Consciousness and quantum biology

Consciousness

Our consciousness is  heavily influenced by the laws of nature. Our brain (a combination of neural processes) is a hub where all external and internal sensory information arrives and get processed in some form of swarm computing, to increase its computational capacity. Consciousness gives is self-awareness, it gives me the feeling of being me.  However, it is totally part of our overall being and as such a critical element in our survival. Consciousness and intelligence are two totally different things and consciousness is inseparable from each individual and therefore will be incredible different to replicate outside a body. There are different levels/states/forms of consciousness and included being asleep, under anesthetics, under hypnosis, meditation, drugged, etc. On the extreme side panpsychists have the view that all things have a mind or a mind-like quality. According the the Integrated Information Theory (ITT), if we see consciousness as any stage where information is moving between systems which results in some form of reaction/change (phi) than the universe can be called conscious. This could lead to a mathematical account of consciousness. Under that same theory we also already  have AI based computer systems that are ‘conscious’. However, these are totally different forms of consciousness as we experience that.  On the other side the universe doesn’t have to be conscious to have conscious systems within it. This debate is still full on raging!!

Phi

The number phi, often called the golden ratio, is a mathematical concept that people have known about since the time of the ancient Greeks. … It is an irrational number like pi and e, meaning that its terms go on forever after the decimal point without repeating.

But even when ‘consciousness’ can be replicated (mimicked) through computer systems it won’t be consciousness as we experience this as for us consciousnesses is intrinsically linked to our body, others around us and our environment (culture).

Biologists at among others, the University of Tübingen, are now considering that consciousness developed independently during the half billion years over which more complex life on earth started to evolve. They think this has to do with the need for the flexibility of behaviour, the ability to evaluate the wold and the awareness of what is good or bad in that process. This would allow for unlimited associative learning, combing a range of clues into  a single perception. An evolutionary process an hard-wiring such element into life would not allow for the level of flexibility that is needed to progress life. Consciousness allows animals to make complex decisions and this would be advantageous in the struggle for survival. Survival also means competition and this would have been a reason that consciousness also led to the creation of much of the beauty we see in nature. Creating the best possible structures and systems in plants, animals, humans (as we will discuss in Quantum Biophotonics below) .

Isn’t it wondrous to experience what consciousness has to offer us and the unpredictability of our free will is most certainly influenced by actions we undertake (soft determinism). With this in mind we should live life the fullest and not too much worry about the ‘meaning of life’ but instead enjoy the ‘meaning in life‘.

One of the many studies that are currently underway is to look at the relationship between consciousness and thermodynamics and its property entropy. The 2nd law of thermodynamics  shows that systems (cosmos, humans, things) move all in the same direction from order to disorder. Looking at our brain which is also subject to entropy the question that researchers are looking into is, could consciousness be a side effect of that neural process where the brain is trying to maximise information exchange? Professor Michael Graziano , university of Princeton, USA adds his ‘Attention Schema Theory’ to it. Consciousness is not physical so in that respect it is more metaphysical, it is an inner subjective experience, it most likely is created through an information system that operates across the brain. Something like ‘what it feels like‘. Consciousness therefore doesn’t have to be totally accurate, as a matter of fact it will seldom be.  Professor Anil Seth from the university of Sussex, UK describes this as hallucinations, the best interpretation we can come up with from the impressions that are fed into our brain. The way we see ourselves (feels like what it feels to be me) is subjective and even doesn’t need to be coherent. Graziano argues that in order to better understand consciousness we have to abandon the traditional biological concepts that links the brain (neural process) to consciousness. Consciousness is linked to our total self. In that respect the entropy research could well fit into such a different approach.

Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein linked language to the evolution of consciousness. He argued that the logical structure of language provides the limits of meaning. The limits of language, for Wittgenstein, are the limits of philosophy. Bren Professor Ralph Adolphs, Caltech, USA  added to this that this evolution is at least also partially driven by a ‘mental arms race’ that collectively allows us to outsmart others. This would include tools such as collaboration but also trickery and lies.

What also needs to be mentioned here that the brain not just produces your consciousness but also your unconsciousness, dreams – including daydreaming – are  a good example here. It shows that consciousness can operate separate from ‘self’. There are also experiments with prolific lucid dreamers to see if you can make unconsciousness conscious. While we treat these as separate entities, consciousnesses and unconsciousness are part of the same. Another important observation is that conscientiousness (seems to) disappear under anesthetics.

The complexity of consciousness:

  • Certain sensations create reactions in our brain such as thoughts and dreams.
  • These are different processes, both hardware and a software based.
  • It creates the best possible context and comprehension through mental concepts (precepts) and subjective experiences (qualia) leading to a holistic (gestalt) comprehension of ourselves.
  • Language e.g. requires context and a holistic approach (language and thoughts are inextricable).
  • At a next level, we can reason and do abstract thinking
  • Than there is uncontrolled non-consciousness when consciousness is not quick enough to kick in (including dreams).
  • At the same time it works within the laws of nature, it is part of our total self.

So there still are plenty of more questions than answers in our quest to better understand consciousness. Anil Seth thinks that there are easier and more difficult questions. By starting on the easier ones he argues  it become possible to gradually also start addressing the difficult ones.

Quantum biophotonics

Let is now look at the potential involvement of quantum mechanics in our brain and the effect it could have on consciousness. Originally it was thought that quantum physics would not apply to biology. Quantum reactions are typically observed at absolute zero (-271 C).

However, there is increased evidence that also our biology (as part of the cosmos) is underpinned by quantum mechanisms. As quantum mechanism takes place in atoms and atoms are the building blocks of matter, quantum mechanic processes are taking place in all forms of matter. What we have learned is that all entities within the universe can only be properly described with the aid of the ‘waves’ observed in quantum mechanics.

Danish physicist and Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr’s new model of the atom has greatly assisted in getting a better understanding of the potential of quantum mechanism in the atom. These processes take place at a subatomic level where the photons show a ‘weird’ behaviour. “Spooky‘, as Einstein called it.  Bohr stated: “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it“.

What causes this remains yet unexplained. However, some of these processes can be observed for example in photosynthesis, optical reactions, smells and interestingly the transformation from tadpoles into frogs. This has become the field of quantum biophotonics. Quantum features are particularly evident in super-sensitive light-harvesting systems such as photosynthesis and photo-receptors.

In these processes, photons often show wave-like behaviour that for example allow them to tunnel through fixed structures. French physicist  and also Nobel Laureate Louis de Broglie was the first to suggest  that matter has wave-like properties. Another interesting phenomena is entanglement, here  two elementary particles that arise from a single reaction share complementary properties (for example electrons with a spin + and a spin -), the value of which is only determined at the moment of observation of one of the particles. The moment an observation shows that a particle has a certain value, the value of the other entangled particle is immediately established. Even though the particles are thousands of light years apart. If you measure a particle that has spin +, then you know for sure that the entangled particle has a spin -. The fact that a variable of an entangled elementary particle has two values ​​simultaneously is the basic principle on which quantum computers are built. This is termed quantum superposition.  David Chalmers at New York University and Kelvin McQueen at the University of California are speculating a bit further. At the superposition stage the standard quantum theory is that quantum system exists in all possible states and and as mentioned only collapse in one single state once it is observed or measured. Is it possible that the superposition ‘selects’ the state of collapse to be in the ‘conscious’ state, the MTs act as wave guides to transmit photons to the cerebral cortex resulting in consciousness?

If quantum mechanism is so widespread in biology it will also most likely be part of our brain (neural system). Also, here certain processes – for example consciousness – can hardly be explained without referring to quantum processes. Furthermore, if quantum mechanism underpins the cosmos, why would humans be exempt or special? Interestingly scientist has shown that the cells involved in photosynthesis have similar properties to those of some of our nerve cells.

Nobel-prize winning University of Oxford physicist Roger Penrose and anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff from the University of Arizona developed the first detailed theory of quantum consciousness back in the 1990s. Others have built on their work and they propose that quantum computations in cellular structures known as microtubules (the energy centres of the cell) have an effect on the firing of neurons and, by extension, consciousness.  Each neuron contains microtubules, which transport substances to different parts of the cell. The Penrose-Hameroff theory of quantum consciousness argues that microtubules are structured in a fractal pattern which would enable quantum processes to occur. Fractals are exquisite structures produced by nature, hiding in plain sight all around us. Shapes that repeated over and over again at endless smaller scales.

They also predict that anesthetics would dampen the mictotubule quantum states.

We see some of the most beautiful patterns created by these fractals in our blood vessels, lungs and brains, but also in bird’s feather patterns, butterfly wings,  flowers, galaxies and so on. The same applies to art and music but we also see them in the Golden Ratio, prime numbers, and the digits of pi.  Interestingly computer scientist  and entrepreneur Stephen Wolfram thinks those patterns can be generated algorithmically, that he therefore wants to understand/explain the universe by unearthing those algorithms; and that even complex patterns can be shown to arise from extremely simple algorithms. He is looking for better models to explain how the brain works in creating consciousness. However, this is something that we discuss elsewhere.However, it is fascinating to also link quantum processes and fractals to our neural system and from here look at how consciousness is happening.

Many scientists are very wary of the connection between quantum mechanism and consciousness and prefer to keep consciousness outside their field. Others are keen to further explore this and daringly point towards telepathy and telekinesis as possible phenomena of such a combination (many scientist dismiss this upfront).

If we link this to consciousness it is interesting to philosophise what quantum theories could mean for us humans.  Consciousness is our ability to be aware of ourselves and our surroundings. Quantum biological structures have indeed determinate structures.  However (at least for the foreseeable future) the outcomes appear to us in a rather indeterministic way. There are potentially trillions of possible outcomes of quantum reactions in the trillions of neurons that we have in our brains. It looks like quantum processes are doing their work before we make a deterministic decision, be it in for us totally unpredictable ways.

Physicists such as John Wheeler and Eugene Wickner noticed in experiments that the outcome of quantum reaction can depend on the above-mentioned observation made by humans the so called “observer effect” . It looks like that there is an photonic interaction between an outside quantum process and our consciousness observing it. As Wigner wrote: “It follows that the quantum description of objects is influenced by impressions entering my consciousness” . The ‘observer effect’ only seems to exist in a vacuum. As soon as the photons travel they are mixed in with other electrons and a deconstruction appears and this is what we experience. This basically means  that we experience reality and not the ‘weird’ quantum experience. All of these theories and tests are still in their infancy, however, it shows that we will have some very interesting discoveries ahead of us.

Another interesting theory from Hameroff and Penrose  is that the coherent superpositions of tubulins achieve decoherence or ‘self-collapse’ at the cerebral cortex and each of these events corresponds to a ‘moment of conscious experience’. Decoherence occurs in a thermodynamically irreversible way. The model they have developed for this is called ‘orchestrated objective reduction’ (Orch OR).

After 100 years quantum mechanics , the question remains if we will ever be able to understand these processes to such an extent that we can predict those outcomes, that is if they are indeed predictable at all. The issue of Free Will fits into the same category. As a matter of fact, perhaps many of the complex consciousness issues might need to be looked at through quantum biophotonic processes.

Once we better understand these quantum processes in relation to consciousness, this could assist in radical new medical treatments for mental illnesses.

Traditional physics has so far not been able to assist us here and that led Stephen Wolfram to come up with the term “computational irreducibility”, basically meaning that certain processes or systems will never be complete there is always more to add. That is not to say that we will increasingly be able to understand these processes better. Could it still be real physical process? Will we ever be able to reach the full truth? Of course, we also can ask other questions. Is the cosmos just one quantum computable entity? Are we simulations of ourselves in this cosmos machine, simply a process of observation and experimentation? Are there reset buttons in this process?

The more we look at these structures the more we need to see ourselves as a part of the (quantum) cosmos and our behaviour is equally ruled by quantum mechanism. What does this do to the notion of soft determinism in the context of free will? The quantum concept indicates that while we are part of the cosmos’ rules and regulations, do we still have an influence in this? Or is everything  we do simply pre-programmed. However, for the moment at least this does not really matter as nobody can at this stage predict any future outcome of our actions.

Let us take climate change as an example is it predestined that we either ruin the planet or save the planet. Does it make any difference what we do or do not? Or perhaps is it predestined that doing something is also predestined and as such leads to a certain outcome? Obviously as we can observe, the larger ‘cosmos machine’ is also making its decisions in relations to such events. Again, it is important to not overestimate our own influence in this process.

Appendix On Quantum Mechanics

The only way to ‘observe’ a photon is to have it interact with (a) an electron, or (b) an electromagnetic field. Either of these interactions will cause the photon to “decohere” – i.e., interfere with it in a way that will be apparent to the intended recipient.

Gregoir Ribordy, co-founder of Geneva-based quantum cryptography firm ID Quantique, likened it to sending a message written on a soap bubble. “If someone tries to intercept it when it’s being transmitted, by touching it, they make it burst.”

Quantum physicists have recently advanced the use of photons to communicate securely over short distances – 50-150 km – on earth. A Chinese QUESS satellite has since expanded the range of unhackable communication. KPN and Cisco were able to transmit both traditional data and quantum communication over the same fibre optic cable infrastructure.

Some differences between the various quantum technologies.

  • Quantum communications – sending information encoded in single photons (or equivalent) such that one can determine eavesdropping. Most useful for key exchange though has other uses. Sometimes called quantum key distribution networks.
  • Quantum cryptography – work to devise cryptographic algorithms that are not affected by the creation of quantum computers. (Generally, “quantum cryptography” has tended to mean what is now called – in the context of the Chinese satellite – “quantum communications”). Post-quantum cryptography is the search for algorithms not rendered useless by quantum computation.
  • Quantum computing – a computer that harnesses quantum physics such that certain types of computation can be done more efficiently. There are still some doubts as to whether this is feasible. (Less so than before, but some say that it might be like nuclear fusion, not forbidden by physical laws, but hard to implement.) And, like fusion, if it could be made practical, certain types of cryptosystems (in particular, the RSA cryptosystem, but also the elliptic curve systems that have become widespread) would have to be abandoned. RSA encryption relies on the practical difficulty of factorising very large numbers, a task which is imagined to be very much easier (or at least faster) with quantum computers. But we do have substitute classical crypto systems that could be used that, as far as we know, are hard to break. Quantum computers need to be kept very cold, just a tad above absolute zero, heat creates error in the qubits, the basic units of quantum information.

On the concept of “quantum entanglement”, intuitively one would think this would work and provide a means of faster-than-light communication. However, it turns out that though the two particles are quantum entangled, you cannot convey any information between the two measurement points. Even Quantum Key Distribution requires two-channel communication: one of “entangled photons” (which may be described as super-luminal), and another classical channel (which is sub-luminal) advising which measurements of those photons are significant.

To take an example, if you measure two quantum entangled photons and find the first photon is “spin up”, the second photon will always be “spin down” and vice-versa. Some clever statistics – the so-called “Bell Inequality” and its further elaboration, the “CHSH Inequality” – tells you they were not in this state to start with, it is only the act of measuring(noticing) that forces the first photon into this state, then instantly the second photon will be in the opposite state. Or so it seems: there are other interpretations, e.g., Quantum Bayesianism, but the effect is the same. I cannot go into details here; it is a long and difficult to get your head around the explanation as to how we know they weren’t in a particular state to start with. The mathematics (and in this example, intuition) also tell you that no information is conveyed from one location to the other by a measurement alone.

Sources:

Do quantum effects play a role in consciousness

The Strange link between the human mind and quantum mechanics

Can physics explain consciousness and does it create reality?

Can consciousness be explained by quantum physics? My research takes us a step closer to finding out

Quantum biology of the retina.

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