Eating Disorders Information (EDI)

Click here to edit subtitle


Henry Stapp's plausible theory of the quantum mind

Posted by a.marlow on January 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM

Classical physics paints the picture of a reality that is deterministic and mechanistic, with no causal influence of mind at all. However, experiments in the 20th century showed this approach to be increasingly insufficient, giving rise to quantum mechanics, a theory that potentially gives mind a much greater influence on reality than previously thought.

In a recent article in the academic journal Neuroquantology, Henry Stapp describes precisely how this might work. He discusses three subtly different interpretations of quantum mechanics: the Copenhagen formulation and the approach taken by von Neumann.

Even according to the Copenhagen formulation, the influenceof an observer is crucial. The key equation in quantum mechanics is the Schrödinger equation, which describes a reality made up of a continuous and simultaneous mixture of possibilities. This is illustrated by the famous example of ‘Schrödinger’s cat’, where the cat is supposed to be both alive and dead at the same time, as these two possibilities are described by the Schrödinger equation to both exist simultaneously. Only when an observer intervenes and measures or observes the situation does one of these possibilities become a reality, nullifying theother and making the cat either alive or dead. In quantum physics terms, we say that the ‘wavefunction’ has ‘collapsed’.

Such a finding requires us to perform a Heisenberg cut, where we divide the world into the observed, which exists as simultaneous possibilities until is it observed, and the observer, whose observation causes the collapse of the wavefunction. According to the Copenhagen formulation, that which causes the collapse of the wavefunction is ‘a free choice on the part of the experimenter’.

This idea works well pragmatically in the context of an actual experiment, where it largely doesn’t matter where one makes the cut. Perhaps one would make it between the researchers and the thing being experimented upon, so that the substance being examined is seen as existing as a continuum of simultaneous possibilities until the observers- here being the experimenters- make their ‘free choice’. However, in the words of Stapp, this formulation cannot become “a rationally coherent theory of reality”, as the decision about where to make this ‘cut’ is arbitrary every time.

Enter the von Neumann formulation which, according to Stapp, does achieve the status of being rationally coherent. For von Neumann, we should place in the “observed” category all things that are physical, including the bodies and brains of the observers: for if the particular substance being measured is no longer existing in a state of continuous and simultaneous possibilities because of the observation of the scientists, then whose observation has caused the wavefunction of the scientist’s body and brain to collapse? Even if we extrapolate the problem back to the retina or the particular part of the brain that deals with vision, whose observation has caused this part of the brain to have its wavefunction collapsed?

For von Neumann, and according to the orthodox view of quantum mechanics, we can divide the world into three processes. Process 1 refers to subjective experience and observation by an “abstract ego”. Process 2 refers to the Schrödinger equation, which governs the behaviour of the quantum world until it is observed by process 1. Process 3 refers to “a choice on the part of nature”.

This, then, is what happens in von Neumann’s view: while the “observed” part of nature is not interacting with the “observing” part, it is governed solely by process 2- theSchrödinger equation- according to which reality is not made up of discrete, atomised particles, but rather an infinite number of possibilities about how those particles will fit together and, even, where they will be found. When the“observed” part of nature does come into contact with the “observing” part, however, process 1 occurs, and this “observing” part, put crudely, asks aquestion, which we can put simply as: yes or no? Now, Schrödinger’s cat can no longer exist as both simultaneously possibly alive and possibly dead- it must choose whether to be alive or dead. If the “observing” part of nature asks this question, the answer comes through process 3, when “a choice on the part of nature” answers us: yes, the cat is alive; or: no, the cat is dead. This, Stapp asserts, achieves the goal of reaching “a rationally coherent theory of a fully quantum mechanical psychophysical reality”.


What does this tell us about the mind, then? It certainly raises doubt around the idea that the brain creates the mind; rather, according to this hypothesis, the brain would constitute part of the “observed” world governed by process 2 and existing as many simultaneous possibilities until it is observed through process 1 by the “observing” subjective mind or ‘abstract ego’. We could therefore conjecture that, instead, mind creates brain and, indeed, all of the reality around it, at least in the sense that it forces nature to settle on one particular reality rather than continue to exist in multiple simultaneous states of possibility.


This, then, constitutes Henry Stapp’s attempt at formulating a quantum theory of mind- an attempt that is preferable to that of Penrose and Hameroff, whose approach has been found wanting due to the fact that it would require evidence that the brain can and does sustain states of quantum coherence- evidence that has not been forthcoming. By placing the mind outside the “observed” world, which is where one would find the brain in Stapp’s estimation, the absence of such states does not invalidate Stapp’s approach at all. For Stapp, we need not show quantum coherence in the brain- we need only acknowledge that, before process 1 observation, the brain constitutes a mixture of possibilities, one of which is settled upon by the combined action of process 1 and process 3.


Stapp, H., 2012. Reply to a Critic: “Mind Efforts, Quantum Zeno Effect and Environmental Decoherence”, Neuroquantology, 10(4), pp. 601-605

Please note that I am not a physicist, so this account of Stapp's theory is necessarily simplified and perhaps, in parts, inaccurate. Although I am not a physicist, as a therapist I am interested in understanding the mind, and this includes all cutting edge approaches to it, including those based on such complex areas as quantum physics.


Categories: quantum

Post a Comment


Oops, you forgot something.


The words you entered did not match the given text. Please try again.

Already a member? Sign In