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The Quantum Mind

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I’ve been trying to understand the ideas put forward by someone I recently had an online chat with. Without wanting to paraphrase too much, the concepts that were presented are often referred to as quantum consciousness or the quantum mind. I don’t want to definitively align the original arguments precisely with these theories but that seems to be the idea that most closely resembles what was put to me.

I wanted to reply in the original Facebook thread but after several hours of writing and revising what I thought I knew about the subject I had over 2500 words written and that sort of response does not go across too well on such fast paced social media, especially several weeks after the original discussion; also this is an area that required a lot more than a cursory glance. So here hopefully, is a more considered response.

The Propositions

First, let me recap my understanding of the hypothesis, then at least any mistaken assumptions I may be making can be revised and corrected in the future. A key tenet of this theory is that consciousness cannot be explained by classical mechanics; this proposition, while I don’t fully accept its truth, is something I can relate to fully. The idea that consciousness miraculously emerges out of pure biological mechanisms seems literally unbelievable, it seems deeply unintuitive, and when analysed further is very troubling to many in arguments concerning sentience, free will and the concept of self. I will come back to this later for further discussion – for now let’s just say I totally understand why we humans have a problem believing our consciousness is purely material or deterministic.

The second proposition is that quantum theory in the past century has blown holes in all of our previous understandings of classical physics and certainly our own intuition. We know full well that quantum theory is not compatible with general relativity – this has led many to search for a deeper ‘unified theory of everything’ – so far that search is in vain and most physicists would probably say we’re not even close! More remarkable than anything though are the discoveries of quantum theory; things like superposition, quantum entanglement, the uncertainty principle present conclusions that are as alien to us humans as any sci-fi movie. Quantum physics makes little sense, it’s counter-intuitive, it goes against all other known physics and yet it’s ability to make astoundingly precise and repeatable predictions is not in any doubt. The universe is truly queerer than we supposed.

The Quantum Mind

While no one is in doubt that quantum theory is a real thing, its connection to consciousness is somewhat more dubious. Firstly I’d like to address quantum superposition. The premise of this is that a quantum system (a sub-atomic particle such as a photon) can be in more than 1 position at any given time so long as it remains unobserved. It can be spinning in 2 different directions and can even take many different paths from one location to another. Most physicists agree that this is true but simply imagining what this means is why quantum theory is so alien. Think about it again: a sub-atomic particle seems able to take more than one path from point A to point B – then when it arrives at point B it is observed, and subsequently ‘collapses’ into one single path, one single history. Yet, and this is the crucial part, its position of detection at point B is a position it couldn’t possibly have ended up at were it to have only had a single history. The strange thing is that the histories interact with each other in what appears to be a waveform, and they interact in a way that seems to correlate very closely with both probability and wave theory in classical physics – “If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet” – Neils Bohr. To many this sounds like science fiction but it has in fact been an established scientific theory for nearly a century now and has a great deal of empirical evidence supporting it.

The problem comes in the next step. This critical next step, which goes as follows – if the sub-atomic particle is unobserved then it doesn’t exist in any state, therefore we can’t say with certainty that reality exists outside our own observations. Quantum theory seems to be suggesting that it is the very act of observing that brings reality into it’s collapsed state, without that conscious observation reality doesn’t necessarily exist.

Now, this is the point at which the majority of physicists diverge away from a very small minority who concur with this viewpoint. The main argument here, that is often only implicitly stated, is that the observer has to be conscious in order for the superposition collapse to take place. There are 2 sides to this argument

  1. How can we ever possibly disprove this? In order to do this there would have to be a history that at some point led to conscious observation, how can we disprove that the collapse took place at that moment and at some unconscious observation instead?
  2. How can we possibly prove this? What experiment can be devised such that the unconscious observer can be shown to have a different effect to the conscious observer? At some point both tests must come into contact with a consciousness to be known by them.

I’m not a quantum physicist, it’s just an interest, so I couldn’t possibly devise the experiment. But it seems that to assume that consciousness was necessary in these experiments is to say that, not observation, but consciousness itself is required for reality to exist. This would be deeply profound and would be an incredible discovery. However, I would posit that something as extraordinary as this would require evidence of the highest calibre; we believe the remarkableness of quantum mechanics not because it’s theoretically interesting but because it has vast amounts of empirical evidence and makes incredibly precise, repeatable predictions. To postulate a theory of reality dependent on consciousness would require a similar amount of evidence in support.

An alternative and widely held viewpoint, however, is that a superposition state will collapse when subject to any detection, unconscious or otherwise. It could be argued that this viewpoint might have a similar lack of evidence, but it does goes a long way to explaining why quantum effects are so very rarely observed by conscious observers on ‘macro-sized’ systems in the ‘macro’ world (it’s not impossible, just incredibly rare). All a sub-atomic particle needs to do is interact with some other particle or molecule or larger object and it will then collapse. It provides some explanation as to why macro-sized objects don’t behave in the way quantum systems do – and why the macro-world is so very consistent in this regard.

But… What’s Consciousness?

… and it is a big but. This does leave us with the problem of what consciousness is and where it comes from.

Well, luckily I’m a little more knowledgeable about this subject and I’m very much aware of the advances in neuroscience that have gone some way to trying to answer this, one of the deepest of questions that there is.

Firstly let’s consider a few facts about consciousness that science certainly does have a view on and that most people are blissfully unaware of, starting with the most deeply profound of all. There’s very little evidence that the decisions you make are being made by your consciousness; by your brain yes, but not by what most would call their conscious self.

Benjamin Libet’s work from the 1980’s (I have no idea why this isn’t taught in schools) is a cornerstone in this area of study and well worth reading in some depth. Without going into too much detail here, the main conclusion is that most people are made aware of their decisions by their brain but their consciousness doesn’t actually make those decisions. Most of the decisions you make (including the next thing you type, the next thing you eat or whether you read to the end of this blog post) belong to processes in neural networks deep in your brain. They are made several seconds before you’re aware of them. The various motor neural centres of the brain for controlling movement of the arms, legs, mouth etc. are triggered, calling on stored motor routines (standing up, walking, opening the fridge). These processes can take several seconds to prepare and fire off the action. The subjects of Dr Libet’s experiments report consciously making a decision to move after those seconds have elapsed and the motor neuron began to fire (incidentally in future experiments in fMRI machines we also see activity in the higher brain especially around frontal lobe at this point – typically this activates when the subject reports making a conscious decision).

As a small thought experiment: Imagine the situation was different, imagine your conscious mind did make a decision to stand up. You would have to wait a second or two for your brain to fire the correct neural centres and for your body to respond – it would be like playing a laggy video game.

We see this phenomenon of neural processing making our decisions all the time. Let’s take 2 driving examples. These examples assume you’re a seasoned driver with responses already stored in the motor centres in your brain.

  1. A child (or cat or whatever) runs out in front of your car while you’re driving and you immediately slam on the brakes and stop the car. Anyone who has been in this situation will likely have congratulated themselves on stopping the car before they even knew what was going on. And yes, given that you are your brain and not just the conscious part of it you should be commended, well done! This is an example of the brain detecting an emergency situation and responding by triggering pre-stored motor reflexes (as long as you’re an experienced driver). The system in your brain that would normally let the consciousness know what’s happening and supply it with a feeling of volition is overridden; volition it’s not part of the emergency procedure, it’s not an essential. The consciousness is largely superfluous in this scenario and gets cut out of the process until later.
  2. Again while driving, perhaps on the route to work, some route you’ve driven a thousand times (or perhaps riding a bike or even walking), your conscious mind wanders to thinking about all sorts of other things – and leaves the driving to your subconscious. We’ve all done it, and sometimes the hippocampus doesn’t even find the experience significant enough to record the memory. We end up getting to work without remembering the much of the journey. When this happens your subconscious mind (or unconscious mind depending on the school of definitions you prefer) drove you to work and left you none-the-wiser about the experience.

These 2 scenarios have a lot to do with the brain’s ability to step in during emergency scenarios (an evolutionary survival trait, since taking those vital few seconds to engage the consciousness might mean you end up as something’s lunch), and also to allow us to conduct mundane tasks without boredom setting in (our consciousness is allowed to observe streams of thought about all sorts of other things while the rest of the brain gets on with driving the car).

But what about when we feel that we are actually making a considered and conscious decision? Well it seems this isn’t all it’s thought to be either, even though it certainly feels as if we’re making the decision to have 7up instead of Pepsi numerous experiments have provided huge amounts of empirical evidence for our consciousness’ lack of decision making. Using EEG and fMRI machines among others it can be shown that many of our decisions are made between 2 and 8 seconds before we’re consciously aware of them.

Let’s imagine that right now you are wired to an EEG machine that can detect small fluctuations in your brain patterns. Then you are asked to simply put your right hand flat on the table and lift your index finger at random intervals over the next 60 seconds, all the time the EEG is sending live information about your brain wave patterns to a computer screen. It would probably take a few passes of the experiment to get a base reading of what your brain looks like just before a ‘finger raise’ but in a relatively short time, the computer would be able to report that you were about to raise your finger a second before you did it. No matter how hard you focus, concentrate and try to catch the computer out, it would see the neural networks in your motor centres firing before your finger lifted up. You would remain convinced of your own volition, subjectively observing the decision as if you’d just made it. But you haven’t, it was made elsewhere in your brain a second before.

It would seem that in day-to-day life consciousness really doesn’t do that much except be convinced that it does a lot.

There is one final and important point to make about consciousness and that is its consistent degradation with physical injury or damage to the brain. It seems that as the brain is affected physically, by disease, by trauma, by chemical compounds (drugs) then relevant brain operations are also affected accordingly; our motor reflexes, our ability to sense, our ability to balance among many other functions, and of course, our consciousness. They all degrade and are similarly affected by the physical brain as much as each other, consciousness it seems is affected by the physical as if it were dependent on it – not the other way around.

Based on current evidence there are few conclusions we can draw that would make us comfortable or that seem intuitive, nevertheless the evidence suggests that we are a product of our entire brains and that consciousness is merely a part of that. I’m afraid that neuroscience, philosophy and psychology have knocked consciousness down from the glorious centre of our beings to the processing in a neural network. But there is hope, and this comes from biological evolution.

While science debunks our cherished ideas of consciousness being some ethereal spiritual entity and reduces it to the product of a deterministic system, evolution simultaneously posits ideas as to what it might be for. Consciousness is a result of thousands of years of natural selection. I’ve heard it argued that subjective consciousness could just be a by-product of a neural network as complex as our brain. It’s possible but personally I don’t go for that, it is far too involved in the brain’s processing patterns to be a mere by-product. I would suggest it has some evolutionary advantage. As far as I can see there are 2 broad ways in which it can be useful

  1. It actually does make some decisions – I hope I haven’t ruled this out completely, I just haven’t found any convincing empirical data for it yet
  2. It is involved as part of an intricate feedback loop for the brain to handle very complex decisions that require the processing of multiple sources of information (i.e. it acts as a ‘desktop’ where summaries of information can be brought together) visual and auditory input can be analysed, drawing on memories, applying pattern matching, reasoning and logic. Maybe it’s a way of the brain being able to analyse large amounts of complex information over time (a few seconds, hours, days, weeks). The eventual actions that result from this analysis will still be generated in the motor centres at the end of the analysis, but unlike the child in the road, the situation is recognised as complex and nuanced and requiring the processing of a large amount of information before reaching a conclusion and reacting

This would have many evolutionary advantages

  • being able to outwit predators, building walls, weapons and other defences
  • being able to outwit prey by devising traps and ambushes
  • being able to develop empathy – which would in turn enable a community or team effort
  • devising better and more elaborate tools for getting food and avoiding adverse weather conditions

Thinking about it there are dozens of evolutionary advantages a conscious being would have over a non-conscious opponent, such that a non-conscious rival race could very easily succumb to the process of natural selection. The genetics required for a conscious part of the human brain are prolific maybe because they enable the brain, the individual and perhaps even the group or species to adapt to complex situations in a world where being able to adapt is a survival advantage.

Free Will

There is an important argument regarding free will (which has no bearing on the truth or falsity of this view of consciousness). Put crudely the argument could be stated as: since I’m not in control of my decisions then why not just quit my job and sit in bed eating chocolate every day. My conscious mind isn’t responsible, I’m not accountable. For this I have 2 immediate responses, I’m sure there are more eloquent way of verbalising these positions

  1. Taking no responsibility is still making a decision – your brain is making the decision based on input it has interpreted and comprehended (i.e. this post) – your brain is still responsible – it is you
  2. Go ahead. Do it. Quit your job, sit in bed, eat chocolate. Hell, have some ice cream too. I’ll bet you won’t make it past 24 hours of sitting in bed before your brain will make the decision to get up and go out and do something else.

Free will is not ‘random behaviour’ (something we know we are almost entirely incapable of) but it is the freedom to make decisions based on current experience, current knowledge, stored memories, imagined predicted future consequences and to some extent genetics. It is the freedom for your brain to draw the conclusions it does without external entities (people, governments) explicitly making the decision for you.

Further Reading

I can provide a great deal of further reading on this, for now though here are 2 great books on the subject

Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again” – Andy Clark [0262032406, 9780262032407] – An excellent introduction to the subject of the brain and body as immersive systems in the world, how the seemingly well-defined lines between brain, body and world are really not so rigid at all and we don’t just take part in the world, we’re immersed in it

Being and Perceiving” – Dan Haycock [0956962106, 978-0956962102] – A very thorough compendium of this very subject, providing detailed accounts of all the major brain areas and functions, how these relate to all sort of phenomenon such as mental disorders, nervous breakdowns, brain damage, religious experiences, hallucinogens and then onto community, culture, civilisation and a whole chapter analysing various different forms that religion takes throughout history and around the world, though it is nearly 700 pages (138 of which are just references and bibliography) so I’ll understand if you don’t have the time for something quite this big.

http://www.quantumconsciousness.org/documents/fnint-06-0009321.pdf – Stuart Hameroff’s research paper on the effects of microtubules on the conscious mind is a technical document that goes into much more depth than I have here. Very interesting but you may need to do some introductory reading before attempting to understand the more complex parts. It makes a strong case that the effects of quantum physics on some could have some impact on the firing of neurons. However, it is not a research paper on the necessity of consciousness for reality to exist, though this subject is mentioned on page 10, “Despite the absurdity, limitations on quantum superposition remain unknown.”

Coming To Terms With It?

Don’t worry, you won’t have to.

You will not spend tomorrow connected to an EEG machine, instead you will spend it in exactly the same state as you did today. You will believe fully that you are making the decisions you think you are; convinced, without doubt, of your own volition. It’s fine. Don’t worry about it for another second. You will continue as normal because that’s what your brain does.

“Of course I have free will, I have no other choice”

And most importantly, whatever the science says about the most complex machine in the world that’s sitting inside your skull at the moment, it still does not take away from your subjective experience. We know very well that red is a frequency in the electromagnetic spectrum, we can visualise in real time the neural pathways that fire when you see that colour, but your experience is different, it’s subjective and it’s yours. Keats accused Newton of destroying the poetry of the rainbow, Keats was wrong. Knowing the details of how the rainbow comes to be, knowing how DNA molecules replicate, knowing the details of the stars in the night sky, knowing your brain has billions of neurons with trillions of synaptic connections; these details don’t destroy poetry they establish a profundity never imagined by our ancestors. They allow us a level of awe hitherto unattainable, enjoy it.


Written by matthaughton

November 3, 2014 at 11:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized