Knowing how you work and learn best is really useful knowledge. It’s even more useful if you have some way to apply this knowledge. This, and the dubious concept of psychic energy is what this article is mainly about.
If you are like me, you do not enjoy reading about vague and ill-defined concepts, especially if they are presented as authoritative and “scientific”. One such area of annoyance is the use of the word “Energy” in psychology. I came across this most recently when reading about MBTI. The previous post was an introduction to MBTI and related personality typology frameworks, which are routinely used to great practical benefit in life. It was jut the first half of this article. This is the second half.
The thing is, just because personality types are useful and productive does not mean people thoroughly understand them. And in particular, I wanted a better understanding of the role of the concept of psychic energy, or what Carl Jung referred to as Libido.
The Use of the Concept of Energy in Psychology
First, let’s be clear that energy is properly a technical term in the science of physics. It has many forms, one of which is potential energy (energy locked away in the position of a mass in relation to some force field), and another is kinetic energy (energy of motion, the faster or more massive a thing the more kinetic energy it possess, quantitatively). The key thing is that energy is numerically measurable, it is quantitative. It is not a vague concept, it has real meaning.
As you can easily imagine, these definitions are not arbitrary. Potential energy can indeed be turned into kinetic energy, that’s the way the world works — I’m not kidding — this is the fundamental fact of physical reality — this interrelation between potential and kinetic energy is literally precisely what makes the universe evolve as it does. In a deep sense there is nothing else to know about the world. What makes the world an interesting and beautiful place is that physics cannot actually perfectly predict what will happen to all the potential energy stored in the positions and motions of matter — and so physics cannot give us a complete account of past and future. All it can do is give us probability measures of how energy might unfold in the future or past motions of matter in spacetime.
This is why we need to supplement physics with higher level sciences like chemistry, biology and economics and even psychology, in order to fully understand the universe and all the life it supports you cannot get by just on Sheldon Cooper’s bank of knowledge.
But clearly the pure physics definition of energy is not what psychology has in mind when studying things like behaviour and temperament in human interrelations. So what exactly does psychology want us to understand when it employs the word “energy” or at least the phrase “psychic energy”?
Energy and Libido
Although this is probably an over-simplification, I will use “Libido” as a synonym for psychic energy. But what is this by definition?
It is not really energy, since energy is … well, … energy is Energy! It’s a concept in physics, not psychology. The brain gets energy from glucose (primarily). And glucose has little directly related to libido. Although, if one lacks glucose then libido plummets no doubt, but so will all other physiological and psychological functions! So the physics concept of energy is not really much to do with psychic libido.
But there is a common intuition we all share about mental energy. You can feel exhausted from certain mental activity, even when your physiology is well fueled up on glucose and other carbohydrates and proteins and other vitamins and food and water. And even when you are short on food and water, there are other mental activities that can energise you and uplift your spirits. So since this is clearly not about physics energy, we have these intuitions about something else. This is what we mean by psychic energy or libido. It’s the mental energy you can feel you have even when you have little physical energy. It is generally fairly independent from physical biochemical energy, although, as just noted above, you always need a little bit of physical energy to function. But given you have just enough physical chemical energy to walk upright and move your muscles, then there is still something else, something that can drain or revive you mentally, and this is the elusive concept of psychic energy or libido.
In MBTI theory psychic energy, or libido, is claimed to be directed inwardly for Introverts and outwardly for Extraverts. But what is this libido really? Is it merely a fictional concept, a nevertheless functionally useful device for talking about psychology, an artifice for usefully conversing about psychology, or is it a real thing, something which can be quantified and measured?
We do Feel Lows and Highs
I’ll take it as a given that everyone knows what one means by an emotional low (or high). These are roughly speaking the mental states of low (resp. high) psychic energy. But they have nothing directly related to physical energy levels, at least not obviously. But there are connections which will be why the word “energy” has a place in psychology. My main aim is to make this precise.
The Brain Controls Hormones
Hormones are those ubiquitous proteins that drive a lot of our biochemistry, most of it is subconscious stuff, but a few hormones are well-known to affect our moods, our emotions, and so they filter up in conscious level sometimes too the point where they become noticeable conscious irritants. Women have the luck of knowing this acutely when they menstruate. But less well known is the fact that men experience similar yet not nearly so intense psychological mood swings due to the banal effect of these dumb biochemicals, and men have a daily cycle, not monthly.
The point is that psychological and conscious mental states are not purely driven and determined by thoughts and intellectual levels of consciousness. A heck of a lot of our psychological and emotional mental states are crazily influenced by levels of dumb chemical hormones in our brains. But since our brain also is responsible for adjusting levels of hormones, this sets up some equally crazy feedback loops between the ostensibly quite disparate realms of (1) psychological states and (2) neurological chemical balances, or imbalances.
So psychic energy is fairly mundane. It’s not the SciFi power that enables people control of physical objects via thought waves. It’s just the effect of hormones on physiology. You feel “low in psychic energy” because your brain is causing your body to feel physically fatigued because the hormones are lowering your metabolic rates and such-like. This is the biochemical–neurological–psychological feedback loop. Biology does not respect human categorical levels of description though. And the causality can work in reverse. Low psychological esteem can cause the brain to enter loops of subconscious activity which cause our organs and cells to emit the hormones that lower metabolic rates, and thus can make you feel physically exhausted.
You could have high glucose levels and yet still feel exhausted because your metabolism in general is being told to shut down by your brain. And then an hour later with no more food intact you could feel great because someone or something has shifted your brain states into a positive affective condition causing the metabolically enhancing hormones to surge. Your brain does not just monitor blood glucose. It is a powerful entity. It can adjust hormones based upon other complex high-level cognitive states that have no simple biochemical correlates, and rather are correlated best with things we routinely refer to as psychological states.
Low Psychic Energy is Not Always Low Physical Energy
Low Psychic Energy can cause feelings of low physical energy because our brains do not directly perceive low glucose or low metabolic activity as tiredness. Our conscious perception of tiredness is complex mix of low level physiological states and certain neurological patterns of activity in our brains and high level conscious thoughts.
That’s right! Even a sad thought can make you feel tired and “low in energy”. But this is psychic energy, not necessarily physiological or biochemical energy. It’s worth remembering this the next time you feel tired or exhausted. You might want to reflect upon it and think carefully about the true cause. Is it real lowness in glycogen or other physiological chemical energy levels, or is it mostly psychological, or is it a cause in the intermediate level of neurology and hormone imbalances which can be easily corrected with some happier thoughts and some caffeine?
Treating ailments effectively is mainly about figuring out the most proximate and deepest underlying causes and treating these.
The trouble with treating psychic low energy levels, or low libido, is the complex mix of factors, which range all over the field from chemicals up to conscious thoughts. But if you at least try to treat one of the symptoms, because of the complexity of the causal chains, it will probably have a beneficial short-term relieving effect no matter what level you decide to treat. Have a Vitamin B does, a coffee & and cake, a brief but intense exercise, a hot shower, and maybe take a pause to watch an inspiring TED Talk for instance. It may not cure chronic depression, but I bet it will lighten your mood temporarily and give you a positive little burst of psychic energy.
So a Definition of Psychic Energy?
Yes, I think I have one. Psychic energy is not one thing, it is a complex of high level emotional states found only at the psychological level of human thought, mixed with objective neurological patterns in the brain, mixed with dumb biochemical hormonal levels and even raw chemical energy levels in blood glucose and glycogen. But the main referent for the phrase psychic energy or libido is the psychology level of exhaustion/sadness or alertness/happiness that is associated with the aforementioned complex of factors.
Because psychic energy has no single cause it cannot be easily quantified, and there would exist many different methods of plausible semi-quantification of the notion of psychic energy level in an individual. If you wish to do psychology science then choose a metric for measuring psychic energy, define it well and unambiguously, keep it as objective as possible (i.e.., do not make it too dependent upon patient reported “feelings”), and state your particular definition clearly so it is at least reproducible.
Used wisely I think the notion of psychic energy can be very powerful. I can conceive of practical uses in at least the following areas:
- Daily motivation and humane employee productivity enhancement.
- Sports performance enhancement.
- Health professions, complimenting traditional treatment of symptoms of exhaustion.
- General life satisfaction enhancement and career counselling and relationship psychology.
- Academic study for the further advancement in understanding of clinical positive psychology.
- Creativity enhancement in the arts and sciences.
And that’s just a beginning.
Psychic Energy and MBTI
The original reason I wrote this article was to better understand how the word energy can be used and interpreted within the framework of Myers–Briggs Personality Typology.
Here is the key paragraph which is repeated in many of the MBTI practitioner references and MBTI theory sources:
“People who prefer extraversion draw energy from action: they tend to act, then reflect, then act further. If they are inactive, their motivation tends to decline. To rebuild their energy, extraverts need breaks from time spent in reflection. Conversely, those who prefer introversion “expend” energy through action: they prefer to reflect, then act, then reflect again. To rebuild their energy, introverts need quiet time alone, away from activity.”
So how can one understand this paragraph in the light of the discussion of psychic energy?
To “draw one’s psychic energy from action” means that positive emotional states which correlate with certain neurological firing patterns in the brain get stimulated by physical activity and conversation and engagement with others for Extravert type personalities. And I would hypothesize that the same neural states and regions of the brain are fired up in Introverts by the opposite sort of activities, namely solitude, peace and quiet time for inwardly directed reflection.
By a positive emotional state one would presumably mean brain states that are correlated with subjectively reported feelings of happiness and objectively measured increases in skilled performance such as efficiently solving basic puzzles and other basic standard psychometric metrics of positive affectations.
To “expend one’s psychic energy” means that negative emotional states which correlate with certain neurological firing patterns in the brain get stimulated by solitude and excessive quiet and lack of engagement and conversation with others for Extravert type personalities. And I would hypothesize that the same negatively correlated neural states and regions of the brain are fired up in Introverts by the opposite sort of activities, namely solitude, peace and quiet time for inwardly directed reflection.
By a negative emotional state one would presumably mean the opposite of the positive affective brain states and their correlations.
If I could conduct an fMRI study on volunteers I would hypothesise brain scans correlated with subjective and objective reports of psychic energy (happiness or sadness) as depicted crudely in the following cartoon.
And I’d expect the reverse sort of data when the same volunteers are subjected to peaceful isolating stimuli for extended periods. I’m not sure, but maybe someone has already conducted such research? I can at least have some theoretical fun with this.
A Spot of Amateur Neurology
The prototype experiment then might yield data that looks a bit like the following schematic:
This is a general hypothesis I’d call the stimulus functional dominance model. It’s saying that maybe the same functional areas of the brain “light up” in the two different people but in inverted activity ways because the same external stimuli are being given, but the emotional patterns of neural activity in this model are opposite. What makes the Extrovert psychologically happy is what makes the Introvert psychologically sad, and conversely − in this model.
I’d call this the the response functional dominance model. It’s saying that different regions “light up” because of the way the different personalities process the external stimuli, but the neurological correlates of emotional states are similar when subjectively reported.
What would be your guess?
Mine would be neither of these models should be dominant because we are dealing with a mix of stimulus and response. So I’d expect the fMRI maps to look quite different. They’d be a mixture of both models. But the stimulus aspects would be similar, not necessarily inverted in the activity of the regions, since stimulus is stimulus, it’ll light up the same areas in both brains. It’s only the response that should differ.
But then, Introverts process stimulus differently according to MBTI theory, so once more the fMRI maps could be weirder than a simple overlapping of social stimulus + exhaustion functional dominance in Introverts and social stimulus + happiness functional dominance in Extraverts, and conversely for the prolonged solitude stimulus.
This is all just some theoretical fun you understand. Please don’t take it as a neuro–psychology science lesson!
Hormone Level Correlations
I’d go further of course and speculate about the correlations in hormones between Extraverts and Introverts. Suppose we ask how adrenalin (the excitement hormone) and serotonin and norepinephrin (happiness hormones) change over time is response to either intense social stimulus or the opposite stimulus os prolonged solitary environment?
What would you hypothesise? Go on! Go ahead and giver it some thought
Here are two guesses about how hormone levels might fluctuate. The first cartoon is for prolonged social stimulus.
Here I’m imaging studying two people at exactly the same party or in the laboratory stimulus environment, or whatever. Preferrably both together in real time. The only difference in the charts is supposed to be the two individuals.
The second cartoon is my guess for prolonged solitude.
Obviously the trends might not last. Even Introverts can get bored with themselves. And even Extraverts can get overloaded with social stimulants.
This is just speculation again. But imagine some actual data and the fun you could have telling psychological level stories about the data. Could be a really interesting PhD topic huh? Say you saw the above data, you might observe that some social stimulus spiked adrenaline in both the Extravert and the Introvert, but the spike is greater in the Introvert and leads to a decline in the pleasure hormones. They getoverstimulated too easily. The extravert has more tolerance and gets the buzz of adrenal excitement, but not the overdose whihc might lead to decline in pleasure.
If anyone knows of prior research on these topics then please write a comment.
These speculations touch only on the one dimension of MBTI, the E/I dimension. So I expect a lot more interesting science could be done to test MBTI theory against neurology and other biophysical data which correlate with reported mood and other psychological states.
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In summary, the Psychic Energy referred to by MBTI theory is not strongly linked to biophysical energy. It is rather the complex of factors which, at a very low and marginal level do include chemical energy levels but also, more importantly are the factors associated with positive affective states in our brains, which correlate with subjective feelings of happiness and well-being independently of physically measurable biochemical energy indicators.
Knowing Your Superpowers
Yeah, well knowing your personality type is not a superpower, but it can be a bit like having one. When you know yourself better you will be able to actively avoid shit which brings you down, and moreover, if you’re an Introvert you will know not to listen to lame friends who advocate extreme social interaction to perk you up, and if you are an extravert you will be able to cheerfully dismiss a concerned friend who advocate spending some decompression time alone, because you really know what you might need is some good company.
That’s just the beginning of using the science of psychology to discover your superpowers. As a further next step I’d recommend taking the Signature Strengths Test over at www.sas.upenn.edu/authentichappiness/
It’s fun, but note that it’s not much more than fun unless you do the reading and take action to turn your known strengths into use for your benefit. This is one of the key messages emerging from the comparatively recent and young field of positive psychology: focus on enhancing your strengths, because this positive focus leads to greater happiness in general than focusing on correcting your weaknesses. Leave your weaknesses aside, they will improve automatically if you just focus on enhancing your strengths. Why? (You might well ask.) No one really knows, but my guess is that enhancing your strengths is just more fun than toiling on trying to overcome your weaknesses. It’s a version of the old adage: “find work or an occupation that you enjoy, then your job and career will be your pleasure and not your misery.”
Psychic power to you all!
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Answers to Other Questions
Just answering my own questions here.
- Is Psychology a Science? — Yes, it is now. See the TED Talk by Martin Seligman: The New Era of Positive Psychology.
- Why do thinking and feeling have to be thought of as rational, and sensing and intuition as the irrational? — in the previous post I wrote that they do not need to be taken this way. The thinking of some people can appear quite irrational to others at times. And how people use intuition or sensation can appear quite understandable. How you perceive someone’s modes of behaviour can depend not only on their personality type but on your own type as well. What I think Jung meant was merely that Thinking & Feeling can be understood more generally as rational than Sensing & Intuition. Why? Because in Jungian typology Thinking & Feeling lead to outward decisions, whereas Sensing & Intuition yield internal mental changes which are not public.
- Do Extraverts and Introverts have the same neurological active regions when stimulted by their different dominant prefered activities? — That is, do outward directed activities (talking with others, being bubbly and sociable) for Extravets fire about the same pleasure centeres in their brains as does inward thought and peaceful quiet excite in the brains of Introverts? And equally, do the activities which dampen Extravert emotions (solitude, isolation, excessive peace and quiet) fire the same neurological patterns and regions as in the brains of Introverts who are placed in loud buzzy social environments with forced excess engagements with others? I do not know of any research which answers this set of questions. So consider it an open topic, maybe you will be the researcher who first publishes an answer backed up by data.
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