Theoretical Foundations of
Exploring the Connections Between
Psychology and Physics
By Alan James Strachan, Ph.D
(originally published in Journal of Process Oriented Psychology, 7/2, 43-51)
At first glance, the sciences of physics and psychology appear to be at opposite ends of a continuum. Traditionally, physics is the ultimate objective science, probing into the essential nature of the universe, the pillar upon which all other branches of sciences rest. It is the ultimate “hard” science.
Psychology is the study of subjectivity, of the elusive, invisible, ever-changing landscape of perception, emotion, and cognition. In some ways it is the ultimate “soft” science.
The Cartesian and Newtonian paradigms support this dichotomy, but the perspective of modern physics does not. According to neuroscientist Karl Pribram, the convergence of physics and psychology is necessary if we are to understand the nature of the mind and the universe in which we live:
Thus modern physicists and modern perceptual psychologists have converged onto a set of issues that neither can solve alone. If the psychologist is interested in the nature of the conditions which produce the world of appearances, he must attend to the inquiries of the physicist. If the physicist is to understand the observations which he is attempting to systematize, he must learn something of the nature of the psychological process of making observations (1978: 15).
One of the unique aspects of Process-Oriented Psychology is the degree to which Mindell has integrated the discoveries of modern physics with the theoretical and practical aspects of process work. Mindell earned an M.S. in Physics before studying Jungian psychology, and has been working on this integration for over 20 years. In the foreword to his Ph.D. dissertation in psychology Mindell wrote:
. . . I concentrated my studies in college on physics, only to become dissatisfied with the scientific lack of concern for the personal aspect of events. Hoping to find a more holistic approach, I studied depth psychology. I still remember one of my first dreams in analysis. I was sitting listening to a lecture by Dr. Jung. After the lecture he approached me and said: “Don't you know what you should be doing with your life?!” “No,” I replied. “Find the connections between psychology and physics,” he declared (1976: i).
In creating Process-Oriented Psychology, Mindell has relied to a great extent upon the theories of modern physics. In the following sections, I briefly outline classical and modern physics, and then describe several themes Mindell has pursued, including: process as a unifying concept, the incorporation of relativity theory, the adoption of a phenomenological attitude, the perspective of modern physics on the body, and the individual's relationship to the world.
The central figure in the development of classical physics was Sir Isaac Newton. Newton synthesized the works of Copernicus, Kepler, Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes by developing a consistent mathematical theory to describe the behavior of natural phenomena. Newtonian physics was the most important scientific development of seventeenth-century science and remained the cornerstone of scientific thought for hundreds of years.
Newton's theory made specific assumptions about the nature of the universe. According to Newton all physical events occur within the three-dimensional space of classical Euclidean geometry. It is an absolute space that is considered to be eternally at rest and unchangeable. Time is regarded as a completely separate dimension from space. Time is also absolute, flowing uniformly from the past to the present and on into the future. All changes in the physical universe can be measured as a function of time.
Newton believed the fundamental building blocks of the material world to be small, solid and indestructible pieces of matter. All matter was considered to be homogeneous, i.e., made of the same substance. One material differed from another because the basic particles were more or less densely packed.
All movement was conceived to be generated by the mutual attraction of material objects, i.e., by the force of gravity. Newton's genius was that he was able to describe the effects of gravity on material objects in precise mathematical terms. To do this he had to invent differential calculus.
Newton's equations of motion are the basis of classical mechanics. They were considered to be fixed laws according to which material points move, and were thus thought to account for all changes observed in the physical world. In the Newtonian view, God had created, in the beginning, the material particles, the forces between them, and the fundamental laws of motion. In this way, the whole universe was set in motion and it has continued to run ever since, like a machine, governed by immutable laws.
The mechanistic view of nature is thus closely related to a rigorous determinism. The giant cosmic machine was seen as being completely causal and determinate. All that happened had a definite cause and gave rise to a definite effect, and the future of any part of the system could---in principle---be predicted with absolute certainty if its state at any time was known in all details. (Capra 1977: 44-45)
According to this theory the individual observer could stand back from the great machine of the universe and objectively describe all physical phenomena. It became the goal of all of the branches of science to achieve such an objective description. Physics became the basis of all sciences, and Newton's model was tremendously successful in describing, among other things, the motions of astronomical bodies, the continuous motions of fluids, and the mechanics of heat.
Scientific discoveries in the 1800s made it apparent that Newton's model could not explain all natural phenomena. Nonetheless, his theory remained the cornerstone of the scientific paradigm until several developments in the early 1900s radically altered the basic tenets of classical physics. Of principle importance were Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity, investigations of the behavior of subatomic phenomena, and the development of quantum mechanics.
Einstein published the special theory of relativity in 1905. According to the theory,
...space is not three-dimensional and time is not a separate entity. Both are intimately connected and form a four-dimensional continuum, 'space-time.' In relativity theory, therefore, we can never talk about space without talking about time and vice versa. Furthermore, there is no universal flow of time, as in the Newtonian model. Different observers will order events differently in time if they move with different velocities relative to the observed events. In such a case, two events which are seen as occurring simultaneously by one observer may occur in different temporal sequences for other observers. All measurements involving space and time thus lose their absolute significance. In relativity theory, the Newtonian concept of an absolute space as the stage of physical phenomena is abandoned, and so is the concept of an absolute time. Both space and time become merely elements of the language a particular observer uses for his description of the phenomena. (Capra 1977: 50-51)
While investigating the behavior of subatomic particles physicists discovered that every experiment they conducted yielded paradoxical results. Eventually physicists realized that the paradoxes were part of the fundamental structure of atomic physics, and that they could not accurately predict or explain results as long as they were following the tenets of classical physics.
One of the basic paradoxes is that the subatomic units do not have a straightforward appearance, i.e., they can appear either as particles or as waves depending upon how the observer looks at them.
Another paradox, referred to as Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, is that it is impossible to know both the position and the momentum of a subatomic particle with absolute precision. The more that is known about the position of the particle, the less one can know about its momentum, and vice versa. If either the position or momentum is known with absolute precision, then it is impossible to know anything at all about the other aspect of the particle.
This means that the observer has an unavoidable impact on the phenomena observed. For example, if the observer chooses to know more about the position of a particle, he necessarily affects what can be known about its momentum. The observer is influencing what classical physics considered to be absolute phenomena. According to the Uncertainty Principle, the 'objective' universe is inextricably linked to and influenced by subjective choice. Modern physics holds that it is not possible to be the detached observer postulated by classical physics.
According to the uncertainty principle it is possible to predict the probability that an event will occur, but it is not possible to predict actual events. The paradigm of classical physics held that it was theoretically possible to know both the position and the momentum of an object, and thus to predict actual events.
Quantum theory was developed as a means of explaining the paradoxical nature of subatomic particles. Quantum theory has supplanted the view of classical physics that there are solid objects and that the laws of nature are strictly deterministic.
According to quantum theory, the occurrence of individual events in the subatomic realm is determined by chance. For example, a given subatomic particle (X) may spontaneously decay into other subatomic particles (A, B, and C) whose composition differ from each other. Physicists, using quantum theory, can accurately predict that X will eventually decay into 34.6% A, 49.2% B, and 16.2% C, but they cannot predict whether a given decay will be A, B, or C. According to quantum theory, individual events in the subatomic realm occur randomly.
If quantum theory is concerned with the subatomic realm, what of the macrocosmic realm of everyday, observable reality? Surely there is a distinction to be made between the random yet statistically predictable events of subatomic phenomena and the behavior of ordinary objects such as cars moving on a freeway.
These ordinary events appear to obey the principle of local causes. According to this principle, information is carried from one place to another by a signal, and no signal can travel faster than the speed of light. Therefore, all events must be caused by local phenomena, i.e., phenomena which are traveling at or below the speed of light. This principle corroborates commonsense observations: a light is turned on, and then I blink; I touch a hot object, and then I withdraw my hand. A local event causes another local event.
Occasionally, however, events occur in everyday life which appear to contradict the principle of local causes. Mindell referred to such a case in Dreambody, in which a woman began to feel intense pains in her breast at the same time that her sister, in a distant location and without anyone's knowledge, was visiting her doctor and receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer (1982: 34-5). This incident appears to violate the principle of local causes. Events such as these are easy to ignore because they contradict our commonsense understanding of how the world functions.
Physicists have challenged the commonsense view of the macrocosmic world both in theory and experimentally. In 1964 Physicist J.S. Bell created a mathematical theorem which proves that either the principle of local causes or the statistical predictions of quantum theory are correct, but not both. Because quantum theory has been so successful at explaining everything from subatomic particles to stellar energy, and because a number of experiments have verified the statistical predictions of quantum mechanics, many physicists have concluded that our commonsense view of the world, based on the principle of local causes, is not correct.
But if our commonsense view of the world is not correct, then what is the true nature of the world? Physicist Henry Stapp has written:
The important thing about Bell's Theorem is that it puts the dilemma posed by quantum phenomena clearly into the realm of macrocosmic phenomena...(it) shows that our ordinary ideas about the world are somehow profoundly deficient even on the macrocosmic level. (quoted in Zukav 1984: 290)
Quantum phenomena provide prima facie evidence that information gets around in ways that do not conform to classical ideas. Thus, the idea that information is transferable superluminally is, a priori, not unreasonable.
Everything we know about Nature is in accord with the idea that the fundamental process of Nature lies outside space-time... but generates events that can be located in space-time. The theorem of this paper supports this view of nature by showing that superluminal transfer of information is necessary, barring certain alternatives...that seem less reasonable. (quoted in Zukav 1984: 295)
As Stapp alludes, physicists have developed a number of alternative and mutually exclusive theories which attempt account for the ways that "information gets around." (See Zukav 1984: 296 and Wilbur 1985: 174.) It is beyond the scope of this discussion to describe these theories, not only because they are "less reasonable," but also because the alternative mentioned by Stapp---that there can be superluminal transfer of information---is the theory favored by Mindell and incorporated into Process-Oriented Psychology.
One of the implications of Bell's Theorem is that the random decay of particles in the subatomic realm is not random. Instead, all such events are dependent upon something that is happening elsewhere, although it may not be apparent what the connected event is. That is, the behavior of a subatomic particle is determined by its nonlocal connections to the universe as a whole. Since these connections cannot be known with precision, the classical idea of cause and effect has to be replaced by the broader concept of statistical causality.
The discoveries and theories of modern physics paint a picture of what may be the true nature of the world: an indivisible universe in which "separate" parts and events are connected at a deep and fundamental level.
To summarize, modern physics has supplanted the basic tenets of classical physics. Modern physics is based on the behavior of subatomic particles rather than on everyday sensory perceptions; regards space and time to be relative rather than absolute; emphasizes systemic relationships rather than rather than individual, isolated objects; maintains that we change things when we observe them; does not assume that there is an objective reality separate from our experience; and predicts probabilities rather than events.
Process as a Unifying Concept
Mindell conceives of “process” as a common focus for physics and Process-Oriented Psychology, and as a unifying concept for physics and psychology generally.
There are several ways in which modern physics takes a process-oriented approach. Physics, like information theory, evaluates phenomena from a systems perspective, and systems theory emphasizes process over structure. Modern physics thus emphasizes relationships rather than individual, separate objects, and conceives of the relationships as being inherently dynamic. For example, atomic and subatomic “particles” are now conceived to be bundles of energy, and energy is continually active, or in process.
Process-Oriented Psychology also takes a systems perspective. Clients are not viewed as individual, separate objects, but rather as imbedded in a complex web of systemic relationships. The fundamental nature of these relationships is that they are dynamic, ever-changing, and always in process.
As process unfolds, it does so in the form of patterns. In physics, these patterns are described in terms of the probabilistic wave equations of quantum mechanics. In Process-Oriented Psychology, patterns are attributed to the organizing function of archetypes. Both archetypes and wave functions are attempts to describe the creation of patterns out of underlying process. In River's Way, Mindell wrote that
. . . dream work indicates that outer events are not haphazard phenomena, but conform to patterns and have meanings. The course of inner and outer processes conforms to the patterns or archetypes found in the dreams of the observer. These patterns create the essence of process, ‘process logic.’ This logic gives coherence to all spontaneous perceptions. For example, apparently dissociated dream fragments are not independent pieces of some chaos, but cluster around a particular archetype (1985a: 60).
Modern physics no longer considers space or time to be absolute qualities. Physicist David Finkelstein considers process to be more fundamental than either space or time: “classical quantum mechanics is a hybrid of classical concepts (space, time) and quantum concepts (states, tests). A more consistently quantum mechanics is proposed, with space, time, and matter replaced by one primitive concept of process” (quoted in Mindell 1985a: 67).
In Process-Oriented Psychology, Mindell referred to this “primitive concept of process” as the Unus Mundus, or one world, a term borrowed from Jung: “The Unus Mundus is the world of archetypes in contrast to the world of archetypal manifestations such as dream processes and synchronicities . . . . (and) reflects a level of existence from which the manifest world is created” (1985a: 63).
Finally, in addition to linking physics and Process-Oriented Psychology, Mindell also considers the concept of process to be a bridge between physics and psychology generally:
. . . in a post-Einsteinian universe, where telepathy, synchronicity, dreams, and somatic body trips occur, the concept of process unifies events which move from psyche to matter, imaginations into the body. This concept allows psychology and physics to come together and allows the process worker to deal with post-Einsteinian signals and channels, regardless of their inner mechanisms or superluminal nature (1985a: 68).
Bringing Relativity into Psychology
In River's Way, Mindell wrote that Einstein's theories inspired him to relativize the channels in Process-Oriented Psychology.
Just as Einstein's theories established that neither space nor time are absolute, in Process-Oriented Psychology, the channel structure is not absolute. According to Einstein, there is a space-time continuum, and in Process-Oriented Psychology, there is a continuum of experience which has been differentiated into the auditory-visual-proprioception-kinesthesia-relationship-world channels. None of these channels has an absolute value relative to the others, and no channel exists apart from the others: they are all part of the same continuum of experience.
Many systems of psychotherapy appear to favor one type of channel experience over another. Depending upon its orientation, a school of psychotherapy may favor internal body experiences, verbal expression, movement, or visual imagery. In Process-Oriented Psychology, it is the information value of the experience that is important, not the channel in which it occurs.
In addition to relativizing the channels, Einstein's theory of the spacetime continuum has influenced the attitude of Process-Oriented Psychology toward what is “real” and what is not. As Capra has observed,
We have no direct sensory experience of the four dimensional space-time, and whenever this relativistic reality manifests itself—that is, in all situations where high velocities are involved—we find it very hard to deal with it at the level of intuition and ordinary language (1988: 89).
In fact, we sometimes do appear to have direct sensory experience of four dimensional spacetime, and occasionally these experiences may occur within the context of psychotherapy. The process worker cannot simply dismiss experiences that are unique or unusual, such as telepathy or a synchronistic event, but must be receptive to them for at least two reasons. First, because they may be meaningful and helpful to the client; and second, because our commonsense notions of space and time are, after all, only relative.
The Phenomenological Attitude
In River's Way, Mindell wrote that Process-Oriented Psychology is derived in part from “the phenomenological attitude of theoretical physics” (1985a: viii). Traditionally, the phenomenological method is a way of dealing with the information that presents itself to human experience. In Process-Oriented Psychology, the therapist takes a phenomenological approach by examining the facts of perception with an attitude of neutrality.
One of the advantages of process science is its neutral basis. Since process work is based upon a phenomenological viewpoint, terms such as psyche and matter, inner and outer, psychology and physics, are replaced by the experiences, awareness, and observations of a given observer. Thus the physicist's approach to ‘purely material’ events is, in principle, no different that the process worker's approach to body, dream, or relationship experiences. (Mindell 1985a: 55)
Psychotherapists display the natural tendency to classify perceived facts into specific categories. Once this is done, the inclination is to ignore any new facts that do not fit preconceived beliefs. The Process-Oriented therapist also categorizes experience, but attempts to remain neutral by remaining willing, moment by moment, to incorporate information that runs contrary to expectations. In so doing, the Process-Oriented therapist tries to stay as close as possible to the actual phenomenon without distorting it through interpretation. This is true whether the phenomena fit within a Newtonian framework of clearly delineated cause and effect, or within a relativistic framework of acausal, superluminal signals.
Although Process-Oriented Psychology strives for neutrality, it does not claim to be objective in any absolute sense. Mindell agrees with the perspective of modern physics which maintains that the observer's psychology affects that which is observed. This means that the therapist will always alter what is observed, no matter how close the therapist manages to get to the actual phenomenon.
The phenomenological attitude does not mean that the Process-Oriented therapist remains uninvolved. On the contrary, ideally the process worker is able to participate fully in the ongoing flow of events even while observing what is happening. This is far from easy, for whenever the therapist finds himself or herself at his or her own growing edge, the tendency is to lose awareness. As Mindell has noted, someone who could continually maintain the balance between experiencing and phenomenological awareness would “correspond to a psychological ideal, the integrated or whole individual, someone who is simultaneously involved and clear about his involvement” (1985a: 66).
Modern Physics and the Body
Mindell's understanding of modern physics has influenced the way in which he conceptualizes body phenomena.
Modern physics maintains that an observer affects that which is observed. Just as light resembles either a particle or a wave depending upon the nature of the observational process, so too the body takes on different appearances according to the way in which it is viewed. For example, if blood is drawn and analyzed, then the body is perceived in terms of blood chemistry. To an athlete running a race, the body consists of a medley of proprioceptive and kinesthetic sensations.
Mindell has referred to the body observed through objective physiological measurements as the ‘real body,’ while the body observed through individual experience is the ‘dreambody.’
Typically, the measurements of the real body are considered to be more objective and valid than the body as perceived by individual experience. And yet the real body can no longer be considered to be absolute, for several reasons. The first reason is that the subjectivity of the observer affects all observations, so that every measurement becomes relative. Secondly, if physicists view matter as energetic fields of varying intensities rather than solid, clearly defined particles, then we can no longer assume that the ‘real body’ is simply a solid object with objectively measurable qualities.
Just as a physicist must be able to view light as both particle and wave, so Mindell considers both the real body and the dreambody to be equally valid:
Both real body and dreambody descriptions are valid within their own observational realm. Confusion arises only when one body description is treated more importantly than the other or when questions pertaining to one body are asked about the other body (1982: 10-11).
Mindell thus recognizes the ‘real’ body of objective physiological measurements as well as the dreambody of individual experience, and does not consider one to be more important or ‘real’ than the other. Valuable information would be overlooked if either the real body or the dreambody is not thoroughly investigated.
Applied to the practice of psychotherapy, this means that if a client reports that the client has high blood pressure, and also remarks that the beating of the client’s heart is like the pounding of an anvil, then each of these statements reveals something about the nature of the client’s body. Taking the first statement seriously might mean encouraging the client to continue to have the client’s blood pressure monitored. Taking the second statement seriously might mean having the client amplify the client’s experience of the pounding anvil, and thereby discover more about the nature of the dreambody.
In a later work, Mindell (1989a) further differentiated the categories of body experience.
The Individual's Relationship to the World
The theories of modern physics maintain that individuals do not exist in isolation from all other people and from the world. Mindell has used field theory and the analogy of the hologram to explain how the consciousness and destiny of the individual is inextricably linked to global and universal processes.
Mindell's inclusion of a world channel in the channel structure of Process-Oriented Psychology is critical to his theoretical explanations of synchronicity, dreaming up, and the nature of mental illness. The world channel includes the individual's relationship to unfamiliar people, and to collective groups of people, such as community, country, and foreign nations. It also includes the individual's relationship to inorganic phenomena such as physical objects and the universe.
Mindell has included a world channel because he noticed that different aspects of the world sometimes behave as though they are part of an individual's process. Information can be transferred to the individual via the world channel in a number of ways. In the case of dreaming up, the information is transmitted by another person. In the case of some synchronistic events, the information appears in the form of animals or natural phenomena. In some cases, such as telepathy, the transfer of information from the world to the individual does not obey the principle of local causes.
The behavior of the world as a channel for the individual has led Mindell to speculate about the field-like properties of the human mind. As the examples above indicate, “our mind can be spread over space at any given moment” (Mindell 1989b: 56). In other words, whereas the physical brain is located in the human skull, the mind behaves like a field of consciousness that extends throughout both local and nonlocal space. Each person is an individual whose field includes other individuals and the world at large.
This same field-like quality is also characteristic of the world itself, so that the “world is a field, organized by patterns, not by time and space” (Mindell 1989b: 56). The world's field is inextricably linked with the fields of individuals. Just as the world can be a channel for the individual, so to is the individual a channel for the global field, which Mindell refers to as the global dreambody. Every person is simultaneously an individual dreambody and part of the collective dreambody.
Thus an individual can be considered as the unconscious or the split-off and dreamed-up part of another person or group just as the group can be understood as a part of the individual. If we switch our viewpoints and no longer consider the individual and his dream as the center of the universe, but the universe's process as the central phenomenon organizing the behavior of its individual parts, we enter that part of psychology which borders upon relativistic physics. (1985a: 54)
In addition to having a field-like aspect, another way of describing the interrelatedness of the individual and the world is by using the analogy of the hologram.
Hologram theory was originally developed in the late 1940s by Nobel physicist Dennis Gabor, but it was not until the invention of the laser that it became possible to create holographic images. A hologram is a special kind of optical storage system in which an image of the whole is encoded in each of the parts. For example, suppose a holographic photograph is taken of a tree, and then the image of a branch is cut away. If the image of the branch is then enlarged to the size of the original photograph the resulting picture will be of the entire tree, not just an enlarged branch. In other words, each individual part of a holographic image is a condensed representation of the entire image.
In physics one of the leading proponents of a holographic model of the nature of reality and consciousness is David Bohm (1980). Bohm's theory is an attempt to account for the difference between the manifest world of appearances, in which objects appear separate and distant, and the underlying, hidden reality, which is indivisible and connected. Bohm refers to the phenomenal world, in which objects and events that appear to be separate and discrete in space and time, as the explicate or unfolded order. The explicate realm is contained within and generated by a more fundamental realm of undivided wholeness which he terms the implicate or enfolded order. Because the implicate whole is available to each explicate part, Bohm's model is a holographic one.
A holographic model of the universe depicts the relationship of a part to the whole in a very different manner than the Newtonian, mechanistic model. The Newtonian model emphasizes substance and quantity, so that there is a clear difference between, for example, a single cell and the entire body of which it is a part. The holographic model emphasizes information, so that a single cell, through its genetic code, contains information about the entire body.
Mindell has applied the holographic model to various aspects of human behavior and experience:
The world we live in behaves, in many respects, like a hologram. It's broken up into little segments: nations, cities, religions, groups, or families, and each of these smaller segments carries the same pattern found in the world as a whole (1987: 99).
In discussing the treatment of the mentally ill, Mindell noted that according to hologram theory the inner personal situation of the client is a reflection of the outer situation in the environment, and vice versa. This perspective gives the therapist several treatment options:
Seeing the world through the analogy of hologram theory helps you understand how you can change the individual by working with the world or change the world by working with the individual. Thus there are two ways of working with hopeless situations, extreme states, and impossible clients. One is by improving the psychotherapy of the individual and the other is by working on the world situation (1988a: 101).
Synchronicity, dreaming up, and projection can also be viewed as holographic phenomena since each of them involve the mirroring of an inner psychological situation by an external event.
Finally, from a holographic perspective, our individual problems and joys are also an expression of a more global process. Mindell wrote that “Your dreambody is yours, yet it's not yours. It's a collective phenomenon, belonging to nature and the world around you. Your dreambody is you, but it's also the entire universe” (1985b: 71).
Thus both field theory and holographic theory point to the same conclusion: that the separation between the individual and the world is in some essential way an illusion.
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