Friday, October 31, 2008

Mind-body panel 1: Henry Stapp - Quantum theory makes us agents

Non-materialist neuroscientists are intrigued by the fact that in quantum mechanics, the observer becomes a cause of events merely by observing. That provides a model for the way in which the choice of a focus of attention changes the brain. Theoretical physicist Henry Stapp, and author of Mind, Matter, and Quantum Mechanics and Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer, elaborated on this for the audience at the Beyond the Mind-Body Problem symposium:

There is a famous quote by Richard Feynman: “I don't understand quantum mechanics and I don't think anyone understands quantum mechanics,” and in talking to his students at CalTech he said,“and if you can possibly help it, don't try, because if you do, you'll go down the drain just like everybody else who ever tried.” So that's kind of the attitude of most scientists toward this problem of consciousness.

The way that quantum mechanics was formulated at the beginning of the 20th century was in terms of a set of practical rules that worked, and those rules allowed you to explain how your experiences were organized and the way it was structured—it brought your human experience into the dynamics and that was the real change. Human experience was brought into the dynamics. You often hear that the observer was brought into physics by quantum mechanics, but it was not a passive observer. The observer in some sense was always there, we’re somehow aware of what’s happening. The whole dynamic, according to classical ideas, was a mechanical clockwork universe that somehow we were aware of, and quantum mechanics brought the human being into science not only as a passive observer of what was going on, but as an agent and that is the key point.

In order to make quantum mechanics work, you've got to bring the human agent into the equations of quantum mechanics, which are designed to explain human experience. You had to bring the human brain into the dynamics at the outset and the effect of this was to allow attention, what you are focusing your attention on, to affect what's going on in your brain, and the other aspect of that is whether the thing that determines the attention was not already determined by the brain beforehand. You could say there's kind of a loop here: the brain determines what you are going to think and it's just kind of a cyclical process.

But the crucial point is that there is nothing in quantum mechanics, as we currently understand it, that determines what the intention is going to be. So it's not just machinists doing it all. There’s something that's coming in, that according to current ideas is not caused by the machinery; rather, it causes the machinery to do something, but it is not itself caused by the machinery.

So that's a huge difference, and the effect of it is to explain the OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] that Jeffrey Schwartz
will tell you about, it allows you to understand, in terms of the equations of quantum mechanics, a quantum Zeno effect. We’re talking about real equations that you can apply and understand. You understand how your intent can cause your brain to behave in a certain way. And by making it behave in a certain way, as Jeffrey will emphasize, it actually changes the structure of your brain. So you're changing the way you think in the future.

You’ve probably all heard of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. What used to be a very mechanical picture of the universe in classical mechanics has since become smeared out because of this uncertainty principle, or the representation of the physical aspects of the system, by quantum mechanics. They have a wave function, for example, that represents the brain—it’s a smeared out thing. All these different classical probabilities or possibilities are all there on an equal footing. Now, we know that, for example, if I’m about to say something, there will be a lot of possibilities about what I might say and the way quantum mechanics works, there has to be the mysterious thing called “The Collapse of the Wave Function” or “The Reduction of the Wave Function.”What happens is that this big smear of possibilities or potentialities suddenly gets reduced to something understandable. And that's a critical point. This reduction is always to something that's associated with an increase in knowledge. So, before there can be an increase in knowledge, there has to be a process that occurs—and this is the process that’s not understood, but it is postulated in quantum mechanics—there has to be this decision as to what question is going to be asked, what new knowledge am I going to be able to gain.

So this is the “Collapse of the Wave Function” that you're talking about. This point is something very new and different about quantum mechanics, and it opens the door because of the fact that there is the possibility of this. I say each collapse is preceded by a human action that is supposed to define a possible increment of knowledge, a new increase in knowledge; these collapses are associated with human knowledge, and before you know what the collapse can be, before there can be a collapse, there has to be an action on the part of the person who's going to have the experience that defines what the new increment of knowledge is going to be. The wave function is a mechanical, mathematical thing that does not have meaning or knowledge in itself. And the act of the human being is, in effect, to say, “I want to know something,” and he or she wants to know something meaningful. To constitute knowledge, it somehow has to be meaningful to the person.

So you're getting this injection somehow—we don't know from where exactly—but in quantum mechanics it has got to be there, this question has got to be posed. And once you say that the question is posed, and once you just follow the rules of quantum mechanics, then you can understand how this thing from the outside is able to actually control your behavior, and your behavior then is going to control how your brain evolves and develops, and then you're going to change your brain wiring, which is what Jeff is talking about repeatedly.

(Note: See also the paper Stapp wrote with Schwartz and Beauregard (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 2004))

Next: Mind-body panel 1: Jeffrey Schwartz on how Leo DiCaprio gave himself obsessive-compulsive disorder and then cured it

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