Information theory as a way of feeling alive

7 minute read

It’s funny when I think about it. When I first started doing meditation and yoga, I had this strong sensation of ‘feeling alive’. It took me a while to really take this feeling in. To allow myself to feel this way about these ‘boring’ activities. It took me a while, because conceptually it didn’t make sense to me. I had the idea that jumping around at a party with mind-expanding drugs and heavy music should be the apex of feeling alive. Not this sitting-absolutely-still-on-a-pillow-with-my-eyes-closed flimflam. But as I listened more and more carefully to this feeling in my body, I realized that it was in these moments of silent concentration that I felt most alive. When I felt my mind opening up and my fingers starting to tingle. I couldn’t explain to myself why, but then again, I didn’t have to. And as the days went by. As I kept doing my daily morning meditations and experienced my yoga journeys. This feeling of being more and more alive slowly kept lighting up all areas of my live, and keeps doing just so until this day.

The reason that I write about this today, is because I just finished listening to a podcast by Sara Imari Walker on Information and the Origin of Life (podcast link). She is an American theoretical physicist and astrobiologist with research interests in the origins of life. In the interview she talks about life itself, which is very hard to define. From a biological standpoint, life is defined in very descriptive terms. A system needs to be able to grow, metabolize energy and be able to reproduce, to name a few examples. From a physical standpoint, we can describe life more interestingly as an evolutionary process. Living beings can then be viewed as thermodynamical systems with an organized molecular structure that are able to evolve in response to their environment. Many more definitions are available, but none are agreed on widely. As a consequence, there is heavy debate on, for example, whether or not viruses are actually alive.

However, this sounds like a weird situation to me. I am a living being myself, I am really quite sure of this, so I feel like I am quite the expert on the topic. However, the reality is that you can show me a virus, and I couldn’t tell you with confidence if it is alive or not. This problem inspired Sara to propose a new scale for life. One that is no binary, not simply distinguishing between ‘things’ and ‘beings’, not simply dead or alive. But a scale that is continuous. A scale that tells us that flies are more alive than viruses. And people are mode alive than flies. A scale that could quantify the aliveness of a system, according to some well-defined definition. And according to Sara, this definition should be closely related to information theory.

Information theory is an area or science that, as the name might suggest, tries to describe systems in terms of how much information these systems contain, transfer or share with one another. If you have a heap of flour in your kitchen, you can functionally describe it very compactly. How many grams of flour is it? How wide is the heap? Etc. But when you bake a loaf of bread out of it, it is suddenly a lot harder to describe the whole thing. What is the exact shape? Is it more fluffy on the top than on the bottom? Is it still raw, or a bit burned? And what about the texture of the bread? The raw ingredients didn’t change. That water that you used can evaporate and it doesn’t turn back into a heap of flour. But the complexity of your flour, the information that the system contains, drastically increased.

Expanding, we can apply this analogy to humans as well. If we take the ‘raw ingredients’ of one human, we have an easy job. Almost 99% of the mass of the human body is made up of six elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. However, if I would try to describe 99% of my spouse in full detail, the configuration, chemical composition and interaction of all her organs and what not, I won’t be able to finish this task in my life. Additionally, I would have to describe her current personality, preferences and habits. Her memories and experiences that brought her to be the person that she is today. Maybe I would even have to describe in full detail what it feels like to be close to her.

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Long story short: quantifying life is not about describing what living being are made of. Instead, Sara proposes to quantify life in terms of the information it contains. Living being are complex systems. They have a structure, they behave in a unique way and they can only exist as a product of the millions of years of evolutionary lineage that created them. All these things add to the amount of information we need to describe the organism. And thus our measure for aliveness becomes: the more information we need to describe the organism, the more alive it is. Let’s call this the aliveness-information.

And this information also includes our consciousness.

It includes our conscious experience of being alive. Of existing. The sensation that we exist in this world in relation to other living (and non-living) things. And I dare saying it includes our self-awareness.

“Without the physical world, ideas will not exist.”
Joey Lawsin

To be sure, it might be a big step to claim that how alive we are is defined by how strong our self-awareness is. However, I think that this makes a lot of sense. One of the most primitive living beings that we know of is a tiny, worm-like creature called the C. elegans that has exactly 302 neurons (compared to a human with 86 billion neurons). Because this number of neurons is so small, scientists have been able to do detailed research on the function of different individual neurons. And one of the findings was that there is a specific neuron dedicated to whether or not any specific sensation comes from inside, or outside of its body. This could be viewed as something as the origin of self-awareness. And it goes all the way back to the tiniest and simplest organisms.

Furthermore, this process of self-awareness adds to our aliveness-information. After all, it takes more information to distinguish between sensations from in- and outside of ourselves (the texture of the bread), than it takes to throw all this information on the same big pile (the pile of flour).

Indeed, this is where things get really interesting. We all know moments where we have been more, and moments where we have been less aware. Moments where we have been dreaming the day away, thinking about this and that for no specific reason. And moments where we had a strong grip on the world around us, with a crystal-clear focus on the here and now. The above elucidation suggests that we are really more alive in these moments of clear awareness. Not merely as a manner of speaking, but factually.

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That is why seemingly boring activities – like meditation – can award us with a sense of being alive. A strong feeling of being present and feeling the life rush through our veins. In these activities, we are training our awareness. Expanding our consciousness. Increasing our aliveness-information. These are the moments that we are living, instead of simply being or existing. And these are the practices that are worth our time more than anything else.

When we are distracted, we are less alive than focussed. Blinded by a strong emotion, we are less alive than when we have a balanced mindset. Sleeping, we are less alive than awake. So wake up! Celebrate life by expanding your awareness in whatever way suits you. Celebrate life with awareness.

“If
the ocean
can calm itself,
so can you.
we
are both
salt water
mixed with
air.”
Nayyirah Waheed

 

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