Can Humans Directly Observe the Quantum World? Part III

By William C. Bushell Ph.D. and Maureen Seaberg

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Why adept meditators would be invaluable to studies.

In the first and second installments of this series we called attention to the emerging news in leading-edge physics and neuroscience about the discoveries of human sensory-perceptual capacities, discoveries of historic significance. It has recently been demonstrated that humans can potentially directly see single photons of light; detect auditory vibrations with amplitudes less than the diameter of an atom and resolve acoustic temporal durations of ten millionths of a second; and possess tactile discrimination on a nanoscale, enabling discernment of substances on the level of individual molecules.

We further reported the historic proposal of several teams of scientists, including a Nobel Prize winner, from the University of Illinois, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Rockefeller University among others, to utilize this recently discovered potential capacity for human single photon detection to, in the words of Scientific American, “probe the very foundations of quantum mechanics.”

In the first two installments we also briefly discussed the key point that a crucial dimension to this proposed agenda is the desirability or need for human subjects who can perform at the highest levels of visual functioning. This crucial dimension has become clear to the researchers involved in the studies establishing the human capacity to see single photons, in which not every subject was able to do so. Although the above-cited research has demonstrated these extraordinary capacities for human perception to directly access these microscopic scales, we are not usually accustomed to functioning on such levels in normal daily life. And in fact, a considerable amount of adjustment to special conditions, such as motionlessly focusing on dim flashes of light in a special dark-adapted (scotopic) setting, and practice, and learning, is required to achieve the level of consciously seeing one single photon of light. And such functioning and proficiency will surely be required for the further exploration, through direct human perception, of such “exotic” quantum phenomena as entanglement, superposition, and photon polarization (briefly defined in the earlier installments), among others.

And because of the desirability for such studies of optimal human perception – as much approximation as possible to the standard of the “ideal observer” in formal psychophysics terms (Geisler, 2011) -- we raised the issue of the existence of "adept perceivers" according to a new and rapidly developing multidisciplinary scientific model (Bushell, 2009, and forthcoming). These adept perceivers are advanced, long-term practitioners of certain forms of observational meditation, originally existing primarily in Asian cultures (for centuries, up through the present), but now existing throughout the world, due to the spread of the specialized training. And in fact, among this range of practices designed to perceptually access microscopic levels of phenomena, for centuries many such practitioners have actually specifically trained their senses and attention to observe the dimmest sources of light in dark chambers, while sitting motionless for extended periods under scotopic dark-adapted conditions, with the agenda of directly perceiving the least amount of light possible.

Some contemporary practitioners of this specific task have been tested in Western experimental settings, and have been found to demonstrate very high levels of sensory-perceptual and attentional performance in general, and specifically to detect and discriminate very minute and brief flashes of light (although there has been no testing of such subjects on single photon detection to date; see Bushell 2009).

Hence, given that these leading physicists want to make use of human subjects to explore such profound and central quantum matters as the “measurement problem” (see first installment) – does the act of detection/observation in some deep sense actually determine what is real – it makes sense to use those human subjects most proficient at sensory-perceptual functioning. The researchers who have together established the potential human capacity for the conscious perception of few or single photons have all noted that the experience of such perception is very dim, almost vague and “impressionistic.” In general terms, advanced training in observational meditation has been experimentally verified to transform vague, dim percepts into clearer and more robust percepts, and very significantly so, across multiple conditions, forms of stimuli, and sensory modalities.

Specifically, in considering recent and ongoing research into the “measurement problem” in quantum physics – work which does not make use of human subjects but rather technological apparatus – there has been a recent trend to make use of experimental protocols utilizing single photon preparations and associated properties of photon polarization (see for example Ringbauer et al 2015 in Nature Physics). Since it has recently become known that human subjects can with practice and training discern both single photons (as described in this series, and see Tinsley et al 2016) and polarization (Ropars et al 2011; Temple et al 2015), we can understand the rationale for incorporating human subjects into studies of the measurement problem. As quoted in installment #2, no less an authority on these quantum mechanical matters as leading physicist Angelo Bassi, speculates that it is conceivable that human subjects in such tests might actually experience witnessing “something like a superposition of two different perceptions, even if just for an instant.” And as we mentioned earlier, this statement also reflects the considered speculations of other leading physicists in this field.

Training in observational meditation enhances spatial and temporal perception, and it also enhances a “meta-awareness” of sensory-perceptual functioning in general (Bushell, 2009). Hence, adept practitioners of observational meditation could prove invaluable in further studies in which such kinds of dim, peri-threshold, and “alien” perceptions are likely to be experienced by research subjects in such protocols.  

This intensive and extensive training in observational meditation involves the gamut of sensory modalities, as mentioned previously. In fact, the original training in these traditions makes specific and explicit reference to the superiority of a kind of cross-modality orientation in enhanced observational practice – what might in Western neuroscientific terms be considered a kind of synesthesia or “multisensory integration” (Seaberg, Tasting, with foreword by William C. Bushell). Synesthesia and multisensory integration are now hot topics in leading-edge neuroscience and psychophysics, and it has been discovered that multisensory processing often confers substantial benefits over unisensory processing of stimuli (see van Leeuwen et al, 2016). A recently discovered principle in multiple fields related to signal detection theory, including human sensory-perceptual functioning, called “stochastic resonance,” has revealed that stimulation (including noise) from multiple sensory modalities may enhance processing in a specific modality, for reasons not yet clear (Krauss et al 2019). Whatever discoveries are yet to be made – and further experimental research is surely called for – traditions of adept observational meditation clearly emphasize that progression in the practices lead to an enhancing and unifying of multisensory integration (and more on this subject, including the phenomena of stochastic resonance and synesthesia, will be addressed in future installments).   

Moreover, when such practitioners develop the capacity to sit completely still for long periods, and learn to focus attention on their sensory perceptual processing, to reduce cognitive and attentional distractions, to allow the normally unattended precision and depth of their innate sensory capacities to emerge and be experienced, to “tune” and “finetune” and become sensitized to spatially, temporally, and dynamically microscopic phenomena, a new and radically enhanced unified, cross-modal, sensory Gestalt can become established. In such a radically enhanced Gestalt or experiential context, the senses trained and transformed through neuroplasticity-based perceptual learning can then emerge into their fullest capacities and be directed, deployed, to explore and investigate select phenomena. A multisensory “set and setting” is created in which the levels of sensitivity of all the senses are heightened while levels of “noise” – cognitive, attentional, sensory, etc. (different from the "noise" in stochastic resonance) – are profoundly reduced. During the time in which such an experiential situation is occurring, it is as if all the senses contribute simultaneously to establish a new and at least temporarily transformed context of attunement to the microscopic, the miniscule, the infinitesimal (see original description of model in Bushell 2009).

In the next installment we will, following the lead of the new research in quantum physics, psychophysics, biophysics, and neuroscience, describe how such enhanced multisensory functioning may conceivably be directed to focus specifically in on measurement problems involving both the collapse of the wavefunction, and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

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Measurements on the Reality of the Wavefunction. M. Ringbauer, B. Duffus, C. Branciard, E. G., 2011 Cavalcanti, A. G. White and A. Fedrizzi. Nature Physics 11: 249–254, 2015.

Synaesthesia and Multisensory Processes: Special Issue. Tessa M. van Leeuwen, Sina A. Trautmann-Lengsfeld, Mark T. Wallace, Andreas K. Engel, Micah M. Murray (eds). Neuropsychologia 88: 1-150, 2016.

Cross-Modal Stochastic Resonance as a Universal Principle to Enhance Sensory Processing. Patrick Krauss, Konstantin Tziridis, Achim Schilling, Holger Schulze. Frontiers in Neuroscience 12: 578, 2018.

Direct detection of a single photon by humans. Jonathan N. Tinsley, Maxim I. Molodtsov, Robert Prevedel, David Wartmann, Jofre Espigulé-Pons, Mattias Lauwers, Alipasha Vaziri. Nature Communications 7: 12172, 2016.

Direct Naked-Eye Detection of Chiral and Faraday Effects in White Light. G. Ropars, A. Le Floch, J. Enoch, V. Lakshminarayanan. Europhysics Letters 97 (6).

Perceiving Polarization With the Naked Eye: Characterization of Human Polarization Sensitivity. Shelby E. Temple, Juliette E. McGregor, Camilla Miles, Laura Graham, Josie Miller, Jordan Buck, Nicholas E. Scott-Samuel, and Nicholas W. Roberts. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 282(1811): 20150338, 2015.

William C. Bushell, Ph.D. is a biophysical anthropologist affiliated with MIT and co-director of ISHAR (Integrative Studies Historical Archive & Repository), a Chopra Foundation Initiative, the largest free and open access database/information center for the new field of integrative sciences, including physics and neuroscience.

Maureen Seaberg is a synesthete and the co-author of Struck By Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel.

This article was originally published in Psychology Today

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