Can Quantum Physics Explain Consciousness?

Nov 13, 2016

By Jennier Ouellette

The mere mention of “quantum consciousness” makes most physicists cringe, as the phrase seems to evoke the vague, insipid musings of a New Age guru. But if a new hypothesis proves to be correct, quantum effects might indeed play some role in human cognition. Matthew Fisher, a physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, raised eyebrows late last year when he published a paper in Annals of Physics proposing that the nuclear spins of phosphorus atoms could serve as rudimentary “qubits” in the brain—which would essentially enable the brain to function like a quantum computer.

As recently as 10 years ago, Fisher’s hypothesis would have been dismissed by many as nonsense. Physicists have been burned by this sort of thing before, most notably in 1989, when Roger Penrose proposed that mysterious protein structures called “microtubules” played a role in human consciousness by exploiting quantum effects. Few researchers believe such a hypothesis plausible. Patricia Churchland, a neurophilosopher at the University of California, San Diego, memorably opined that one might as well invoke “pixie dust in the synapses” to explain human cognition.

Fisher’s hypothesis faces the same daunting obstacle that has plagued microtubules: a phenomenon called quantum decoherence. To build an operating quantum computer, you need to connect qubits—quantum bits of information—in a process called entanglement. But entangled qubits exist in a fragile state. They must be carefully shielded from any noise in the surrounding environment. Just one photon bumping into your qubit would be enough to make the entire system “decohere,” destroying the entanglement and wiping out the quantum properties of the system. It’s challenging enough to do quantum processing in a carefully controlled laboratory environment, never mind the warm, wet, complicated mess that is human biology, where maintaining coherence for sufficiently long periods of time is well nigh impossible.


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12 comments on “Can Quantum Physics Explain Consciousness?

  • The heading is stupid. That there may be neural quantum effects is still to be proved. That these may be critical to ANY aspect of consciousness, functional or apprehensional (today’s neologism), is a long way away. If these effects exist in brains they may, for instance, be mere additional noise generators that aid sensory detection and decision making.

    Our brain achieves much of its remarkable capacity by “dancing on the edge of chaos”. Different techniques generate this state. Warm blooded brains lift speed and sensitivity (at the expense of error…a creative root?) but heat cannot be cranked up indefinitely, other tricks like positive feedback can lift sensitivity with just occasional screw ups (my whistling ears). Co-opting other types of noise injection with differing adverse effects may be entirely to be expected.

    The lithium results, though, are cool.



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  • phil rimmer #1
    Nov 13, 2016 at 7:22 am

    The heading is stupid.

    Yep!

    @OP – Can Quantum Physics Explain Consciousness?

    NO!

    Can it explain some parts of some mechanisms of nervous systems?

    YES!

    @OP – But if a new hypothesis proves to be correct, quantum effects might indeed play some role in human cognition.

    . . .Or that of other complex animals!



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  • The lithium results, though, are cool

    I have read the original 1986 paper.

    Interestingly, it cites other work that points to Li-6 as being more toxic than Li-7 (in pure form).
    Wouldn’t that point to a more parsimonious explanation for the supposed behavioral effects than invoking “spooky” Quantum entanglements?

    Further:

    1) The 1986 experiment seems to have included a total of just 20 “mommy” rats, that is, 5 rats per condition (Control, Li-N, Li-7 and Li-6).

    2) The difference in maternal behavior seems poorly documented and assessed – more in a qualitative than quantitative fashion (no behavioral frequency or averages reported, and no statistical comparisons).

    I don’t know if those results have been replicated elsewhere, but one would certainly like to see that before shouting “Eureka!”.



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  • Phil: “The heading is stupid. That there may be neural quantum effects is still to be proved.”

    Before much was known about mental illness, conventional wisdom developed a crypto-hypothesis over the last two hundred years that it was caused by “a chemical imbalance in the brain.” Subsequent experiments up to the present proved the hypothesis to be sound after filling in the crucial details. Chemistry became the wonder science that people looked to for cures that in fact progressively worked to cure conditions through chemical formulations active in pills, injections, inhalers and topical medications. Two hundred years ago or so “Chemistry” was a relatively new science that inspired the human imagination with speculative intuitions that turned out to be widely useful – life saving sometimes – in practice.

    Relevant to the article, however, I believe Phil has the right take. The irresponsible propaganda of popular science articles is broadcast in spades. Imagine the layman-in-the-street telling people he read an article in the Atlantic that proves mental illness, depression in particular, and consciousness in the grandiose scheme of things is “caused” by quantum particles. The relatively new science of Quantum Mechanics combined with computer microchip processing has inflamed the popular imagination into believing humanity is on the brink of discovering the first cause of everything. The problem today is that there is no reliable experimental evidence that the random behavior of sub-atomic particles on the quantum level have a discernible, measurable effect on biological or neurological processes. Biology, neurology and related medical sciences may not be amenable to the methodology and findings of particle physics.



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  • The problem today is that there is no reliable experimental evidence that the random behavior of sub-atomic particles on the quantum level have a discernible, measurable effect on biological or neurological processes.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_RSKI5A_lsg

    QM is pretty much proven to happen in photosynthesis and magneto-reception in bird retinas (They “see” the earth’s magnetic field.)

    My complaint is this mystifying of an ordinary physics process into some weird explainer of consciousness when such a need is not apparent. There is no problem of data processing, for instance, that seems problematic. There is a “quality” issue but no process can ever be shown to solve that problem. There is no reasonable problem they have set themselves.



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  • Phil: My complaint is this mystifying of an ordinary physics process into some weird explainer of consciousness when such a need is not apparent. There is no problem of data processing, for instance, that seems problematic. There is a “quality” issue but no process can ever be shown to solve that problem. There is no reasonable problem they have set themselves.

    I believe the photosynthesis issue et. al. was touched upon in the article. My complaint is your complaint. I would question, however, whether quantum particles behave like an ordinary physics process that is “causal” in an ordinary intelligible sense. We can potentially present a full causal explanation of depression just as we can present a full causal explanation of a bowel movement without appealing to the predictive/non-predictive operations of quantum mechanics in a virtually unrelated phenomenal field. ( I’m speculating as a layman using layman’s language).

    Fisher suffered the horrible agony of clinical depression. It was natural that he became obsessed with peeling the onion to reveal the cause of his suffering using the tools of his discipline, Particle Physics, front-loaded with the hype that the science was uniquely equipped to discover the ultimate cause of everything. Some critics now concur that earlier reductionist ambitions of the science of physics are mistaken. If Fisher had been a master carpenter in 1600, he may have driven nails into his skull to relieve the pressure on his brain that likely caused the condition.



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  • Quantum physics is 111years old and was pretty nearly mathematically described in the first few decades since then. Thirty years after explaining the existence of photons and their release of electrons and vice versa, Einstein (along with Podolsky and Rosen) explained how electron spin states could become entangled. This was old when I was born and I’m old.

    I’m a physicist most often using solid state physics devices that are often quantum mechanical in their functioning. Its a process and it reliably follows the rules. Entanglement if it ever occurred only works over tiny distances especially in a warm wet environment (so there are no opportunities to set up some spooky action at a distance as entangled particles made by a topical event cannot get far enough away before losing their particular state .) It can only act like any other piece of physics conferring only a degree of uncertainty to something that is already a fuzzy, noisy system. It is much more prosaic than you think.

    Physics researchers try and graft this on to accounts of the brain to get some global kind of signalling effect. It cannot do this. More to the point they neglect the the global signalling of neuro-transmitter baths and my favourite, ephaptic coupling, simple signal crosstalk , is already understood in its role of creating stereophony, by finessing the experience event binding and simultaneity. The kinds of mechanisms they think they need exist already.



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  • 10
    Robert Firth says:

    A couple of minor corrections to phil rimmer’s post. First, the EPR “thought experiment” did not talk about quantum entanglement – indeed Einstein explicitly denied its existence. The experiment was intended to disprove quantum mechanics, not to confirm it. {Phys Rev 47 (1935) 777]

    Secondly, quantum entanglement has been verified over a distance of 140 km, which is macroscopic enough for any biological process. [PNAS 112:46, (2015) 14292]



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  • Thanks, Robert.

    “No spooky action at a distance” was indeed Einstein’s preferred answer. But the possibility of it was entirely what the EPR paradox threw up. Einstein was also against the big bang inferences of Lemaitre from his very own maths. Science isn’t biddable, though.

    My phrasing doesn’t look as clear as it might. In warm and wet environments you cannot get entangled particles far enough away from each other once entangled to do any useful or novel signalling. Long distance entanglement experiments, like with the Chinese Quantum Signalling Satellite Micius, happen in cold environments with very high speed or light speed travel (e.g. because polarisation photons are entangled, rather than, say, electron spin. A warm wet brain or leaf limits travel before WF collapse to a few hundred angstroms.



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  • @Melvin

    ‘Before much was known about mental illness, conventional wisdom developed a crypto-hypothesis over the last two hundred years that it was caused by “a chemical imbalance in the brain.” Subsequent experiments up to the present proved the hypothesis to be sound after filling in the crucial details.’

    Not really. Even top psychiatrists in the current establishement claim that the “chemical imbalance” theory was never seriously considered (a spurious claim, by the way) by psychiatrists. They’re trying to blame the pharmaceutical companies for why this idea became so popular.

    The new holy grail is “dysfunctional neural circuits”. But it’s just more of the same biocentric nonsense.

    By the way, you might want to take a look at the evidence showing the damage that psychiatry has actually cased. Why, do you think, is this the only field of “medicine” with a survivor movement?



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