I had been working on the same research problem for months, trying to understand the complex group of phenomena we call ‘depression’ within the existing framework of evolutionary psychology. This school of thought held that the mind is a collection of separate problem-solving instincts, each one arising from a separate brain circuit that had solved a specific survival or reproductive problem for our ancestors. I had spent years of graduate and postdoctoral study doing research guided by this model, but I now felt deeply troubled by it. I just couldn’t fathom how a bunch of separate instinctual circuits could possibly produce the seemingly orchestrated series of physical, psychological, and behavioral changes that make up a clinical depression.”

She then gives an overview of her experience and research in depression:

“Depression was a problem I knew something about. As a graduate student in neuroscience, I had spent years studying the characteristics of the dopamine system, one of the major neurotransmitter systems implicated in this condition. And long before that, I had a deluxe crash course — a severe episode of depression that had, over a frighteningly short period of time, systematically siphoned off my will to live.”

La Cerra goes on to explain how her deluxe crash course in depression occurred when she was about twenty and mother, aunt, favorite cousin, and first boyfriend all died within a short period and that this sent her into a deep immobilizing depression, during which time she lost her period, stopped socializing, and was in a sort of undead holding pattern without a will to exist:

“At first I simply felt odd — a little sad and unable to think clearly, with a diminished sense of self. But then everything spiraled downward. I was constantly tired but couldn’t sleep. I tried to eat, but my favorite foods tasted like cardboard. Nothing felt pleasurable and, perhaps more disturbing, nothing felt painful. It was like being slowly embalmed. The sensory world faded, and nothing interested me. I stopped socializing and eventually lost the motivation to get out of bed. Finally, my periods stopped, and I was in a kind of holding pattern — not quite dead but not really alive. It was a profound experience — nothing like a set of instincts gone awry. It was more like a single plug had been pulled, and the vital force within me was draining out.”

Back to her 1996 research query, she describes her energetic-view-of-the-mind epiphany as follows:

“As I stared out the window, trying to find the right words and feeling the downward pull of my heart, my mind flickered back to my research problem about depression. Suddenly, something snapped into place. The depression I was beginning to experience wasn’t the result of ancient problem-solving instincts gone awry, as the evolutionary psychologists had claimed. Nor was it an illness or a chemical imbalance, as the psychiatric community claimed. What was becoming clear in that moment was that depression is a potentially lifesaving adaptive response — a kind of dormancy. Suddenly I understood that there is an energetic calculus in our brains and minds that effects this downward shift: When our intelligence system perceives that there is not much to gain by carrying on with the tasks of life — when we are overcome by too much loss or are facing a period of too little gain — we get ‘depressed.’ By the same token, the seasonal shutdown psychiatrists call seasonal affective ‘disorder’ is actually a normal, if uncomfortable, recalibration for the energetically barren winter months that our species confronted during our ancestral past. This kind of motivational downshifting forces us to radically reconfigure our lives and our selves in an effort to keep us energetically solvent. My brain was shutting down my motivational system to keep me from wasting any more behavioral energy on a dead-end path.”

In this statement we see a fairly well-formed philosophy, the idea that happenings such as states of depression can be quantified energetically and thus eventually in thermodynamic terms, in what be classified along the same lines as Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud’s 1895 “A Project for Scientific Psychology”, wherein he outlined his epiphany of a future chemical thermodynamics based psychology, framed in the Helmholtz terms 'bound energy' and 'unbound energy' in a physical-psychological sense, a subject that eventually became psychodynamics (or energy psychology, as it is sometimes called). In any event, La Cerra goes on to describe the period of intellectual breakthrough and growth that follows as such:

“Like a person starving in the desert who rejoices when he comes across a succulent tuber poking out of the ground, I went from sliding into a depression to being launched into a state of elation. I had 20 years of accumulated experimental knowledge about the mind and brain and almost 40 years of life experience to be resolved through the lens of this energetic model, and with this huge energetic boost, my own mind wasted no time. For the next weeks and months, I hardly slept as I was bombarded with hundreds of insights into how our intelligence system is designed to solve our behavioral challenges. A new paradigm of the human mind began to emerge — one that explained its functional design in accordance with the second law of thermodynamics, or entropy.”

She describes the core to her new energy model of the mind as follows:

“Somewhere in the midst of this ‘enlightenment period,’ I realized one simple truth: all life intelligence systems evolved in a world where the number one threat was — and is — entropy: the tendency toward randomness in a system. It takes a lot of energy to counter entropy and significantly more to form the basic jobs of life, so all forms of life have intelligence systems that have been honed by evolution to acquire, manage, and direct energetic resources. Everything else is secondary to meeting this energetic bottom line.”

A circa 2011 excerpt of an interview with Peggy La Cerra on her clash with her evolutionary psychology department colleges on her adamant view that everything, the human mind included, is the result of the adaptive driving pressures of energy and entropy. [5]

La Cerra recounts this epiphany incident (which might be similar to that experienced by Jing Chen or as described by Adriaan de Lange, to name a few examples), which seems to be her bottom line philosophy, in the adjacent video interview documentary. [5] Here we see that La Cerra is fairly close to target correctness in her philosophy, in her view that the second law is the bottom line rule of universal operation. Her view that the "number one threat in the world is entropy: the tendency toward randomness in a system [and that] it takes a lot of energy to counter entropy and significantly more to form the basic jobs of existence", however, needs a bit of a rewrite.

The first rewrite is the "type" of systems humans are in, which is as described by American physical chemist Gilbert Lewis, are "surface-attached isothermal, isobaric, freely-going reactive system", according to which the entropy tendencies of the second law become subsumed into the bottom line that the tendency to evolution in social systems is towards Gibbs free energy decrease, which takes into account entropy increase or what is better described in its original Clausius terminology as transformation content increase.

The second rewrite is her notion of "countering entropy" and that it takes a lot of energy to do this, which is a mis-extrapolation of the notion that entropy is the tendency to randomness or disorder to human social systems. It must always be remembered that underlying the mathematics of entropy, we are talking about heat release or heat absorption. Hence, for example, when two people fall in love or a person comes out of a depression and starts a new company, the process, if it is naturally spontaneous, is an endergonic chemical reaction between two or human molecules (people), meaning that during the course of the reaction heat will be released, in the form of electron orbital shifts downwards, photon release, and increased molecular motion, just as does a campfire warm one's hands. In any event, she continues in her retelling of her enlightenment period:

“Behavior itself is energetically expensive — we must use energy in order to even attempt to get more. If our behavior doesn’t get us “the goods,” we run out of energy and die. Nature’s solution to this economic conundrum is a behavioral intelligence system that acts as an energetic cost–benefit analysis and prediction system. It creates a neural record of our experiences, a “representation” with all the details of each relevant moment, especially the attendant energetic costs and benefits. When we find ourselves in a situation similar to one we’ve encountered before, the system uses this stored information to “model” various behavioral options, estimate their likely costs and benefits, modify the one that most closely approximates our current circumstances, and chart an energetically sound behavioral course into the future.”

La Cerra goes on to conclude that she first published her theory as the 1998 paper “The Adaptive Nature of the Human Neurocognitive Architecture: An Alternative Model”, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which was expanded on later in general audience format in her 2002 book The Origin of Minds.

Sher describes her theory as “the first scientifically based model of the functional human neurocognitive architecture that recognizes the second law of thermodynamic—entropy—as the primary adaptive force shaping the functional operational design of the mind.” [1]

La Cerra’s energetic model was presented for the general audience in the 2002 book The Origin of Mind: Evolution, Uniqueness, and the New Science of the Self, co-written with American theoretical evolutionary neuroscientist Roger Bingman. [2]

Spiritual awakening
La Cerra states that what she didn’t write about in her 1998 article and 2002 book was her spiritual awakening that she states that she had in the course of the discovery period. She describes this spiritual awakening as such:

“My awareness of the exquisite integrity of the energetic universe. In this amazing period of discovery, it became crystal clear to me that the same laws that continually effect the changes in the seasons and that shape and reshape the contours of the land and the seas are continually shaping and reshaping our thoughts and behaviors and are creating our reality and our sense of self. I knew that I was experiencing the Tao — the energetic flow of the universe. One night, while I was standing under the stars on a grassy hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, ‘I’ simply disappeared into it — anatta, ‘no self.’"

She goes on to comment that she then began to reflected on the Pali scriptures, the earliest record of Buddhist thought, to find a unifying anchor point with her theory, wherein the self is considered to be illusory — nothing more than an experience arising from a collection of skandhas, bundles of form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. This Buddhist spirituality aspect of her theory generally seems to unravel the cogentness of her purely thermodynamic presentation into a lot of conjectural and baseless ancient philosophy about existence. In any event, she concludes with interesting (spirit free) gems such as:

“Energetic interactions. The love we feel when our child smiles at us, and the pride we feel when we’re praised for a job well done are the emotional correlates of an actual or a predicted gain in energy; likewise, the anger we feel when we’ve been mistreated, and the jealousy we feel when someone flirts with our mate are the emotional readouts of an energetic loss.”

These are all descriptions that can be measured (see: human thermodynamic instruments), just as a calorimeter measures heats released or absorbed from chemical reactions.

La Cerra went on to completed here PhD in evolutionary psychology, after which she did research in cognitive neuroscience. Since, 2002 she has been director of the Center for Evolutionary Neuroscience, a research and educational nonprofit that examines human nature and the human condition from the perspective of an energetic (thermodynamic) evolutionary model of the neurocognitive architecture. Since 2009, she has been a columnist for Spirituality & Health Magazine (‘Our Evolving Selves’). La Cerra also is neuroscientific consultant to The Baumann Institute. [6]

On God
La Cerra seems to be agnostic with respect to the question of the existence of God. This is indicated by her comment on the pre-big bang initial state of the universe: [1]

“Divine or not, there is what might be called a plan—a body of interrelated laws, discovered through the great communal detective story of science, that govern all forms of matter and energy in our universe and lead inexorably to the design of your mind.”

In recent years, being a columnist of Spirituality & Health Magazine and an invited speaker at the Science and Nonduality Conference, La Cerra seems to be of the bent to incorporate or advocate “spiritual” ideas into her energy theory of the mind. Her views on the relation of the two, spirituality and thermodynamics, are expressed in her 2009 talk at a public interfaith service about peace, wherein she seems to use a Teilhardian-style of discourse: [3]

“When we look at the human experience through the clear lens of universal law, the distinctions between the physical and metaphysical, disappear. Through this lens, we are energetic life forms, at once absolutely exquisitely unique, and yet universal – sharing with all members of our species all aspects of the human experience, the full range of human emotions and a creative capacity that is unparalleled in the kingdom of life on earth; sharing with all life forms the essential characteristics of all life; and sharing with all things animate and inanimate the ubiquitous fingerprints of these universal laws. Through this lens, we can see clearly that energy is constantly in flow, and the energy that we are is constantly changing, with every experience, in a great universal unfolding. Through this lens, we can see that there is a constant two-way energetic exchange between us and everything in our physical and social environment. Whatever we release into the social and physical world, positive or negative, constructive or destructive, enters into the environment — the environment in which we humans are our selves being created. In this view, it is clearly in our enlightened self interest to release into the world only that which is healthy and uplifting.”

She concludes that we should follow the golden rule in an effort to seek a peaceful society.

Difficulties on theory
La Cerra's overall philosophy that the mind is an adaptive feature of the evolutionary pressure of entropy, seems to be cogent, to a larger part. In terms of what exactly she means by the term "spiritual", in the context of evolution, mind, and thermodynamics, is in need of further discussion, as this extrapolation has never been done successfully before.

In terms of morality systems go, the "golden rule" advice is good as a superficial guiding idea, but to intelligently outline a long term model of a "peaceful society", one needs to acknowledge that, in reality, natural systems, such as local, social, or global systems, according to the laws of thermodynamics, are energetically coupled to each other, in such a way that natural systems and processes drive natural systems and processes, such that over time, change and large scale transformations occur in a tipping point, cyclical, or periodic manner. This equates, in laymanized terms, to the effect that what is considered ‘good’ or stable drives what is considered ‘evil’ or unstable, as explained in human terms. [4] In other words, periodic war is inevitable outcome of what La Cerra labels as the entropic pressure driving force of adaptive evolution. The hence the motto: "all’s fair in love in war" might well capture this viewpoint, at least during the transition states.

1. (a) General Information –
(b) Intentional self creation –
2. (a) La Cerra, Peggy and Bingham, Roger. (2002). The Origin of Mind: Evolution, Uniqueness, and the New Science of the Self (thermodynamics, pgs. 10-11, 140, 222-24). New York: Harmony Books.
(b) La Cerra, Peggy. (2003). “The First Law of Psychology is the Second Law of Thermodynamics: The Energetic Evolution Model of the Mind and Generation of Human Psychological Phenomena.” [PDF]. Human Nature Review, 3. 440-47.
(c) Roger Bingham – Wikipedia.
3. La Cerra, Peggy. (2009). “Spirituality”, talk at a public interfaith service about peace.
4. (a) Thims, Libb. (2011). Thermodynamic Proof that Good Always Triumphs over Evil”, Journal of Human Thermodynamics, 7: 1-4.
(b) Thims, Libb. (2012). What’s Your Purpose in a Godless Universe? Publisher.
5. La Cerra, Peggy. (c. 2011). “Finding a Bridge between Science and Satori, Peggy La Cerra”, featured in the 3DVD set "Science and Nonduality Anthology Vol.2" (full interview).
6. Peggy La Cerra (speaker profile) –
7. La Cerra, Peggy. (2009). “The Creation of I”, Spirituality and Health, Jan/Feb.
8. La Cerra, and Bingham, R. (1998). “The Adaptive Nature of the Human Neurocognitive Architecture: An Alternative Model” (abs), Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 95 (September 15): 11290–94.

External links
La Cerra, Peggy – WorldCat Identities.
Peggy La Cerra – Twitter.
Center for Evolutionary Neuroscience –
Peggy La Cerra – LinkedIn.

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