Does Knowing Quantum Mechanics Help You Understand Reality as Much as Magic Mushrooms Do?
Updated: Sep 17, 2020
by Chris Becker, Ph.D.
This is a fun question. But it has a serious side, a side that can be summarized
by the word “understand.” What do you understand? What do we understand? What is
our knowledge? Our wisdom? And conversely, what is lacking in our understanding?
Quantum mechanics (QM) and psilocybin mushrooms (PM) are both challenging.
Not many people would dare say, “I totally understand quantum mechanics!” or
“Psilocybin mushrooms journeys are a piece of cake!”
About quantum mechanics, I remember watching a YouTube video of Richard
Feynman, a Nobel laureate in physics, who said of a quantum phenomenon, “But what
does it mean?”
I’m sure many of us have said something similar during or after a magic
mushroom trip—unless we were too dumbstruck.
Nevertheless, I will venture to articulate some lessons we can glean from both
QM and PM. And just for fun, at the end of the essay, we can each vote on which one
teaches us more.
A starting point is to acknowledge that understanding quantum mechanics
requires us to operate in ordinary consciousness. QM is our current understanding of
how the physical universe works. Nature doesn’t need the theory of quantum
mechanics. It does much more than we can ever comprehend in just a teaspoon of dirt.
In contrast, partaking of psilocybin mushrooms is an exercise in non-ordinary
consciousness. However, after a PM journey we return to ordinary consciousness and
retain some fraction of what we learned. What fraction? Well, that can vary a lot,
depending on the particular journey and person, so we won’t specify a particular
The ground rules, then, for comparing and understanding QM and PM require us
to be in ordinary consciousness. Otherwise we’re comparing apples and oranges.
I don’t claim to be a leading expert in either QM or PM, but I have substantial
experience with both. I have a Ph.D. in chemical physics, and I have published original
research applying QM to solve a variety of problems. I also am experienced with PM,
and I have practiced meditation for many years, which has enhanced some of my
abilities to appreciate the PM experience.
There are various schools of thought regarding the interpretation of quantum
mechanics. It’s a huge subject with lots of points of view, and oodles of intriguing
YouTube videos. I’ll provide a few salient observations here.
Whether or not we’ve studied physics, we’ve all been immersed in classical
mechanics (CM) concepts. They’re engrained in how we think about the world. This is
because CM works well for most of our ordinary questions, like how airplanes fly and
bowling balls fall. But there are plenty of examples we are all familiar with that actually
require QM for explanation. For example, if you sprinkle some table salt (which is mostly
sodium chloride) into a campfire or the gas flame of a stove top, you see a brief, bright,
yellow flame. Why is it yellow and not orange or green? Speaking of color, why is a ruby
red and the sky blue?
Although these are great QM examples, they don’t really teach us much about
reality other than showing that CM can’t explain everything. The color of a flame doesn’t
touch our lives the way questions like “Who am I?” or “What am I?” do.
I’ll give examples that I hope get closer to that target.
One simple fact is that ordinary matter—like our bodies, or the chair we’re sitting
on, or this earth—actually are made up of mostly empty space: 99.9999999% nothing
there, in fact. It’s a little hard on my eyes to count that many nines. In loose QM
language, there are electrons whizzing around a nucleus; and the electron “clouds” or
“orbits” around each nucleus like to get close, but not too close, to the neighboring
electron clouds (chemistry!). And electrons and nuclei are super tiny compared to the
space they occupy. So we’re really mostly…nothing at all! Something to keep in mind.
Two more quantum properties are especially intriguing and have absolutely no
classical analog. They are “indistinguishable particles” and “entangled particles.”
An example of indistinguishable particles are two oxygen atoms, one charged (an
ion) and the other neutral. They approach each other from specific directions
(trajectories) and when they get close to each other they collide (and subsequently
recoil); when they are close, an electron can jump from one to the other or many times
back and forth, in what is called symmetric charge exchange. But because you are
observing two particles that are identical, you can’t tell whether the resulting neutral
oxygen atom started as neutral or charged, or approached from one direction or the
other, and similarly with the resulting oxygen ion—as you could if this were a world
governed by CM. This “indistinguishable particles” aspect actually results in large
physical effects, quite different than if you have, say, one nitrogen atom and one oxygen
The other case I’ll mention briefly is that of entangled particles. When two (or
more) particles are generated together or interact, the resulting quantum state or
system cannot be described by two independent particles, even when the particles may
become separated by large distances. Einstein called this “spooky action at a distance.”
It’s as if one particle over on the table can influence the other particle on the couch.
Physicists debate the physical interpretation but do agree that the effect is real and the
particles must be considered as one system.
We think classically, and our eyes, at a macroscopic level, see two separate
objects, like two balls. But nature doesn’t actually work that way at a fundamental level.
Nature only sees one reality, one system. It doesn’t have any notion of “two.” And that is
a useful lesson QM teaches us. We are attached to making distinctions, we’re trained
that way, and our confusion is understandable. But “two” is an illusion. This reminds me
of the Mayan greeting “inlakesh”—you are my other self.
So the lessons we can glean from QM include: we are mostly nothing, and the
world has indistinguishability and entanglement. This suggests that the ego or self is an
Now we come to the PM experience. How do we understand it when we’ve
returned to ordinary consciousness, and what lesson or memory have we retained?
Describing a PM journey is arguably even more difficult than explaining QM. However,
although we may rightly say that a medicine journey is ineffable, many people do report
experiencing “ego death” at a sufficiently high dose. What is this ego death? I believe
this descriptor covers many different experiences. But the common thread is that we
forget about who is experiencing this experience. We forget about the self. Only the
Ego death is a scary thing for some of us as we realize we are approaching it.
“I’m going to die!!” That’s obviously because the ego (the attachment to self) has a
strong protective grip on our thinking. But once we’ve broken through the barrier, we’re
free. Ego death is a totally freeing and beautiful experience. Think of it like breaking
through the sound barrier, only you’re breaking through the thought barrier.
Pretty cool, eh?
So there you have it. Both QM and PM arguably provide us the same
understanding—that the ego is a fiction. You are my other self. Or maybe no self at all.
QM and PM: which one soaks in deeper, provides you with greater
understanding? Of course, it can make a difference whether you’ve had your own egodeath
experience, or you’ve just read about it. In any event, you decide. Have a debate
with your friends. Or choose both.