Let us imagine that a fly flies constantly around us making concentric circles, with such a speed that we are not able to follow it with the naked eye. As its buzzing disturbs us, we want to know its exact location .

For this we will have to work out some kind of method that will allow us to see it. We can think, for example, of surrounding the area with a substance that can be affected by its passage, so that we can locate its position. But this method is going to slow it down.In fact, the more we try to know where it is, the more we will have to slow it down (since it keeps moving). The same thing happens when we take the temperature: the instrument itself has a certain temperature that can cause the original temperature of what we want to measure to be altered.

These hypothetical situations can be used as an analogy to what happens when we want to observe the movement of a subatomic particle such as an electron. It also serves to explain Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle . In this article I will briefly explain what this concept consists of.

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Werner Heisenberg: a brief review of his life

Werner Heisenberg, a German scientist born in Würzburg in 1901, is mainly known for his involvement in the development of quantum mechanics and for having discovered the uncertainty principle (and also for giving the protagonist of Breaking Bad a nickname). Although he was initially trained in mathematics, Heisenberg would end up obtaining a doctorate in physics, a field in which he would apply elements typical of mathematics such as matrix theory.

From this fact, the matrix mechanics would end up emerging, which would be fundamental when establishing the principle of indetermination. This scientist would contribute greatly to the development of quantum mechanics, developing matrix quantum mechanics for which he would end up receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1932.

Heisenberg was also commissioned during the Nazi era to build nuclear reactors , but his efforts in this area were unsuccessful. After the war he would declare, together with other scientists, that the lack of results was premeditated in order to avoid the use of atomic bombs. After the war, he was locked up with other German scientists, but was eventually released. He died in 1976.

Heisenberg’s principle of indetermination

Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty or indeterminacy establishes the impossibility at a subatomic level of knowing at the same time the position and the moment or quantity of movement (the velocity) of a particle.

This principle comes from the fact that Heisenberg observed that if we want to locate an electron in space it is necessary to bounce photons off it . However this produces a disturbance in its momentum, so that what makes it difficult to locate the electron makes it difficult to observe precisely its linear momentum.

The observer alters the environment

This impossibility is due to the very process that allows us to measure it, since at the time of measuring the position the same method alters the speed at which the particle travels .

In fact, it is established that the greater the certainty of the particle’s position the less knowledge there is of its moment or amount of movement, and vice versa. It is not that the measuring instrument itself alters the movement or that it is imprecise, simply that the fact of measuring it produces an alteration.

In conclusion, this principle means that we cannot know exactly all the data regarding the behaviour of particles, since precise knowledge of one aspect means that we cannot know the other with the same level of precision.

Relating the Uncertainty Principle to Psychology

It may seem that a concept of quantum physics has little to do with the scientific discipline that studies the mind and mental processes. However, the general concept behind Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is applicable within psychology and even the social sciences.

Heisenberg’s principle assumes that matter is dynamic and not completely predictable , but that it is in continuous movement and it is not possible to measure a certain aspect without taking into account that the fact of measuring it alters others. This implies that we have to take into account both what we observe and what we do not observe.

Linking this to the study of the mind, mental processes or even social relationships, this means that measuring a mental phenomenon or process means focusing on it while ignoring others and also assuming that the very fact of measuring can cause an alteration in what we measure.The psychological reactance, for example, indicates this effect.

Influencing the object of study

For example, if we try to evaluate a person’s attention span, he or she may become nervous and distracted thinking that we are evaluating him or her , or it may put pressure on him or her to concentrate more than usual in his or her daily life. Focusing and delving into only one aspect of the test may cause you to forget about others, such as your motivation for taking the test.

It is also relevant not only at the research level but can be linked to the perceptual process itself. If we focus our attention on one voice, for example, the others will be muffled.

The same thing happens if we stare at something: the rest loses clarity. It can even be observed at a cognitive level; if we think about one aspect of reality and we go deeper into it, we will leave aside other aspects of that reality in which we participate.

It also happens in social relationships: for example, if we think someone is trying to manipulate us we will stop paying so much attention to what he is telling us, and the same thing can happen in reverse. It’s not that we can’t pay attention to others, but the more we focus on something and the more precise we are in saying something, the less we are able to detect something different at the same time.

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Bibliographic references:

  • Esteban, S. and Navarro, R. (2010). Química general: volume I. Madrid: Editorial UNED.
  • Galindo, A.; Pascual, P. (1978). Quantum Mechanics. Madrid: Alhambra.