“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” This is a well-known philosophical question, which many persons have been pondering on.
Physically, a sound is generated when a wave movement is propagated through a medium (in this case the air) and then reaches a hearing organ of a biological being and then perceived as sound. Everything that is experienced happens therefore within the individual who experiences it, as I wrote about in a previous blog post.
One way to consider the falling tree in the forest is that if no one is there to observe the event, there is also no safe way to say whether the event occurred or not. Therefore, the event then becomes identical to an event that never occurred.
Similarly, according to quantum mechanics, as described by Niels Bohr and Werner Heissenberg in the 1920s, a subatomic elemental particle can be described both as a particle and a quantum wave and paradoxically be in both these states simultaneously.
It is only when the system is observed that the probability is reduced to one of these two possibilities immediately after the measurement. Therefore, reality depends on whether it is observed or not.
This paradox has been illustrated by physicist Erwin Schrödinger in the classical thought experiment Schrödingers cat, where a cat trapped in a box can be both dead and alive at the same time.
In the experiment, the death would be triggered by a single atomic decay in a radioactive material in the box (which, according to the quantum mechanics, could simultaneously take place and not). Whenever such a decay is recorded by a Geiger meter, a poisonous gas would be discharged, immediately killing the cat. However, it is only when someone opens the box and observe the cat that the two outcomes are reduced to a single one – a dead cat or a living cat.
Both the quantum mechanical paradox of Schrödinger’s cat and the story of the falling tree have a direct parallel in our minds when we solve problems using our associative ability.
Every second there are millions of subconscious associations where different thoughts, concepts, feelings, symbols and memory fragments constantly bounce against each other in combinations that are tested against the problem we are trying to solve without us being aware of it.
As the brain focuses on unresolved issues, only one or a few of these combinations of different thoughts and memories will reach our consciousness as an insight or an aha experience. This would also require that we have a mental readiness to capture the insight and that we are not in an environment where we are distracted.
All the other millions of different thought associations taking place in our brains will never reach our consciousness, and in the same way as the falling tree in the forest, they may either have happened or not and we have no way to decide which.
As long as our consciousness has not perceived a thought from our subconscious brain part, this thought is thus identical to a thought that never occurred, and therefore lacks all meaning and relevance to us.
We can never know what thoughts exist within us, if they don’t reach our consciousness. However, we can train our ability to open up for the wealth of creativity we carry within us.
This can be done both by practicing our association skills and by staying in stressful environments, meditation and mindfulness, and tuning down the filters and opening our window to our subconscious minds and recording in a non-judging manner everything that comes up and down.
We can also denounce this creative gift by blindfolded stressing through life and further rejecting all the odd and unexpected ideas that do not directly fit our world view.
Note: Einstein, who with his work laid the theoretical foundation for quantum mechanics, could never accept the underlying paradox described above. He expressed his views as : “God does not play dice with the universe.”