Yeah, it makes everyone a scientist and also provides good headline fodder for journalists. Plus, it’s great for many ‘spiritual leaders’ as they see it as a vindication of their position; something that they have been asserting all along just got some scientific backing. Unfortunately for them, it’s not all that clear cut. Dr. Stuart Hameroff, Professor Emeritus and the Director of the Center of Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona, and the world renowned physicist and mathematician, Sir Roger Penrose, join forces to forward a new theory – the theory of quantum consciousness.
You might have already heard of that term, but not yet grasped its meaning. Leave aside all the terrible jargon that is thrown around when ‘spiritual teachers’ like Deepak Chopra speak on this subject, ‘quantum consciousness’ refers to the idea that the brain is a quantum computer and that our consciousness is related to the state of quantum information in our brains. Okay, that might be too much ‘quantum’ for you, so let’s break that up.
Okay… Quantum Mechanics (and Quantum Computers)
Quantum theory, as physicists understand it, has weird elements. It says that particles can be in a superposition of energies, rather than have one fixed energy, can have a ‘spread out’ position, rather than one pinpoint location and that two systems, spatially separated from one another, might still be able to ‘communicate’ with each other, if they were linked to begin with. It’s the last phenomenon that we shall discuss.
The idea is one of ‘coherence’. When two systems are quantum mechanically linked, or ‘entangled’, then measuring one affects the other instantaneously, violating the intuitive concepts of Einstein’s relativity. So if a system A is entangled to system B, measuring A will affect B, no matter how far B is from A, be it half the universe away. This instantaneous change of state has been hypothesized to be useful in making quantum computers.
In a quantum computer, information is stored in energy levels, and since there are more than two energy levels, the two-bit limitation of a normal computer is washed away. We can store much more information. Now, we can perturb a part of the system and, immediately, some other part of the system will be affected. This will help in fast computation, as series computations will take much lesser time.
Of course, for a machine to behave as a quantum computer, the two systems mentioned, say A and B, must remain ‘coherent’. If they disentangle, then they no longer form a quantum computer. Typically, there is a ‘decoherence time’, the typical time required for two entangled systems to disentangle.
And now… Quantum Consciousness!
Now, on to what Penrose and Hameroff are claiming. They claim that inside the neurons, there are tiny structures called microtubules. Information in these microtubules is what constitutes the ‘soul’ or our ‘consciousness’. They go further. Say the body dies. The microtubules lose their quantum state, but retain the quantum information (and information cannot be lost). Thus, the soul remains and is dissipated in the universe at large. This conforms to the eastern position of spirituality which says that the body is mortal, but the soul isn’t and there is a cycle of births.
Penrose and Hameroff dodge the cycle of births and cater to another popular public fascination – near death experiences. They say that the information can be restored into a microtubule if a dying patient is resuscitated and this is what they might feel as a ‘near death experience’.
The theory has gained worldwide popularity owing to a documentary ‘Through a Wormhole’ narrated by Morgan Freeman, aired in the US on the Science Channel.
Quantum… sorry, plain rubbish – the damning rebuttal
At first glance, all of this sounds like hogwash and it probably will sound like that even when you hear it for the 42nd time. The problems are manifold and the scientific community overwhelmingly lines up against this quantum soul theory. Leave alone the fact that microtubules have not been found or that the quantum information dissipation can never be demonstrated or falsified. (Remember that these two are the major tenets of the theory and I am chucking these away!) Max Tegmark, in this paper, deals a severe blow to the quantum soul theory citing the fact that neurons and neural networks behave like classical systems. They aren’t quantum to begin with.
Shall we say that one more time? Yes, neurons and neural networks behave like bouncing tennis balls or moving buses, i.e. they obey laws of classical mechanics and quantum mechanics needn’t be invoked to explain them! Forget about being a quantum computer, these neurons are not even quantum mechanical! Just for fun, Tegmark quotes the typical ‘decoherence time’ (definition above) for these neurons. He notes that these are of the order of 10-13 s to 10-20 s, much much smaller than what’s needed for a quantum computer (~ 10-3 s). Okay, so even if the neurons were quantum objects, they would never form a quantum computer!
So much for the soul. There is still no evidence that it exists. May it rest in a quantum of peace!