Having been involved in paranormal research for decades, the question has always haunted me: Is a haunted house haunted if there is no one there to observe the haunting? I first asked this question of myself after learning about quantum physics and the laws that govern the subatomic world. My father, a geophysicist, loved to have long phone discussions with me about the quantum world and what it might one day imply for the grander scale of existence. We especially liked to go back and forth about how quantum physics might one day explain paranormal phenomena, thus resulting in my first major non-fiction book, “PSIence: How New Discoveries in Quantum Physics and New Science May Explain the Existence of Paranormal Phenomena” in 2005.
The basics of quantum physics starts with the concept of wave-particle duality, a long-held discovery by Louis de Broglie and advanced by the likes of William Duane, Niels Bohr and some gentlemen I’m about to mention, which simply states that particles can behave as both a particle, and as a waveform. Wave-particle duality was demonstrated as far back as 1801 in the famous “double-slit experiments” of Thomas Young, who used photons, light particles, to show that they behaved as both particle, and wave, and that they were also influenced by the presence of a detector or observer. Young’s famous and oft repeated experiment involved a light wave such as a laser beam illuminating a plate with two parallel slits cut into it. The light passes through the slits and is observed on a dark screen behind the plate in the form of a brighter or darker band. The experiment revealed that the light wave passed through the slits and interfered with each other, resulting in a series of bands on the screen. But detectors placed at the slits themselves showed that the light particle passed through ONE slit, and not both, which would be expected of a wave form. The photon only went through one slit just as a classical particle would as soon as the detector was introduced.
Thus, the observation of the experiment concluded whether or not the initial light wave resulted in a wave via both slits, or a particle passing through only one slit. The interference that occurred when light passed through both slits disappears the moment a detector is introduced, implying that the act of measurement of the position of the particles at the point of entry of the slit wiped out any waveform behavior.
In order to accurately measure the position or momentum of a particle, one must engage in the act of observation in order to “collapse the wave function” and fix a particle into a measureable position. Cue the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal, courtesy of German physicist Werner Heisenberg back in the 1920s, which states that with a subatomic particle, there is an “uncertainty” as to its position until this wave function is collapsed via observation. Until then, one cannot accurately know both the momentum AND the position of a particle. Therefore, everything exists in a state of superposition, until something comes along and observes it into a fixed position!
This leads into the famous experiment we all learned about in high school, Schrodinger’s Cat. In case you don’t remember back that far, in the 1920s, certainly a heyday for the evolution of quantum physics, an Austrian physicist named Erwin Schrodinger sought to further understand the concept of “superposition” which states that nothing is really fixed in physical reality until it’s wave function is collapsed via observation or measurement. So he took a cat and put it in a box made out of thick lead with a bit of radioactive substance, cyanide in a flask, a hammer, counter tube, and a Geiger counter. His experiment postulated that if one of the atoms decayed, the counter tube would discharge and release a hammer that would smash the flask and release the cyanide, thus killing the cat. But, it was just as probable to him that the particle would not decay, and thus the cyanide would remain in the flask, and the cat would remain alive. Okay, before you call PETA upset about cat abuse, please know this was a “thought” experiment, which really intelligent people often do to work out theories and concepts in their noggins. His theory suggested the cat could be both dead and alive until we actually open the box and find out. Once again, the observer is the one who fixes the “reality” into place. Cat dead. Cat alive. But until observation occurs, the cat is both dead and alive and possibly a cannibalistic zombie, so be careful opening the box!
Which leads into another tenet of the quantum world, the Copenhagen Interpretation, formulated in 1927 (what were those people smoking then???) by Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. This suggests that the Observer Effect, a scientific term referring to alterations in behavior of a phenomenon being observed by the presence of measuring instruments (or a human observer), influences the outcome at the quantum level of the behavior and actions of particles. The intention or will of the observer has a direct influence on subject reality, thus turning it into objective reality. A simpler way to state this might be that until the point of observation, nothing is real or fixed or solid, it is only a potentiality or a statistical formulation, floating in a state of superposition where it remains both particle and wave and nothing really real…
Confusing? Not really, unless you get into the deeper physics and math. The basics of these tenets are somewhat more graspable, but the question remains…if they really do describe the world at the quantum level, can they be applicable at the grander, cosmic scale? Does quantum physics have any influence at all at what happens in the larger scheme of things, and if so, might it explain some of the spookier experiences people have that seem to fall on the outer edge of known reality?
So back to our original question. Our paranormal research group; let’s call them GITONUP – Ghost Investigators of Texas Observing Nature’s Unusual Phenomena. They’re a funky group, pun intended, devoted to observing, recording and analyzing activity at haunted locations. GITONUP has an investigation tonight at a haunted hotel known for paranormal activity, based upon the allegations of the hotel owners and several groups that have already been there to investigate. Our team goes in, locked and loaded with a van full of equipment, and spends eight hours roaming darkened hallways with gear at the ready, including digital recorders for potential EVP, electronic voice phenomena, and cameras of every size and shape.
They’ve got meters of every kind, to measure fluctuations in the electromagnetic field, changes it temperature and air pressure, seismic activity, heat sensors, ion detectors and more. All of this equipment serves to record and measure any activity that occurs in the course of the investigation and monitor increases and decreases in environmental factors within the haunted hotel. All of this equipment, ALONG WITH THE INVESTIGATORS, act as “observers” moving around the superposition within the haunted hotel, collapsing wave functions at every turn into fixed and measurable activity. Even if our team members all went outside for a break, and left their recording equipment and meters running inside, there would still be active observers within the haunted hotel to collapse wave functions and fix particles into place, thus fixing the reality of the hotel into place in a sense. The recorders and equipment, though not human, still act as observers because they measure the motion and activity of what they are trained upon.
Our team is excited to go home and analyze all the data they’ve captured and try to make sense of what it might mean (good luck on that one, kids!).
But what if the folks at GITONUP all got the flu and had to abandon the investigation and go home? They pack up their gear and clear on out of the supposedly haunted hotel, thus leaving behind no observers, no means of measurement, human or otherwise? Would the activity the hotel is famous for cease to exist? Would it remain in superposition until another human or piece of equipment was introduced to collapse the wave function? Is a haunted house really haunted without anyone or anything there to observe or measure the haunted activity?
If we follow the earlier tenets of quantum physics, the answer would be NO. The interior of the haunted hotel would be nothing more than a virtual sea of quantum particles popping in and out of existence, nothing solid, all vibration, because there would be nothing there to observe anything into solidity. And the problem is, there is no way to prove this because the only way we would know if activity was occurring with a haunted location would be to somehow introduce an observer or measurement method. We just cannot do it. It’s like poor Schrodinger, wondering if his cat was dead or alive, but not able to fully know the truth until he actually opened the box and looked in!
The Observer Effect, as it is called, dictates our reality based upon what we observe. But we all know that observation is based a lot upon our perceptions, which can be skewed by everything from expectation to belief to conditioning. Thus, even what we DO observe may not tell the real story. We’ll save that for another blog.
Is it possible for us Observers to every actually observe that state of superposition? Maybe. In fact, years and years ago, right after my dad and I had a long phone conversation on the nature of reality and light and vibration and that nothing was solid, yadda yadda yadda, I decided to meditate. I was a little depressed because I was living in L.A. and hadn’t yet found a job, so I thought I’d quiet my mind.
During the meditation, I went very deep into pure stillness, something I was rarely capable of because of monkey mind. I don’t know why, but I opened my eyes in the middle of that deep, deep stillness, and saw my room around me had transformed, literally, into a sea of vibration and waveforms…Nothing in my room was solid, although I could see areas of vibration that were more dense than others, possibly indicating where solid furniture was. It only lasted maybe ten seconds before my normal perception returned, and reality solidified everything around me, but the experience was so profound it changed my entire life and led me to write my books! It also led me to pursue classes in New Thought Metaphysics/Science of Mind, which posits that science and spirituality follow the same laws.
Not your normal meditation.
Had I glimpsed that magical state of superposition before collapsing the wave function around me back into my bedroom? Had I seen, just for ten seconds, that sea of vibration in which anything and everything exists until it is observed into a fixed state?
We don’t even have proof yet what ghosts actually are…maybe entities from another reality or Aunt Jane and Uncle Ned still alive in a parallel universe that’s bleeding into ours, or the essence of the dead in our own reality, or something our own powerful minds create and manifest. We haven’t any real proof yet of anything other than the fact that millions of people have seen or experienced a ghostly encounter over the course of human history.
But had they not seen the ghost, would the ghost even exist? Or would it be a potentiality floating in a sea of superposition, just waiting for someone or something to come along and pull it out of that sea and fix it into a physical measurable form? Which then begs the question, what might be out there that exists in that sea of superposition that we have yet to observe into reality?
Anything and everything…maybe.
Marie D. Jones is the author of several books about the paranormal, metaphysics, and cutting-edge science (many coauthored with Larry Flaxman), including PSIence, The Déjà vu Enigma, Destiny vs. Choice: The Scientific and Spiritual Evidence Behind Fate and Free Will, 11:11 The Time Prompt Phenomenon and Mind Wars. She has appeared on more than 1,000 radio shows worldwide, and on television, most recently on the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens series. Her website is mariedjones.com.