Consciousness is a tricky puzzle. According to some, it is so special that it should be separated from the body. Yet science generally views it as the result of the activity of the nerve cells in our brain.
This elusiveness has led some physicists to use comparably elusive quantum physics to explain it. This was proposed in the 1980s by physicist and Nobel laureate Roger Penrose. With the anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff, he developed the theory of quantum consciousness, in which consciousness operates according to the laws of quantum physics.
The proposition of quantum consciousness has been rejected by most scientists. But there were also staunch supporters. That the idea is still alive, Professor Cristiane de Morais Smith of the University of Utrecht noticed when she published new research this summer with Chinese colleagues in Photonics of nature. They do not interfere with the theoretical discussion, but describe an experiment that takes a small step to determine whether quantum processes can take place in the brain’s complex neural network.
“I have since received hundreds of responses, sometimes one page, from other scientists, including Hameroff,” says De Morais Smith. “It’s awesome and amazing. Reactions come from all sides, from philosophy to biology, including physics and chemistry.
How does consciousness arise from quantum effects?
“In the quantum world, which deals with the behavior of very small particles, a simultaneous superposition of different states is possible; like Schrödinger’s cat, who is dead and alive at the same time. According to Penrose, this superposition is unstable and at some point it collapses, undergoing what he calls “objective reduction”, leaving a single state. This should be the time for conscious experience.
“According to Penrose and Hameroff, the overlays come from what are called microtubules (small tubular protein structures) in neurons.”
Why were many scientists skeptical?
“Quantum effects, like overlays, are very vulnerable. They are easily disturbed by their environment. In the laboratory, quantum processes are therefore studied and observed under extremely controlled conditions and at low temperatures, generally around -272 ° C. The human body, on the other hand, operates at room temperature. Layering in the warm, humid environment of cells is not expected to last long enough to affect brain processes.
Why are you doing experimental research on this now?
“There are recent findings which cast doubt on the above. In 2014, for example, the graphene material was discovered. It is a slice of carbon atoms one atom thick layer. Quantum processes seem to be able to take place in this material at around 27 ° C. In addition, graphene is made up of carbon, which is also the main part of microtubules. In my opinion, these results indicate that it is not impossible for the necessary quantum effects to take place in our bodies. “
In the body you also see fractal structures, for example in the lungs, for the absorption of oxygen
You have also studied quantum behavior in fractal structures.
“Many structures in nature and in our bodies are fractals. Fractals are geometric objects whose structure repeats over and over again as you zoom in. An example is a tree that begins with a large trunk that branches off, the branches always having the same structure.
“In nature, a fractal structure is beneficial for exchange processes because it can cover a large area and contain a lot of empty space, such as the space between the branches of a tree. 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 the absorption of oxygen, in the bloodstream and even in the rhythm of your heart. And also in the neural network of your brain.
“The question is how consciousness arises in this ever-branching structure. For this, the information must be sent through this fractal network. According to Penrose and Hameroff, this is done via quantum processes. “
How do you test this in an experiment?
“We are studying how information can move through a fractal. We did this by measuring the transport of injected light into three different fractal structures of a few millimeters, which were laser drawn onto a chip. One was the Sierpinski triangle, an equilateral triangle made up of three small equilateral triangles with an inverted triangle hole in the center. This pattern is repeated on an increasingly large scale.
“We know how classical transport takes place through a fractal structure. This was described in the 1980s by Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, from an ant in a fractal “labyrinth”. We have now looked at how quantum transport crosses a fractal, using light particles, which are quantum particles.
“The experiments, performed and conducted under the supervision of Professor Xian-Min Jin of Shanghai Jiaotong University, have shown that the behavior of quantum particles moving through a fractal is significantly different from that of a classical particle, such as than an ant. “
This is how it can feel, like your head is in many states at the same time
How does this relate to quantum consciousness?
“For that, we have to compare our results with the brain. If we observe the same behavior there, then we can prove that quantum processes take place in the fractal structure of neurons in the brain. Our fractals, through which light travels, are therefore a small step in the investigation. We are not there yet. Consciousness is so complex that its understanding requires collaboration between physicists, chemists, biologists, neuroscientists and philosophers.
Do you think that consciousness can arise from quantum processes?
“Yes, I certainly think it could. In quantum physics, you have the collapse of the wave function. It is something that is in different states at the same time, like a coin tossed. As it tumbles through the air it’s both heads and tails, as soon as the coin lands the wave function crumbles and there is only one option left: toss or toss. It seems very natural to me that the brain uses quantum processes to study different possibilities at the same time. You may also feel like your head is in several states at the same time. When the wave function breaks down, you are aware of something. In my opinion, then, it would make sense for consciousness to be quantum.
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