There was something about The Matrix movie trilogy that really resonated with me. And not just me obviously – it resonated with about 100 million other people as well (Box Office Gross Revenues for the trilogy are nearly one thousand million dollars). Mostly I suspect the resonance had to do with this sneaky, intuitive sense that what was being portrayed in the movie as fiction, really wasn’t.
Attention Must Be Paid Its Pound of Flesh
Along those Matrix lines, I’m reminded of a well-known phenomenon in quantum physics called The Observer Effect. I’m a little out of my league with this topic, so here’s a short, simple, clear Youtube illustration of it: The Observer Effect.
The Observer Effect describes how an observer “collapses the Wave Function” simply by observing. Without an observer with a living brain – you, me, he, she or it – what currently exists primarily as material objects in the world would revert to their “original face” – probability waves of energy. Apparently, when confronted with the activity of our neurobiological sense apparatus – eyes, ears, nose, brain, etc – those waves change their form and become “concrete” reality. Thought about another way: energy “knows” we’re looking at it. How do we know it knows? Because it’s showing up as matter – as trees, as rain, as people – rather than in its more essential state – probability waves.
Where the Observer Effect gets really weird is when an electronic measuring device counts (observes) particles (photons in most experiments) and they show up collapsed as particles, which is what is expected. But when the measuring device is unplugged, the photons show up as waves! So, the observer doesn’t even have to be human to “collapse the wave function!” Is this observer phenomenon – the process that turns energy waves into material objects in the workaday world – a constant in all of our lives all the time?
Trauma Collapses the Particle Function
My intuition and life experience tell me “No.” My sense is that traumatic experiences – those times when our neurobiology has been completely overwhelmed by people, circumstances or life events that put all our sensory systems on red alert to the point of massive overload – at those times, the observer “relocates” to some place other than in the cells of our body. Psychologists use the term dissociation in different degrees to describe it. But I think that term falls far short of many people’s actual experience.
Jill Bolte Taylor’s left hemisphere stroke experience might be viewed in terms of a particle function reversion. When the part of her brain primarily responsible for perceiving sharp edges and forms and shapes in the world was taken offline together with the object-naming function, she seemed to no be longer a “competent” observer. Her brain only intermittently possessed a perception ability sufficient for her to be able to collapse the wave function and experience the world materially. Losing her left hemisphere was sort of like an electronic measuring device with an intermittent short circuit.
So, what quantum physics seems to be telling us is that there is no objective material reality. As observers we do not observe what’s outside us; we observe what we and the probability waves all around us, collaboratively co-create – spheres of reality.
Human Beings as Spheres of Reality
In some sense it’s as if the material objects and the relationships that make up our lives are an ongoing Rashomon Effect, only we mostly fail to realize it. In moviemaking, a director who chooses a Rashomon perspective, presents an emotionally charged incident – an assault or murder, a terrorist attack – from the various viewpoints of several central characters. What the audience discovers is that each person’s take on the same experience is profoundly different, filtered as it is through personal history and a unique, dynamic neurophysiology. In our customary dealings with everyday people, we expect their experience to be much the same as ours, which is totally understandable because so often it appears close enough to be indistinguishable. Puppies and kittens and smiling babies are adorable; funny movies make many of us laugh together; most drivers stop on red and go on green. (For therapists reading this essay, there’s a wonderfully courageous account of that effect showing up in therapy in Irv Yalom’s book, Every Day Gets a Little Closer: A Twice-Told Therapy. It’s like Yalom and his client aren’t even in the same room through much of the therapy).
But when we become emotionally upset, our experiences invariably begin to diverge wildly, often with few of us realizing it.
Amping Down the Observer
But I also suspect that it’s possible for some people to increase the brain’s and body’s capacity to “process energy and information” to a sufficiently robust degree that they can consciously “relocate” the observer anywhere in the known or unknown universe at will. The observing witness (consciousness itself?) develops flexible, plastic attachment to the material body. In the sixties such a capacity used to be called Astral Projection.
Mounting evidence suggests it’s true: We don’t see the world as it is, but rather as we are. Some of us though, like MIT physicist Max Tegmark or Juergen Schmidhuber see the rest of us in the world simply as integers in a universal equation. Somehow though, in my everyday life, that just doesn’t seem to add up.