How can you make the most of the “quantum watched pot” effect in your life?
Most of us are familiar with those situations where it seems that the more we stare at a given situation, waiting for a momentous phase change to occur, the less likely it seems we’ll see much of anything interesting transpire. You might have heard your mother cluck, “A watched pot never boils,” suggesting you find something more productive to do. What your mother might not have known and probably didn’t tell you is that the “watched pot” phenomenon is backed up by some pretty interesting scientific studies in quantum physics that show considerable promise for helping improve our way of life.
We might envision the possibilities of being able to freeze-frame a given situation–such as a life-threatening experience–in order that we can best address whatever needs to be handled. Some people, including me, have had such moments where we could have sworn that time slowed to a stop–and the Quantum Zeno Effect can go a long way toward explaining what’s going on when that happens.
The Quantum Zeno Effect
While Alan Turing has been acknowledged as having first mentioned the basic principle behind the Quantum Zeno Effect in the form of a paradox in 1954, physicists Baidyanaith Misra and George Sudarshan were the first to write a paper in 1977, hypothesizing that if a quantum system is measured often enough, it’s state will be unable to progress, and this hypothesis was tested and proven to be true in a 1989 experiment involving laser-cooled ions trapped in electric and magnetic fields. Subsequent tests further confirmed that the Quantum Zeno Effect works, and in 2013, researchers moved a step closer to building quantum computers by demonstrating that objects as large as diamonds can exhibit the Quantum Zeno Effect. [Reich 2013] It’s a big leap to move from the realm of the microscopic to something large enough that humans can directly see, feel and work with, such as diamonds. In addition to the Quantum Zeno Effect that effectively freezes a system into a given state, there also exists an anti-Zeno Effect, which moves a system quickly out of a given state.
In 2014, a team of physicists led by Y.S. Patil at Cornell University successfully demonstrated that rapid repetitive measurements can effectively freeze a system in place. The potential implications of this are huge, as the paper asserts, “The techniques demonstrated here… … augur intriguing prospects of realizing novel many-body interactions such as a measurement- induced dynamic coupling between the internal, motional and topological states of a quantum many-particle system.” [Patil 2014]
If you’re a fan of the science fiction TV show, Dr. Who, you might remember the Blink episode featuring some nefarious beings that look like statues. Dr. Who warned his friends, “Fascinating race, the Weeping Angels. The only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely. No mess, no fuss, they just zap you into the past and let you live to death. The rest of your life used up and blown away in the blink of an eye. You die in the past, and in the present they consume the energy of all the days you might have had, all your stolen moments. They’re creatures of the abstract. They live off potential energy.” Dr. Who advised how best to prevent being zapped to the past with some additional advice, “Don’t blink. Don’t even blink. Blink and you’re dead. They are fast. Faster than you can believe. Don’t turn your back, don’t look away, and DON’T blink.”
While we likely won’t have much need to freeze Weeping Angels, there are times when some of us experience a need for time to slow to a stop, and some of us have experienced that phenomena, as once happened to me when I was walking through the Lausanne train station in Switzerland where we living at the time, behind my husband and daughter. My husband and I were both carrying suitcases in both hands–and he was also carrying our daughter perched up on his shoulders, holding on tightly to his hair. I watched in alarm as I saw my daughter raise her hands up in the air, letting go of her father’s hair and bouncing along happily with each large step he took. I’m quite sure I didn’t blink as I kept watching as her back arched and her head came down toward the granite floor. At this point, I heard and saw time seem to slow to a stop, as what had been the high-pitched frequency of women’s high heeled shoes lowered down to a deep, slow roar. I was able to cover a great deal of distance very quickly, just in time to catch my daughter while she was falling head-first toward the hard floor. [Larson 2011]
So the Quantum Zeno Effect might be one possible explanation as to why my not blinking and great perceived need in that given moment resulted in time seeming to slow to a stop–but how might the Quantum Zeno Effect be useful in more typical situations in daily life?
Human Cognition and Quantum Zeno Effect
The Quantum Zeno Effect was never considered something to be cloistered away in the exclusive domain of physicists. Some scientists note that human perception can be influenced by the Quantum Zeno Effect when individuals are coupled with their environment in such a way that one of the original discoverers of Quantum Zeno Effect. Sudarshan, one of the original co-authors of the first 1977 paper about the Quantum Zeno Effect imagined a type of awareness in which “sensations, feelings, and insights are not neatly categorized into chains of thoughts, nor is there a step-by-step development of a logical-legal argument-to-conclusion. Instead, patterns appear, interweave, coexist; and sequencing is made inoperative. Conclusion, premises, feelings, and insights coexist in a manner defying temporal order.” [Sudarshan 1983][Atmanspacher 2013]
Cognitive scientists Zheng Wang and colleagues have noted the tremendous potential for quantum theory to build better models of human cognition, recognizing that unlike classical models, quantum models more accurately predict human probability judgements, as well as the way people’s answers tend to change depending on the sequence of questions being asked. Human decision processes can much more accurately be predicted with quantum models, as can subconscious reasoning and the way words and meanings are grouped. [Wang 2013]
Choosing What We Pay Attention To
In addition to utilizing the Quantum Zeno Effect in times of emergencies, or as I’ve previously described to break long-standing habits and addictions, such as Cell Phone Addiction, one the biggest benefits we can gain from harnessing the powers of the Quantum Zeno Effect is from experiencing more of what we enjoy, when we focus our attentive awareness on what we most appreciate and enjoy. Researchers have noted that one of the very best ways to overcome depression is to make note each day of a few things we are grateful for that we had something to do with. This simple appreciation exercise works well in writing, but you will likely notice obvious improvement even just when making mental note of what went well in your life in the past 24 hours that you had something to do with. [Larson 2013]
Here is a fun video about a way to utilize the Quantum Zeno Effect to break cell phone addiction on YouTube at:
Reich, Eugenie Samuel, “Quantum Paradox Seen in Diamond,” Nature, 20 August 2013
Patil, Yogesh Sharad, Srivatsan Chakram, and Mukund Vengalattore. “Quantum Control by Imaging: The Zeno effect in an ultracold lattice gas.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1411.2678 (2014).
Larson, Cynthia. Reality Shifts: When Consciousness Changes the Physical World. 2011.
Sudarshan, E.C.G. (1983). Perception of quantum systems. In Old and New Questions in Physics, Cosmology, Philosophy, and Theoretical Biology, ed. by A. van der Merwe, Plenum, New York, pp. 457–467.
Atmanspacher, Harald, and Thomas Filk. “The Necker–Zeno Model for Bistable Perception.” Topics in cognitive science 5.4 (2013): 800-817.
Wang, Zheng, et al. “The potential of using quantum theory to build models of cognition.” Topics in Cognitive Science 5.4 (2013): 672-688.
Larson, Cynthia Sue. Quantum Jumps: An Extraordinary Science of Happiness
and Prosperity (2013).
Pothos, Emmanuel M., et al. “The potential of quantum probability for modeling cognitive processes.” Proceedings of 33rd annual conference of the cognitive science society, Cognitive Science Society, Austin, TX. 2011.
McAlpine, Fraser. “Doctor Who Science Fact: Five Whovian Things that Exist in Real Life,” BBC America. 2 August 2012. http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2012/08/doctor-who-science-fact/
Quantum Consciousness at UC Berkeley facilitated by Justin Riddle & Shawn Zhao, sponsored by Professor David Presti, Senior Lecturer of Neurobiology at UC Berkeley