* This is a math-free zone, do not panic! *
The word “quantum” gets a bad rap. It’s a great thing to bring into the conversation if you want to break up a party, and that’s a shame. What most people might not be aware of is that the term is just used as a description, and doesn’t necessarily imply that hard science will be involved. Yes, we’re going to discuss quantum physics, but only after we get to know the term in a more fundamental manner. When you understand the quantum, then the physics part becomes much less scary.
Why discuss it at all? Because we can use this knowledge to great effect in our journey to the mindful state. It’s just going to take a few steps go get there. We’re not going to need to know any math here, as physics has an entirely theoretical side that is built from interpretations of those horrifying equations on laboratory marker boards. They did the work so we don’t have to. Thanks physicists!
What is a “Quantum”?
A quantum is the smallest measurable amount of something (plural: quanta). We’ll start with a few hypothetical examples. Let’s say you have a bag of sugar and can clearly see the grains that make up the material, but have no knowledge of those grains being made of smaller molecules. In this case, you’d identify a grain as the quantum of sugar. That’s not so hard to understand. Another example would be if you saw a sculpture made of bottle caps and didn’t know that the caps were made up of smaller materials. From this perspective, a single cap would be a quantum of the sculpture.
Physics and Quanta
The thing is, we do know that everything is made up of smaller parts than we can visibly discern. Generally, what we can see with our eyes is made up of smaller molecules, which are made up of even smaller atoms, which are in turn composed of fundamental particles. As far as we are currently aware, fundamental particles are the quanta of all the observable and theoretical materials (and forces) within the universe. There are a lot of different types of fundamental particles, with more being discovered every so often.
The relationships between the study of physics and the concept of quanta is best described as love/hate. It is clearly a necessary part of describing the nature of our material world, which is the goal of physics in general, but becomes a major pain when they try to connect it with our usual understanding of physical laws (also called Newtonian physics). Here’s the problem: Fundamental particles are so small that they follow a whole different set of physical laws than we observe with our eyes.
Crazy right? Even if we directly observe a ball falling to the ground (because of gravity, mass and all the other usual factors), if we could magnify the fundamental particles that make it up, then we’d see them behaving by an entirely different set of rules. Anything smaller than an insanely minute quantity of size (called the Planck Length) will seemingly ignore the effects of Newtonian physics. The laws that are instead followed are the focus of quantum physics. It’s still a strange topic to comprehend, but nothing to fear.
A Small Mind but not Small Minded
Now that you are an expert in theoretical quantum physics (kidding, but it’s a good start), we can discuss what the concept means for our understanding of mindfulness. A few points should immediately become apparent. Our knowledge of the body-mind connection has been mostly limited to studies framed by classical (Newtonian) physics, but there remains the possibility that quantum activities are also involved. To that effect, a number of findings from the field describe particle behaviors that share a theme with our subjective conscious experience.
One of the coolest characteristics of quantum particles is that they can exist in the same place at the same time. Have you ever had one of those days where it seems like you’re thinking about a billion things at once? Some people experience nothing but this type of thinking, and it has always made me wonder, if we could measure a thought, would it be below Planck size? This might also explain the time dilation we experience during dreams (of both the day and night varieties), since the physical flow of time is irrelevant at the quantum level. Honestly, everywhere I look in quantum physics, there are findings that I can’t help but interpret in a way that aligns with the often confusing characteristics of our own minds.
The Moment as a Quantum
In the practice of mindfulness, we are encouraged to search for the moment. It is the most fundamental measurement of our subjective experience, and therefore qualifies as being a quantum in general. The moment may very well exist in the domain of quantum physics as well, since it does seem to exhibit some of the characteristics associated with these processes, like non-classical behaviors of time and space.
There are many potentially interesting areas in which our conscious experiences may be examined under a quantum framework, but scientists seem to be resistant to the idea of mixing the two fields. It’s understandable, since several previous attempts have been less than stellar, and the very idea of linking the mind with quantum physics would throw everything we believe about reality into chaos. Still, as we progress so will academia, and soon we will no longer be afraid of the implications that could result from quantum studies of the mind.