In a new study, researchers say they have laid the foundation for solving the controversial question of whether the principles of quantum mechanics can help solve one of life’s most enduring mysteries: What is consciousness?
Advocates of “quantum mind theory” suggest quantum mechanics and puzzling phenomena, such as entanglement and superposition, may play a significant role in brain function and ultimately provide the origins for human consciousness.
Conversely, some scientific stalwarts have criticized quantum mind theory, labeling it pseudoscience and “quantum quackery.”
Teasing at the edges of this controversial theory, a team of scientists led by Dr. Xian-Min Jin of China’s Shanghai Jiaotong University decided to investigate some of the underlying principles of the theory of quantum consciousness.
Publishing their findings in the journal Nature Photonics, researchers used state-of-the-art photonics experiments to examine how quantum particles might move in complex fractal structures, as hypothesized by quantum mind theory.
Theoretical physicist and study co-author Dr. Cristiane de Morais Smith says that comparing their recent findings with activity measured in the brain could once-and-for-all validate or dismiss the contentious quantum theory of consciousness.
Often erratic, with some of its best insights coming from recklessness (see: Stanford Prison Experiment), yet capable of unexpectedly delivering profound understandings; if science was a buddy-cop movie, the discipline of psychology would be Lethal Weapon’s, Martin Riggs.
Of course, the complexity of studying the human mind is perhaps not all that surprising. Psychology, after all, is a scholarly pursuit in which the object of study is being explored by the object of study.
And despite over a millennium of analysis, scrutiny, and academic debate, none of psychology’s frontiers have remained more perplexing, controversial, and unconquered than human consciousness.
For centuries, most mainstream scientists have all but avoided the topic of consciousness, thanks mainly to consciousness being seemingly impervious to objective experimental methodology. Ergo, understanding sentience has often been relegated to being the work of philosophers, mystics, or spiritualists. Essentially, belonging to the world of “woo-woo” and not “serious science.”
Yet, in the last few decades, a growing cadre of scientists have turned to quantum mechanics to see if the quirky world of atoms and subatomic particles might just be the ticket to explaining consciousness.
In the early 1990s, theoretical physicist Sir Roger Penrose and anesthesiologist Dr. Stuart Hameroff introduced one of the most prominent theories suggesting consciousness originates at the quantum level in their “orchestrated objective reduction” theory (Orch-OR).
The prevailing mainstream opinion asserts consciousness emerges as the complexity of computations performed by cerebral neurons increases. In contrast, Orch-OR, also known as “Penrose and Hameroff Theory,” proposes consciousness is based on non-computable quantum processing performed by qubits formed collectively on cellular microtubules.
Because quantum mechanical laws are typically only found in extremely low temperatures, critics argue that any quantum systems in the brain would suffer wave function collapse. Therefore, neurological functions must be governed by the classical laws of physics. Likewise, some neuroscientists have criticized Orch-OR for being dependent on brain structures that haven’t been observed.
In 2014, Penrose and Hameroff published a “reply to criticism of the ‘Orch-OR qubit'” in Physics of Life Reviews. Penrose and Hameroff revised many of their earlier assumptions in their reply while still retaining the core quantum consciousness hypothesis.
Nevertheless, in an interview with NBC News, theoretical physicist and cosmologist Dr. Lawrence Krauss said, “Well, Roger Penrose has given lots of new-age crackpots ammunition by suggesting that at some fundamental scale, quantum mechanics might be relevant for consciousness.”
While Penrose and Hameroff Theory has been largely scoffed at by mainstream science, it’s worth noting Sir Penrose doesn’t exactly have the background of a “new-age crackpot.”
In helping develop the Penrose-Hawking singularity theorems, in 1988, Penrose shared the Wolf Prize in Physics with Dr. Stephen Hawking. In 2020, Penrose won one-half of the Nobel Prize in Physics “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.”
Given that one-half of the Penrose and Hameroff Theory team is one of only 14 people to have won both a Wolf Prize and Nobel Prize, perhaps, the idea of quantum consciousness warrants more careful consideration and a little less cynicism.
Each neuron in the brain contains tiny polymers of tubulin called microtubules. Microtubules provide structure and shape to eukaryotic cells and serve as transports by shifting substances to different parts of the neuron.
Microtubules also play a critical role in the Penrose and Hameroff theory of quantum consciousness by postulating that these highly dynamic structures provide suitable hosts for quantum behavior. Specifically, Penrose and Hameroff’s theory asserts that microtubules are structured in fractal patterns, thus allowing quantum processes to occur.
Mathematically speaking, a fractal is a subset of Euclidean space with a fractal dimension that strictly exceeds its topological dimension. Simplified, that essentially means that fractals are configurations that represent some fractional value in-between two-dimensional or three-dimensional space.
Fractals infinitely repeat themselves, producing structures with a finite area and infinite perimeter, forming stunningly complex and beautiful patterns.
From DNA, lightning bolts, clouds, rainfall, snowflakes, lake shorelines and river networks, mountain ranges, plants to ocean waves, there are virtually limitless examples of fractals occurring throughout the natural world.
Capable of astonishing complexity, yet driven by simplicity and remarkably common, it’s not a giant leap to consider if fractal patterns may hold the keys to unlocking the mystery of consciousness.
A significant shortcoming of the Penrose and Hameroff theory of quantum consciousness is that scientists have yet to discover the existence of quantum fractals in the brain. Thanks to advances in scanning tunneling microscope (STM) technology, however, researchers can now measure quantum fractals in a lab setting.
In research published in the journal Nature Physics in 2018, scientists from Utrecht University in the Netherlands were able to create and measure the wave functions of a Sierpinski triangle: a quantum fractal shape that exists between one-dimensional and two-dimensional.
However, scanning tunneling microscopy cannot examine how quantum particles move, which is significant to understanding how quantum processes might occur in the brain.
To rectify this, physicists from Utrecht University and Shanghai Jiaotong University in China injected photons into an artificial chip that had been meticulously engineered in the shape of a Sierpiński triangle.
Researchers were able to watch as the photons spread throughout the structure by injecting photons at the tip of the triangle, revealing unprecedented details about how quantum motion takes place within fractals. Researchers introduced two different fractal structures shaped like squares and repeated the same experiment hundreds of times while monitoring the quantum transport process.
Observations from these experiments revealed that quantum fractals behave differently than classical fractals.
“Specifically, we found that the spread of light across a fractal is governed by different laws in the quantum case compared to the classical case,” study co-author Dr. de Morais Smith wrote in The Conversation.
Ultimately, researchers say the new knowledge gained from their experiments provides a foundation for scientists to experimentally test the Penrose and Hameroff theory of quantum consciousness.
Provided the technology emerges to allow for quantum measurements in the human brain, this data could be compared against the researcher’s observations of quantum fractal motion to conclude whether consciousness is a phenomenon governed by classical or quantum mechanics.
“Our work could also have profound implications across scientific fields,” wrote Dr. de Morais Smith.
“By investigating quantum transport in our artificially designed fractal structures, we may have taken the first tiny steps towards the unification of physics, mathematics, and biology, which could greatly enrich our understanding of the world around us as well as the world that exists in our heads.”