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Quantum Physics Could Finally Explain Consciousness, Scientists Say

 During the 20th century, researchers pushed the frontiers of science further than ever before with great strides made in two very distinct fields. While physicists discovered the strange counter-intuitive rules that govern the subatomic world, our understanding of how the mind works burgeoned.

Yet, in the newly-created fields of quantum physics and cognitive science, difficult and troubling mysteries still linger, and occasionally entwine. Why do quantum states suddenly resolve when they’re measured, making it at least superficially appear that observation by a conscious mind has the capacity to change the physical world? What does that tell us about consciousness?

Popular Mechanics spoke to three researchers from different fields for their views on a potential quantum consciousness connection. Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: a theoretical physicist, an experimental physicist, and a professor of philosophy walk into a bar …

Early quantum physicists noticed through the double-slit experiment that the act of attempting to measure photons as they pass through wavelength-sized slits to a detection screen on the other side changed their behavior.

This measurement attempt caused wave-like behavior to be destroyed, forcing light to behave more like a particle. While this experiment answered the question “is light a wave or a particle?” — it’s neither, with properties of both, depending on the circumstance — it left behind a more troubling question in its wake. What if the act of observation with the human mind is actually causing the world to manifest changes, albeit on an incomprehensibly small scale?

Renowned and reputable scientists such as Eugene Wigner, John Bell, and later Roger Penrose, began to consider the idea that consciousness could be a quantum phenomenon. Eventually, so did researchers in cognitive science (the scientific study of the mind and its processes), but for different reasons.

Ulf Danielsson, an author and a professor of theoretical physics at Uppsala University in Sweden, believes one of the reasons for the association between quantum physics and consciousness—at least from the perspective of cognitive science—is the fact that processes on a quantum level are completely random. This is different from the deterministic way in which classical physics proceeds and means even the best calculations that physicists can come up with in regard to quantum experiments are mere probabilities.


“Consciousness is a phenomenon associated with free will and free will makes use of the freedom that quantum mechanics supposedly provides.”

The existence of free will as an element of consciousness also seems to be a deeply non-deterministic concept. Recall that in mathematics, computer science, and physics, deterministic functions or systems involve no randomness in the future state of the system; in other words, a deterministic function will always yield the same results if you give it the same inputs. Meanwhile, a nondeterministic function or system will give you different results every time, even if you provide the same input values.


“I think that’s why cognitive sciences are looking toward quantum mechanics. In quantum mechanics, there is room for chance,” Danielsson tells Popular Mechanics. “Consciousness is a phenomenon associated with free will and free will makes use of the freedom that quantum mechanics supposedly provides.”


However, Jeffrey Barrett, chancellor’s professor of logic and philosophy of science at the University of California, Irvine, thinks the connection is somewhat arbitrary from the cognitive science side.


“It’s really hard to explain consciousness, it is a deep and abiding philosophical problem. So quantum physicists are desperate and those guys [cognitive scientists] are desperate over there too,” Barrett tells Popular Mechanics. “And they think that quantum mechanics is weird. Consciousness is weird. There might be some relationship between the two.”


This rationalization isn’t convincing to him, however. “I don’t think that there’s any reason to suppose from the cognitive science direction that quantum mechanics has anything to do with explaining consciousness,” Barrett continues.


From the quantum perspective, however, Barrett sees a clear reason why physicists first proposed the connection to consciousness.


“If it wasn’t for the quantum measurement problem, nobody, including the physicists involved in this early discussion, would be thinking that consciousness and quantum mechanics had anything to do with each other,” he says.


Superposition and Schrödinger’s Cat

At the heart of quantum “weirdness” and the measurement problem, there is a concept called “superposition.”

Because the possible states of a quantum system are described using wave mathematics — or more precisely, wave functions — a quantum system can exist in many overlapping states or a superposition. The weird thing is, that these states can be contradictory.

To see how counter-intuitive this can be, we can refer to one of history’s most famous thought experiments, the Schrödinger’s Cat paradox.

Devised by Erwin Schrödinger, the experiment sees an unfortunate cat placed in a box with what the physicist described as a “diabolical device” for an hour. The device releases a deadly poison if an atom in the box decays during that period. Because the decay of atoms is completely random, there is no way for the experimenter to predict if the cat is dead or alive until the hour is up and the box is opened.

Treating the cat, box, and device as a quantum system with two possible states—“dead” or “alive”—before the box is opened, means it is in a superposition of those states. The cat is both dead and alive before you open the container.

The problem of measurement asks what is it about “opening the box” — analogous to making a measurement — that causes the wave function to collapse, and this superposition to be destroyed, resolving one state? Is it due to the introduction of the conscious mind of the experimenter?

Early quantum physicist Eugene Wigner thought so until shortly before his death in 1995.



Physical Body and Quantum Mind?

In 1961, Wigner put forward a theory in which a mind was crucial to the collapse of a wave function and the destruction of superposition which persists in one form or another to this day.

Wigner and other physicists who adhered to the theory of conscious collapses—such as John von Neumann, John Wheeler, and John Bell—believed that an inanimate consciousness-less object would not collapse the wave function of a quantum system and would thus leave it in a superposition of states.

That means placing a Geiger counter in the box with Schrödinger’s cat isn’t enough to collapse the system to a “dead” or “alive” state even though it is capable of telling if the poison-release atom had decayed.

The superposition remains, Winger said, until a conscious observer opens the box or maybe hears the tick of the Geiger counter.

This leads to the conclusion that there are two distinct types of “substances” in the universe: the physical, and the non-physical, with the human mind fitting in the latter category. This suggests, though, that the brain is a physical and biological object, while the mind is something else, resulting in so-called “mind-body dualism.”

For materialists like himself, Danielsson says the collapse of a wave function in quantum mechanics is a result of an interaction with another physical system. This means it’s quite possible for an “observer” to be a completely unconscious object. To them, the Geiger counter in the box with Schrödinger’s cat is capable of collapsing the superposition of states.

This fits in with the fact that quantum systems are incredibly finely balanced systems easily collapsed by a stray electromagnetic field or even a change in temperature. If you want to know why we don’t have reliable quantum computers, that’s a part of the reason—the quantum states they depend on are too easily disturbed.

Additionally, as Barrett points out, there are a number of ways of thinking about quantum mechanics that don’t involve the collapse of quantum superposition.

The most famous, Hugh Everett III’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, suggests that when the experimenter makes a measurement, the wave function doesn’t collapse at all. Instead, it grows to include the experimenter and the entire universe, with one “world” for each possible state. Thus, the experimenter opens the box not to discover if the cat is dead or alive, but rather, if they are in a world in which the cat survived or did not.

If there is no collapse of superpositions, there is no measurement problem.

Clearly, with Noble Prize winners like Wigner and Roger Penrose persuaded that there may be something in a possible quantum-consciousness connection, however, the idea can’t be entirely dismissed.

Kristian Piscicchia, a researcher at the Enrico Fermi Center for Study and Research in Rome, Italy, certainly agrees. He is part of a team searching for a more profound understanding of the mind and the relationship between consciousness and the laws of nature.

This team recently set about testing one particular theory that connects consciousness to the collapse of quantum superposition — the Orchestrated Objective Reduction theory (Orch OR theory) — put forward by Nobel Laureate and Oxford mathematician Penrose and Arizona State University anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff in the 1990s.


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