Awareness is a difficult puzzle. According to some, it is so special that it should be separate from the body. However, science usually sees it as a result of the activity of neurons in our brain.
This elusiveness has led some physicists to use relatively elusive quantum physics to explain it. This was suggested in the 1980s by physicist and Nobel Prize winner Roger Penrose. Together with the anesthesiologist Stuart Hammeroff, he developed the theory of quantum consciousness, in which consciousness operates according to the laws of quantum physics.
The proposal of quantum consciousness has been rejected by most scientists. But there were also convinced supporters. That the idea is still alive, noted Professor Christiane de Moraes-Smith of Utrecht University when she published new research this summer with colleagues from China at Nature Photonics. They do not interfere with the theoretical discussion, but describe an experiment that takes a small step to verify whether quantitative processes can occur in the complex network of neurons in the brain.
“I have since received hundreds of responses, sometimes pages long, from other scientists, including Hammeroff,” says de Moraes-Smith. “It’s cool and amazing. The reactions come from all sides, from philosophy to biology, physics and chemistry.”
How does consciousness arise from quantum effects?
“In the quantum world, which deals with the behavior of very small particles, it is possible for a simultaneous superposition of different states; like Schrödinger’s cat, which is dead and alive at the same time. According to Penrose, this superposition is unstable and at some point collapses, subject to what he calls “objective reductionism.” ‘, leaving one state behind. This must be the moment of conscious experience.
“According to Penrose and Hameroff, the overlays will arise from so-called microtubules (small tubular protein structures) in neurons.”
Why were so many scientists skeptical?
“Quantum effects, such as superposition, are very weak. It is easy for them to be disturbed by their environment. In the laboratory, quantum processes are examined and monitored under very controlled conditions and at low temperatures, usually around -272 ° C. On the other hand, the human body operates at a temperature Room temperature. Superpositions in the warm, humid environment in cells would not be expected to last long enough to affect brain processes.”
Why are you doing a test search on it now?
“There are recent discoveries that cast doubt on the above. In 2014, for example, graphene was discovered. This is a slice of carbon atoms one atom layer thick. It seems that quantum processes can occur in this material at 27 ° C. Moreover, graphene is made of carbon, which is also the main part of microtubules. In my opinion, these results indicate that it is not impossible for the necessary quantitative effects to occur in our bodies.”
In the body, you also see fractal structures, for example in the lungs, to absorb oxygen
I have also investigated quantum behavior in fractal structures.
“Many structures in nature and in our bodies are fractal. Fractals are geometric objects with a structure that always repeats as you zoom in. An example is a tree that begins with a large trunk that branches, with the branches always having the same structure.
“In nature, the fractal structure is useful for exchange processes because it can cover a large area and contain a lot of empty space, such as the space between tree branches. This is useful for absorbing sunlight or exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide with the environment.”
“In the body, you also see fractal structures, for example in the lungs, for oxygen uptake, in the circulation and even in the rhythm of your heartbeat. And also in the network of neurons in your brain.
The question is how consciousness arises in this constantly branching structure. For this, information must be transmitted through that fractal network. According to Penrose and Hamerov, this is done via quantum processes.”
How do you test that in an experiment?
“We are investigating how information is transmitted through an image of a fractal. We did this by measuring the transmission of light injected into three different fractal structures a few millimeters in diameter, which were drawn with a laser on a chip. One of them was the Serpinski Triangle, an equilateral triangle consisting of three Small equilateral triangles with an inverted triangle hole in the center.This pattern is repeating itself on an increasingly large scale.
“We know how classical transport occurs through a fractal structure. This was described in the 1980s by Pierre Gilles de Jean, based on an ant in a fractal ‘maze’. We have now studied how quantum transport passes through a fractal, using particles of light, which are quantum particles .
“Experiments, conducted and conducted under the supervision of Professor Xian-Min Jin from Shanghai Jiaotong University, showed that the behavior of quantum particles moving during a fractal is measurably different from that of a classical particle, such as an ant.”
This is how you can feel, as if your head is in several states at the same time
How does this relate to quantum consciousness?
For this we have to compare our results with the brain. If we observe the same behavior in it, then we can establish that quantum processes occur in the structure of the fractal neurons of the brain. Thus the fractals through which the light moves are a small step in the investigation. We haven’t gotten there yet. Consciousness is so complex that understanding it requires collaboration between physicists, chemists, biologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers.”
Do you think consciousness can arise from quantum processes?
“Yeah, I definitely think it can. In quantum physics you have the collapse of the wave function. It’s about something in different states at the same time, like tossing a coin. When you roll in the air, it’s heads and tails, as soon as the coin lands The wave function collapses and there is only one choice left: heads or tails. It seems very natural to me that the brain uses quantum operations to explore different possibilities at the same time. It can also feel that your head is in several states at the same time. When the wave function collapses, it is aware of something. In my opinion, it would make sense if consciousness were quantitative.”
A version of this article also appeared on NRC on the morning of August 23, 2021
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