Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Is Consciousness a Result of Quantum Mechanics?

Stuart Hameroff, an anesthesiologist and director of the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona, argues that the highest function of life—consciousness—is likely a quantum phenomenon too. This is illustrated, he says, through anesthetics. The brain of a patient under anesthesia continues to operate actively, but without a conscious mind at work. What enables anesthetics such as xenon or isoflurane gas to switch off the conscious mind?

Hameroff speculates that anesthetics “interrupt a delicate quantum process” within the neurons of the brain. Each neuron contains hundreds of long, cylindrical protein structures, called microtubules, that serve as scaffolding. Anesthetics, Hameroff says, dissolve inside tiny oily regions of the microtubules, affecting how some electrons inside these regions behave.

He speculates that the action unfolds like this: When certain key electrons are in one “place,” call it to the “left,” part of the microtubule is squashed; when the electrons fall to the “right,” the section is elongated. But the laws of quantum mechanics allow for electrons to be both “left” and “right” at the same time, and thus for the micro­tubules to be both elongated and squashed at once. Each section of the constantly shifting system has an impact on other sections, potentially via quantum entanglement, leading to a dynamic quantum-mechanical dance.

It is in this faster-than-light subatomic communication, Hameroff says, that consciousness is born. Anesthetics get in the way of the dancing electrons and stop the gyration at its quantum-mechanical core; that is how they are able to switch consciousness off.

It is still a long way from Hameroff’s hypo­thetical (and experimentally unproven) quantum neurons to a sentient, conscious human brain. But many human experiences, Hameroff says, from dreams to subconscious emotions to fuzzy memory, seem closer to the Alice in Wonderland rules governing the quantum world than to the cut-and-dried reality that classical physics suggests. Discovering a quantum portal within every neuron in your head might be the ultimate trip through the looking glass.

For a key paper, go here.


James Horn said...

I remember coming across this microtubule business in Roger Penrose's book, The Emperor's New Mind--who is Hameroff's main collaborator. I thought it was a much more compelling way to try to make sense of human computation (cognition) than the strong AI guys, who have always, it seems to me, focused on building a machine to model the brain and then pretending that the brain act like the model we built.

The idea that all human insight/thought may result from all this action going on within the brain chemistry in the quantum world below the level that would impose macro rules (1 graviton) is theoretically sweet. Of course, it has led those who follow the philosophical trail to conclude that Penrose is a closet Platonist of sorts, trying to sniff out a trail to the world of Forms.

Check out this page:

Anonymous said...

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Lking4truth said...

I find it interesting that quantum physics and some Buddhist meditation teachings continue to compliment each other. Some Buddhist meditation teaches to ignore the thinking mind, They teach this b/c it is impossible to quiet the mind or stop the mind from thinking, The thoughts will continue on there own and in fact at the core level can not be controlled. The conscious mind can only be aware of a limited number of thoughts. All thoughts are energy forces that are in the body as well as all around the body (similar to thread or a cocoon around the body). Some of the thoughts actually project out (like string) and connect to future events and yes these thoughts will also in theory connect the person to another life/next life. (This of course compliments the ‘String Theory”). The teaching is that thoughts themselves are energy forces that can not be created or destroyed. Following this law, the thoughts will continue on until they reconnect to the original source of creation itself. The purpose of meditation is to allow the countless thoughts to be freed off to return back to the universe.

K.T. said...

“consciousness—is likely a quantum phenomenon too” That sounds o fascinating. This blog reminds me of the movie “What the Bleep Do We Know!?” This talks about the conscious mind and quantum physics. It also shows a perspective on the physical universe and human life as well as connections to neuroscience and quantum physics. I found it really appealing.

I’ve always wondered what makes that voice inside our head happen. How come we’re the only ones who can hear it? Can that be explained by science? These are all questions that I find so interesting and I wish I would have an answer to. Would this be explained by the concept being discussed?