Scientists Study Power of Consciousness With a New Twist on a Famous Quantum Experiment

What if our thoughts or observations could change the way something moves? Imagine if your consciousness could change the outcome of events.
Scientists Study Power of Consciousness With a New Twist on a Famous Quantum Experiment
3D rendering of a double-slit experiment (Shutterstock)
Maria Han
Tara MacIsaac

A famous experiment in quantum physics called the double-slit experiment has long raised the much-debated question of whether mind can affect matter. What if our thoughts or observations could change the way something moves? Imagine if your consciousness could change the outcome of events.

The Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) has spent half a century pondering such questions (it recently celebrated its 50th anniversary). And at an IONS conference on June 24, the organization's chief scientist, Dean Radin, gave an update on where the science currently stands on the double-slit experiment and consciousness.
As part of that update, he described IONS studies that have reproduced the double-slit experiment, this time bringing meditators into the mix.

The Double-Slit Experiment

The double-slit experiment was first conducted in 1801 by Thomas Young. It involves shining light through two slits.

The light seems to behave differently depending on whether it is being measured at a given time. It may act as particles or waves, and observation seems to determine which form it takes.

Some scientists have said it is consciousness that causes the wave to collapse into particles, an effect known as the "collapse of the wave function." The role of consciousness has been debated.

Mr. Radin cited a 2020 paper by neural scientist and philosopher David Chalmers: "The upshot is not that consciousness collapse interpretations are clearly correct, but that there is a research program here worth exploring."

Debate Over Observer Effect

In a 2016 survey of physicists on how they understand the "observer" effect, almost a quarter of them said the observer "plays a distinguished physical role."

In other words, Mr. Radin said, their opinion is that "there's something peculiar about conscious observation in changing the way that the physical world works."

That survey was conducted by Sujeevan Sivasundaram, a graduate student at Aarhus University in Denmark, as part of his thesis. He sent it out to more than 1,200 physicists, and about 150 responded.

Mr. Sivasundaram questioned whether physicists are generally "aware of foundational issues concerning quantum mechanics."

"Even though quantum mechanics has existed for almost 100 years, questions concerning the foundation and interpretation of the theory still remain," Mr. Sivasundaram said.

Consciousness studies reviewed by Mr. Radin and others last year suggest that materialism doesn't need to be discarded if consciousness is found to affect the physical world.

"There is no question that, as a set of assumptions, materialism has proven to be outstandingly successful in elucidating the nature of physical reality, and it will likely continue to be useful," the paper states. "However, the phenomena we have highlighted here bring some level of doubt to the ability of physicalist theories to explain everything, including the nature, origin, and capacities of consciousness."

They liken it to the relationship between classical physics and quantum physics.

The two are seemingly contradictory. But it is generally said that classical physics holds true on the macroscale while quantum physics holds true on the microscale.

Mr. Radin said that out of 30 experiments at five labs testing the theory that consciousness is responsible for the wave collapse, 14 had statistically significant results.

"We need to be very cautious about all this because these experiments are relatively new," he said. "But so far, at least at a high level, it looks like there really is something interesting going on."

Double-Slit Experiment With Meditators

Mr. Radin and his team at IONS have tried the double-slit experiment with meditators as part of their tests to see whether it's consciousness that makes the difference.

They had observed meditators concentrating in their minds on the light going through the slits. The light and slits were hidden away in a box, so they couldn't physically observe them.

They had a control group of nonmeditators who generally had trouble concentrating.

"So the overall result of the pilot studies was this: meditators did quite well, non-meditators overall got actually close to chance," Mr. Radin said.

He said they got a "five sigma" result with the meditators, meaning that the result is almost certainly caused by a new phenomenon, not a statistical fluctuation.

They repeated the same experiment, and the five sigma result was repeated.

Mr. Radin said they tried to eliminate other factors.

"Maybe this was caused simply by proximity of the human body, even though it is two meters away from the double-slit system. We figured that maybe when somebody is asked to concentrate, they lean forward slightly," Radin said.

He added that interferometers are "exquisitely sensitive to everything. So we thought maybe the temperature change from a body, one inch closer versus one inch away, would be sufficient to make this result. So we decided to put the entire thing on the internet."

Opening the experiment up to people at a far distance would eliminate this concern, he said. They ran it for three years and had about 5,000 human observers and 7,000 computers.

The human observers would meditate, and an audio cue asked them to either relax or concentrate and use their consciousness to control the movement of a line on their screen.

"The beauty of this is that everything was exactly the same as far as the double-slit system was concerned because it didn't know—we think it didn't know whether a human was looking at it or a Linux system because they both came through the internet in the same way," Mr. Radin said.

The results over these three years were once again significant. Whether the observers were in California or South Africa, results didn't vary based on distance.