Thursday, 13 November 2008

It's not Failure to Progress, it's the Quantum Zeno Effect: time to apply quantum physics to reproduction

I was reading Jeffrey Schwartz's book "The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the power of mental force" and came across the concept of the Quantum Zeno effect.

Quantum physics says that when something is observed, the observer affects what is observed. Quantum Zeno effect is when at the atomic level, physicists can measure whether an atom is in its original state or not. They have found by carrying out these measurements repeatedly and rapidly, they can hold the atom in its initial state.

That's the 'watched pot' effect.

Schwartz writes "taken to the extreme, observing continuously whether an atom is in a certain quantum state keeps it in that state forever... the mere act of rapidly asking questions of a quantum system, freezes it in a particular state, preventing it from evolving as it would if we weren't peeking. Simply observing a quantum system suppresses certain of its transitions to other states".

I immediately thought of labouring women and how, when they, their process and their progress are being watched with impatience, by either relatives, themselves or their care providers, how labour frequently stalls.

What we are observing here is the Quantum Zeno effect. Also known as the watched pot effect - you know how the pot takes forever to boil when we are watching it impatiently, ready to add the vegetables, or when we are standing around waiting for the kettle to boil for our lovely cup of tea! After a while of standing there and impatiently waiting, looking to see if it has boiled yet, we give up and go off and do something to fill in the time. We've taken our attention off the kettle and the kettle boils in a heartbeat.

 I notice that stretching of time when I'm at an intersection and waiting for a space to pull out into - whenever I'm impatient, a space is so long coming, but when I'm calm and 'know' a space in the traffic is coming, it is there in an instant.

Thinking about Quantum Zeno Effect and how impatience can be seen to slow things down is fascinating. We can apply it to so many of our day to day experiences.

And that's why, when the impatient relative goes out of the room, there is a staff change or something happens that takes the focus off 'watching' the woman, the woman suddenly progresses ...

If the woman can be encouraged to move and do something different ... the energy shifts and she progresses...and if the health care provider changes... she suddenly progresses...

The problem is when a woman who is progressing well has the Quantum Zeno effect triggered by an unhelpful change in her environment. If her relatives or support people start getting bored and watching the clock; if her health care provider changes and she gets one who is an efficiency expert and starts watching her and the clock, the watchfulness, impatience and focus on signs of progress of those in attendance and/or herself will increase. That impatient, measuring behaviour invokes what Schwarz described above as
 "the observer repeatedly in quick succession or constantly and closely observes something, it can freeze that something in place for a long time. The particles of the 'something' are held in position, and so interferes with the dynamic evolution of that system"
 In the case of the labouring woman, the woman is the something whose particles are being effected by the watching and measuring, all too frequently causing her labour to stall - leading to a longer than necessary labour and even worse, a diagnosis of 'failure to progress'.

I'm thinking too about when women are under the 'count down' when they are 'due' and the pressure that comes to bear on 'haven't you had that baby yet' from relatives and the threat of induction if women go past their 'due date'. The 'waiting for labour' to start with pressure from both inside and outside herself may cause a woman to look frequently for signs of labour - is there a 'show'? any fluid? any discomfort? which unwittingly triggers the Quantum Zeno Effect and the woman's physiology goes into a 'holding pattern' which stalls the woman's progression to labour.

Other applications of the Quantum Zeno Effect could include 'trying to get pregnant'. How many people do you know who gave up 'trying' and got pregnant?

And the list goes on ...

Birthing women do best in a supportive loving environment, not a judgemental one.  Judgement slows things down and even stops it altogether. True of life, true of birth.

Time to call it for what it is... it's not 'failure to progress' it's the Quantum Zeno effect!

3rd November 2014


The Guardian has published a wonderful piece today on the emerging application of quantum physics to biology.  This article is well worth reading as you will find it explains how scientists are starting to see the way that quantum physics/mechanics makes sense of biological phenomena that previously seemed mysterious.  These are exciting understandings for us a species.

The application of quantum physics/mechanics to biology is of immense interest to midwifery for what it means for the care of childbearing women. This new application should be of immense interest to all people who are engaged in the provision of maternity services in whatever way they are involved.  Understanding how childbearing women are affected on the quantum level and applying that understanding  to the way maternity services are managed and provided has huge social and financial implication, don't you think?

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