CHAPTER 13 – Quantum mechanics, not quantum mystics

How good are your eyes?

I was once driving along a country road with my parents-in-law.  My father-in-law was driving at 80km/h (just under 50mph in imperial) and from the passengers seat, my mother-in-law suddenly yelled out to stop the car.  I was baffled as to why she walked back about 100 metres along the side of the road, then amazed when she returned and she showed me the two-dollar coin that she spotted (for those not acquainted with Australian currency, the Australian two-dollar coin is a small gold coin about 2cm across, the same size as an American nickel).

Even with eagle eyes like my mother-in-law, the best that an unassisted human eye can see is about 0.3 of a millimetre (from one metre away).  The best that we can see with the aid of the most powerful electron microscopes is about 4 Angstroms [287], which is 0.0000000004 of a metre.

But the fabric of the universe is even smaller than that.  Much smaller.  Like, about 1x10-33m, or about 0.000000000000000000000000000000001 of a metre.  That’s the size of a string, what is currently considered to be the most basic building block of electricity, light, gravity, matter, indeed, everything in our universe.  As physicist and author Brian Greene described them, “Each of these strings is unimaginably small. In fact, if an atom were enlarged to the size of the solar system, a string would only be as large as a tree!” [288]

From the level of strings all the way up to about the size of an electron, particles are governed by a particular set of physical laws known as quantum physics.  Quantum doesn’t mean “energy” as per Dr Leaf’s suggestion.  As defined by physicists themselves, “‘Quantum’ comes from the Latin meaning ‘how much’. It refers to the discrete units of both matter and energy that are predicted by and observed in quantum physics.” [289]

Dr Leaf refers to the principles of quantum physics a number of times in her new book, including a whole chapter dedicated to it.  She refers a lot to principles of quantum physics as a justification of her theories on thoughts and free will.

Quantum theory is bizarre and at times, even hard for the trained quantum physicist to grasp.  Richard Feynman, winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize for Physics, said, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics”.  So Dr Leaf may not be completely wrong when it comes to some of her statements about quantum theory.  Unfortunately, she muddles up some basic concepts of quantum physics in her explanations, which doesn’t bode well for her conclusions about its more complicated facets.  With some explanation around the basics of quantum theory, I hope that others will agree that Dr Leaf’s suppositions are not so assured.

The fundamentals of quantum mechanics

There are a number of basic concepts that make up quantum physics.  This first part of the chapter is a cooks tour of quantum physics, a brief explanation of a subject that can take a lifetime to study.  If you want to know more, I have included my sources of information at the end of this chapter.

Firstly, the Quantum.  A quanta is “the smallest chunk into which something can be divided in physics. Quantized phenomena are restricted to discrete values rather than to a continuous set of values. Some quanta take the form of elementary particles, such as photons which are the quanta of the electromagnetic field.” [290]

Neils Bohr came up for the theory of quanta to describe the behaviour of electrons circling an atoms nucleus, which can only move within discreet, defined orbits.  Not only can electrons only move in these specified orbits, but they also pop in and out of these orbits instantly.  If an atom were like a solar system, the movement of electrons would be like Mars jumping onto Jupiter’s orbit and back instantaneously without traversing the space in between.

Then there is the wave-particle duality of light, and indeed, all other matter.  As was first demonstrated by the double slit experiment, when light passes through a screen with a single small vertical slit cut into it, the light spreads out in all directions.  However, light passing through a screen with two vertical splits results in what is known as an interference pattern (some areas with light and some with no light.  It looks like a zebra-crossing).  This proves that light has properties of a wave.  However Einstein also demonstrated that light was a particle with the photoelectric effect.  So photons of light are both a wave and a particle, but how the observer looks at it makes it one or the other.  It could not be observed to be both simultaneously (a physics phenomenon termed “complementarity”).

The wave function (sometimes referred to as a “probability wave”) is, “a description of the probability that a particle in a particular state will be measured to have a given position and momentum. Thus, a particle (an electron, photon or any other kind of particle), when not being measured or located, takes the form of a field or wave of probable locations, some being more probable or likely than others.” [290]

This means that a photon will have a chance on being in one of a number of different locations (as one example), and in quantum physics terms, the photon is in all of those positions simultaneously before it’s measured.  The measurement of the particles location is said to “collapse” this wave function into one place.  Where the photon is when measured is related to chance (although can be described by the Schrödinger Equation)

This wave function doesn’t just apply to photons of light, but to all particles of matter.  Quantum physics declares that all particles and groups of particles - everything from atoms to baseballs, through to the universe itself - everything has it’s own wave function, even human beings.  So therefore, technically WE are both waves and particles as well, and where we are in space should also be related to chance, described by the Schrödinger equation.

As soon as a photon is observed or detected in a particular place, then the probability of its being detected in any other place suddenly becomes zero. Up until that point, the particle's position is inherently uncertain and unpredictable, an uncertainty that only disappears when it is observed and measured.  According to the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics, this act of observation by a conscience observer is the trigger that collapses the probability wave function from many possible states to only the one observed.

Building from the wave/particle concept of matter, the Uncertainty Principle says that the values of certain pairs of variables cannot BOTH be known exactly, so that the more precisely one variable is known, the less precisely the other can be known. For example, if the speed or momentum of a particle is known exactly, then its location must remain uncertain; if its location is known with certainty, then the particle’s speed or momentum cannot be known.

Perhaps the most bizarre, and therefore one of the most poorly understood principles of quantum physics is the concept of non-locality and entanglement.  Subatomic particles that are created together or interact with each other can become entangled.  That is, their properties become part of a quantum superposition (a superposition is that state in which their probabilities have not yet been forced to declare themselves by observation, so the particles exist in both possible states).  If the entangled particles are then separated by any distance, even the other side of the galaxy, it appears that the moment one is observed, it instantly collapses the probability wave function of the other entangled particles.

In order for the wave function of a particle on the other side of the galaxy to know what quantum state it’s collapsing to, the information needs to travel instantly, which means that would need to travel faster than the speed of light. This is so counter-intuitive to classical physics and Einsteins theory of relativity, which states that nothing in the universe can travel faster that the speed of light.

This is a paradox, one which Einstein himself discussed in a paper known as EPR.  A physicist called John Bell described the theory of how to test it experimentally, and some decades later, a then grad student called John Clauser completed the experiment.  Entanglement and non-locality (the simultaneous action on two particles separated by great distances) were shown to be possible.

There are other explanations though, where some physicists maintain that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, and that the “instant” transmission of information from one entangled particle to the other is either not occurring or occurs but doesn’t interfere with the causality as the two observers have no way of influencing the experiment and thus not violating the principle of causality (the Theorem of No Communication).  There are also other interpretations of quantum physics such as the Many Worlds hypothesis where every possibility that could possibly take place occurs but each in an infinite number of other worlds within a multiverse.

So to try and succinctly summarise, quantum physics is the study of the properties of subatomic particles.  It is described by a series of equations that prove that all matter is composed of subatomic particles, which all display aspects of duality that, until they are observed, remain in a superposition of a probability wave function.  The act of observation is the trigger to the collapse that probability into it’s final observed state.  The act of observation may also force any particles that are entangled with the original observed particle to instantaneously relinquish all other possibilities they may have had and collapse to the alternative state of the other particle, even if the entangled particles were light years away from each other, although there may not be any information transfer as that would not correlate with the Theory of Relativity.

Is your mind boggling?  It’s a lot to cover in a small space, and I have tried my best to cram one of the most complex branches of science into a single page summary.  If you’re confused by the topic, don’t worry, you’re in good company.  Niels Bohr, one of quantum physics strongest supporters, once said, “Anyone not shocked by quantum mechanics has not understood it.”  In truth, I find it hard to grasp myself, as do a lot of trained physicists.  Even one of the most brilliant minds of our time, Stephen Hawking himself, said once, “When I hear about Schrödinger’s cat, I reach for my gun.”

Despite the laws of quantum physics being confirmed over and over for the last eight decades, physicists still argue about their interpretation and how to rationalise the truly bizarre aspects.  The Copenhagen Interpretation is the most widely held by the physics community because it favours the pragmatic over the profound.  But there are many equally compelling explanations and interpretations for the mysteries of quantum physics.  They are beyond the scope of this chapter, but I have included a reading list for those who wish to study the subject further.

Dr Leaf’s interpretation of quantum physics - claims and corrections

Throughout Chapter 7 of her 2013 book, Dr Leaf reinterprets the laws and concepts of quantum physics to explain her view of the world and set up some of her ongoing themes about thought and learning.  However, some of her interpretations are incorrect, while others are nothing more than supposition.

As noted earlier in the chapter, Dr Leaf begins by stating that “‘Quantum’ means ‘energy’” [2: p104] when in actual fact, quantum simply refers to the smallest packets of matter that physics can study.  Energy is part of quantum physics, but matter is the objective of study.

She says that, “particles move backwards and forwards in time and appear in all possible places at once.” [2: p105] However, particles do not time travel.  There is much discussion about the concept of retrocausality that may arise from the concepts of entanglement and nonlocality, but its not accepted fact.  And particles are not in all possible places at once.  They can hold a superposition which is part of their probability wave function of that particle being in a part of space, but that doesn’t extend to everywhere.  Otherwise how could an electron remain in the electron shell around the nucleus of an atom if it was simultaneously everywhere.  The electron has a probability of being somewhere within the electron shell, but where exactly is not known until it is observed.  That’s a huge difference to being everywhere simultaneously.

A few pages on, Dr Leaf states that, “Quantum theory calls entanglement “bizarre behavior” for particles - such as two entangles particles behaving as one even when far apart.  Physicists call such behavior nonlocal, which means that it is physically impossible to know the position and momentum of a particle at the same time.  Another way of saying this is that there is no space-time dimension.” [2: p112]

Dr Leaf follows fact with fallacy here.  Entanglement is bizarre, and the possible influence of one particle over another, even over massive distances, is called nonlocality.  If she stopped there, she would be right.  But the concept that it’s impossible to know a particles position and momentum at the same time is not nonlocality, but is called Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  They are two different concepts entirely.

It’s a brave person who would try and contradict Einstein, and the entire discipline of the study of General Relativity and String Theory.  But by going on to state that there is no space-time continuum, she directly opposes one of the fundamentals of modern physics.  To put it in a different way, saying that there is no space-time continuum is like saying that the sun revolves the earth, or that there is no such thing as gravity.  It’s nonsense.

Dr Leaf makes another nonsensical, contradictory statement when she writes, “One scientist even describes preons as twisted braids of space-time.  If preons exist (which I think they do), they are unimaginably tiny and would have to fit inside a quark, which is currently the smallest known particle of matter, having a size of zero, and the strings are even smaller.” [2: p115]

So, Dr Leaf had just finished saying that there was no space-time continuum, but then quoted a scientist who said that preons were twisted braids of space-time.  Which is it?  Either there is space-time (in which case she proves herself wrong) or preons don’t exist.  Physicists all go with the former – preons exist, as does space-time. 

And since preons exist, they cannot “have a size of zero”.  Strings cannot have a size of less than zero.  It’s impossible for any physical object to have a size equal to or less than zero.  1x10-33m is infinitesimally small, but it’s still greater than zero.

Finally, she claims, “Scientists say that our thought signals also seem to move faster than the speed of light and in ways that classical physics cannot explain” [2: p115].  Here, Dr Leaf suggests that observation and nonlocality are the same thing and that thoughts are the same as observation.  But they are not.  Observation brings decoherence.  Decoherence collapses the probability wave function into a fixed state.  Nonlocality causes the other entangled particle to surrender its probability wave function.  Observation and nonlocality are separate functions.

Also, observation does not require thought, and thought does not require observation.  For example, say two photons are entangled, and we perceive one as it strikes one of the cone cells in our retina.  It’s converted into an electrical charge there and then.  It has been observed, which causes decoherence.  But as I discussed much earlier in the book, there are multiple steps of processing before that signal is incorporated into our conscious thought process.  Our eyes perceive huge amounts of data, most of which is ignored by our neural processes so that only the important information makes it to the limited stream of thought.  Thought can also happen separately to observation, such as visual imagery with the eyes closed, where we can “see” even though there are no photons actively being observed.

Special mentions

As I have shown, Dr Leaf’s interpretation of QM is fuzzy, at best.  But there are other interpretations she makes that are also erroneous, but which deserve a special mention since she bases a large part of her theory on these interpretations.

Quantum Zeno Effect

One part of quantum theory that Dr Leaf discusses is the quantum Zeno effect.  She states that, “QZE (the quantum zeno effect) is the repeated effort that causes learning to take place.”  Further down the page she continues, “Basically, the QZE stipulates that your brain becomes what you focus on and how you focus.” (Original emphasis) [2: p108] However, the quantum Zeno effect is not related to learning at all.

Zeno was an ancient Greek philosopher who, amongst other things, formulated what is known as the Arrow Paradox.  He wrote, “If everything when it occupies an equal space is at rest, and if that which is in locomotion is always occupying such a space at any moment, the flying arrow is therefore motionless.”  George Sudarshan and Baidyanath Misra thought that the concept of an unstable particle that would never decay if its continuously observed was much like the arrow paradox, and so they called the concept the “Zeno Effect”.

Thus, the quantum Zeno effect refers to the prevention of decay of a quantum system, not the increase in information of a quantum system that learning would require.  So already, Dr Leaf’s interpretation of the QZE contradicts accepted scientific facts.  The remainder of the discussion, supposedly justifying her position on the quantum Zeno effect, amounts to a self-indulgent collection of anecdotes, and has nothing to do with modern physics.

If Dr Leaf’s interpretation of the QZE is so far off the concept defined by physicists, then what information did she use to devise her theory?  Dr Leaf refers to one particular author in her citations, Henry Stapp, the main proponent of the QZE on cognitive states.  Stapp contends that the mind holds the brain in a superposition of states using the quantum Zeno effect and that this phenomenon is the principal method by which the conscious can effect change within the brain.  There is more evidence against this model than for it.

Rosenblum and Kuttner write, “How can a large, warm brain remain in a particular quantum state long enough for a person’s intentions to influence it? Stapp answers this with the ‘quantum Zeno effect.’ (Named for a Zeno-like claim: A watched pot never boils.) When a quantum system decays from an upper state to a lower, the decay starts very slowly. If it is observed very soon after the decay has started, it will almost certainly be found in the original state. The decay then starts over again from the original state. If the system is observed almost constantly, it almost never decays. Stapp applies this to the mental intentions “observing” the brain and thus holding it in a given quantum state for a sufficient time. Stapp cites various psychological findings as evidence for his theory. The theory is, of course, controversial.” [291: p191]

“Controversial” is putting it mildly.  Georgiev was much more direct, “The central result of the current work is that the original exposition by Stapp (2007), Sec. 11.2, Figures 11.3-11.7 describing how the mind efforts can slow down environmental decoherence is erroneous and contradicts a basic quantum mechanical theorem proven in Section 4 according to which the von Neumann entropy production by the mind efforts is always non-negative. This result, taken together with our objections against the feasibility of paranormal Psi effects, implies that Stapp’s model does not have the potential to assist neuroscientists in resolving the mindbrain puzzle.” [292]

So it appears that Dr Leaf used an erroneous theory that contradicts quantum physics, then applied it in a way to neuroscience that’s further contradictory.  Therefore the quantum Zeno effect has no bearing on thought or learning.


As I discussed in my “cooks tour” of quantum physics at the beginning of the chapter, quantum entanglement is truly peculiar.  That two subatomic particles could remain linked despite being separated by great distances is beyond our normal rational understanding.

There are many pieces of evidence that support nonlocal effects, an effect that Einstein described as “spooky actions at a distance”.  The Copenhagen interpretation stipulated that it was the act of measurement that forced decoherence, which if true would mean that particles would have to transfer information to each other faster than light speeds.

This is the aspect of entanglement that Dr Leaf focuses on exclusively.  However, she ignores all other entirely plausible interpretations of quantum physics that don’t fit her premise, while risibly extrapolating the concept of entanglement, applying it to everything in nature.

For example, Dr Leaf says that, “The law of entanglement in quantum physics states that relationship is the defining characteristic of everything in space and time.  Because of the pervasive nature of the entanglement of atomic particles, the relationship is independent of distance and requires no physical link.  Everything and everyone is linked, and we can all affect each other.” [2: p110]

To categorically state that relationship is the centre of quantum physics fits Dr Leaf’s theories, but it is not a true reflection of the nature of matter as defined by quantum physics.  For example, Nikolić writes, “there is a number of subvariants of the hard-orthodox interpretation that differ in the fundamental ontology of nature. Some of them are rather antropomorphic, by attributing a fundamental role to the observers. However, most of them attempt to avoid antropomorphic ontology, for example by proposing that the concept of information on reality is more fundamental than the concept of reality itself, or that reality is relative or ‘relational’, or that correlations among variables exist, while the variables themselves do not. Needless to say, all such versions of the hard-orthodox interpretation necessarily involve deep (and dubious) philosophical assumptions and postulates.” [293]

She also states that entanglement is a law of quantum physics, and while there are a lot of physicists that would agree with her, there are many other physicists that do not.  Again, Nikolić summarises, “the fact is that, so far, there has been no final proof with which most experts would agree that QM is either local or nonlocal ... There is only agreement that if hidden variables (that is, objective physical properties existing even when they are not measured) exist, then they must be nonlocal. Some experts consider this a proof that they do not exist, whereas other experts consider this a proof that QM is nonlocal. They consider these as proofs because they are reluctant to give up either of the principle of locality or of the existence of objective reality.” [293]

So entanglement and nonlocality are principles that quantum mechanics is known for, but are still far from being officially being accepted as fact.  At best, nonlocality remains a theory, and it is a brave call to say that the effect is pervasive.

The “ingenuous” experiment

We’ll come back to the other part of Dr Leaf’s statement about the linking effect on everything and everyone in a different section.  But I want to jump to some of her “proofs” that such quantum effects are provable.  For example, she says, “An ingenuous experiment set up by the HeartMath Foundation determined that genuine positive emotion, as reflected by a measure called ‘heart rate variability’, directed with intentionality towards someone actually changed the way the double helix DNA strand coils and uncoils.  And this goes for both positive and negative emotions and intentions.” Dr Leaf’s describes the study as if it’s a revolution in scientific knowledge, but analysis of the paper itself reveals more speculation than revelation.

In chapter 11, I discussed how the HeartMath Foundation has a loose interpretation of what constitutes solid evidence, as demonstrated by their treatment of the paper on the electricity of touch [254].  Dr Leaf cited a summary report of the HeartMath Institutes research, a summary that was published directly by HeartMath, not in an independent journal.  In it, McCraty sets the scene by outlining some basic science and assumptions, including HeartMath’s belief in the electromagnetic field of the heart.

McCraty wrote, “Further studies conducted in our laboratory have indicated that the heart’s electromagnetic field can be detected by other individuals and can produce physiologically relevant effects in a person five feet away.” [294] Remember that ECG machines need special filters and highly sensitive conductors in direct contact with the skin to pick up the hearts electrical signal, and that MCG machines need superconductors and a magnetically shielded room to pick up the hearts magnetic signal, which happens to be one billion times weaker than the average fridge magnet.  So it’s completely implausible that a person five feet away in an unshielded room is able to detect anything other than background electromagnetic noise.  And since McCraty’s fundamental science is implausible, the rest of the study built on this information can only be wrong.

He then outlines his group’s research, summarising the results of a much earlier paper.  The paper in question is titled, “Local and nonlocal effects of coherent heart frequencies on conformational changes of DNA.” [295] It was presented at the 1993 conference of the US Psychotronics Association, a group of fringe scientists who believe that “ESP is a natural phenomenon” [296], and other unconventional theories.  McCraty’s paper was never formally accepted by, or published in, a peer-reviewed journal.

The research for the paper “Local and nonlocal effects of coherent heart frequencies on conformational changes of DNA” involved ten members of the Institute of HeartMath, five controls, and an unspecified number of “gifted healers” entering into a state of “deeply focused love” while holding a beaker which contained a test tube of placental DNA in deionized water, for two minutes per experimental run.  The samples of DNA were then analysed.  The amount of UV light that passed through the solution was used as a measure of how much the chains of DNA were wound or unwound. 

The researchers claim that, “Individuals trained in generating feelings of deep love and appreciation showed high coherence ratios in their ECG frequency spectra and were all able to intentionally cause a change in the conformation of the DNA.” [295] They claim that the effect was three times that of the control samples left alone in the lab.  They also claim that someone in a state of “deeply focused love” could affect the winding of the DNA from half a mile away.  They concluded that negative heart energy changed the conformation of the DNA and some of the base pairs (the “steps” of the DNA “ladder”).

However, this paper is riddled with so many errors in their methods and analysis that it couldn’t have proven anything at all.
1. They only had ten people in their pool of test subjects.  The sample size is too small to provide any meaningful analysis.  They say that had “a number” of “gifted healers” but they don’t define how many, or how they defined what constitutes a “gifted healer”, which prevents analysis.
2. We do not know anything about the DNA to start with, other than it was placental and suspended in deionized water.  They say the samples were identical, but in what way?  Were they the same length, the same base sequence, the same number of chains?  All of these things can affect the final analysis.
3. They also heated the samples to start the denaturing process, to a temperature of 80°C, which is way above normal body temperature thus negating any chance of applying their results to a living system.  And they don’t say for how long the samples were away from the heat source before the samples were analysed, thus the heating and cooling could have been the source of their results.
4. We don’t know how many samples they had or how many times the samples went through a heating and cooling process, so perhaps the increased denaturation was a result of damage to the DNA and not because of heart-generated intentions.
5. The results were averaged, but not statistically analysed because they didn’t publish p-values or confidence intervals.  p-values are first year university material and are bread-and-butter of all scientific research for the last century.  Any scientist with a shred of credibility would never publish results without a statistical analysis.  Without such a basic analysis, there’s nothing to prove that the results of this paper were anything other than pure random chance.
6. They selectively chose which experiments they published (and I quote: “The data in figure 5 are the results of one such experiment” p4).
7. They found inconsistent results in terms of the time taken for the “effects” to occur.  They assumed that energy can change the DNA, then waited until that change occurred, then concluded that the effect must the energy but that the results are complex and energy dependent.  But by failing to measure the variable of this energy, there is no way of proving their hypothesis.  In all likelihood, the changes were random.
8. Most of the curves that they graphed were so close to the control curves that their effect was likely due to chance.  That goes for the negative heart energy analysis (figure 3), the three-for-the-price-of-one experiment (figure 4) and the proposed long-distance effect (figure 5).

So the paper describes a poorly conducted series of studies, without definition or measurement of key variables, missing information on the number of subjects and subject selection, and presenting a series of cherry-picked data curves which are so close to the controls as to be random, but with no basic statistical analysis to prove otherwise.

When they tried to explain the effects they believed had occurred, they first of all assumed that the heart was the source of the “coherent” energy that then influenced the brain.  But they didn’t analyze the brain, so they couldn’t say for sure where the “energy” came from.  The best they could come up with to explain the distant “effect” was some form of quantum entanglement.  As we shall soon see, such a suggestion is not compatible with quantum physics.

In fairness, the summary of the work that Dr Leaf cites does contain some statistical analysis, but McCraty doesn’t show his data or how he arrived at his numbers.  And even if the results are accurate, the sample was too small, and all of the other methodological flaws make it impossible to draw any meaningful conclusions.

A scientist should be able to recognise the critical flaws in the article.  In no way did the paper prove that genuine positive emotion, directed with intentionality towards someone, changed the way the double helix DNA strand coils and uncoils, yet Dr Leaf promotes the paper as a trump card for her theories.  Dr Leaf’s enthusiasm for this paper looks very bad for her credibility and reputation as a scientist.

Mirror neurons

Dr Leaf states later in the chapter that, “Through these (mirror) neurons we literally fire up activity in the brain without actually using our five senses through the normal sensory-cognitive cycle.” [2: p112] It’s an odd thing to say considering that mirror neurons normally fire off because of sensory input.  Although if she meant that mirror neurons act outside of our thought processes, she invalidates her entire argument that only the mind influences the brain, since she admits that mirror neurons work outside the cognitive processes.

Dr Leaf also suggests that mirror neurons are proof that we are entangled with each other.  This statement, and the many others like it, such as, “Everything and everyone is linked, and we all affect each other” are not consistent with quantum mechanics.  Let me explain why.

Schrödinger’s cat

When it comes to the behaviour of subatomic particles, quantum physics has never yet been wrong.  But does quantum physics hold true for all things: atoms, molecules, proteins or people?

Erwin Schrödinger is one of the godfathers of quantum physics.  In the mid-1920’s, Schrödinger described the wave functions of matter, which laid the foundation of quantum mechanics.  Some physicists describe the Schrödinger equation as “the new Universal Law of Motion”, placing Schrödinger along side Newton in terms of scientific greatness.

But Schrödinger became troubled by the problems of quantum mechanics as it applied to our everyday world.  The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics suggests that particles are not physically present anywhere until they are observed.  Since everything is made of subatomic particles, does that mean that nothing really exists until it is observed?  To counter this absurdity, Schrödinger proposed a theoretical scenario, which has since become known as Schrödinger’s cat[1].

Essentially, “Schrödinger’s cat” goes like this: Suppose an experiment was set up with two boxes.  One box was empty.  The other box contained a “hellish contraption”, consisting of a Geiger counter to detect particles, connected to a lever that opened a bottle of hydrogen cyanide gas.  Inside the box was also a cat.  Both boxes, the Geiger counter, poison and cat, are both independent and unobserved.

Now suppose that a particle was fired at a semitransparent mirror, meaning that it had a fifty percent chance of reflecting into the empty box, and a fifty percent chance that it would pass through the mirror into the box containing the Geiger counter, poison and cat.  If the particle goes to the empty box, the cat stays alive.  If the particle goes to the box with the “hellish contraption”, the particle activates the Geiger counter, which operates the lever, opening the cyanide, and the cat dies.

Quantum mechanics states that if a single particle was fired at the semi-transparent mirror, the particle can be in both locations at the same time - in the empty box AND in the box with the cat.  The particle would only give its position if the system were observed.  So until observation occurs, the particle is in both boxes, which means that the cat is both dead and alive at the same time.  If there was a significant time delay (a few hours) between when the particle was fired at the boxes and when the result was observed, then quantum physics would say that the cat remains in that superposition state of being both alive and dead the entire time and only becomes either alive or dead the moment that you look in one of the boxes to observe the result.  Such a situation is absurd!

Schrödinger’s cat is not without its critics.  But this paradox has stood the test of time as a splinter in the side of quantum theory.  It strongly suggests that, despite the uncanny ability of quantum physics to predict the behaviour of the subatomic world, it doesn’t hold true for our macroscopic world.

It’s not only the observer effect that breaks down at the macroscopic level, but entanglement as well.  On the subatomic level, particles only become entangled when they significantly interact.  In the lab, it takes complicated equipment to make two particles become entangled.  Standard daily interactions do not create entangled particles sufficient to influence each other.  Even if they did, the spin, momentum, position or whatever you are measuring is determined by probability.  We only observe the outcome of that probability when we measure them.  We cannot force the particle into one form or the other.  So even if we could entangle larger objects, we still don’t have any control over what happens at a distance other than forcing the particle out of its superposition.

Quantum prayer?

Prayer, then, does not work because we are entangled with each other in the quantum sense.  Indeed, when studied by large scale, well-controlled experiments, the experimental prayer cohorts did not show any difference compared to the control group [297].

Dr Leaf outlined studies that she says prove the effects of prayer, but these studies have other confounding factors, such as social support, or the studies looked at faith overall, not just prayer.  That faith is associated with better health and increased life expectancy is not in dispute.  This has been shown a multitude of times, but again, there are many reasons for that, including better health choices (Christians are less likely to drink and smoke) and the social and community support that comes with church life.

Dr Leaf wrote that, “There are over twelve hundred studies linking intentional prayer and overall health and longevity.  Meta-analyses in various medical journals have compiled results that show that intentional prayer significantly affect healing.” (Original emphasis) [2: p114] But she clearly exaggerated the number of studies on Christian intercessory prayer and their effects.  For example, she cites Astin et al, whose meta-analysis was of all forms of remote prayer for healing, but of the twenty-three studies that were good enough to include, only five were of Christian intercessory prayer.  Of these five, “Two trials showed a significant treatment effect on at least one outcome in patients being prayed for and three showed no effect.” [298] The same meta-analysis showed that Reiki and external qigong had more positive trials.  The other “meta-analysis” that she cites was actually a three page editorial discussion by Jonas [299], not a meta-analysis at all.

On the surface this dearth of evidence looks bad for intercessory prayer for healing.  On deeper analysis, there may have been confounding factors.  For example, in the STEP trial, those in the control group (without prayer in the study) may have been praying themselves.  Or perhaps the answer to prayer in those studied came outside of the study’s parameters.  Perhaps God wants us to trust in him and his word - the raw power of faith - rather than in the science of a clean-cut clinical study that “proved” the benefits of prayer.  It should also be noted that prayer is not an easily quantifiable substance, and neither is God for that matter.  When God works supernaturally, he works super naturally, literally above the laws of nature.  Perhaps prayer cannot be studied scientifically, since the scientific method relies on observing and controlling variables within the natural order.

Personally, I think God delights in performing miracles that are beyond our reasoning.  The miracles of Jesus provide many good examples - he placed mud, made out of the mixture of dirt and his saliva, onto a blind mans eyes.  He touched lepers to heal them.  He told Peter to find tax money in the mouth of a fish.  These sort of miracles perplex yet inspire us.  Scientifically quantifiable or not, they still move us to worship the greatness of God.


To summarise, quantum mechanics is a mind-boggling discipline of physics that has some bizarre concepts attached.  On the level of sub-atomic particles, it has never been proven wrong.  But because it’s so complicated, it’s also frequently misunderstood, and erroneously invoked to try and explain any number of bizarre theories.  Dr Leaf is not the only author to fall into the trap.

Her explanations of entanglement, the quantum Zeno effect, and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle are inaccurate or have been disproven by physicists.  She poorly explains the biology of mirror neurons, and grossly over-exaggerates the published evidence on the power of prayer.

It’s not that quantum physics could never explain a spiritual dimension.  To my limited, conceptual understanding, String Theory and the Multiverse Theory hold great potential as a way of explaining the spiritual realm.  But current understanding of quantum physics means that we still can’t claim that a spiritual realm is scientifically provable.  For me, it’s still a matter of faith.

Rosenblum and Kuttner likewise caution us, “Classical physics, with its mechanical picture of the world, has been taken to deny almost all metaphysics. Quantum physics denies that denial: It hints at the existence of something beyond what we usually consider physics — beyond what we usually consider the “physical world.” But that’s the extent of it! Physics can certainly suggest directions for speculation. We should, however, be careful — in dealing with the mysteries of quantum mechanics, we walk the edge of a slippery slope.” [291: p154]

Quantum physics is definitely a space to watch into the future.

Further Information

I found the following books and TV series and websites very useful in developing an initial understanding of quantum physics.  They go over the concepts in a way that’s easy to grasp without needing a background in mathematics.

* Greene, B. The Elegant Universe: Part 2. (Transcript) 2003; Available from:

* Greene, B., Quantum Leap (Season 39, Episode 7), in Nova: The Fabric of the Cosmos 2011, PBS (First aired 16 Nov 2011)

* Rosenblum, B. and Kuttner, F., Quantum enigma : physics encounters consciousness. 2006, Oxford University Press, Oxford ; New York

* Jones, A.Z. Quantum Physics Overview. Physics 2013; Available from:

[1]  To borrow a physics term, this was a “thought experiment”.  No cats were actually harmed.