Is Quantum Physics a Constraint on Consciousness? We Are Getting Closer to Discovering
How consciousness is established is one of the most critical unanswered topics in science. Long before he won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics for his forecast of black holes, physicist Roger Penrose collaborated with anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff to suggest an audacious solution in the 1990s.
They asserted that the brain’s neural system comprises an intricate network and that the consciousness it generates should follow the rules of quantum mechanics – the theory that governs the movement of small particles such as electrons. This, they suggest, may account for the enigmatic intricacy of human awareness.
Penrose and Hameroff encountered skepticism. Generally, quantum mechanical rules are discovered to apply only at extremely low temperatures. Quantum computers, for example, operate at a temperature of approximately -272°C. When temperatures rise above a certain point, classical mechanics takes over.
Given that human body operates at ambient temperature, one would expect it to obey classical physics equations. As a result, many scientists have categorically rejected the quantum consciousness theory – yet others are convinced proponents.
Rather than engage in this argument, I chose to collaborate with colleagues in China, led by Professor Xian-Min Jin of Shanghai Jiaotong University, to test some of the fundamental concepts of quantum consciousness.
In our new research, we examined how quantum particles may behave in a complex structure such as the brain – but in a laboratory situation. If our findings can be matched to brain activity in the future, we will be one step closer to validating or invalidating Penrose and Hameroff’s contentious idea.
The human brain with fractals
Our brains are made up of neurons, and it is believed that their combined activity generates consciousness. Each neuron has microtubules, which are responsible for transporting chemicals throughout the cell. According to the Penrose-Hameroff hypothesis of quantum consciousness, microtubules have a fractal structure that enables quantum processes to occur.
Fractals are formations that are neither two-dimensional nor three-dimensional, but fall somewhere in the between. Fractals are beautiful patterns that repeat infinitely in mathematics, yielding what appears to be an impossibility: a structure with a finite area but an infinite perimeter.
While this may appear tough to visualize, fractals occur regularly in nature. If you examine the florets of a cauliflower or the branches of a fern closely, you will notice that both are composed of the same basic shape repeated on smaller and smaller scales. That is a fundamental property of fractals.
The same holds true when looking at your own body: the structure of your lungs, for example, as well as the blood veins in your circulatory system, are fractal. Fractals also appear in the enthralling repetitive artworks of MC Escher and Jackson Pollock, and have been used in technology for decades, for example, in the design of antennas.
All of these are examples of classical fractals – fractals that follow conventional physics laws rather than quantum physics laws.
It is easy to see why fractals have been employed to illustrate human consciousness’s complexity. They may be the structures that support the unknown depths of our thoughts since they are infinitely intricate, allowing complexity to grow from basic repetitive patterns.
However, if this is the case, it is possible that this is occurring at the quantum level, with tiny particles moving in fractal patterns within the neurons of the brain. That is why Penrose and Hameroff refer to their proposal as a “quantum consciousness”
Conscience at the quantum level
We are unable to quantify the behavior of quantum fractals in the brain — if they even exist. However, advances in technology enable us to currently detect quantum fractals in the laboratory. My colleagues at Utrecht and I have created a quantum fractal by carefully arranging electrons in a fractal shape using a scanning tunneling microscope (STM).
When we measured the electrons’ wave function, which represents their quantum state, we discovered that they, too, resided in the fractal dimension governed by the physical pattern we created. On the quantum scale, we employed the Sierpiski triangle, a geometry that lies between one and two dimensions.
This is an interesting discovery, but STM techniques are unable to explore the motion of quantum particles — which would provide additional insight into how quantum processes might occur in the brain. As a result, my colleagues at Shanghai Jiaotong University and I took our research a step further in our most recent study. We were able to reveal the quantum motion occurring within fractals in unprecedented detail using state-of-the-art photonics techniques.
This was accomplished by inserting photons (light particles) into a man-made chip that had been painstakingly designed into a miniature Sierpiski triangle.
We injected photons into the triangle’s tip and observed how they propagated across the triangle’s fractal structure via a mechanism called quantum transport. We next performed the experiment with two different fractal structures, both of which were square-shaped rather than triangle-shaped. And we ran hundreds of experiments in each of these structures.
Our findings indicate that quantum fractals behave differently from classical fractals. We discovered that the quantum scenario governs the dispersion of light across a fractal differently than the classical situation.
This new understanding of quantum fractals may lay the groundwork for scientists to test the theory of quantum consciousness empirically. If quantum measurements of the human brain are ever made, they can be compared to our findings to determine definitively whether consciousness is a classical or a quantum phenomena.
Additionally, our work may have far-reaching ramifications for other scientific domains. By examining quantum transport in our intentionally constructed fractal structures, we may have made the first little steps toward the unification of physics, mathematics, and biology, which would substantially enhance our understanding of both the physical world and the world inside our heads.
Cristiane de Morais Smith, Utrecht University, Professor of Theoretical Physics.
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