Beside myself: The Quantum Slalom

First things first: read the headline out loud. In doing so, you’ll likely have no choice but to become self-aware for a brief moment as you ponder how you sound saying those words. They don’t exactly roll right off the tongue.

The point of this article is to teach you something you’ve already been taught: In the event of a loss of pressure, fasten the breathing apparatus to your own face before helping others. 

Anyone who’s ever been on a commercial flight or… watched television for more than a few minutes… knows you’re supposed to make sure you can breathe before you help your kids, partner, seatmate, or anyone else.

I bring it up because, at its core, the general idea is to optimize your conduct during an emergency. Humans, by and large, aren’t prone to operating at optimum efficiency when stressed because we’re typically optimistic about the future. 

Imagination vs Reality

That’s not to say we’re hopeful. What I mean is: if we imagine a loss of pressurization aboard our flight we tend to see turbulence and hear screaming in our mind’s eye. We imagine the masks popping from the ceiling. 

Those of us who are parents imagine our children becoming terrified, unable to breathe, consumed with panic. We might figure: I can hold my breath for a couple of minutes and my kid needs air now. We might figure: I’ll put their mask on first and then I’ll put mine on.

Our imagination sees us taking no more than a few seconds, perhaps eight at most, to secure our child’s mask before slickly donning our own. We can’t control the plane or what happens next, but in the square meter surrounding us, where our kids’ lives are momentarily in our hands, we must control what we can.

Unfortunately, as anyone who’s ever experienced a for-real-deal “sudden loss of pressure” can tell you — whether 30,000 feet in the air or too far beneath the sea to safely resurface without decompressing — breathing and consciousness don’t function normally during extreme atmospheric changes.

You may as well tell yourself that if your lungs suddenly fill up with sand and your vision instantly narrows to a pinhead of blurry light at the end of a pitch-black tunnel while you suffer vertigo and a fight-or-flight instinct you’ll be sure to calm your children with their favorite lullaby. 

Quantum VS Classical

I don’t write any of this to be fatalistic about air travel, it’s to explain what the term “optimum” means. Optimum is about more than just hedging against the least wanted or most likely outcomes. It’s about understanding your positional impact. 

The reason you’re supposed to secure your own mask first is twofold:

  1. Under the best of circumstances there’s no upside to fixing your kids’ mask first as they’re unlikely to actually need the oxygen (under the best of circumstances), however seeing you wear your mask is likely to influence their decision to wear their own calmly — do your own research.
  2. Under the worst of circumstances, you could have precious few seconds to secure your mask before you’re incapable of securing your child’s. 

You can do the math (and, in the US at least, the FAA has) and you’ll find that in nearly every conceivable scenario, the optimum strategy for passengers in the event of a loss of pressure is the one the airline industry teaches as a standard. 

Sometimes the instinct to act selflessly is wrong. We know we’re supposed to secure our own mask first. So we should. And we also know that we’re supposed to practice self-care. So we should.

However, practicing self-care sometimes looks like a detour instead of a requirement. I don’t have time for that right now. There are people who have real shit going on right now, my shit can wait. 

And, more often than not, the fact we’re having that debate means we’re probably not making decisions based on what’s optimal. You’re always more helpful when you can breathe. 

Unabated VS Actualized

Sadly, there’s no such thing as magic. There’s no one neat trick you can use to solve problems just by “optimizing.” It’s not a buzzword. Practicing self-care won’t suddenly make your bills go away or fix your broken car. It won’t stop the plane from depressurizing. 

But it might give you the extra few seconds you need to catch your breath before the next impact happens in your life — whether it’s a challenge or an opportunity. It can be hard to navigate between optimal and… what’s going on inside of your head when you’re under duress. 

I’ve found one of the easiest ways to intervene when it becomes difficult to understand how to navigate stress and make the best decisions under the circumstances, is to practice the quantum slalom. 

First off, as mentioned, if you say “quantum slalom” out loud, it’s pretty hard not to snap to self-awareness. From there, it’s simply a matter of reaffirming one of the few universal truths there are: observation changes reality. 

I don’t mean that in the philosophical “perception is reality” kind of way that people use when they’re telling you to fake it till you make it. 

I mean the literal “observer effect” that’s been demonstrated countless times in the world of quantum physics. 

The observer effect is a fascinating feature of quantum mechanics wherein the mere act of observing something can change the outcome of a measurement. It’s the basis of the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment and the foundation for a grand number of quantum physics concepts including superposition and entanglement.

Observer and Observed

The observer effect isn’t limited to the quantum spin of an atom or the manipulation of quantum computers. It is, quite demonstrably, inherent to all observation. 

And that means turning a lens on ourselves is, by virtue of the attention itself, a quantum function that changes the outcome of any process. This, of course, must include the quantum function of “thinking.”

Bottom line: We’re stuck inside of our heads but we can still manipulate the quantum processes that occur when we “think” by instigating a moment of brief self-awareness. 

Imagine a fortune-teller who says “look for the person with the red shirt.” You might see 10 people with red shirts on before you see one who, for whatever reason, seems significant. Would you still have noticed this person without the fortune-teller’s advice?

By snapping self-awareness to your thoughts, you’re able to intervene. That intervention won’t solve the problem but it might buy you a few seconds to stem off a torrent of emotion that could occlude optimum decision making.

In this way, you can sort of slalom back and forth between awareness and effective decision-making in the same way the universe does: unabated when unnoticed and actualized when observed. 


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