Entangled winds…

…or how wind directions connect through meaning, in human cognition, similarly to how spins entangle in nature

Tramontane, greco, levante, sirocco, ostro, libeccio, ponente and maestro: these are some of the names that have been used in the past, and are still used today, to identify the North, Northeast, East, Southeast, South, Southwest, West and Northwest wind directions, respectively. More precisely, I should say ‘wind spatial directions’ as ‘a wind direction’ is of course a direction within our three-dimensional Euclidean space: the theater we all use to stage part of our everyday physical reality.

A mariner’s compass rose

However, a wind direction, as a notion, is not equivalent to that of a space direction. This because space directions are all equivalent for physical entities (this is the well-known isotropy of space), whereas wind directions are usually associated with specific space directions, typically the above mentioned eight directions of the traditional mariner’s compass rose, which resulted from our countless experiences, over the millenaries, as inhabitants of the surface of this beautiful (pale blue dot) planet.

As an example of the difference between the notions of wind and space, consider the following two couples of wind directions: (Northeast, Southeast) and (Southeast, Southwest). If we only consider them from a pure spatial perspective, the difference between Northeast and Southeast is clearly the same as the difference between Southeast and Southwest, as both couples form an angle of 90°. On the other hand, if we consider them from the perspective of our more complex human experience, for example for the case of an European person, the difference between Northeast and Southeast could be perceived as greater than that of Southeast and Southwest. This because in our perception of their difference, other aspects can also play a role in addition to their spatial direction. For example, both Southeast and Southwest directions can be associated in Europe with a relatively warm weather, while between Northeast and Southeast the general perception is that there is a more important change in terms of temperatures.

So, when a human considers two different wind directions, the perceived difference is not only the consequence of the difference of the spatial directions in which they blow. On the other hand, it is also clear that the meaning connection that exists between the notion of two different wind directions and that of two different spatial directions is very strong, so that, in a first approximation, a wind direction can be considered to be a good representative of a space direction.

Having said this, consider now the concept of wind as such. This is an abstract meaning entity that cannot a priori be associated with any specific spatial direction, i.e., the direction in which that wind would blow. For this, the abstract wind conceptual entity needs to “change its state” and become a less abstract conceptual entity: one having precisely acquired an actual spatial direction.

In the spatiotemporal realm, it is always clear which came first

By the way, you certainly know the conundrum about the chicken and the egg, where one is asked: “Which came first: the chicken or the egg?” This is almost like a Zen kōan. If we try to solve it in terms of causality, by remaining within the assumptions of the question (that chickens always hatch from eggs and that all chicken eggs are laid by chickens), it is clearly impossible to provide an answer. But there is another (in a sense more profound) reason why one cannot answer the question: chicken and egg are two abstract concepts, and as such they are not localized in space and time. Thus, we cannot answer the question of which came first, as they have no time. On the other hand, if you ask: “Which came first, that specific chicken running in the farmyard or that specific egg you are presently holding in your hand?” then, in relation to these two more concrete spatiotemporal entities, a non-ambiguous answer can always be given.

The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to the concept wind. If I ask: “What is the direction of wind?”, again you cannot provide an answer, as wind, as an abstract concept, does not have a spatial direction. The tramontane wind certainly has a direction, which is the North one, and also the ponente wind, whose direction is South, but a wind without further specification does not possess an actual spatial direction. In fact, we could say that it possesses all possible spatial directions, but only in potential terms.

To better explain what I mean, imagine I ask you to provide an example of a wind direction. For this, you have to select one among a number of given possibilities (all the wind directions you know), like for instance the North direction. The selection of an actual wind direction — here the North one — among a number of potential wind directions, is a mental process whose outcomes are in general unpredictable, as you could certainly have chosen a different direction than North. If you live on the West coast of Italy, considering that the tramontane is prevalent there, the probability that you would have picked the North direction can be expected to be high, but nevertheless always different from one. In other words, a person selecting a wind direction corresponds to a mental process that in general cannot be described in a deterministic way, but only in a probabilistic way. It is like a process of symmetry breaking, in fact a weighted symmetry breaking, since not all directions have the same probability to be selected.

Having read up to here, you are maybe starting to consider a possible parallel between what I’m saying about winds, their potential and actual spatial directions, and what quantum mechanics tells us about the behavior of the microphysical entities, like electrons, neutrons, protons, atoms, molecules, etc. Indeed, these appear to be quite similar in nature to abstract conceptual entities (although this doesn’t mean, of course, that they would be human concepts), if we consider that for the most of their time they remain in non-spatial states (and also in non-temporal states, but this is another story), a fact which is usually indicated by the term non-locality.

Spin is usually described as an angular momentum, although this is just a classical (and therefore improper) image. For those interested knowing more about spin directions, the open access article Do spins have directions? might be an interesting reading (some parts of it are technical, other more conversational)

Consider the example of two electrons in a so-called singlet state, which is an entangled state of a very symmetric kind, such that the overall spin value of the two electrons is always zero. Classically speaking, this would mean that the two electrons’ spins must always point in opposite directions. But spins are not classical quantities. They are usually described as intrinsic angular momenta carried by the micro-entities, but although they possess the same physical dimension of an angular momenta, they cannot be associated with any actual rotation in space, so neither with an actual space direction. All we know is that, in case they would acquire one in an experiment, then, because of the symmetry of the singlet state, they must always point in opposite directions.

Note that quantum entities live in higher-dimensional spaces, and it is only when they are subjected to a measurement process that — by changing their state — they can temporarily enter our lower-dimensional spatial theater, for instance by acquiring, in case of spins, an actual spatial direction. An apparatus that measures spins’ directions (like a Stern-Gerlach one) is therefore similar to a cognitive entity that would have been instructed to provide an example of a spin direction, out of a set of potential (possible) ones, with the outcomes of the measurement being the answers the “mind-apparatus” provides at each run of the experiment.

Two entangled spins are like two dice connected through a rigid rod, with the latter correlating the outcomes of all possible “rolling experiments.” However, in the case of spins the rigid rod connection is replaced by a much more subtle connection, which cannot be fully represented in a three-dimensional space. To know more about how quantum entanglement can be represented in higher dimensional spaces, the following (technical) article might be an interesting reading: The extended Bloch representation of quantum mechanics: Explaining superposition, interference, and entanglement, Journal of Mathematical Physics 57, 122110 (2016)

Now, being the two spins, as we assumed, in an entangled state, even when the apparatus measuring the two spins is formed by two pieces of equipment separated by a large spatial distance, the answers it will provide must always show perfect correlations for the two spins. Einstein used to call this fact, nowadays confirmed by countless experiments, spooky action at a distance, but the spookiness is really there only if we insist on wanting to imagine the two micro-entities as being always fully localized in space, as if they were simple corpuscles, whereas in fact we must remember that they are genuine multi-dimensional entities, which therefore can remain connected even when there is nothing detectable between them in space. This is so because, having a larger number of dimensions to exploit, they can use them to remain connected, so to say, beyond space.

If we assume for a moment that quantum entities behave more like concepts than like objects, and that measurements are pretty much like interrogative contexts where a mind-like entity is asked to provide an answer to a given question (relative to a given concept in a given state), then what would be entanglement in this interpretation? What would play the role of the non-spatial connection that we know exists between quantum entities, like spin entities, when in entangled states? The answer is quite straightforward: it is a meaning connection, that is, a connection that results from the fact that concepts are meaning entities and that minds are entities that are sensitive to meaning. So, if for instance I ask a person to give an example of an animal eating food, for the mind of that person the two concepts, animal and food, will appear to be connected, as is clear that if the chosen example of animal is, say, horse, then the food example cannot be anything, but will most probably (although not necessarily) be selected among the foods an horse can (or will usually) eat, like hay, oats, apples, etc., so that one would for instance obtain the outcome a horse eating hay, whereas it is much more improbable that the chosen example would be something like a horse eating grilled steaks, or a cat eating hay.

An example of pairs of different wind directions from which participants could choose in the experiment

So, when there is a meaning connection, correlations can be created when people are asked to jointly provide examples of concepts that are meaning connected. Therefore, meaning connection and entanglement can be considered to be just two different equivalent ways to speak of the same phenomenon. But let us come back to winds and their directions. Recently we have performed a cognitive psychology experiment where participants were asked to select pairs of spatial directions that they considered to be the best example of two different wind directions. We have then analyzed the experimental data using the same theoretical tool that is typically used to analyze data from experiments with entangled spins.

The CHSH inequality, where CHSH stands for John Clauser, Michael Horne, Abner Shimony, and Richard Holt, who derived it back in 1969

This theoretical tool is the so-called Bell’s inequality (more precisely, a variant of it called the CHSH inequality), which is used in physics to highlight the presence of entanglement in a composite system, in the sense that when it is violated, then the two sub-systems are known to be entangled (if everything else in the experiment has been properly controlled). So, we have applied the CHSH inequality to our wind directions experiment, and the interesting result we obtained is that the data violate the inequality with the same magnitude as in typical experiments with entangled spins. And this means that:

Wind directions are connected through meaning, in human cognition, in a similar way as spins appear to be entangled in experiments conducted in physics laboratories.

In other words, quantum coherence, the phenomenon that entangles (i.e., connect) spin directions in physics, appears to operate similarly to meaning coherence, the phenomenon that connect (i.e., entangle) wind directions in human cognition.

If you are intrigued by these results, and want to know the details of the experiment and how exactly the statistical data violate the CHSH inequality, I invite you to read the open access article:

Spin and Wind Directions I: Identifying Entanglement in Nature and Cognition (Foundations of Science. DOI 10.1007/s10699–017–9528–9)

which I had the pleasure writing in collaboration with Diederik Aerts, Jonito Aerts Arguëlles, Lester Beltran, Suzette Geriente, Sandro Sozzo and Tomas Veloz.

Of course, the data obtained in cognitive ‘wind direction experiments’ and those obtained in physics ‘spin direction experiments’, although they show striking similarities as regards the way they both violate Bell’s inequalities, there are also some differences. This is so because if space can be considered to be isotropic with respect to spins, the same cannot be said for winds, so that some anisotropy will necessarily characterize the wind directions data, which in turn will produce a violation of the so-called marginal law. This has raised some criticisms regarding the validity of our conclusion that a meaning connection would represent a genuine form of entanglement. This and other interpretational issues, as well as a full quantum modeling of the experiment, have been presented in the second part of the above paper, which is also open access and to which I also refer the interested (and more technically inclined) reader:

Spin and Wind Directions II: A Bell State Quantum Model (Foundations of Science.DOI 10.1007/s10699–017–9528–9)

Let me conclude by mentioning that an analysis like the one presented in the above two articles is part of that emerging field of investigation known as quantum cognition, which, quoting from Wikipedia: “applies the mathematical formalism of quantum theory to model cognitive phenomena such as information processing by the human brain, language, decision making, human memory, concepts and conceptual reasoning, human judgment, and perception.” But it is also part of an approach that was proposed in recent years by Diederik Aerts, to build an interpretation and explanation of quantum theory where quantum entities are considered to be meaning entities with respect to a more fundamental and universal proto-meaning realm.

In other words, the main hypothesis put forward in Aerts’ new interpretation, with far-reaching consequences for many aspects of our physical reality, is that micro-physical entities would be also conceptual-like, in the sense of behaving more like conceptual (meaning) entities than like objects. But again, this does not mean that there are no differences as well. Quoting from Aerts’ article “Interpreting quantum particles as conceptual entities” (International Journal of Theoretical Physics 49, pp. 2950–2970, 2010):

[…] human concepts and their interactions are at a very primitive stage of development as compared to quantum entities and their interactions. This means that, although we expect to find connections with a profound explanatory potential with respect to fundamental aspects of both situations, i.e. human concepts and their interactions and quantum particles and their interactions, we also expect to find a much less crystallized and organized form for human concepts than for quantum particles. […] This means that we regard the actual structure of the physical universe, space, time, momentum, energy and quantum particles interacting with ordinary matter as emergent from a much more primitive situation of interacting conceptual entities and their memories. Consequently, […] one of the research aims must be to investigate which structural properties, laws and axioms may characterize a weakly organized conceptual structure, such as the one actually existing for the case of human concepts and memories, and which additional structural properties, laws and axioms could make it into a much more strongly organized conceptual structure, such as the one of the physical universe, space time, momentum energy and quantum particles interacting with ordinary matter.

By the way, in addition to the above mentioned article, for those interested in this challenging conceptuality interpretation, you can also consult the articles:

Quantum particles as conceptual entities: A possible explanatory framework for quantum theory. Foundations of Science 14, 361–411 (2009).

A potentiality and conceptuality interpretation of quantum physics. Philosophica 83, 15–52 (2010).

Quantum theory and human perception of the macro-world. Frontiers in Psychology 5, Article 554. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00554.

A brief introduction to quantum cognition and the conceptuality interpretation can also be found in the book which I recently wrote with Diederik Aerts, about the intriguing notion of universal measurements:

Universal Measurements — How to free three birds with one move (World Scientific, 2017).