In 1977, two Quantum researchers named George Sudarshan and Baidyanaith Misra coined the term Quantum Zeno Effect to
describe the situation in which an unstable particle, if observed continuously, will never decay. According to the Wikepedia entry on the quality, “…one can nearly ‘freeze’ the evolution of the system by measuring it frequently enough in its (known) initial state.”
We are all familiar with concepts like, “A house, unless lived in, will fall apart.” One can just as easily say that an unobserved house is a house in decline. Drive a car and it will have its normal life; let it sit out in the rain “unobserved” and it will be reduced to a bucket of rust well before its time.
What is it about observation that changes things? Does the unstable particle know it is being observed? Is the house aware of being neglected? Does an automobile commit “autocide by degrees” as a passive aggressive statement regarding its relegation to the scrap heap? Why does observation make a difference?
Because it does.
Extrapolation is the practice of drawing broad conclusion from limited data. It would be unwise to go beyond the known to the unknown in using this principle as a way of assessing the power of observation as part of the way we do care as health professionals. But it isn’t too far of a stretch to say at minimum that people under our care need to be observed closely enough to know that they are truly being seen.
Years ago I saw a documentary on Romanian orphans left unobserved in their cribs for days on end who were later adopted to western families. Among the panoply of difficulties experienced by these children were attachment issues ranging from resistance to bonding to autistic-like detachment. The importance of eye contact and observation between adults and infants is so well established as to require little elaboration, but how about the mature or the maturing? Does observation make a difference then?
Apparently it does. If an unstable particle changes its normal
cycle purely through observation, then observation itself has power. It could be a transforming power. It would suggest that parents who observe their children can alter the social entropy that often occurs under societal pressure and hold instilled values intact; it would suggest that lovers and spouses who observe each other can maintain the level of affection that drew them together in the first place and slow the osmosis into other spheres of attraction and influence; and, more to the point of our discussions, it could mean that how we observe those under our care is as important in their
treatment as any active approach that we use.
I like to use two principles in measuring the degree of connection in our observation: eye contact and proximity. The greater the distance between us and our subject, the less information is getting through. Wandering eyes suggest disinterest or discomfort; speaking from across the room is dismissive.
On the surface, the Quantum Zeno Effect has spiritual overtones. Time and research could result in a more mechanistic explanation, but its present ambiguity calls for individuals to choose what they observe closely. Because observation has power, and because what we observe is changed by the observation, caregivers have the power to change those under their care. As such,
we are called to observe with purpose. It is no guarantee of healing, but while we are working on that, perhaps Zeno will hold the fort. It may at least ensure that, while being observed, no one gets any worse!