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Can Quantum Theory Explain Consciousness?


Quantum mechanics might seem a bit weird and illogical if one ventures into this area with the concept of traditional ideologies that govern most of our daily activities. The concepts like objects being at multiple places at once, and information that could travel faster than the speed of light might seem new to the pioneering mind in this field. The fundamental principle of Quantum mechanics gives us the tools to predict the behavior of the particle and the whole foundation of this field is based on the probabilistic theory. Although there has been significant progress in this field, physicists still debate over the fact that the interpretations of the equations don’t remain consistent and vary from person to person. The vast abyss of ideas in this field has allowed physicists to come up with outlandish thought experiments, but not that much out there so that it would fall under mysticism. One of those ideas is about the influence of our consciousness in the Quantum systems and ultimately influencing reality.

To understand this concept, let us dive a little bit into the history of Quantum mechanics. One of the earliest interpretations of Quantum mechanics is associated with Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg and is called the ‘Copenhagen Interpretation.’ It basically explains the idea that one cannot know the configuration of a certain particle unless the measurement is done. Prior to the measurement, it isn't very sensible to talk about the real physical state of the particle. Eg, the wave function of the spin of a particle exists in all possible directions prior to the measurement. It is only when we assign a certain direction for measurement, say horizontal or vertical, that the wave function collapses and we get the result of the spin in the assigned direction.

Similar is the case for the classic double-slit experiment. Only the probability of the electron passing through the slits can be predicted and have its own wave function. The way that the information gets transferred from the screen of the experiment to our brain is via electrical signals. The striking of an electron in the screen creates a cascade of impulses which in turn excites the electrons in the screen, the electrical signals through wires are passed through the computer screen and ultimately to our retina excites the electrical signal in our brain that develops a subjective sense of the perception that the electron struck at a particular area on the screen. This chain of information between the screen and the mind is called ‘The Von Neumann chain’. As we know that the collapse of wave function must occur to get the result in Quantum mechanics, he exclaimed that this collapse must take place in between the measurement and the instance when we become consciously aware of the result.

But the exact instant when the collapse of the wave function occurs remained a mystery. All the information received through the Neumann chain is quantum objects like atoms. Where does one draw the boundary between the Quantum world and the perceiving of information through consciousness? This open question is called


‘The measurement problem’.


Eugene Wigner, a Hungarian-American theoretical physicist, who actually went to school with Von Neumann, agreed with him on the idea regarding the instance of the collapse of the wave function to give the result. The idea that consciousness is responsible for the collapse of the wave function is now called the ‘Von Neumann-Wigner interpretation’.


In 1961, Winger came up with another thought experiment called ‘Wigner’s friend experiment. Instead of conducting the experiment ourselves, we advise a friend to do so. The result of the experiment is known to our friends and not us. In a way, through the Von Neumann chain, the information has to pass through our friend’s consciousness to be perceived by ours. Thus our friend’s brain exists in a quantum superposition of all the possible results of the experiment. The wave function collapses as soon as our friend tells us about the outcome that gives the result of the experiment. But from our perspective, the wave function collapsed at a different time than our friend’s. Wigner concluded that the conscious brain is not capable to be in Quantum superposition and is responsible for generating its own wave function collapse.

Even before the Copenhagen Interpretation, It was Wolfgang Pauli who was responsible for trying to find the connection between consciousness and measurement. The relation didn’t find its ground early on and was often associated with mysticism. Self-help books started flooding the market that claimed you could use your consciousness to collapse the wave function in your favor to get a promotion or achieve any feat. But as Richard Feynman said,


“If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”


So to properly know more about this theory, all we could do is pretend to understand less and less about it. The implications made by the founders of this theory have been misinterpreted deeply in today’s world where people who have little to no knowledge of its deep ideologies manipulate the ideas to their narrative to sound sophisticated and popular in this ostentatious market. This was but a profound questioning of the characterization between subjective and objective reality testing the limits of imagination in the realm of Quantum mechanics by its founders, but today it has transformed into something queer and almost unrecognizable from its early interpretations.

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