The Nightshirt Sightings, Portents, Forebodings, Suspicions

Deer in the Headlights: Attention and the Quantum Zeno Effect


“The world is a dynamic mess of jiggling things if you look at it right. And if you magnify it, you can hardly see anything anymore, because everything is jiggling and they’re all in patterns, and they’re all lots of little balls. It’s lucky that we have such a large scale view of everything, that we can see them as things, without having to worry about all these little atoms all the time.” — Richard Feynman

Lately lots of anti-materialist writers are describing the brain as an interface between consciousness and the physical organism, a way of translating nonlocal mind into material intention. Quantum physics is typically invoked to explain how this might happen, yet it often involves a lot of vague hand-waving. I admit to being guilty of said hand-waving. It sounds nice and impressive to talk about “collapsing wave functions” and whatnot, but there’s no way for non-physicists to really evaluate such claims, and honestly, resolute skeptics and materialists are right to distrust us when we make these kinds of speculations.

The privileging of consciousness in most of our jerry-rigged and often desperate-sounding New Age accounts of intention affecting reality sound a lot like wish-fulfillment: We want it to be the case, but we can’t actually say how it is the case, with any kind of real conviction.

Although the idea that consciousness emerges from material processes can never be more than an idea, hence within consciousness—as any number of writers, from Rupert Sheldrake to Deepak Chopra to Bernardo Kastrup have very nicely pointed out in recent books—the materialist bad guys are on much firmer ground in saying that quantum effects, at least in most mainstream interpretations, hold mainly on a microscopic level. How does collapsing an electron’s wave function through observation translate to changing the New York Times on my doorstep from a possibility to an actuality when I open the door to retrieve it?

Another big Achilles heel in anti-materialist invocations of quantum mechanics is in somehow thinking that the randomness that negates determinist causation on the particle level by itself opens the door to free will on a human scale. Even if it’s not actually a classical, billiard-ball world down there with all those jiggling particles, randomness alone does not provide any account of consciousness as a free agent in our human world.

Thus, as it now stands, the privileging of consciousness in many of our jerry-rigged and often desperate-sounding New Age accounts of intention affecting reality sound a lot like wish-fulfillment: We want it to be the case, but we can’t actually say how it is the case. Frankly, I wouldn’t trust us on these questions, if I were a heardheaded materialist skeptic.

This is where I have been extremely impressed (blown away, really) by the work of Henry P. Stapp, a theoretical physicist who has been working on this problem his whole career, and who has produced a rather dazzling quantum-mechanical account of how the brain may translate conscious intention into macroscopic effects. This isn’t the usual vague hand-waving. Stapp’s book Mindful Universe walks the reader through the history and underpinnings of quantum physics in a thorough but remarkably readable manner, and explains at every step of the way not only why consciousness must factor in to our understanding of the physical universe on a very fundamental level (the Copenhagen-Von Neumann Interpretation) but also how our brains may work as an interface between consciousness and the machine of the body, through precisely the “probing” (i.e., posing of “yes/no” questions) that quantum mechanics models in its most iconic experiments.

legolasarrowConsciousness basically is an experimenter, Stapp says—a chooser of what questions to ask of nature. On a particle level, nature is free to answer however she chooses (i.e., randomly), yet there is a crucial loophole: a phenomenon known as the Quantum Zeno Effect. This effect may be decisive for the way consciousness influences the actions of the meat machine via the brain. Specifically, persistent rapid probing of reality produces the same “answer” repeatedly from the physical world, effectively “stopping time” in some sense—hence the name of the effect, which refers to Zeno’s paradoxes like an arrow that must first get halfway to its target, but first halfway to that, and so on, and thus never being able to leave the bow at all.

Previous efforts toward a quantum neuroscience, like that of Roger Penrose (Shadows of the Mind), have focused on narrow cellular structures where quantum indeterminacy can come into play. Penrose focused on microtubules that extend through cells, but Stapp focuses on very narrow ion channels in the walls of synapses as sites where, through probing actions that amount to querying the behavior of particles, consciousness takes control of the brain and body. We’re obviously not conscious, in the sense of “aware,” of this querying, as it happens many times a second, at trillions of locations throughout the nervous system; the idea is that cortical activity is entangled and coherent, a unified orchestration of these micro Zeno effects. It reminds me of Feynman’s sense of relief that we do not need to actively micromanage our affairs at the particle level, which would be just too daunting a task. The brain, conveniently, is the organ scaling up those particle-level actions via quantum coherence, enabling them to have macro-level effects. If Stapp is right, we ourselves are macro-scale quantum phenomena.

From Quantum Hand-Waving to Quantum Finger Lifting

Stapp uses the Quantum Zeno Effect to account for the most baffling (and on the surface, most seemingly materialism-supporting) finding in neuroscience, Benjamin Libet’s 1983 discovery of a roughly half-second delay between the initiation of a consciously formulated action—a measurable neurological “readiness potential”—and its actual appearance in conscious awareness. Libet’s and subsequent experiments on this phenomenon (for instance those of psychologist Daniel Wegner) seemingly were the nail in the coffin of “free will” as we ordinarily understand it, since they seemed to show that an intention to move the body follows rather than precedes the observed action. In his contribution to the recent collection, Beyond Physicalism, Stapp addresses Libet’s finding, arguing that it reflects instead an illusion produced by observation-related collapse a la Heisenberg.

If Stapp is right, the bodymind is PhilDickian to its core: The calcium ions triggering neurotransmitters to cross the synaptic cleft are little Schrodinger’s cats.

To perform an action, the neural command architecture should already be primed in advance and ready, like a spring; in an uncertain universe, a range of possible actions should all be readied, and thus a large range of neural actions should be primed in the invisible no-space of quantum superposition (what I have called the Quantum Not Yet). The choice to make a particular action amounts on the neuronal level to a choice to observe a quantum state (in other words, consciousness as experimenter again), which collapses that fan of potential action templates to a single actual readiness potential; the unactualized possibilities disappear. In a very real sense, our every decision to move a muscle is acting “retrocausally” by collapsing the fuzzy smear of possible readiness potentials to a definite, determined one, producing an apparently paradoxical effect of an effect (the measured readiness potential) preceding its cause (the conscious decision to make this muscle motion rather than that one or none at all).

synapseIf Stapp is right, the bodymind is PhilDickian to its core: The calcium ions moving through narrow vesicles and triggering neurotransmitters to cross the synaptic cleft are little Schrodinger’s cats, and the implication is that in our very early development our consciousness learned to control this process through a form of (small-scale) persistence, repeatedly posing the same “yes/no” questions and discovering that this persistent probing had the power to move the body in relatively predictable ways.

Watched Pots

The Quantum Zeno Effect could be described as a prophylactic against information loss (entropy gain), as a result of focused, persistent attention, or the seeking of information. Sometimes called the “watched pot effect,” this can even be thought of as the local stopping or slowing of time, could it not? Reality, in other words, is like a deer that freezes in attention’s headlights. One mind-blowing implication of this—although I don’t think Stapp articulates it this way—is that it seems to offer further evidence there is no single temporal stream but that everything, every particle, has its own temporal flow, depending partly on the level of attention it receives. Those flows locally may tend to average out and give the illusion of coherence, but focused attention on some part of a system may actually slow its unfolding, perturbing the whole in a certain direction.

Could narrow focused engagement actually alter the local flow of time around the object of attention? Is the shaping of time around our activity a real effect and not just a subjective illusion?

If the Quantum Zeno Effect is the basic “hack” by which conscious intention fashions the world to its desires and in its image, it could explain numerous effects experienced by athletes and creative writers and artists who experience “flow” states—expanded subjective time as a function of how narrowly versus diffusely the attention is focused on a problem or task. Could narrow focused engagement actually alter the local flow of time around the object of attention? Is the shaping of time around our activity a real effect and not just a subjective illusion?

It’s easy to extrapolate from this small-scale, nuts-and-bolts picture of quantum interfacing with our meat-mecha-body to advanced and effortful kinds of coherent “probing” in the form of meditation and other types of focused mental discipline. These may potentially capitalize on the Quantum Zeno Effect for more remarkable feats in which we influence not only the body but also the external material world, for instance in psi phenomena. Stapp’s theory has implications, in other words, for how attention might manifest intention.

That would be just one more reason why attention—the focusing and directing of consciousness—is the most precious resource there is, as well as our fundamental superpower birthright. There are countless ways our attention is captured and redirected by media, technology, and attention-needy persons and institutions; and there are many ways culture itself acts as a psi-delimiting system, precisely by scrambling and weakening our powers of attention. So, if you aren’t already working your attentional muscle in some kind of daily meditation practice, to defeat these corrosive forces on your psi, WTF are you waiting for?


I am a science writer and armchair Fortean based in Washington, DC. Write to me at eric.wargo [at]

15 Responses to “Deer in the Headlights: Attention and the Quantum Zeno Effect”

  • This is a brilliant post, and I needed to read this today, so thank you.

    I find the materialist notion that we have no free will so absurd as to deserve no attention or debate, and I love this idea that attention shapes reality.

    Obviously, it’s time to get to work on my attentional muscles. 🙂

  • Thanks, Anna 🙂

  • Apologies for the length, this subject of consciousness & causality is a favorite of mine and given your excellent blog I thought you might be interested in certain sources I’ve enjoyed on the subject. Feel free to just ignore my babbling though. 🙂

    I’ve never really given much credence to the conclusions people assume from Libet’s experiments. IIRC even Dennet, perhaps the “staunchiest” of materialists, noted that asking people to decide on a decision of insignificance said little about volition.

    I think where the materialist goes wrong is to assume that causality of the mental can be explained in discrete billiard ball strikes where A->B.

    Weiss gets into the importance of teleology in The Long Trajectory for free-will/subtle worlds/etc, noting that materialists don’t offer an explanation as to why A doesn’t equal C. (Invoking the laws of physics, which are based on observations of cause-effect, is just question begging IMO. Talbott gets into that in “Do Physical Laws Make Things Happen”?)

    Personally one of the best works using science and philosophy (specifically Bergson) is Robbins Time & Memory: A primer on the scientific mysticism of consciousness. He notes the very idea that a decision can be made in an instant in the way Libet assumes is erroneous, a mistake of thinking time is a spatial axis that can be carved into discrete pieces.

    Robbins gets deep into questioning a lot of materialist assumptions, utilizing not only metaphysics but a variety of scientific studies.

    p.s.s Some other stuff you might have interest in -> There’s interesting work from Chris Fuchs on QBism(1), the idea that we have private realties. The philosopher Arvan seems to take a similar approach with this Peer-to-Peer Hypothesis of Free Will(2). Arvan was a materialist (not to mention student of Dennet) before reading Gregg Rosenberg’s A Place for Consciousness which I’m still waiting to show up in my mailbox so can’t say much more on that but here’s a summary from Essers (3).




  • What a great post! Takes me right back to Morsella and “sentience” being at the base of “consciousness” (and able to make decisions) rather than narratization (I suspect something about this could be showing up in the Libet data and interpretation. But we are so tied up with the ideas of “our stories” that the idea that free will wouldn’t necessarily need a “narrating I” that most people aren’t going to give it much thought, I expect).

    Thanks to SPatel for posting those links, especially the first one to the WIRED article, which certainly seems in line with Eric’s ideas about every individual having their own “separate reality,” and our questions about whether or not the universe as “collapsed” by others has any necessary influence on the universe collapsed by “me.”

  • Thanks, SPatel — these look like interesting articles. From what little I’ve read of QBism, I’m a fan. 🙂

  • Thanks, Ahck. I totally agree. The “narrating I” is a completely extraneous red herring.

  • Eric – Yeah I like QBism as well, seems to fit into certain ideas from a variety of traditions. The physicist – a big William James fan – who came up with QBism is rather fascinating, releasing huge collections of personal and professional emails interspersed with bundled together with the title “My Struggles Against a Block Universe”:

    While that document is incredibly cluttered there are some gems that you might find worth picking through. Fuchs, like Stapp, has set his mind on challenging certain ideas other scientists have merely accepted in blind faith. As his partner N.David Mermin notes, the “laws” of physics are really an abstraction attempting to capture regularities rather than actual chains on what can happen in the world.

  • Ordinarily I’d say, “a 2,349 page Word file, are you nuts?” — but there does look like a lot of good stuff here. I like that he delves into alchemy, etc.

  • Heh there’s a good bit of random dross in there but I have to admit I appreciate the man’s soulfulness and desire to make science life-affirming again.

    Something charming about a physicist who so deeply admires William James.

  • Beyond Physicalism is at the top of the list, one of these days, and it sounds like it’s worth the investment both in time and money. I either don’t remember forgetting or plain didn’t know that Stapp was a contributor.

    A random thought: Penrose’s ‘microtubules’ idea sounds, offense intended, like a pipe dream, and Stapp’s idea makes much more sense. Why shouldn’t consciousness be ‘located’ or at least be more intimately involved at the sites where actions, decisions or information transfers appear to either take place or originate.

    I am just a lowly dabbler in these ideas, but at some level, to unify quantum theory and gravity, it seems that there unavoidably must be a probabilistic aspect to large-scale physical phenomena. Stapp perhaps guesses, as I do, that we are all ‘constraining’ these aspects together at the larger level. He argues back effectively against Libet, who, like dozens of neuroscientists, was convinced he had won the field when, in reality, the entire field of neuroscience remains basically stuck where it was 100 years ago. That is barely hyperbole. But, even favoring Stapp’s notion, we would still seem to be back, for now, at a chicken or the egg question.

    As to your (partially) rhetorical question about the ‘shaping of time,’ the answer may be both no and yes. The work of David Eagleman seems to indicate that the answer is no, or usually no, at any rate. Stephen Robbins, however, in a postscript to the work mentioned by S. Patel (I think s/he got the title from a certain commenter at Michael Prescott’s blog) wonders if an undiscovered ‘catalyst,’ or possibly one that’s already known (DMT?) may have some a more powerful effect as that which you call ‘shaping time’ above, and thereby possibly change as well, a la Strassman, channels from the everyday “channel normal.”

    Dean Radin has spoken (and perhaps written, in his book Supernormal I would guess) about the possibility of meditative practices enlarging the temporal window through which we all see. Its width is usually a crack, but Radin seems open to the possibility that such practices may allow us to see and partially extend ourselves into the very ‘future’. Where that fits in here, I’m feeling too little inspired to guess just now.

  • Thanks, Mason. Hal Puthoff’s early psychokinesis experiments with Ingo Swann and Pat Price at SRI showed that attention (in the form of remote viewing) perturbed various measuring instruments like a magnetometer, so really provided support for this concept. So did Helmut Schmidt’s experiments in which participants tried to will a light to move in a certain direction around a wheel — its direction being determined otherwise by the random decay of a piece of radioactive metal. Thus you might say attention affected the metal’s “time” in some sense.

  • I seem to have lapsed into a different (uncollapsed?) moniker there.

    I think it’s potentially highly significant that Schmidt’s experiment shows that human attention/consciousness is able to affect a ‘random’ process such as radioactive decay (in this experiment, as in others I seem to recall Schmidt having performed, the perturbation being effected elsewhere than where the manifest result result occurs). The reason for the significance, to my mind, is that otherwise there may be no room for free will anywhere ‘in the system,’ a thought I’ve been kicking around off and on for a few months; for, just as a computer cannot produce truly random strings of numbers which were not ‘seeded’ and are therefore merely pseudorandom, the laws of the universe may not actually produce ‘random’ effects at all, but rather algorithmic effects that are only apparently random. (Bernard Haisch discusses this, with different conclusions, here: “IS THE UNIVERSE A VA
    ITY SIMULATION?” .) While it is not my pet theory, and depending on the scalability of these effects, this could (I emphasize the word) be the level on which free will is operative in the real world. Whether those effects would be meager or substantial, or gain in significance by their multiplication at the neuronal level, is angle I shall now proceed to ponder.

  • Eric, your article is timely, in the wake of the second Foundations of Mind conference at the University of California at Berkeley two weeks ago:
    Henry Stapp was a featured speaker and he was, as always, the effortless Don Quixote in tilting at materialist windmills. He now has a new partial book manuscript that he has made public, which was shared with conference attendees, which I will send to you.

  • Thanks, Jack — I’d love to see that manuscript! My email address is on my About page.

  • @MD: Yes, I’m the same SPatel who got the Robbins recommendation from someone at Prescott’s blog. One of the more fortuitous recs I’ve gotten!

    On the subject of Libet, IIRC he actually believed in the possibility of precognition thought that part of his research is ignored, along with what I believe was his own resistance to the idea of no free will?