Consciousness, Quantum Physics and Psychotherapy

Reflections on a conference Consciousness, Quantum Physics and Psychotherapy at UCLA, December, 2015

Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Menas Kafatos started the conference by warning the group it would be a “mind-blowing” day. The conference titled Consciousness, Quantum Physics and Psychotherapy was the start of a dialogue aiming to bridge a gap between two seemingly unrelated topics: quantum mechanics and psychotherapy.

A tall order for anyone.

This post will attempt to provide a rudimentary understanding of basic concepts of QM and psychotherapy as gleaned from the conference.

According to Dr. Kafatos, QM has been around for 115 years since Max Planck’s work involving black body radiation. Since then, the debate between classical and quantum physicists has been incessant and without resolution. Dr. Kafatos provided a high level description of basic quantum principles citing experiments such as the double slit experiment (see a youtube video explanation) to explain how the act of observing an environment can change that environment. This experiment is mind-blowing in its implications: firing photons through two slits unobserved leaves a pattern indicating that photons are waves; but doing the same with a camera observing the firing changes the pattern, indicating that photons transform from waves to particles. If the mere act of observing can change photons from waves to particles, what else can observing do? Does this mean the act of observing something actually changes the observed? And when thinking about the power of observation, can it be related to the healing power of bearing witness to our patients’ narratives? Or to the healing ability of therapeutic presence?

In his discussion, Dr. Dan Siegel spoke to principles of mindsight and its relationship to QM. Incidentally, Dr. Siegel is renowned for his work in Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB), and is also an author, speaker, and psychiatrist who founded the Mindsight Institute at UCLA. I have attempted to summarize IPNB in a post written in 2008. However, Dr. Siegel’s work is far-reaching with a plethora of concepts that cannot be done justice in several blog posts, much less this one (please refer to his website to learn more). Out of the many thought provoking concepts in his work, Dr. Siegel’s use of mindfulness, a manner of focusing attention where the individual is aware of being separate from their emotions, was particularly interesting when considering quantum physics.

Brain cell (L), Universe (R)
Brain cell (L), Universe (R) Image Source:

So what are some of the core principles of quantum mechanics? They include: 1) all possibilities that can exist, do exist; 2) everything is connected; 3) the observer plays an active role in their experience of the universe; 4) opposites must exist (e.g. the complementarity of good and evil); 5) time does not exist; and 6) we create boundaries with our minds that don’t exist in reality. That is a lot to take in, but let’s focus on the latter. We create boundaries with our mind because we are perceiving the world around us with our five senses (and, depending on what you believe, maybe a 6th sense or more). To understand the world solely through our five senses is to adhere to classical physical (Newtonian) principles.  But what if there are other ways to understand our lives?

Dr. Siegel spoke about how symptoms as described in the DSM can be seen as an individual’s gravitation toward either chaos or rigidity. More specifically, when an individual attempts, unsuccessfully, to control his/her world or the people in it, or when he/she does not attain what was expected, they behave in a manner that represents chaos or rigidity. For example, if a person is uncertain about the nature of their health condition, they may attempt to control it by taking precautions that lead to anxiety and social withdrawal (rigidity), or they may manage the anxiety by minimizing the repercussions of their condition and self soothe, via behaviors such as substance use or impulsive shopping (chaos). There is a sense of being out-of-control. In essence, it is the human being’s desire to for certainty in order to feel a sense of ease about the future. However, in quantum mechanics, all possibilities are occurring, and as such, there is no certainty. Therefore, Dr. Siegel says, the psychotherapist’s job is not to help an individual seek certainty, but rather to accept uncertainty. Dr. Kafatos suggested freedom is the acceptance of uncertainty. So what can we do to be free?

IPNB offers techniques to help individuals self-soothe and expand their window of tolerance for lack of ease, or dis-ease. Much of this is done through meditation. Dr. Kafatos stated that transcendence is the space between two breaths. It is when one can be conscious and say to themselves, “I am that I am that I am.” Dr. Siegel created the Wheel of Awareness mindfulness meditation to facilitate the quieting of the mind so that a deeper connection to the mind and body can be cultivated.

So how does all this influence our work as therapists? Using mindfulness to self-soothe and regulate emotions is already common practice in the field. However, in what other ways can we use breathing to heal? In what ways can we use the breath to create a sense of craved connectedness, which quantum physicists suggest is omnipresent? How can we use the breath to decrease our experience of existential angst? How can we use our breath to find meaning in our lives? These are ideas that have been pondered in many traditions for centuries, but is newer to Western psychology. Future posts can explore these ideas.

For now, let’s stop here. To summarize, the following are some key takeaways from the seminar with their implications:

This conference was about the energy of the mind. Quantum physicists assert that all things that are possible are occurring and that particles do not act independently (also known as entanglement in quantum theory). Thus quantum physicists believe we are all interconnected and can cause change just by focusing our attention in certain ways. More specifically, Dr. Kafatos also asserted the observer has the key role in quantum physics, whereas in classical physics the observer’s observation does not affect the object being observed. Drs. Kafatos and Siegel agree that classical science relies on finite five senses to confirm certainty in an inherently uncertain world.

Taking this into account, our current model of psychotherapy aligns with classical physics where the clinician observes the patient, gathers data, conceptualizes the data and formulates the focus of treatment and develops a treatment plan to resolve the symptoms. It resembles a math equation. However, in a quantum view, the individual and their systems are not only interconnected but constantly changing. Does it make sense to maintain one focus for the duration of treatment? If everything is possible, how do we help our patients? When we diagnose, we categorize our patients and collapse possibilities to focus on a specific set of symptoms to guide our treatment. If therapists take into account the whole of the human being and the ecosystems of which they are a part, is focusing on a category or categories the best model to treat the complex human experience?

Dr. Siegel asserts that patients suffer from the angst of uncertainty, which they attempt to control manifesting in symptoms gravitating toward chaos or rigidity. They want happiness without sadness, health without illness, life without death. Drs. Kafatos and Siegel agree that both must exist (also known as complementarity in quantum theory). Dr. Siegel suggests that the therapist’s job is to make patients feel at ease with uncertainty; to help them focus their energy and attention in positive, healing ways. Psychologists should help their patients utilize their heart and mind, instinct and rationality, to maximize their sense of ease.

In, short this seminar raised more questions than it answered. But the implications indicated by the new science could be huge. The experience reinforced in me a belief that, as mental health professionals, we have an obligation to seek out what other fields of science have to say about the human condition.


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