Quantum mechanics and consciousness: what’s the connection?

In the quantum world, there is some profound weirdness that inspires great mathematicians and scientists around the world to come up with some outlandish explanations – but none of these explanations are anything but mysticism. It is widely believed that consciousness can direct quantum systems – and thus modify reality.

Quantum mechanics are beyond bizarre in their behavior. A single object can exist in more than one place at the same time, communicate faster than light, or experience multiple timelines at the same time. Thereafter, they communicate with each other. Atoms and photons live in a tiny quantum world governed by unfathomable laws. The mathematics of quantum mechanics give us an incredible amount of power to predict the behavior of quantum systems. Despite quantum mechanics’ stunning success, we are still debating its equations and the strangeness they represent nearly a century after its invention.

A fundamental question in science is how our consciousness emerges. Anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff and physicist Roger Penrose proposed an ambitious answer to the black hole mystery in the 1990s, long before Penrose won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2020.

Their theory was that the brain’s neuronal system forms a complex grid structure, and that consciousness produced by that system is determined by quantum mechanics, which governs how a tiny particle like an electron travels around. The complexity of human consciousness might be explained by this, they argue.

Incredulity was shown towards Penrose and Hameroff. It is typically found that quantum mechanical law only applies at extremely low temperatures. Computers that operate at -272°C, for example, are quantum computers. Classical mechanics is dominant at higher temperatures. We expect that our body is governed by classical laws of physics since it operates at room temperature. Many scientists, however, have disregarded the quantum consciousness theory out of hand – while others remain convinced of its validity.

Some scientists believe consciousness is generated by quantum processes, but the theory is yet to be empirically tested.

In order to test some of the principles that underpin the quantum theory of consciousness, Cristiane de Morais Smith, Professor, Theoretical Physics, Utrecht University. decided rather than enter this debate on her own to work with colleagues from China at Shanghai Jiaotong University.

By using a complex lab setup, they investigated how quantum particles move in a complex structure like the brain. By comparing their findings with brain activity one day, they may be one step closer to validating or dismissing Penrose and Hameroff’s controversial theories.

Fractals and brains

Consciousness is thought to be generated by the combined activity of cells called neurons in the brain. Various substances are transported by microtubules within a neuron. Penrose and Hameroff argue that microtubules are fractal, and thus can play a role in quantum processes.

There are fractals that are neither two-dimensional nor three-dimensional, but are instead some fractional value in between. Fractales are beautiful patterns found in mathematics that repeatedly repeat themselves, giving rise to what appears impossible: a structure with a finite area and an infinite perimeter.

The phenomenon of fractals occurs frequently in nature despite the difficulty of visualizing them. A closely inspected cauliflower floret or fern branch exhibits the same basic shape repeated over and over again, but at smaller and smaller scales. Fractals are characterized by this characteristic.

Similarly, fractal structures are also found inside our bodies. For instance, the structure of our lungs is fractal, as are the blood vessels in our circulatory system. In addition to MC Escher and Jackson Pollock’s repeating artworks, fractals have been applied to technology for decades, including antenna design. Rather than being governed by quantum physics, classic fractals obey the laws of classical physics.

This extension of Escher’s Circle Limit III shows its fractal, repeating nature. Credit: Vladimir-Bulatov/Deviantart, 

Fractals are a great tool for explaining complex phenomena such as human consciousness. They may be the structures that support our mysterious minds because they are incredibly intricate, allowing complexity to emerge from simple repeating patterns.

But if this is the case, it must be happening at the quantum level, as tiny particles would move in fractal patterns within the neurons of the brain. It is for this reason that Penrose and Hameroff call their proposal a quantum consciousness theory.

Consciousness in quantum mechanics

There has yet to be any measurement of quantum fractals in the brain – assuming they exist at all. Nonetheless, advances in technology have made it possible to measure quantum fractals in the lab. Researchers at Utrecht and Cristiane used scanning tunneling microscopes (STMs) to arrange electrons in fractal patterns, which resulted in the creation of a quantum fractal.

After measuring the wave function of electrons that describe their quantum state, they found that they too lived at fractal dimensions dictated by the pattern they’d made. A Sierpiński triangle, which can be described as an n-dimensional, two-dimensional, or a three-dimensional shape, was used for our quantum scale in this case.

Although this was an exciting discovery, STM techniques can’t measure quantum particle movement – which would tell them more about how quantum processes could occur in the brain. Cristiane’s colleagues at Shanghai Jiaotong University and she went a step further with their most recent study. Their observations of quantum motion within the fractals are unprecedented, thanks to state-of-the-art photonics experiments.

A tiny Sierpiński triangle was engineered into a chip with photons (particles of light) injected into it. Quantum transport is a process by which photons are injected at the tip of the triangle, then observed how they spread throughout the fractal structure. Using different fractal structures, both square rather than triangle shaped, we repeated this experiment. Their experiments were conducted in hundreds of these structures.

Experiments were also conducted on a square-shaped fractal called the Sierpiński carpet. Credit: Johannes Rössel/wikimedia

They have discovered that quantum fractals behave differently than classical ones in these experiments. Their study found that light is dealt with differently in a quantum case than it is in a classical case when it spreads across a fractal.

Quantum consciousness theory may be experimentally tested with the help of this knowledge of quantum fractals. It may be possible to determine whether consciousness is a classical or quantum phenomenon one day by taking quantum measurements from the brain.

The research they did could also have a profound impact on other science fields as well. It is possible that they have made the first tiny steps toward the unification of mathematics, physics, and biology through the study of quantum transport in our artificially created fractal structures, which would greatly enrich their understanding of the world around them as well as the world within them.

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