Can Humans Directly Observe the Quantum World? Part IV

Can Humans Directly Observe the Quantum World? Part IV

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

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Could crossmodal senses be one key to unlock the true nature of physics?

In the earlier three installments of this series we brought attention to the fact that recently a startling, even revolutionary, new body of research in the fields of physics, biophysics, psychophysics, and neuroscience, was demonstrating unprecedented findings in the sensitivity of the human senses: vision on the level of single photons; hearing on the level of vibrations with amplitudes on the atomic scale, and discrimination of auditory time intervals in the range of millionths of a second; tactile discrimination on the scale of individual molecules; and quantum mechanically-based mechanisms of olfactory sensitivity capable of discriminating over a trillion different smells.

We noted that this body of research has emerged somewhat disparately for the most part, with neither conceptual unification, sensory-wide research coordination, nor an overarching ideological framework (although there are some notable exceptions to this generalization, and there is a new intensive scientific interest in the fields of multisensory integration, crossmodal sensory functioning, and synesthesia).

In particular we called special attention to one of the most startling and revolutionary aspects within this new largely disparate and ad hoc scientific framework, namely, the ability of humans to directly perceive single photons of light – recently conclusively demonstrated – and the surprising proposal by leading physicists to employ and deploy this human capacity in order to investigate the profound and puzzling, but real and fundamental, phenomenon of quantum entanglement. Quantum entanglement is the phenomenon of deep and lasting connections between any two or more particles which have ever been connected, no matter how far apart they eventually will become in space or time, even on the galactic or cosmic scale. Moreover, a number of these leading physicists are proposing that a methodology and technology provided by human direct perception of quantum entanglement may actually be one of the best ways to further investigate this phenomenon, and may also actually be the best way to resolve a number of major, persistent questions in all of quantum physics, including the nature of entanglement, the so-called measurement problem and the wavefunction – in other words, the ultimate nature of the reality of the universe itself.

We also noted that the results of this recent body of research on the human vision of single photons, a natural predecessor to the ability to see the basic unit of entanglement – two entangled photons – did establish a conclusive demonstration of what science refers to as a proof of concept, in this case, that at least one human subject was clearly able to perceive a single photon of light in a series of trials following strict, rigorous study design and statistical rules. However, interviews with the scientists and supplementary materials to the studies revealed that the perception of single photons was very vague and impressionistic – yet nevertheless so far above chance that it was indeed accurate – and also, that not every subject was, in fact, able to successfully perceive the single photon. And that there was a range of performance, and demonstrated abilities, in the human subjects. Experience and training appeared to assist critically in performance.

At this point, we further noted that, apropos of these findings, there exist traditions in which practitioners of special forms of observational meditation intensively train in order to be able to directly perceive minuscule amounts, the least possible amounts, of light possible, as well as other minute and even microscopic phenomena. These traditions, and such practitioners, have existed for centuries in Asian cultures (and most likely others), and exist nowadays throughout the world, including the West, due to the spread of the teaching of the techniques. And in fact, a significant and growing body of research into their sensory-perceptual and attentional capacities has been conducted, and it has been demonstrated that among those practitioners tested, high levels of performance have been achieved (see review in Bushell 2009 and Bushell forthcoming). A number of studies have specifically investigated such practitioners’ abilities to perceive extremely minuscule amounts of light, and these studies have also shown high levels of performance. We refer to the highest performing of these practitioners as “adept perceivers,” and although none so far has been tested specifically on the capacity to perceive single photons, we have strongly advocated for their incorporation into further studies of single photon detection, and for further studies of the human capacity to perceive quantum entanglement and other aspects of the quantum nature of the universe – photon polarization, superposition, the potential appearance of light as quantized – such further studies having been eagerly proposed by a number of these leading physicists for human subjects in general. 

In terms of this brief review, we should finally add that we also mentioned discovering in our earlier research (see Seaberg 2011, foreword by Bushell) that some adept traditions have placed a special emphasis on the importance of what would be described in contemporary neuroscientific terms as multisensory, cross-modal, or even synesthetic forms of perception. As we have already suggested, we believe that this multisensory orientation may well integrate the individual sense modalities, and via this integration, enhance even further the performance of each individual sense and as well as the ensemble of senses simultaneously. And in this context, the extraordinary range, magnitude, precision, accuracy, and hypersensitivity of all the senses that has recently been discovered in contemporary Western science may reveal the specific, holistic importance of this new body of discoveries for a multisensory/crossmodal orientation towards the direct perception and even direct knowledge of the nature of the phenomenal world, of the universe.

Moving specifically from these general points to the consideration of the proposed program of direct human perceptual exploration and investigation of the quantum realm, we now turn back to the focus of the beginning of this series, the recent proposition made by leading physicists that quantum entanglement and the measurement problem should be two of the primary subjects for studies based on the newly discovered level of human perception.

As already mentioned, two principle human capacities relevant for further quantum investigation that appear to have been scientifically established, then, are (a) single photon detection (SPD; Tinsley et al 2016) and (b) photon polarization (Ropars et al 2011; Temple et al 2015).

Importantly, cutting edge research utilizing new technological innovations as well as theoretical advances has been employing single photons and their polarization for the investigation of fundamental dimensions of quantum physics. A range of such fundamental dimensions is being investigated, and it should be noted here that the basic foundations of quantum physics are still being vigorously questioned and explored, despite the fact that many in the general public as well as in physics itself, have a sense that there is an orthodoxy which is relatively stable. This is often not the case, but is a much larger question outside the realm of this series, and should be noted by the reader.

Here, we briefly focus on several of these investigated fundamental subjects, including the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (HUP), which includes the question of measurement, and which will be seen to be key for understanding the so-called “measurement problem” itself, that associated with the understanding of the nature of the wavefunction.

Recently, several studies employing single photons and their polarization with manufactured technical devices have been conducted to test the famous and foundational Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. In brief, this principle was proposed by Werner Heisenberg in the 1920s during the early, formative days of the establishment of quantum mechanics. Deriving from Heisenberg’s attempt to make sense of “anomalous” discoveries in the quantum realm that appeared to challenge classically empirical and logical principles, Heisenberg found that in order to “fit” the actual data, he was forced to propose that subatomic particles such as electrons could not be simultaneously measured with completeness or accuracy in terms of the position or the location of particles and their momentum. One or the other of these could be measured with precision at any given time, which appeared to be a completely contradictory finding in the context of classical physics, based as it was (and still is) on the fundamental principle that full knowledge of both the locations and momentums of all objects should be accessible at all times.

The history of physics and the prevalence of the quantum revolution of course now provide the basis of the physical reality in which we are living, and the equations of quantum mechanics are the most precise and accurate of any discovered or developed in history. Nevertheless, the HUP continues to be challenged within the field of quantum physics itself, and recently several experiments utilizing photons and polarization produced and controlled by sophisticated new technological devices have been used to do so. In fact, these studies have found an inconsistency in Heisenberg’s original formulation, in which there was claimed to be a measurement problem that made the determination of both location and momentum to be impossible. According to this original interpretation, any attempt at measurement on this scale of matter and energy would invariably disturb either the position (location in space) or the momentum (movement in space) of the particle, because the energy required for measurement would alter or “destabilize” the system. Hence, one of the foundational principles of quantum physics, the ultimate impossibility of complete knowledge on the subatomic scale, the most fundamental level of the universe, was in this way asserted in this version of the uncertainty principle.

The recent research mentioned above has actually demonstrated that this interpretation of the HUP is not accurate, and that this interpretation was also based on a confusion in the original formulation by Heisenberg (for clarifying discussion of this subject, Rozema et al, 2012; and see also Erhart et al 2012). In simplified terms, the recent research employs what is called “weak measurement” utilizing single photons, the energy of which is not great enough to disturb the system, achieving what is called “nondemolition” experimental outcomes. This technical procedure avoids the measurement problem that has been inextricably (but inaccurately) “interwoven” into the formalism of the HUP, but the real fundamental “uncertainty” of such particle systems (wave-particles) is based on their fundamental nature as waves, and regarding all waves there are limits to what can be known about any two noncommuting conjugates (complimentary) properties or variables at a given time, such as location and momentum; it is not a measurement problem per se, but rather an issue based on the irreducible set of properties of the structure of waves.

While there are limits to what can be known about wave phenomena at a given point in time, there are ranges to such limits. The HUP is related to other forms of “uncertainty principles,” often considered together as a class of phenomena referred to as Fourier uncertainty principles, named after a major figure in the history of science and mathematics, Joseph Fourier (18th-19th centuries). Fourier’s and much subsequent scientific and mathematical research has demonstrated that when two conjugate noncommuting properties such as the duration and frequency of a signal are considered simultaneously, the product is not smaller than a certain mathematical limit [in this case 1/(4π)].

However, recent research, which again is aimed at exploring the limits of human sensory-perceptual functioning, has demonstrated that humans are capable of actually surpassing the previously regarded limitations on human audition imposed by, in this case, the Fourier uncertainty principle, with regard to the timing and frequency of sound. Researchers at the Laboratory of Mathematical Physics of Rockefeller University demonstrated that human subjects could outperform – “beat” – the Fourier uncertainty principle limitations by over ten-fold, revealing “remarkable timing acuity” (Oppenheim & Magnasco 2013, published in a leading journal of physics and biophysics, Physical Review Letters).

And here again in this study, we see that there is a broad range of performance in the group of human subjects and that there is an apparent key factor of training involved, in that the best performances were found in musicians, composers, conductors, and sound engineers. These professionals would be considered in the category of “expert and exceptional performance” discussed in earlier installments, the branch of cognitive neuroscience developed by the Nobel Prize winner Herbert A Simon and colleagues, a branch of science which has been adapted to the study of sensory-perceptual adepts as well (Bushell 2009). In this adaptation of the scientific framework, it has been shown that adept observational meditation training regimens appear to surpass all others with respect to intensity, extensiveness, and levels of performance, as discussed in this reference. Moreover, the adept training regimens in observational meditation under discussion here also incorporate intensive observation of sound as well (see Bushell & Thurman 2011).

Furthermore, as mentioned above and previously, these adept traditions deliberately pursue regimens which are based on multisensory integration, and preliminary evidence strongly suggests that this form of training may result in crossmodal, and even supramodal perceptual learning, and advantageous neuroplastic changes. So that the resulting temporal and spatial hyperacuity may transfer between modalities in multiple ways, and auditory hyperacuity may thereby become relevant to multimodal perception on the quantum level in many ways. In the next installments we will direct a fuller explication of this model of human sensory-perceptual potential to consider the recent research employing single photons and polarization in investigations of quantum entanglement, the nature of the wavefunction in terms of the measurement problem, and also the very recent extraordinary study of the “Wigner’s friend thought experiment,” which has produced results suggesting “that two observers can experience fundamentally different realities” in actual physical terms.

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Neuroscientific and quantum physical approach to advanced Buddhist mindfulness meditation: Perceptual learning, neuroplasticity, complexity, texture, fractals, and synesthesia. A model in-progress, WC Bushell & G Thurman, Towards a Science of Consciousness, Aula Magna Hall, Stockholm, Sweden/Center for Consciousness Studies, University of Arizona, 2011.

Human Time-Frequency Acuity Beats the Fourier Uncertainty Principle, JN Oppenheim & MO Magnasco. Physical Review Letters 110, 044301: 2013.

Violation of Heisenberg’s Measurement-Disturbance Relationship by Weak Measurements, Lee A. Rozema, Ardavan Darabi, Dylan H. Mahler, Alex Hayat, Yasaman Soudagar, and Aephraim M. Steinberg. Physical Review Letters 109, 100404: 2012.

Experimental demonstration of a universally valid error–disturbance uncertainty relation in spin measurements. Jacqueline Erhart, Stephan Sponar, Georg Sulyok, Gerald Badurek, Masanao Ozawa, Yuji Hasegawa. Nature Physics, 2012; DOI: 10.1038/nphys2194.

Experimental rejection of observer-independence in the quantum world. Massimiliano Proietti, Alexander Pickston, Francesco Graffitti, Peter Barrow, Dmytro Kundys, Cyril Branciard, Martin Ringbauer, and Alessandro Fedrizzi. arXiv:1902.05080v

New Beginnings: Evidence That the Meditational Regimen Can Lead to Optimization of Perception, Attention, Cognition, and Other Functions. William C. Bushell. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1172: 348-361, 2009.

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), 2011.

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