Quantum Consciousness?

So, I thought (hoped) that this blog series would be done once I finished Part IV, and I could get on to my (many, many) multiple-part investigation of the Tunguska Event — not to mention upgrading an old AI hack of mine for a freeware release (more on that in a future blog).

Alas, you know what they say about the morning after …

Well, the morning after I posted what I’d thought would be my last “Making of a Thriller” blogisode[1], I found this response from David Owen in the GoodReads “Science Fiction & Philosophy” discussion subthread dealing with “Consciousness and Free Will”[2] —

“If you assume consciousness is neural activity, then there is nothing ‘Quantum’ about it. The brain’s environment is warm and wet, and therefore quantum effects would decohere in such an environment long before they could have any impact on consciousness.”

Shades of Deepak Chopra!

Actually, I thought I’d engaged that “warm and wet” issue in this passage from the blog itself:

… quantum entanglement has been observed in such warm, wet, noisy confines as green, growing plants and birds’ brains, where it figures in phenomena like photosynthesis and navigation.

Well, when I wrote this, I had in mind a favorite scene from my 2014 technothriller Dualism.[3] Point is, as I was to discover in putting this blog together, a lot has happened in this area since 2014.

In any case, adverting momentarily to my above-quoted passage: David may simply have missed it in skimming through the previous blog, or perhaps found it too lacking in substance to constitute a proper counter-argument, and was just too polite to say so.

That latter issue, at least, I think I can address — in the form of this two-part postscript.

The Rise and Fall of Orch-OR

But to do so, I’ve first got to back up a bit, and see where that “there-is-nothing-‘Quantum’-about-consciousness” counter-claim is coming from.

And since Penrose and Hameroff’s “Orchestrated Objective Reduction” (“Orch-OR” for short) hypothesis is probably the best known of the quantum consciousness proposals ­— not to mention the principal target of the original “warm and wet” critique — we’ll start off there:

Back in the early 1990s, British theoretical physicist Sir Roger Penrose was struggling with a problem of his own making. In his 1989 book The Emperor’s New Mind[4], Sir Roger had suggested that Kurt Goedel’s 1931 incompleteness theorems[5] implied that there was more to human thought processes than any formal, algorithmic system (e.g., one running on a computer) could emulate, and that the reason might lie in the putatively quantum nature of human consciousness. This, in turn, led Sir Roger to surmise that the key to such a non-computable process was somehow tied to something called “wave function collapse” (which we’ll get into in just a moment).

But now Sir Roger was well and truly stuck: casting about for a way to ground this intuition in a neurophysiological mechanism that could enable quantum processing.

It was at this point that he was contacted by American anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff. Stuart had read The Emperor’s New Mind, and believed that Sir Roger’s missing mechanism might be a neuronal structure called a microtubule.[6] The two of them formed a collaboration (still going strong last time I checked) which resulted, inter alia, in a 1994 book by Sir Roger called Shadows of the Mind[7].

From this point on, the Orch-OR story proper begins to delve more deeply into brain physiology than I really feel comfortable commenting on. So, let’s instead just cut to the chase.

A chase that heated up, so to speak, when Swedish-American mathematical cosmologist Max Tegmark decided to put the Penrose/Hameroff hypothesis to the test.

And, as reported in Max’s 1999 article, entitled “The Importance of Quantum Decoherence in Brain Processes,”[8] what his test appeared to show (in mathematical simulation, at least) was that our grey matter was wildly inhospitable terrain for quantum phenomena of any kind — that, in fact, quantum effects could in no way survive in the human brain long enough to influence its operations. One of those operations in particular is the firing of neurons (in which Stuart Hameroff’s microtubules are directly implicated), and that takes whole milliseconds, whereas quantum effects are estimated at best to last only one ten-billionth as long (anywhere from 10-13 to 10-20 seconds)!

Why such a short quantum life expectancy? The culprit here, as David alluded to in his GoodReads comment, is an effect known as decoherence,[9] whereby environmental factors (chiefly collisions with ions and water molecules in the case of the brain) act to rapidly “dephase” (a.k.a. disrupt) the particle superpositions and other signature manifestations­­ of quantum physics.

(Sidebar: This wasn’t the first time that decoherence had been marshaled against a role for consciousness in quantum physics. In fact, when the concept was first proposed back in the 1970s, some saw it as the sought-after alternative to the apparent need for a conscious observer to resolve the so-called “measurement problem.” This was the riddle of how a particle’s smeared-out Schroedinger wave-function can suddenly “collapse” down into a definite state simply as a result of being measured. According to the reigning Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics formulated by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg back in the 1920s, what drove the wave-function collapse was a deliberate observation, a measurement, performed by a conscious observer. But what decoherence implied was that chaotic environmental factors alone were sufficient to produce such a collapse, obviating the need for conscious observers, and consciousness itself, for that matter.)

Back to Max’s Orch-OR rebuttal: there’s no need to plow through all those formulae (I didn’t) — not when you can read a watered-down account (ah, those water molecules again!) of the whole to-do in Max’s 2014 book Our Mathematical Universe.[10]

It is in OMU, incidentally, and not in his original article, that for the first time (as far as I’ve been able to determine) Max uses the phrase “a warm and wet place” to describe the brain (p. 207), a mantra which subsequent commentators on these issues (including David Owen above) have seized upon and repeated seemingly ad infinitum.

But, as with quantum decoherence itself, the problem with Max’s reprise was its timing.

In a word, 2014 was late, maybe too late, in the game. Because …

That was then — this is now.

Next (and hopefully last) time it’ll be on to what the past decade’s worth of research can tell us about quantum effects in bacteria, birds, and — you guessed it: — brains!


[1] http://www.billdesmedt.com/the-making-of-a-thriller-part-iv/.

[2] https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/21986764-consciousness-and-free-will

[3] Bill DeSmedt, “The Gods Themselves,” Dualism, 2014, https://www.amazon.com/Dualism-Archon-Sequence-Book-2-ebook/dp/B07GSHWM33/.

[4] Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind, 1989, https://www.amazon.com/Emperors-New-Mind-Concerning-Computers-ebook/dp/B074JCG4P9/.

[5] “Gödel’s incompleteness theorems,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6del%27s_incompleteness_theorems/.

[6] “Microtubule,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microtubule/.

[7] Roger Penrose, Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness, 1994, https://www.amazon.com/Shadows-Mind-Missing-Science-Consciousness-dp-0198539789/.

[8] Max Tegmark, “The Importance of Quantum Decoherence in Brain Processes,” 1999, https://space.mit.edu/home/tegmark/brain.pdf/.

BTW, the lede from Charles Seife’s reportage on the above developments read: “Sir Roger Penrose is incoherent, and Max Tegmark says he can prove it” (“Cold Numbers Unmake the Quantum Mind,” Science, 4 February 2000, https://www.science.org/doi/abs/10.1126/science.287.5454.791/). Evidently Charles had confused “decoherence” with “incoherence.” Great Moments in Science Journalism — not so much.

[9] “Quantum decoherence,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_decoherence/.

[10] Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, 2014, https://www.amazon.com/Our-Mathematical-Universe-Max-Tegmark/dp/0241954630/.