Monday, May 14, 2018

Human Relationships Vs. Quantum Physics

You've probably heard of some weird phenomena that quantum physics predicts. It's common to hear sayings like "things can be in 2 places simultaneously" or "observations change reality" in Sci-Fi and popular science communities - and even occasionally in popular culture. Although these popularized phrases are not entirely accurate from a scientific standpoint, they do convey some of the inherent weirdness that the whole quantum universe exists in.
In this post we'll talk about 2 of the many surprising ways that quantum effects diverge from our everyday experience, and how they are a good metaphor for equally interesting phenomena in human behavior and relationships. 

Collapsing Wave Functions and Threesomes

One of the first things they teach you in Quantum Physics 101 is that the correct way to think about basic particles (and actually any object in the world) is as a sort of wave - a continuous function that contains the probability of a particle to be in each position or state. This is why "a particle can be both here and there at the same time". Actually the particle is not in 2 places, or in a zillion places (since the wave is usually not confined to only 2 points), it's actually nowhere - or more accurately its location is undetermined. This might sound kinda weird if you've never encountered quantum physics before (things have to be somewhere - otherwise they don't exists right?), but it becomes clearer once the concept of "measurement" or "observation" is introduced. Measuring a system (in our case the position of the particle) is some action performed on it that forces it to "pick one" - according to the probabilities contained in the wave function we mentioned before - and stick with it. This is called "collapsing the wave function" - because now 100% of the probability is contained in a single state - the position that was chosen. The exact event that performs this measurement is not important - it might be intentional by the scientists or accidental by some external interaction (often it's random photons flying in from the surrounding environment) - anything that forces the particle to choose a position will collapse the wave.
This "collapsing" effect is very detrimental to many experiments and applications when it is not done purposefully by the scientists or engineers. All the "magical" properties of a quantum computer for example are based on keeping the bits of quantum data (qbits) in a "spread out" wave function - not collapsed into a single well defined state. There are many efforts invested in "maintaining the purity of the quantum state" during advanced quantum experiments - actively refraining from asking the clear-cut question.

So what's the analog in human behavior?
As you've probably already noticed, people are not very rational. If you want to find out the answer to some question, see the current weather in New York for example, you can Google it - getting the information without changing anything in the world. You could Google it 100 times and get the same answer, and the weather (or anything else for that matter) will not change due to your questioning. Google acts like a 'normal' physical system in that sense - you can measure the length of your table once, 100 times, or not at all - and the table will not change as a result.
Humans are not Google. Any interaction, and specifically any question or query leaves a mark - sometimes changing the relationship, sometimes changing the very issue you are asking about. Let's see a few examples, starting from a trivial case and working our way up.

You could call your friend to find out the weather outside - and you'll get an answer. If you ask again several times at first they won't understand what the heck do you want and get annoyed - eventually hanging up, maybe getting mad at you for a few days after. But that's just because Google is more patient than humans.

A more interesting example would be a threesome. Not necessarily the act itself (though I'm sure it changes relationship dynamics) but the mere act of raising the question. Imagine one day your partner musters up the courage and asks what do you think about a threesome. From a purely logical perspective they are just querying for information - trying to get to know you better from this angle. They didn't ask for anything, did not insist, did not even express their opinion - but that's probably not the immediate, emotional response that the question raises. One of the common responses goes something like "What?? So I'm not enough for you?!?" or some other automatic defensive mechanism. The measurement definitely changed the state...
Most people just decide they know better than to step outside of the traditional comfort zone, which is a shame because many couples - where both sides would like to do X but are too scared to even ask the question - could have lived a fuller life if only that information would magically be exchanged without the painful and risky "measurement process".

The final example is more nuanced and less obvious - therefore probably the most interesting. Let's say your partner has an evening event at work. You decide together it doesn't make a lot of sense for you to join the event (maybe it's boring or the work community is very tight-knit and an outsider wouldn't feel comfortable etc.). So far so good - a healthy communicating relationship. Since you have a free evening you arrange to meet with a few friends. Great.
Then, on the day of the event, something changes and your partner suddenly invites you to join. You respectfully decline - maybe because you already made your plans or because the work community is still the same and an outsider would still feel uncomfortable - and you each go to your evening as originally planned. Note that the whole situation is not actually important - it's just one evening and there are no practical consequences.
On paper - the question didn't change anything logistically, you both went on with your plans. In practice - now the vibe is different. The exact effect depends on the relationship and the way the conversation was managed, but often this offer (that could be motivated purely by good intent) reframes the decision as "do you prefer me or your friends?" - which is a very bad spot to be in. No matter which decision you take, it's not a healthy dilemma to have. 

Quantum Zeno Effect and Healthy Habits

Zeno was a Greek philosopher (490 – 430 BC) and is perhaps best known for the "Zeno paradoxes". One of them goes approximately as follows: let's say you want to walk 10 meters, to get there you obviously must first reach the halfway point of 5 meters - but to do that you must first get to 2.5 meters - and so on. The paradox is that in order to complete a seemingly trivial goal, one must complete an infinite number of "tasks" - reaching the halfway point of every recursive step. Zeno's goal was to prove that movement (and in general change) in the world is just an illusion and leads to paradoxical conclusions. This is not seen as a relevant viewpoint nowadays of course, and some of its  hidden assumptions are fairly easily pointed out and challenged - like the assumption that every subtask must take at least some finite time or that space is endlessly divisible - but the concept of breaking some process into many small parts and thus "freezing it" remains to this day. 
The basic principle of the "Zeno Effect" in quantum physics is that measuring a system repeatedly forces it to remain in the state it's in - overriding the effects of surrounding noise. Let's say we have a system that can be in one of 2 states. We measured it and turns out it's in state A. After the measurement 100% of the wave function is located in state A, but as time goes on you can imagine the probability "leaking" slowly to state B (perhaps due to thermal noise, random photons flying around or any other reason). If you let the system just naturally evolve like this it will eventually be very possible to find it in any state - even though we started out in only 1 state.

But, if we wait only a very short time before measuring the system again (forcing it to choose again between state A and B), there will be very little probability that managed to "leak" - and almost certainly the system will choose A once again - "refocusing" it and resetting 100% of the probability into state A. This is the Zeno Effect - observing a system repeatedly hinders its ability to substantially change its state.
Let's see an example of similar human behaviour.

Imagine you're regularly smoking but decided you want to quit. Most of your smoking happens at work, with your friends and co-workers. When they take a cigarette break they invite you to join them - probably several times a day. Imagine the day when you are asked to join and try to say "no" to your friends - that's an event that forces you to decide between 2 very different states, and requires a huge amount of force of will to change the status quo. They will probably ask what happened - just yesterday you were part of their group and now you aren't?
But if you change jobs, and at the new workplace no one knows you used to smoke, no one assumes that about you or invites you to smoke, and you connect to the group that takes tea brakes instead of cigarette breaks - all of a sudden the change is much easier to make. You've been given a clean slate and left to your own devices so your "state probability" could "leak" enough to give you a chance of changing your habits.
This example is simplistic of course but the effects of subconscious social pressure generated by the continuous "observations" we are undergoing in modern life plays a much bigger role than we think. The internal pressure to behave according to society's' expectations of us (due to both general cultural norms and the 'persona' we've built for ourselves in a certain environment) is very strong. This pressure opposes many innovative ideas and non-dogmatic behaviors we might otherwise adopt. Whis is a shame because it's not like the widely accepted norms and way of life are especially healthy or positive...

Until next time, may your wave function collapse to the state you most desire.


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1 comment:

  1. {If you find my ideas or analysis interesting - consider subscribing (box on the right). You'll never miss a post and I'll know I'm not talking only to myself :) }

    Just wanted to say that I haven´t subscribe dbut have you on my RSS Reader.