Entropy is the loss of energy and systemic cohesion; in terms of living organisms, the loss of the ability to be a living organism.
The loss of the ability to be a human organism: we get sick; we age; we lose the ability to sustain the organism for a variety of reasons. Entropy makes the body fall apart, and we die.
And just to make that point perfectly clear, our body falls apart even more, relentlessly collapsing, thanks to entropy, into all kinds of bits and pieces which give up more energy and degrade from their original integrity until nothing is left but little bits and bobs of energy for other organisms to use for their temporary existence.
I think this explains a lot about depression.
Let’s divide humans into two broad but not inaccurate groups.
Group One are those who seem to have boundless energy. They get shit done. They come up with ideas and plans, and they bust their butts to make these into reality. To make them work. They build amazing things, like rockets to the moon and vaccines and nuclear weapons and online data sites. Their brains always seem to have more energy than they can use, or at least they don’t run out of energy.
As I said, they get shit done.
Group Two is the flip-side of that coin. These are people who never have the energy they need to do all they desire. They want to do this, they want to do that, yet they don’t do squat. Or they do partial squat. Me, I do most of the necessary squat and very little of the goal-oriented squat.
Group Two don’t get shit done.
But it’s not our fault. It’s entropy, and entropy is a fundamental law of the universe. It is, as Steven Pinker describes it, the statistical version of Newton’s 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Energy is constantly lost, and things fall apart. The only way to prevent entropy from having an effect is to replace energy – and nothing is capable of that long-term – or to exist in a closed system where the energy has nowhere to go so nothing breaks down.
That place has yet to be discovered beyond imaginary places like heaven and advertisements.
Depression is the human brain proving the efficacy of entropy.
Those of us with depression can literally sit, or lie, or slump, and watch the energy drain from our lives. We can actually feel our life degrade, the decomposition that follows death getting a head start on things. This is why two common responses to depression are substance abuse, to dull these realizations and their pain, and suicide, to end these realizations and their pain.
Neither is healthy as we normally think of them, but neither is as irrational as we try to pretend they are. Sure, death is pretty final and its aftermath is totally unknown, whether you believe in an afterlife or not. But if remaining alive means remaining in pain, why bother?
The loss of mental healthiness that results in depression results in a misunderstanding of reality that makes suicide or substance abuse rational. Depression is fully treatable; anyone can recover from depression. It’s not easy, and we still don’t know how to do it very well, but the fact is: when it comes to depression, the degradation of the mind’s health can be reversed.
We can be healed.
Lots of caveats to toss in here.
Trauma is difficult to treat, but the past twenty years of brain science has opened up new understandings and treatments. More and more people with severe traumas are finding help to get them to a place where they can learn ways to cope, heal, and even thrive. It’s not easy, but it’s becoming more commonplace.
“Regular” depression is being treated more and more effectively by treatments rooted in mindfulness, and for one good reason: The brain’s structure – ie, how your consciousness works – can be rebuilt through a program of focused attention. By using and regularly practicing mental exercises that get your thoughts away from all the crap that depression throws up, you quiet the brain just enough for new structures to be built. (Or to stop the old destructive mental constructs from maintaining the grip.)
Now let’s be clear: In time, the body, including the brain, will destabilize and die. Nothing can stop that inevitability all living organisms face. But we do not have to surrender to entropy pre-maturely. We can restore the brain’s health so that it uses energy productively and maintains its ability to do so for as long as possible.
My mindfulness practice is less than two years, yet in that time, I have seen my depression and anxiety lessen. Old mental habits are breaking down. The mental habits I wish to develop are gaining a foothold. My brain is getting a bit more organized, and it feels a bit more energized. And this is a virtuous cycle: the little bit of gain from today enables a bit more gain tomorrow, and on we go.
A good exercise program can have the same effect, as can things like art therapy, time with friends, a good hobby. The point is to stop the brain’s entropy-driven negative activities, build up the brain’s ability to use energy, supply that energy (most depression seems to be accompanied by unhealthy eating and drinking practices), and then keep it going.
Build up the system and supply it with energy.
Which, of course, is desperately hard for people with depression, which is why we need others to care for us. The Buddha, who kicked off the whole mindfulness thing, said there were three things required to get it right: understanding the nature of life, understanding how to be healthy in this life, and people showing each other care in community.
For humans, the greatest damage from entropy comes not to the body but to the community.