Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.
Giving a full talk about how quantum mechanics may inform us about consciousness is tricky if not outright misleading. We don’t fully understand – or agree – on the implications of quantum mechanics, and often because of misunderstandings with vocabulary people accidentally see connections to consciousness that may – or may not – really be there.
My general advice? Be patient and understanding if someone is confused about the possible connections. I know I can be at times, so treat this article as more of a primer, a starting point, in your own investigation. I will go over some ideas here and I hope to build upon them as time goes on. We can find possible connections but only if we are willing to accept others and our own shortcomings. So, here we go.
The relationship between mind and matter is discussed in many different fields, including psychology, philosophy, behavioral sciences, cognitive sciences, classical physics and quantum physics. It is with this lattermost field that shows promise in addressing some of the mysteries of consciousness, because quantum mechanics deals with the small scale world and so should play some role…but is it “efficacious and relevant for those aspects of brain activity that are correlated with mental activity”? (Atmanspacher, Hameroff 92).
It’s hard to tell. Feynman demonstrated that classical simulations of quantum processes go toward exponential slowdown, and we have trouble measuring quantum behavior in the first place because of the decoherence of complex systems. And face it, the brain is one of the most complex systems we know of (Ibid).
This is a big reason why most scientists dismiss any notion of quantum processes in the brain. In a world with decoherence seemingly causing nearly instantaneous collapse of superpositioned states, how could a complex system have any definable quantum behavior? One way out is to address alternatives to this scenario, known as the measurement problem. Does it really take an observer to cause the collapse of a quantum state? The traditional Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics makes us think so, but it’s certainly not the only option on the table (Hameroff 92).
The Everett Many Worlds Interpretation postulates that each possible quantum state does occur, just in a branching off Universe. Then there is the objective reduction (OR) approach, where some objective threshold is reached to take a quantum state and give us a classical one instead. More on this later, but sufficed to say quantum mechanics offers several possible route to explore reality (Ibid).
Initial inquiries into quantum mechanic’s role in the mind started when quantum processes were seen in plant photosynthesis, bird migration, and the sense of smell. Evidence of quantum processes in electron resonance clouds with biological processes such as proteins, lipids, and nucleic acid interiors pointed to possible shielding from environmental decoherence. Some coherent vibrations of systems even pointed to heat promoting, rather than disrupting, possible quantum coherences too (Atmanspacher, Hameroff 92).
The inquiries into quantum mechanics was also driven over the loss of a deterministic world and the rise of a random one, full of mystery to many. This notion of randomness isn’t necessarily an intuitive one, for instead quantum mechanics shows how it is not a representation of what we don’t know about a system but rather that it is a fundamental feature of reality. Radioactive decay, light emission, and similar processes are all random in their happenings as individual events, but as groupings we can gather statistical findings that are themselves not random in nature (Ibid).
Correlation vs. Causation
That random behavior that is a part of the theory can been as a correlating factor of data versus the causation of the behavior, the difference between describing a system and explaining it. It gets tricky, because sometimes a different variable can actually be causing the behavior we witness but we can make a false attribution of features. This is the domain of traditional physics, dealing with relationships to build its frame of known.
But the studies of the relationships between mind and matter convolute that approach, for what we do know is just a bunch of “empirical correlations” between mental activity and what is physically present there. That isn’t explanatory, just descriptive (Atmanspacher).
This is where different camps form, with seemingly no common ground. Many mind/matter studies propose a direct link between the physical and mental states, each influencing the other. This can be considered a monist approach. But some counter this idea with the subjective nature of our experiences, and the seemingly irreducible nature of these to the physical description alone. This leads to the hard problem of consciousness, with the seemingly insurmountable explanatory gap between the subjective and the objective (Ibid).
Others could counter both of these ideas by stating that we do not have a 100% complete understanding of physical systems, so we cannot have 100% knowledge of how they operate. There will always be some causal gap left then, and perhaps emergent behavior could surmount that. If so, it indicates that the physical brain isn’t enough of an explanation, and that something else would be needed. For many, quantum mechanics can fit that void (Ibid).
Perhaps some downward causation of mental states upon physical ones via quantum means is achieved. Perhaps some third thing is the true source of mind and matter, a dual-aspect monism, and quantum mechanics offers a window into it. Further work hopefully can illuminate this corner of physics that sometimes has more in common with metaphysics than people care it to (Ibid).
And so science works with the components of the brain to hopefully achieve some clarification. Many nonscientists point to neuron grouping firing in a certain way as the neural correlate of a mental event. Often, the groupings are differentiated by the strength of the connections to other neurons, forming a web of sorts with stronger and weaker connections throughout. Once said web fires at a rate different from its default one, then neurologists proclaim a mental event has occurred.
These are very small objects, and so we should expect quantum mechanics to play some role here, especially as a neuron sends a signal across a synapse. If the synapse is electrical in nature, then an action potential jumps from the pre-synapse to the post and down along the line. If the synapse is chemical in nature, then a transmitter opens an ion channel up (Atmanspacher, Hameroff 92).
The actual process of the pre synapse releasing the neurotransmitter is known as exocytosis, and Beck and Eccles were able to use quantum mechanics to describe portions of the process. In separate work, Flohr was able to show that NMDA receptors in the post-synapse had a plasticity to them which was correlated to self-reported conscious states, seemingly implying that by being aware, it facilitated the transference of the neurotransmitter better (Atmanspacher).
Several traditional problems can be seen with neurons. For starters, how do transitionary synapses offer us lifetime memory storage? This is the memory problem. Another issue is the binding problem, where somehow different neurons and synapses can be brought together to create a single conscious experience.
Some also note that occasional actions which are reported as being initiated by us only really occur after the action took place, seemingly putting consciousness out of the driver’s seat. And of course, the hard problem of consciousness as discussed earlier hasn’t gone away (Hameroff 93).
This is where probably one of the most popular quantum mechanics meets neuroscience topics can offer some solutions: Microtubules, which along with neurofilamnets are the cytoskeleton of neurons. The microtubules themselves are made of alpha and beta tubulin dimers arranged in a tube-like configuration. The pathways along neighboring tubulins can actually form a lattice-like structure with patterning following the Fibonacci sequence! (Atmanspacher, Hameroff 93-4).
These dimers, according to Penrose and Hameroff, are gravitationally induced to collapsing into conscious states and following OR, that “gravitational self-energy of the superposition” is the objective status required to take a superpositioned system and collapse it into a classical one. Until such criteria is met, the superpositions stack up and, once released, a conscious experience is said to occur, pointing to a non-random nature to the process (Ibid).
Microtubules make use of microtubule-associated proteins (MAPs) to develop microtubule networks, with sometimes up to a billion microtubules occurring in a single neuron! These microtubules stay with a neuron throughout its life, which unlike traditional cells does not undergo division (where everything – including microtubules – are split). And so become established.
These microtubules in the brain can have special MAPs which cap microtubules in dendrites (small extensions of neurons, enabling connections) and prevent depolarization, essentially allowing for a stable configuration of information encoding and memory storage (Hameroff 94).
Using this framework, Penrose and Hameroff developed their Orchestrated OR theory, or Orch-OR. In this work, certain synaptic activity causes the tubulins present in the microtubules to develop certain quantum states known as qubits. Depending on the values of these qubits and the firing pattern, superposition of state can occur until the OR moment is achieved, causing a collapse into a classical tubulin state that then dictates how the neuron will respond and send its signal down an axon. This is where the conscious experience is finally achieved, upon the collapse and transition from quantum to classical (95).
While not necessarily a clear link, a study by Jack Tuszynski (University of Alberta in Canada) does point to a quantum link with microtubules and anesthetic drugs. Blue light was shined onto microtubules and over a few minutes photons became trapped in molecular structures. These photons were energetic, and overtime they would be reemitted by the microtubules via delayed luminescence. Within a few hundred milliseconds, half the light would be emitted. The interesting part was when anesthetic drugs were applied the delayed luminescence was reduced in length by almost 20%. This implies that these drugs are reducing the capacity to maintain quantum states, and if microtubules play the role Orch-OR suspects they do then this could be why we lose consciousness when given anesthetic drugs. Similar research by Gregory Scholes and Aarat Kalra (Princeton University) suggests this correlation too (Lewton).
The one issue with Orch-OR is still the why, in this case, why does that lead to a conscious experience? I offer that it is at this very point that one should divert one’s energy to exploring more. Here, we have offered some insight into why quantum mechanics was approached but perhaps should be considered as just a partial route of exploration. That hard problem of consciousness is tricky for a reason, and so is quantum mechanics, but perhaps the answer lies elsewhere…
Atmanspacher, Harald. “Quantum Approaches to Consciousness.” Plato.stanford.edu. Stanford University, 16 Apr. 2020. Web. 11 Aug. 2020.
Hameroff, Stuart. “Quantum Walks in Brain Microtubules – A Biomolecular Basis for Quantum Cognition?” Topics in Cognitive Science 6 (2014) 92–95.
Lewton, Thomas. “ A quantum of consciousness.” New Scientist. New Scientist, 23 Apr. 2022. Print. 8.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Leonard Kelley