Does Consciousness Influence Quantum Mechanics?


If I focus really hard do my power of quantum
mechanics allow me to manifest reality? No, but then why did some of the founders
of the theory seem to think that consciousness and quantum mechanics were inextricably linked. The behavior of the quantum world is beyond
weird. Objects being in multiple places at once,
communicating faster than light, or simultaneously experiencing multiple entire timelines … that
then talk to each other. The rules governing the tiny quantum world
of atoms and photons seem alien. And yet we have a set of rules that give us
incredible power in predicting the behavior of quantum system – rules encapsulated in
the mathematics of quantum mechanics. Despite its stunning success, we are now
nearly a century past the foundation of quantum mechanics and physicists are still debating
how to interpret its equations and the weirdness they represent. It’s not surprising that the profound weirdness
of the quantum world has inspired some outlandish explanations – nor that these explanations have strayed
into the realm of what we might call mysticism. One particularly pervasive notion is the idea
that consciousness can directly influence quantum systems – and so influence reality. Today we’re going to see where this idea
comes from, and whether quantum theory really supports it. To start, we’re going to need to go back to one of the earliest interpretations of quantum mechanics – the Copenhagen interpretation, often associated
with Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. It tells us that the very act of measurement
or observation causes an experiment to settle on a particular result, and that it’s meaningless
to talk about a well-defined objective reality before that measurement is made. Let’s see where this kooky idea comes from
– using the classic example is the double-slit experiment. It goest like this: A single electron is shot at a pair of slits. It passes through and is registered on a detector screen on the other side. When multiple electrons are shot one after
the other, they form a series of bands. That’s the same pattern that would be produced
by a wave passing through both slits – a so-called interference pattern. But that’s weird because this interference
pattern seems to guide the path of each electron independently of the others. Each solitary electron must know the entire
wave pattern – which means it must, in some sense, travel through both slits. The Copenhagen interpretation explains the
result of this experiment by saying that the electron does NOT travel as a particle or
as a physical wave along one of these paths. Instead it travels as an abstract “probability
wave” – something we call a wavefunction. That probability wave defines the location
of the electron at any point IF you try to measure it. The Copenhagen interpretation states that,
prior to measurement, it’s meaningless to talk about a real, physical state for the
electron. It exists only as the possible outcome of
a future measurement. Prior to measurement, it IS its wavefunction. Copenhagen tells us that when we make that
measurement the wavefunction “collapses” – it goes from a cloud of possible final destinations
for the electron to a more or less definite spot on the detector screen. Wavefunction collapse seems essential because
our large-scale, classical world isn’t made of probability clouds, it’s made of objects
with clearly definable properties. So when does the quantum transition to the classical actually happen? Let’s look at the process in the case of
the double-slit experiment. The electron wavefunction passes through both
slits, reaches the electronic detector, and there it excites a second electron somewhere on
the detector screen. That second electron begins a cascade – an
electrical impulse that travels along circuits to be registered by a computer, which updates
an image on a computer screen to show where the electron hit. And that information travels via photons to
light-sensitive molecules in our retinas, which initiate electrical signals to our visual
cortex, and more electrical signals in other parts of the brain result in a subjective
sense of the original electron’s chosen destination on the screen. We call this chain of information between
the detector and the mind a von Neumann chain, after the great Hungarian-American
physicist John von Neumann. He wrote that wavefunction collapse must happen
somewhere between the measuring apparatus and the conscious awareness of the result
of that measurement. But exactly where? Probably not as soon as our electron wavefunction
reaches the detector. The first electron to become excited in the
detector is also a quantum object. That means the traveling electron’s wavefunction
will just become mixed with the wavefunctions of all electrons that it could possibly excite. We should get what we call a superposition
of states: a wavefunction in which an electron at every location on the detector screen is
simultaneously excited and not excited. So perhaps the wavefunction transition happens
somewhere in the circuitry, or in the computer, or in the retina. But all of these things are made of atoms
– the “von Neumann chain” from detector to mind is a chain of quantum objects. With no clear boundary between the quantum
and the classical, where does the collapse of the wavefunction happen? We call this open question the Measurement
Problem. John von Neumann believed that wavefunction
collapse must happen at the moment of conscious awareness of the result of an experiment. Another of the greats of early quantum theory
agreed with him. Eugene Wigner was a fellow Hungarian-American,
and actually went to school with von Neumann before they both ended up at Princeton. The idea that consciousness collapses the
wavefunction is now called the von Neumann-Wigner interpretation, and it’s sort of a subset
of the Copenhagen interpretation. In 1961, Wigner devised a thought experiment
to argue for the role of consciousness. The Wigner’s friend experiment goes something
like this: suppose you don’t conduct the double-slit experiment – your friend does. You know the experiment has been completed
with a single photon reaching the detector, and your friend is aware of the result, but
you are not. So we have an extra step in our von Neumann
chain – before it the information about this quantum experiment reaches your conscious
awareness, it has to pass through your friend’s conscious awareness. So we have this weird moment – somewhere between
the landing of that electron on the screen and your friend telling you the result. From your perspective, your friend’s entire
brain exists in a quantum superposition of all possible results of the experiment. Only after your friend tells you the result
of the experiment does their brain-wavefunction collapse to a single experimental outcome. So you ask your friend – what was it like
for your whole brain to be in a superposition of states? They think you’re crazy – they tell you
the wavefunction collapsed as soon as the physical experiment was completed. But there was no way for that collapse to
have happened from your perspective – no information had reached you. So there’s the conflict – different observers
say the wavefunction collapses at different times. Eugene Wigner felt that this conflict meant
that it was impossible for entire brains – or more importantly – conscious experiences generated
by those brains – to be in a superposition of states. Therefore he concluded that conscious experience must
itself must play a role in generating wavefunction collapse. Wigner and von Neumann weren’t the only
ones who questioned the relationship between the mind and the Measurement Problem. Wolfgang Pauli was perhaps the first to assert
the connection, and his influence may have started the development of the Copenhagen
interpretation – later attributed mostly to Bohr and Heisenberg. Bohr himself was careful about claiming any
direct role of the conscious mind – and vigorously defended himself after Einstein accused him
of introducing mysticism into physics. But Heisenberg was more open to mystical interpretations and the direct influence of consciousness, at least early on. Even Erwin Schrodinger, in his 1958 lectures
Mind and Matter states that consciousness is needed to make physical reality meaningful. With the greats of quantum physics inclined
to speak in mystical terms, it’s not surprising that the idea stuck around. In the 1970s, books like The Tao of Physics
and The Dancing Wu Li Masters drew parallels between eastern mystical traditions and quantum
physics – which on its surface seems like a nice idea – poetic descriptions of the mysteries
of physics with philosophical musings. But these works really opened the floodgates. Self-help books and documentaries proliferated
making all sorts of claims – like that you can influence reality by acts of will – collapse
the wavefunction in your favour to force the location of a spot on a screen, or influence
the shapes of snowflakes, or get a promotion. Then there’s the idea that external reality
doesn’t have an objective existence – our minds invent the universe. But as Richard Feynman said, “If you think
you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” The more you know about this theory, the less
likely you are to pretend you fully understand its deepest implications. And yet the most confident claims about quantum
mechanics seem to be the mystical ones. They tend to be made by people who have never
studied the theory deeply, but nonetheless have great surety in cherry-picking and misinterpreting
the early speculations of some of its founders. Those founders did question the role of consciousness
and the connection between subjective and objective reality – and they were right to
do so. The weird behavior of the quantum world demanded
the courageous and open-minded speculation that characterizes a great scientist. But the other quality of a great scientist
is openness to changing your mind. And most of them DID change their minds – veering
away from the idea of a direct, causal role of consciousness. In Heisenberg’s later writing he states
that the wavefunction collapse must be a continuous process between the measurement device and the conscious mind – and definitely not a sudden event caused by the latter. Wigner too – he switched camps and spoke against
the notion of the primary role of consciousness. He denied what he called the solipsistic view:
that the mind is foremost, that consciousness generates the universe. In fact we can use Wigner’s friend to put
to rest the worst misinterpretations of the Copenhagen interpretation. This time you stand next to your friend and
you perform the double slit experiment together. A single electron reaches the detector screen
and you both learn its location at the same time. You talk to each other and agree that you
observed the same result – the wavefunction collapses in the same way for both of you. So what … maybe one of you is forcing their preferred wave function collapse on everyone else? Or maybe you are the only observer and you’re inventing your friend and, well, the rest of reality and there are no other observers
in the universe to give conflicting results. No, the only coherent explanation for the
consistency of experimental results between different observers seems to be that the result
of the experiment – and reality – exists independently of individual observers. Sure, you could talk about a global consciousness
collapsing a universal wavefunction – but that’s not going to give you any powers
of quantum wishing. Despite not having settled the Measurement
Problem – at least not with full consensus, modern quantum theory has come a very, very
long way since its foundation. In fact there are some very precise explanations
for why the wavefunction appears to collapse. And conscious observation may play a role
– but not in the way you might think. To understand that we need to understand what
happens to these multiple alternate histories after the electron wavefunction reaches the
detector – and why these histories stop communicating with each other. We need to learn about quantum decoherence
and the quantum multiverse. For now, one thing I can say with certainty is that your own future wavefunction includes a deeper dive into the quantum-classical divide,
on an upcoming episode of Space Time. Last week we talked about the axion – a little
about he laundry detergent, but mostly about the hypothetical particle that might solve
the mystery of dark matter – if we could just detect the thing. This subject was actually suggested on the
Space Time discord channel – so a big thanks to you lot for the great idea. And you might want to check it out if you haven’t – 24-7 discussions of all things physics and space – questions are answered, episode suggestions
are heard, and there’s even a book club. You get access with the lowest $2 per month
tier on Patreon, which has the added bonus of helping us keep the space time lights on. There were a couple of questions and comments
on the discord about how axions could be dark matter – aren’t they too fast moving? and
too light? Some of those questions were answered, but I thought I’d add a few points here. Ok, so the idea is that axions may have been
produced in the big bang – and I mean right at the beginning – before the Higgs mechanism
gave elementary particles their mass. The idea is when that event occurred and
axions became massive, they may have experienced a sort of friction that robbed them of their
kinetic energy. The result would have been a cold soup of
axions filling the universe. Sure, each would be very light, but their
could be enough of them to perfectly account for dark matter. Andriy Predmyrskyy also asked about this in
the comments: if axions come from stars, would galaxies lose their dark matter and fly apart
once the stars died? This is a great image – galaxies falling apart
as they turned into black holes and other stellar corpses. But … no, this wouldn’t happen. If axions are dark matter then it would have to be the primordial axions – the ones formed in the big bang. The axions produced in stars now would be
a tiny fraction of the mass we see in dark matter – in fact they’d be a tiny fraction
of the mass we see in stars, which is already much less than the dark matter. GeekJokes and Francisco Martinez asked whether
we would get new quantum fields and new particles if other fundamental constants turned
out to vary over space, in the same way that a variable theta constant is hypothesized
to give the axion. Well a field is, by definition, anything that
takes on a numerical value everywhere in space. So by the mathematical definition, a spatially-farying
constant would be a field. Would it be a quantum field with particles? Well not necessarily. The theta field yields particles because it
has a lowest energy state – a value for theta where potential energy is lowest, and on either
side of which energy rises. Because it’s a dip in energy, the field can
oscillate within that dip – and that oscillation is our axion particle if you also assume
quantized energy states. You wouldn’t get the same sort of energy structure
by varying all of the other constants. Things like the speed of light and the gravitational
constant are just scaling factors and so varying them shouldn’t lead to quantum particles – but
perhaps other constants could give us a field. In my last comment responses I admonished
you for not nerding hard enough because you corrected my pronunciations of Newton’s book
while missing my questionable taxonomic identify of apes versus monkeys. But wow, you guys really came back and did
me proud. We had much more in depth analyses of whether
it should be prinkipia like an ancient roman or princhipia like a modern Italian or latin
mass, and whether Newton himself would have said the latter – it seems probably he would. Principia however remains strongly disfavored. I will keep you up to date as this important
debate evolves. And then we had various defenses of my using
chimps to represent infinite typing monkeys – from the status of “monkey” in common vernacular
to modern cladistic classification. In both cases chimps are monkeys, and in the
latter case you are too. A very smart monkey who has earned your nerd
card back.

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