Interesting—have you read my essay Infiltrating Misconceptions ? It posits low-energy paths as more complex and subtle—but your paragraph has made me question that, as the low-energy paths seem like they would be the most predictable and least generative. Maybe it's a higher or effervescently-balanced level of activation which produces this "activativity."
Yes, I just read it. Lots of interesting work.
I think we've converged on an understanding of the relationship between the veracity of imprinting of ideas/concepts, their reinforcement/rehearsal, and the "stuckness" that over-worn conceptual landscapes generate - but from differing academic backgrounds.
Low-energy routes are low-energy relative to the available landscape, not necessarily to some absolute sense of "low energy". For a description of this difference, I present the concept of a fitness landscape
A trough or valley in the landscape can be chosen as a path even though it's quite high up the slope relative to absolute values. A stable state in a system that is far from equilibrium is known as a metastable state. A system's ability to be in and maintain a metastable state is a function of the degree of perturbation relative to the height of the walls (maxima) that surround the valley (minima). In other words, energy is required to shuffle it out of the state that its' in, even though lower-energy states are available. If it never get's disturbed, it will stay in the trough.
So, you're not wrong at all, but my assertion would be that the paths chosen by the neural activity are the low-energy paths for that quantity/style/pattern of metabolic activity.
A fairly direct analogy keeps popping to mind. Have you ever cut something by scoring it repeatedly with a knife, like scoring metal to snap it? So, say you're using a ruler. At some point, the angle of your arm changes and suddenly your cut flies away from the ruler. At this point in time, starting ahead of the deviation and cutting towards it will just force the knife tip to pick the same path again and follow the cut away from the ruler's edge. It scores it even deeper.
It does not mean that the deviant path has an inherently lower energy than the other paths available, it means that the energy you're applying to the knife tends to follow the groove that's already there. It's lower energy to stay in the groove, than to hop the wall (maxima) to begin etching a new mimima - a new preferred route for the blade.
If you've ever done this in person with relatively thick metal, you'll know that the deviation is semi-permanent. Starting ahead of it and following down your original path always leads you down the deviation. So, you usually have to completely change the direction and come from the other side. But amazingly, even if you do this, if you change back to your original direction, it will still try to hop down the deviation. It's quite frustrating.
But the deviation can't be fixed by repetition, that wears it deeper. You wind up needed to spend huge amounts of energy and effort to create a new easiest path, and even if you do, the difference between two easy paths is still less than the difference between an existing path and a new path. It's easy to hop back onto the deviation at the next scoring.
The analogy with lower-energy states as you've described them as subtle is better described by adding water to the analogy. If you lay the steel flat, and start introducing drops of water to the channel, the water too will wind up choosing a path. It will tend to stick to it, once it chooses it. Interestingly, getting it to follow both paths is most easily done if the initial introduction of water is so gradual that it has time to pull into both channels as the surface tension relaxes. If you do it too quickly, it'll pick one route and tend to stick to it.
Or, you can just add so much energy that the banks are ignored.
Tl;dr systems tend to repeat what they've done before, because as they traverse an energy landscape they etch a history of their previous states into the landscape. That etch becomes a path that offers a lower-energy option for routing decisions, but not necessarily the absolute lowest value state available in the system. Watch it happen on your windows on a rainy day. It's the same process that etches rivers.