Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members.
Psychological Entropy or Why We Don’t Want to Have All Our Wishes Fulfilled
Psychic energy is a very fastidious thing which insists on fulfillment of its own conditions. However much energy may be present, we cannot make it serviceable until we have succeeded in finding the right gradient.
Life is born only of the spark of opposites.
There is no potential without opposites, and therefore one has ambitendency. The substance of energy so to speak is a dissipation of energy, that is, one never observes energy save as having movement and in a direction. … in nature energy always moves in one direction, that is, from a higher to a lower level. So in the libido it has also direction, and it can be said of any function that it has a purposive nature. …
“Jung believed that laws governing the physical conservation of energy applied equally to the psyche. Psychologically, this means that where there is an overabundance of energy in one place, some other psychic function has been deprived; conversely, when libido ‘disappears,’ as it seems to do in a depression, it must appear in another form, for instance as a symptom.”… The energic or final point of view, coupled with the concept of compensation, led Jung to believe that an outbreak of neurosis is essentially an attempt by the psyche to cure itself.”
“Jung compared the flow of psychic energy to a river: ‘The libido has, as it were, a natural penchant: it is like water, which must have a gradient if it is to flow.’ This is an eminently practical consideration in a psychological crisis, where the energy flow is blocked. The problem in any particular case is to find the appropriate gradient. Here it is not a matter of will power, of rationally choosing an object or direction toward which the energy ‘ought’ to flow. Want to make a commitment, a decision, for all the right reasons but your energy doesn’t? Forget it. The question… is where does it, your energy, naturally want to go?
The title of this essay in all likelihood provokes several questions: What is “entropy”? What is psychological entropy? And why would Jung advise us not wish to have all our desires fulfilled? Isn’t happiness about getting everything we want?
To answer the last question first: No, happiness is not about getting everything we want. We don’t wind up with fulfillment from having all our desires realized. Just why this is so Jung explains through his understanding of psychic energy, and its behavior and role in human life. To understand Jung’s explanation we must first define “entropy” and what Jung meant by “psychological entropy.” Then we can consider Jung’s use of the concept in his dealings with patients.
Entropy. A term used in the sciences of physics and cybernetics, entropy is a concept that arose in the 19th century with the development of the field of thermodynamics. Its original meaning, in the context of physics, is “a measure of the degree of disorder of a system… the unavailable energy for conversion into mechanical work in a thermodynamic system.” We live with entropy every day. For an example drawn from daily life, consider your morning cup of coffee or tea. Using some device, you heat the water, then add the coffee/tea to it, and then you might wait a bit for it to cool off. You know it’s going to cool off. If, for some reason, you got called away for a while, and then came back to finish your drink, it might be tepid, or perhaps even cold. Why? Entropy. The input of energy you used to heat the beverage created “order” in the system of molecules. Once the energy source was removed (i.e. you took the cup out of the Keurig machine, or off the stove, or turned off the tea kettle), entropy began to set in, reducing the amount of order in the system—a process which continues until there is no order left: the temperature of the beverage will eventually equal the ambient temperature of the room. If you got caught up in something for long enough, you’d return to a cup of coffee or tea that was cold (i.e. “disordered”).
In the context of cybernetics, entropy is “the measure of the unpredictability or unexpectedness, in a message source in a signal system,” or, in other words, the degree of reliability a message is likely to have. A message source that has high entropy is more likely to garble a message than a source with low entropy. We experience this form of entropy often here in Vermont: People use cell phones, but our infrastructure is poor, and so we get dropped calls, unintelligible words, lots of static—very high entropy. By contrast, in major cities with many redundant cell towers, the entropy of the cell phone systems is very low.
Cell phones and coffee cups might be familiar examples of entropy in daily life, but what does all this have to do with Jung and his psychology? We must define what Jung meant by “psychological entropy.”
Psychological entropy. Jung understood that the concept of entropy implies gradients: hot—cold, in terms of the coffee/tea example; clear—unintelligible, in terms of communicating with cell phones. The large difference in temperature between the hot coffee and the room temperature implies a steep gradient in degrees that you could read with a food thermometer. “Hot” and “cold” and “clear” and “unintelligible” are opposites, and Jung’s brand of psychology is built on opposites, going back to Heraclitus and his idea of the enantiodromia, or “a running to the opposite.”
Jung gives many examples of opposites in his and others’ systems, e.g. introvert and extravert, parallel to William James’ terms “tender-minded” and “tough-minded,” or our modern opposites of idealism and materialism, the miser and the spendthrift, or Freud’s sadism and masochism, old and young. Jung could truthfully say that oppositeness is a feature of life.
Another feature of life is energy. We use energy to heat the water for our coffee or tea. We employ energy to run cell phones and all the other technologies that make up modern life. Our bodies also constantly run on energy that we get from the foods we eat. We can feel this: our skin is warm. Living beings are warm. Living systems are “negentropic,” i.e. they manifest negative entropy. A corpse is cold, entropic.
Just as our bodies are energy systems, so too, Jung claimed, the psyche can be regarded as an energy system manifesting the same entropic tendencies as we see elsewhere in nature:
“… the psychological concept of energy is not a pure concept, but a concrete and applied concept that appears to us in the form of sexual, vital, mental, moral ‘energy,’ and so on. In other words, it appears in the form of a drive, the unmistakably dynamic nature of which justifies us in making a conceptual parallel with physical forces.”
As part of this parallelism, the psyche,
… can be regarded as… a relatively closed system, in which transformations of energy lead to an equalization of differences. … this leveling process corresponds to a transition from an improbable to a probable state, whereby the possibility of further change is increasingly limited.
Jung goes on to give an example from his practice with patients:
Psychologically, we can see this process at work in the development of a lasting and relatively unchanging attitude. After violent oscillations at the beginning the opposites equalize one another, and gradually a new attitude develops, the final stability of which is the greater in proportion to the magnitude of the initial differences. The greater the tension between the pairs of opposites, the greater will be the energy that comes from them; and the greater the energy, the stronger will be its constellating, attracting power. … an attitude that has been formed out of a far-reaching process of equalization is an especially lasting one.”
In other words, after a person experiences a major life event that calls into question some assumptions or beliefs (“violent oscillations at the beginning”), there is an interval where the person wrestles with new ideas, insights, or shadow figures until eventually there is some sort of rapprochement, leading to the formation of a new attitude or belief system, and this new attitude or set of beliefs will be more firmly held the more it differs from the original attitude. When the new attitude has supplanted the old, “the opposites equalize one another,” and this equalization is entropic, like the temperature of the coffee coming to be the same as the temperature of the room.
“Psychological entropy” is the term Jung used in applying the concept of entropy to the work he did with his patients. In his system Jung recognized that the tension of opposites generates energy. The greater the oppositeness, the greater the tension, and the greater the tension, the greater the energy produced by the tension. “Greater energy” is like the boiling temperature of your coffee: There is a great difference between that heat and the temperature of the room. The situation is “negentropic,” manifesting negative entropy. And this means work can get done: You can drink your coffee. In Jung’s consulting room, it meant patients could change and heal.
Jung’s Use of the Concept of Entropy
When Jung took up a patient’s problems he worked with many techniques. One of the most common of his techniques was to identify the patient’s conscious attitudes and then find the compensatory tendencies in the unconscious, so as to identify the opposites and thus, to foster change via negentropy. He noted:
It has become abundantly clear to me that life can flow forward only along the path of the gradient. But there is no energy unless there is a tension of opposites; hence it is necessary to discover the opposite in the attitude of the conscious mind. …Seen from the one-sided point of view of the conscious attitude the shadow is an inferior component of the personality and is consequently repressed through intensive resistance. But the repressed content must be made conscious so as to produce a tension of opposites, without which no forward movement is possible. The conscious mind is on top, the shadow underneath, and just as high always longs for low and hot for cold, so all consciousness, perhaps without being aware of it, seeks its unconscious opposite, lacking which it is doomed to stagnation, congestion, and ossification. Life is born only of the spark of opposites.
Jung put great value on the opposites, insisting that
… the pairs of opposites are not to be understood as mistakes but as the origin of life. For the same thing holds in nature. If there is no difference in high and low, no water can come down. Modern physics expressed the condition that would ensue were the opposites removed from nature by the term entropy: that is, death in an equable tepidity.
No opposites, no “spark,” no flow of psychic energy, no change, no healing.
In some instances Jung encountered patients who seemed to understand the need for the “spark,” the opposites and their tension:
Once I had a very wealthy patient who on coming to me said, ‘I don’t know what you are going to do with me, but I hope you are going to give me something that isn’t grey.’ And that is exactly what life would be if there were no opposites in it; …
Put in terms of colors, “gray” is to art as “entropy” is to physics: drab, lifeless, without movement, without the potential for change, growth or healing. We can be sure Jung drew out a range of colors from this patient’s inner life.
Jung also worked hard to make his patients see their ambivalence and inner conflicts:
“He [the patient] must know that… within his own mind such a conflict is going on—in others words, that he is ambivalent. … If he admits that the conflicting parties are parts of himself, he assumes responsibility for the problem they represent. …”
It is important to recognize and take up the inner conflicts because, Jung felt, “it is just these intense conflicts and their conflagration which are needed in order to produce valuable and lasting results.” Jung’s use of the word “conflagration” suggests just how “hot” the work can become, as the individual struggles to hold the tension of opposites. This is a task calling for both will and desire, and “a mentality capable of a certain amount of abstract thought….,” as well as considerable courage in order to wrestle with one’s shadow side. The whole endeavor becomes strongly negentropic: Lots of energy is invested; the tension of opposites grows; the potential for change and healing increases.
Throughout the process, Jung kept in mind a key question: “What is it, at this moment and in this individual, that represents the natural urge of life?” In Jung’s way of thinking “… an outbreak of neurosis is essentially an attempt by the psyche to cure itself.” In fostering this cure, Jung worked with the patient’s conscious attitude and the opposites in the unconscious.
Jung understood that “were the opposites removed from nature” what would ensue would be “entropy: that is, death in an equable tepidity.” He then went on: “If you have all your wishes fulfilled, you have what could be called psychological entropy.” No tension of opposites. No possibility of change. No chance for growth. A “tepid” life—a reality about as appealing as a room-temperature cup of coffee, and as satisfying as having 8 dropped phone calls in an hour.
Asimov, Isaac (1982), Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science & Technology. Garden City: Doubleday.
Bertine, Eleanor (1967), Jung’s Contribution to Our Time. New York: G.P. Putnam.
Bothamley, Jennifer (2002, Dictionary of Theories. New York: Barnes & Noble.
Hannah, Barbara (1976), Jung: His Life and Work, A Biographical Memoir. New York: G.P. Putnam.
Jung, C.G. (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” CW 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (2012), Introduction to Jungian Psychology. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Prigogine, Ilya & Isabelle Stengers (1984), Order Out of Chaos. New York: Bantam Books.
Sharp, Daryl (1991), Jung Lexicon: A Primer of Terms & Concepts. Toronto: Inner City Books.
 Collected Works 7, ¶76. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.
 Ibid., ¶78.
 Jung (2012), 92.
 Sharp (1991), 58.
 Bothamley (2002), 177. The French physicist Nicolas Carnot (1796-1832) is regarded as the founder of the field of thermodynamics. The German physicist Rudolf Clausius (1822-1888) built on Carnot’s work, articulating the process of energy degradation, to which he gave the name “entropy.” He defined entropy as “a measure of the extent to which energy could be converted into work; the higher the entropy, the less the quantity of energy for such conversion.” For the clarity of his definition, Clausius is generally regarded as the discoverer of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (the First Law states the conservation of energy); Asimov (1982), 331-332; 414-415.
 World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, I, 658.
 In the most frustrating of the many cell phone calls I have gotten, my student and I experienced 8 drops of our connection in the hour of our session together!
 CW 7, ¶s 76 & 78.
 Ibid., ¶111. For more on Heraclitus and Jung’s use of his idea of the enantiodromia, see the three-part blog essay “Jung on the Enantiodromia,” archived on this blog site.
 Ibid., ¶80.
 Jung (2012), 84.
 The Russian-Belgian physicist Ilya Prigogine won the 1977 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work that refined Clausius’ work on entropy a century earlier. Prigogine investigated “far-from-equilibrium dissipative structures”—living systems—which “move spontaneously toward increasing order,” thus seeming to defy entropy, in manifesting “negative entropy,” which is often abbreviated “negentropy.” Asimov (1982), 1415. For Prigogine’s own account of his work, see Prigogine & Stengers (1984).
 In a discussion with my analyst, she suggested that old age is another manifestation of the entropic principle, as, for most people, age brings with it a slow diminishment of life energies.
 CW 8, ¶52.
 Ibid., ¶49. In Jung’s system the psyche is a “relatively closed system,” in that it is not constantly exchanging things—air, food, water, etc.—with the external world, as the body does.
 CW 7, ¶78.
 For insight into the range of these techniques see Hannah (1976).
 CW 7, ¶78.
 Jung (2012), 85.
 Ibid., 92.
 CW 8, ¶50.
 Bertine (1967), 252.
 CW 11, ¶519.
 CW 7, ¶488.
 Sharp (1991), 58.
 Jung (2012), 85.