The Making Of Mental Energy

It’s hard to define and harder to measure, but mental energy is something everyone wants more of.

It’s only 2 percent of your body weight, but your brain consumes 20 to 25 percent of your metabolic energy. And that’s just on idle, the energy cost to keep your 86 billion neurons and give-or-take 164 trillion synapses on stand-by.

Once the brain is activated, energy demands quickly multiply. Paying attention is an energy-guzzler requiring mental effort and the application of self-control. Decision-making, empathy, and even meditation consume mental resources. Taking in information and processing it, conducting a quick inventory check against memory, maintaining focus and interest, to say nothing of suppressing distraction—whew, it’s exhausting just thinking about it.

You can’t think much at all—or laugh, or respond to danger, or dream about the future, or even remember where you put the car keys—without mental energy. It’s quite literally at the heart of everything you do and sets the agenda for doing anything at all. Straddling the mind-body divide, mental energization consumes oxygen, glucose, and a full suite of macro- and micronutrients, requiring your heart to step up its pumping action. It’s reflected in a rise in blood pressure.

The Missing Link

Despite its sine-qua-non status, mental energy is a missing factor in most accounts of psychic operations. It’s not even clear what mental energy is. One model sees it as one part mood state (feelings about having the capacity to complete mental or physical activities), one part cognition (reflected in tests of attention and speed of information processing), and one part motivation (determination and enthusiasm). The Profile of Mood States scale (POMS) measures mental energy by the level of endorsement of such adjectives as vigorous, enthusiastic, and dynamic. There’s no agreed-upon measure of or method for assessing mental energy.

Although motivation and mental energy are often used interchangeably, there’s reason to see them as different phenomena. “I think of motivation as the wanting,” says psychologist Roy Baumeister, “and the energy goes into the doing and the thinking, Motivation is one of the foundations of the psyche, closely linked to what you need to survive and reproduce. Wanting can be there in people with high or low mental energy.”

Baumeister in fact shook up the world of modern psychology in the late 1990s by introducing the idea that mental energy is a major player in everyday mental life. He put forth evidence that—to a degree still much in debate—self-regulation, the centerpiece of the brain’s executive function, is an energy-dependent phenomenon. Self-control (aka willpower) draws on finite energy sources, and a demanding task requiring self-control will impair performance on a subsequent task—so-called ego depletion. It’s not that motivation flags but that energy, furnished by glucose, gets pretty much used up.

“We chose the term ‘ego depletion’ as a sort of homage to Freud because we couldn’t find anybody since Freud who said the self was made out of energy, at least in part,” Baumeister says. “We weren’t buying the rest of Freud’s model.” All life, he notes, is an energy process.

Whatever mental energy is, it plays a role in shaping personality and accomplishment over the life span. The late behavioral geneticist David Lykken saw mental energy as the companion ingredient that catapults talent into genius. He considered it a capacity shared by great thinkers and achievers from Archimedes to Isaac Newton, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Teddy Roosevelt, and Pablo Picasso.

The Cost of Inflammation

As mental energy is closely linked with intellectual performance, so is it tied to immune function.

Activated by stress and infection—any threat, external or internal, including troubling thoughts—the immune system triggers an inflammatory response that makes significant demands on energy. Evidence indicates that inflammation also shifts attention towards negative bias, a possible pathway to depression, the mother of all low-energy-feeling states. (Increasingly, any number of disruptions to metabolic processes in brain cells are being implicated in mental health disorders, including depression and cognitive decline.)

It’s tempting to think that the polar opposite of mental energy is fatigue, that they are the extreme ends on a single continuum. But there’s some evidence that they are distinct states supported by different mechanisms and serving differing needs. Sitting at a desk all day decreases energy without necessarily increasing fatigue. Moderate exercise has been shown to increase energy without affecting levels of fatigue.

Neurotransmitter systems seem to differ between the two: Energization, driven by dopamine and norepinephrine, supports approach behavior; fatigue, facilitated by serotonin and inflammatory cytokines, underwrites avoidance behavior. The opposite of energy isn’t fatigue, some find, it’s apathy.

Whatever mental energy turns out to be, one thing is clear: It’s something people want more of. Perhaps because we live in disquieting times that we struggle to make sense of—even decisions about what to put in the garbage bring us face-to-face with existential threats—there are unrelenting demands on mental energy. Or maybe it’s just the price of having a big cerebral cortex in a time of information overload.

There are known ways of sustaining mental energy. Most accessible, perhaps, is the judicious use of whatever mental energy individuals already have. Habits are nothing if not great conservers of mental energy. They obviate the need to make any number of decisions. Good habits are even better; they additionally avert the need to expend energy on mopping up the damage done by bad habits.

It’s also possible to generate mental energy from within by a technique known as mental contrasting. New York University psychologist Gabriele Oettingen developed mental contrasting as a way to mobilize the energy necessary to turn goals into achievements.

The technique requires imagining a future you want to attain—writing a book, say—and the best outcome of that desired goal—feelings of accomplishment and pride. The critical part is then avoiding pure fantasy by contrasting your wishes with the reality of the work necessary to attain them.

The judgments people then make about how likely they are to attain the desired future are activating, and the energy mobilization can be measured physically in tests of hand-grip strength. Further, Oettingen finds, that mental contrasting gives rise to a universal arousal state in which energy is transferrable to mental tasks wholly unrelated to the fantasy that birthed it.

The Energy Pantry
Day in, day out, most mental energy is acquired without—from diet. Macronutrients—proteins, carbohydrates, fats—are essential. So is the entire panoply of micronutrients. As the energy powerhouse that it is, the brain definitely needs a steady supply of them all. Many people reach for dietary supplements designed to boost mental energy. Most important for brain activity are B vitamins, vitamins C and D, omega-3 fatty acids, and magnesium. There’s also evidence that the amino acid L-theanine, a natural constituent of tea, reliably increases brain arousal.

Source: ~ By: Hara Estroff Marano ~ Image: Canva Pro

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