Quantum minds: Why we think like quarks
THE quantum world defies the rules of ordinary logic. Particles routinely occupy two or more places at the same time and don’t even have well-defined properties until they are measured. It’s all strange, yet true - quantum theory is the most accurate scientific theory ever tested and its mathematics is perfectly suited to the weirdness of the atomic world.
Yet that mathematics actually stands on its own, quite independent of the theory. Indeed, much of it was invented well before quantum theory even existed, notably by German mathematician David Hilbert. Now, it’s beginning to look as if it might apply to a lot more than just quantum physics, and quite possibly even to the way people think.
Human thinking, as many of us know, often fails to respect the principles of classical logic. We make systematic errors when reasoning with probabilities, for example. Physicist Diederik Aerts of the Free University of Brussels, Belgium, has shown that these errors actually make sense within a wider logic based on quantum mathematics. The same logic also seems to fit naturally with how people link concepts together, often on the basis of loose associations and blurred boundaries. That means search algorithms based on quantum logic could uncover meanings in masses of text more efficiently than classical algorithms.
It may sound preposterous to imagine that the mathematics of quantum theory has something to say about the nature of human thinking. This is not to say there is anything quantum going on in the brain, only that “quantum” mathematics really isn’t owned by physics at all, and turns out to be better than classical mathematics in capturing the fuzzy and flexible ways that humans use ideas. “People often follow a different way of thinking than the one dictated by classical logic,” says Aerts. “The mathematics of quantum theory turns out to describe this quite well.”
It’s a finding that has kicked off a burgeoning field known as “quantum interaction”, which explores how quantum theory can be useful in areas having nothing to do with physics, ranging from human language and cognition to biology and economics. And it’s already drawing researchers to major conferences.
One thing that distinguishes quantum from classical physics is how probabilities work. Suppose, for example, that you spray some particles towards a screen with two slits in it, and study the results on the wall behind (see diagram). Close slit B, and particles going through A will make a pattern behind it. Close A instead, and a similar pattern will form behind slit B. Keep both A and B open and the pattern you should get - ordinary physics and logic would suggest - should be the sum of these two component patterns.
But the quantum world doesn’t obey. When electrons or photons in a beam pass through the two slits, they act as waves and produce an interference pattern on the wall. The pattern with A and B open just isn’t the sum of the two patterns with either A or B open alone, but something entirely different - one that varies as light and dark stripes.
Such interference effects lie at the heart of many quantum phenomena, and find a natural description in Hilbert’s mathematics. But the phenomenon may go well beyond physics, and one example of this is the violation of what logicians call the “sure thing” principle. This is the idea that if you prefer one action over another in one situation - coffee over tea in situation A, say, when it’s before noon - and you prefer the same thing in the opposite situation - coffee over tea in situation B, when it’s after noon - then you should have the same preference when you don’t know the situation: that is, coffee over tea when you don’t know what time it is.
Remarkably, people don’t respect this rule.