Sunday, October 21, 2007

Is this Quantum Insomnia?

I recently noticed a reference to a hypothetical phenomena named Quantum Insomnia on Wikipedia contained in the article about Quantum Suicide and Immortality...
This thought experiment leads many to suspect that a conscious observer in quantum mechanics will suffer from Quantum Insomnia, since, when trying to fall asleep, there will be other copies in parallel universe who are still awake. Although others doubt this is relevant, since they will later awaken.
While I am skeptical about the Many Worlds interpretation, this blurb was personally significant to me because I have consciously-inflicted insomnia due to introspective observation. To explain...

Over seven years ago, I was working as a creative director for a multimedia company. I found that on the brink of sleep, in the hypnagogic state, solutions to creative design problems would represent themselves. I mined this creative storehouse for months with pencil and paper at bedside. This piqued my curiosity in the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious, and how we experience the transition from waking consciousness to sleep. I had an intuition that as our minds disengage from the senses, we pass over a threshold level of consciousness characterized by the loss of ability to remember thoughts. One night I decided to investigate this further. While I was drifting off, I posed the question "What is the last thought I observe before falling asleep?" hoping to remember that thought upon waking.

So as I drifted towards this threshold of sleep, and was about to cross over it, the thought occurred to me : "This is the last thought you will have before falling asleep". However, it wasn't. This act of observation stimulated my consciousness, and I withdrew from "the sleep threshold" becoming more awake. After settling down again, and approaching the threshold, the same thought occurred: "This is the last thought you will have before falling asleep". Again, my consciousness was aroused. All night this happened, as I drifted around the brink of sleep, unable to "go under".

When the sun was streaming in my window, I came to the distressing realization that I had done something potentially harmful to myself, which coalesced into the thought, "I'm never going to sleep again", which carried the weight of certainty that I rarely ascribe to any conclusion. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy - when I tried to sleep the following night, again I found myself observing my approach to this "threshold". I couldn't not observe it, and had another sleepless night. This continued for ten days, at which point I decided to see a sleep specialist, who was baffled at my problem and prescribed medication - Zoplicone - which induces anterograde amnesia, preventing me from forming memories for the duration of its effectiveness, which is a poor substitute for sleep, but better than the agonizing relentless persistence of conscious experience. On nights where I don't take the medication, I don't sleep. I don't even get drowsy anymore.

If you are familiar with quantum physics, hopefully you can see where I'm going with this, because I would appreciate some insight, not being a physicist myself. I'm not suggesting that I'm a quantum insomniac in the many-worlds sense - that the world I experience is just one of an infinite number of possible worlds, of which in some I do fall asleep at night. But it seems to me that my situation may be construed as a relationship between a observing consciousness and the percieved collapse of the wave-function, or quantum decoherence. My shot in the dark is that by persistently (and unconsciously, I might add, because I don't consciously intend to do it, at least, not anymore) observing my internal conscious state, I am preventing the collapse/decoherence of that state into another (namely, sleep!).

I don't pretend to understand quantum physics (which, in Feynman's regard would make me either a liar or just crazy - which I hope is not the case!) but I hope that there are people out there with a higher understanding who can frame this situation in a coherent, scientific manner. Maybe if I can understand the process I can sleep again, for which I would be eternally grateful, for what it's worth.