Does the mind affect quantum mechanics?

Tom Hartsfield at Real Clear Science has a nice short piece that explains why your mind isn’t involved (at least not directly) in what happens in quantum mechanics: Does the Mind Affect Quantum Mechanics? | RealClearScience.

Every measurement that you can name boils down to an interaction. You poke the quantum system with something (light, a tiny probe, a thermometer, a calorimeter, a laser, etc.) and that something interacts with it. Your probe is altered by the interaction, and you look at this alteration to understand your measurement. Light is deflected, new light comes out, the thermometer level rises, your probe is pushed back.

A quantum system is in a completely uncertain state only when isolated — i.e., interacting with nothing else. When an outside object comes into its space, the intruder interferes with the quantum system and forces it to collapse from uncertainty down to a definite spot. You can mathematically treat the impinging second system as classical or quantum in nature. Either way, the overlap of the measuring device or the spread out areas of its constituent quantum systems force the quantum system you measure to resolve.

There was early speculation in the physics community about a conscious observer having an effect on the measurement, but physicists have long since moved past it.  However, that early speculation has been enough for a lot of spiritualists to take quantum mechanics as indication for all kinds of pet ideas.

Quantum mechanics is weird.  It is freaky weird.  That’s why there are so many interpretations about what exactly is happening.  Whichever interpretation is right (assuming any of them are), the implications for our understanding of reality are profound.  Every interpretation involves giving up at least one cherished notion of how we commonly think reality works.

But we can be pretty sure that the mind is not the deciding factor.  One good example of this is all the effort that goes into insuring that qubits, the logical components of quantum computing, are isolated from the environment in order to prevent premature decoherence or wave function collapse.  No conscious person is looking inside these components when they prematurely collapse.

Whatever is happening during the measurement, it’s the interaction with the environment that causes it.  The closest thing that can be said about conscious minds being involved is that they are part of that environment.

20 thoughts on “Does the mind affect quantum mechanics?

  1. “Whichever interpretation is right (assuming any of them are), the implications for our understanding of reality are profound” <- This depends entirely on what you mean by reality. I suspect that it is not true for the vast majority of humanity.


      1. Hi,
        Reality is, strictly speaking, the universe of things, I guess. To me it seems that everyone has their own concept of it – analogous to multiple universes. The vast majority of us see reality as the mundane world of our existence. At this point, quantum mechanics has not affected my daily life, as far as I know, i.e. no profound change yet.


        1. Good point. Whatever is happening at the quantum level, it’s cancelled out, suppressed, or hidden from view in the classic macroscopic world. But then, so is much of the scientific view of reality.


          1. Yes, indeed. In the classic macroscopic world we operate by intuition, empathy, logic and reason. It looks like those tools do not work well or at all in the quantum universe. We are making ‘observations’ that resist processing by our brains, hence all the gibberish when trying to explain it all (mathematicians trying to come up with a narrative that we can understand – I have seen it stated that even mathematicians do not have an intuitive understanding of some of their findings. It is all in the hands of their formulae!).


  2. ”O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
    Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
    May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
    Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
    Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
    Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.”


      1. Only because you may have ignored it like many do. Its about how close we all are to madness and those who have had mental problems are more aware of this closeness. Hopkins was not the easiest of poets to follow but he had a way of inventing memorable phrases like ‘no-man fathomed’ cliffs of fall ect.
        Poetry is the condensation of thought.


  3. Well said. But for every blogger who says what you said, there will be a hundred who repeat the meme that a quantum system responds to a conscious observer. It might take centuries before that idea finally dies.


  4. “Whatever is happening during the measurement, it’s the interaction with the environment that causes it.” – It’s actually pretty simple and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle directly relates to the relative quanta of energy (and information!9 exchanged in any measurement. I usually explain this to children and I am always surprised many postgrad students can flawlessly reproduce the formulae but haven’t understood the basic tenets of quantum mechanics. Here goes: imagine you are in a dark room with a pool table. You know there are billiard balls scattered around the table, however, you do not know exactly where – so you have a “cloud of probabilities” for each and all billiard balls(s). If you want to find out, you take a torch/flashlight and shine it on the table and each and every ball finally can be located – the probability thing “collapses”. But have the billiard balls moved? Not really. And why? Because the light quanta are so powerless in comparison with each single billiard ball (and with regard to the friction of the cloth on the table) that no ball would move measurably. All that happened would be that each ball might get a bit warmer for a while. However, make these balls smaller and smaller until finally they are … electrons. Now electrons absorb and emit photons/electromagnetic waves. BUT IN DOING SO they change their path, location, velocity, momentum, angular velocity etc. Therefore, since you cannot use any other probe to “locate” a small subatomic particle other than photons/electromagnetic waves you necessarily push them around and therefore you can either know “statistically” where they are (like with our dark pool table) or you can know “exactly” by “shining light on them” – but in doing so they are dislodged from where they were at the time of observation. This is quantum mechanics as far as Heisenberg’s unertainty principle is concerned!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You state an opinion of quantum mechanics that a lot of physicists hold to, that the wave function is purely a mathematical construct but not physical entity. But there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on that.

      From what I understand, in the double slit experiment, prior to the wave function collapse, a particle behaves like a wave, to the extent that it interferes with itself. Then, once its position has been measured, it behaves like a particle, no longer interfering with itself.

      If I’m right about the above, how would you say that is consistent with the wave function being purely mathematical? (Note: I’m not trying to put you on the spot. I’m genuinely interested in the answer.) Also, would quantum computers be feasible if superpositions aren’t physical?


      1. I wouldn’t be able to answer this question, SAP, but it is answered directly by Ulrich Mohrhoff in his recent book ‘The World According to Quantum Mechanics’.


        1. Thanks for the book recommendation! Googling the author, it seems like he works to reconcile QM with his spiritual views. I have absolutely nothing against anyone doing that, but it’s not really my cup of tea.


          1. Oh well. So much for a dispassionate approach. Good luck working to reconcile QM with your spiritual views.


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