The Brain as a Quantum Machine
Posted on February 13, 2014
I had a fantastic week in San Diego! Welcome great new members from Family Health Services of San Diego. What an amazing organization located in one of my favorite cities! Today’s post builds upon the previous two. If you are new to the blog or have not had a chance to read the last few posts, I highly encourage you to do so before reading today’s post.
We are going to continue our descent into the rabbit hole of the mind, this time going all the way down to the quantum level. If you have not been introduced to quantum mechanics, welcome to the weirdest reality you could ever imagine. As physicist Niels Bohr famously stated, “If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.” Since the concepts of quantum mechanics are so complex, we will take the next several blog posts to explore this information. By the end, we will be able to connect the mind, as a quantum machine, to our work with traumatized clients.
Quantum mechanics is incredibility accurate science in describing reality of the incredibly small and the amazingly large. Whether looking at the behavior of our brain cells or the supermassive black hole that exists at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, quantum mechanics helps explain a reality that is very different than the physical world we experience in our everyday lives.
In my search to understand the mind, I was surprised to find that knowledge of quantum mechanics (which, if I’m being honest, has been a nerdy hobby of mine for about 15 years now), would be integral. The mysteries of the mind can have no better origin than in a science that makes us rethink the very nature of the universe we inhabit. To understand how interventions like mindfulness and Motivational Interviewing work, we must start with the smallest parts of our brain. Welcome to the quantum machine of the mind!
As we discussed in the last posts, a mix of ions and their electrical charges determine whether an action potential leads to certain behaviors, emotions, and thinking. It is these sodium, chloride, and potassium ions that operate under the principles of quantum mechanics. If we are going to understand how the mind regulates energy and information, we must understand how these ions behave.
There are a few aspects of quantum mechanics that are important to understand as we build a role for the mind. The first, which we’ll examine in this post, is the duality of quantum objects. Objects that follow quantum principles, such as light or the ions in our brains, exist in two states, waves and partials.
To simplify this duality I will go back to a conversation I had with my friend and former co-worker, Ryan Berry, on the beach in Puerto Rico last year. After a few hours of playing in the warm Atlantic waters we took a much-needed break for some cheap Puerto Rican beer and the conversation quickly turned to quantum mechanics (I am a blast to vacation with!). As Ryan, who is a therapist, and I pondered the role of quantum mechanics in the healing process, the conversation quickly turned to the role of the observer and the duality of quantum objects. Without an observer, reality exists as a series of possibilities; much like the waves of the ocean in front of us, reality exists as wave potential.
Ryan asked the same question I had when initially hearing about this, “So I can close my eyes and it is possible for me to create a reality where it is snowing on the beach?” Ryan was almost right. My friend is a powerful and wise man, but he slightly overestimated his role as the observer in creating weather patterns. It is possible that we could have closed our eyes on the 85 degree sunny day and when we opened them a minute later it would be snowing. However, our role as an observer is restricted to the range of possibilities in the reality we exist. So in this example there was a very small chance we could make the beach in Puerto Rica look like winter in Colorado, but is was much more likely that we would observe weather similar to the weather we experienced the moment before we closed our eyes.
Without an observer, reality exists only in these possibilities. To demonstrate this further let’s look at the famous thought experiment of Schrödinger’s cat. In this experiment a cat and a contraption (only a mad scientist would create) in which there is a 50% chance a poisonous gas is released and kills the cat. This interpretation of quantum mechanics (often referred to as the Copenhagen Interpretation) implies that the cat is both in the state of being dead and alive (wave possibility). It is only when one looks in the box that it is observed that the poor cat is either alive or dead (particle reality), not both alive and dead.
Needless to say, the early pioneers of quantum mechanics had an interesting sense of humor! The role of the observer is also called the Quantum Zeno effect. When we pose a question to reality (is the cat alive or dead, or will it snow in Puerto Rico) we collapse the range of possibility into one concrete reality that we can then interact with in a physical manner. Another analogy that I find useful (and does not harm any cats) is that the weather person on the news will give a forecast for a sunny and warm day tomorrow (77 and sunny in San Diego!). This forecast just exists as a possibility until an observer goes outside and collapses the forecast into an experience of the weather.
This brings up many interesting questions. Remember the saying, “If a tree falls and no one is around does it make a sound?” The nature of the question goes to the nature of sound. Sound is something that manifests itself in the ear and without an ear there is not really sound. The Zeno Effect asks, “Can a tree truly fall if there is no observer?” The answer is no. It is only when the observer walks into the forest and observes the state of the tree that we can say whether it has fallen. If the tree is down we can then ask the fun question, “When did the tree fall?” While an unobserved tree could have physically fallen a hundred years before the observation, it really fell the moment it was observed.
Let’s ask one more fun question. Did the physical universe exist before there was an observer? Let’s pretend for a moment that there were no ancient aliens or other life forms in the universe, and no deity playing the observer in the sky. In this situation there was no physical universe before there was an observer to create the physical reality. The universe would have just been a wave of possibilities until those possibilities came together under the right conditions to form a conscious observer. It’s only when this first observer was created, that the universe developed its physical form that we experience every day.
I find it fascinating that there might be trillions of universes out there, but only the universes that can create conscious observers take physical form. Are we (as conscious observers) the reason our universe was created? Only with us (or other conscious life forms) can the universe exist in the physical plane of reality. To exist, we need the possibilities that the universe offers, and the universe needs us to create an actual physical reality, which can be manipulated and interacted with physically.
Okay…I will walk away from the philosophical cleft I’m treading on to end on a practical note and set up next week’s post. What does it mean that the ions in our brain follow the duality principle of quantum objects? The answer is that they also only exist as possibilities without an observer. Energy and information flow on well-established synaptic pathways. In essence, without an observer, we will just repeat past patterns of thinking, feeling, and actions. We can predict future behavior and past behavior; our brain structure can become a painful combination of addictions and habits that destroy our health and well-being. But this prison of the past has a key! Through mindfulness, Motivational Interviewing and other interventions that build capacity, we can help clients create an observer that can choose which brain states to collapse and which synaptic connections to strengthen.
In future posts we’ll develop this concept of the mind further and investigate how the mind is created out of the quantum machine that is our brain. This week let’s make it personal; think about a change you would like to make in your life. My challenge to you is to start to observe your own “sustain” and “change talk” around this change you are considering or trying to make. How can you shift energy and information into thinking and action that can make this change a reality in your life?The Brain as a Quantum Machine