Q: Are the brain and consciousness quantum mechanical in nature?

Physicist: The extremely short, smart-ass answer to this is: of course!  Ultimately everything in the universe is built out of tiny quantum things and ultimately everything obeys quantum mechanical laws.  But that’s not really the spirit of the question, and it doesn’t tell you anything useful.  You could just as easily say that computers take advantage of the same principles behind lightning (electricity), but that doesn’t tell you anything about computers or lightning.

The “connection” between quantum physics and consciousness is pretty famous these days, what with the Secret, Chopra, and stuff like that.  Unfortunately, in legit science we don’t have a real, solid definition for consciousness, which makes talking about it a little tricky.  To a physicist, consciousness is like obscenity; you know it when you see it.  So, while I can’t speak to what consciousness is, I can say it doesn’t seem to have any influence on quantum phenomena (at least, outside of the head).  The brain, on the other hand, can be defined (you can even point at it!), and the brain definitely involves quantum mechanics.  Chemistry, which is arguably the most important part of biochemistry, is all about quantum mechanics.

But are more interesting quantum effects, like entanglement, quantum teleportation, and quantum computation used by the brain?  It seems unlikely, since quantum experiments done in the lab are generally done in very, very carefully controlled, usually cold, environments, involving just a few atoms at a time.  By contrast, brains involve many atoms (like… dozens) and are generally warm, and squishy, and very un-lab-like.  Any zombie scientist will say the same.  And yet the surprising, somewhat hesitant, answer is a resounding: maybe! Recently it’s been shown that many (possibly all) plants use a form of “quantum search”

Plants: natural quantum computers?

So far, photosynthesis is the best example of coherent quantum phenomena (stuff involving entangled or controlled states across multiple atoms) in biology, but it’s exciting enough to give rise to the new field of “quantum biology”.

Generally speaking, “coherent states” (which are the kind of nice, clean quantum states you need to have entanglement or any of the other weirder quantum effects) get broken apart in environments as noisy as a biological system.  But there are some very slick tricks being used by physicists to over-come noise, like topological quantum computation, quantum error-correcting codes, and robust states (clever combinations of states that are more stable than their constituent states).

It may be that, like chloroplasts in plants, our brains have some cute tricks for maintaining coherent states and possibly computing with them. Weirder things have happened (maybe not a lot weirder). For example; among the many other things they do, ours eyes are continuously running an edge-detection algorithm and our ears preform a physical Fourier transform.  So far we’ve only scratched the surface of what kind of tricks our brains use, literally.  It’s tricky to study the inside of a brain while keeping it alive, so we know a lot about the eyes, ears, nose, and peripheral nervous system, but surprisingly little about how that information is processed in the brain.

There’s a subtle but important difference between quantum mechanics and magic. So, even if our brains are capable of handling quantum information on a large scale, we can’t expect to have any cool powers because of it. The brain might use entanglement to correlate things on different sides of the brain, or rapidly organize information. But as for cooler things, like telepathy, or clarvoiance, or any kind of film-worthy mental powers: nope!

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9 Responses to Q: Are the brain and consciousness quantum mechanical in nature?

  1. Madhu says:

    Good..I always wonder this. What is meant by taste? happiness? pleasure? all are quantum phenomena? Are all our experiences nothing but a cosmic interplay of atoms in the quantum level?

  2. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    Just like consciousness itself, “experience” itself (happiness, taste, etc.) also hasn’t been rigorously defined. That said, it seems to be the case that everything (we’ve been able to define so far) eventually reduces to interplay of atoms and forces. The fact that quantum mechanics is involved is kind of a side issue.

  3. Will says:

    Hah, maybe Quantum ‘Randomness’ is responsible for free will XD

  4. Gaurav Bhattacharjee says:

    Would you please be kind enough to tell me something about the Orch-OR theory, developed by Sir Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff?

  5. Cam Braidwood says:

    Nice summary , but I wouldn’t be too sure about non local experiences (psi etc) not having a basis in quantum biology / quantum consciousness (Orch-OR). There is lots of personal testimony to suggest that psi exists. Also lots of studies that aggregate statistical results together in the form of meta studies to suggest that psi experiments are statistically significant. I dont think its possible at the moment to make a definitive negative statement about quantum biology / psi because the playing field isnt level at the moment in terms of funding research that is at the periphery of science. Lets wait and see how the research goes over the next few years, money is going into this area, but also quantum computing, quantum teleportation etc … so new and exciting truth is being discovered all the time. Recognition of entangled minds may not be too far away :)

  6. The Wonderer says:

    I think it is. Maybe it is not using it often, or ever, but it is possible that the ‘consciousness’ has that capability of use.

  7. Phyllis McLemore says:

    You need to read the book “Hands of Light” by the physicist Barbara Brennan. There are special powers that we all possess including telepathy and clairvoyance. These are our electrons and quarks at work which picture for us. We live in a holographic universe. Telepathy etc. are frequencies we all vibrate in this holographic universe. Because we live in a nonlocal universe it is only logical to me that what one knows all know—at once.
    I have heard people thinking before they speak. There is nothing special about telepathy because we all have it. We all vibrate frequencies and thoughts are frequencies. Thoughts are energy pictures first. We all see in pictures first before we form these into thoughts. We feel/see all the pictures that other people think. We are open to them or not, but they are still there vibrating. That is why there really is no such thing as a secret.
    Aren’t entangled minds the same as nonlocality? We are all ONE because we all are vibrating frequencies. You can’t separate vibrating frequencies, especially at the quantum level which of course is 100% what we are. That is why Jesus said we come from the light, we are the light. Energy vibrates light. We are light. At the quantum level energy and light can’t be separated.

  8. Xerenarcy says:

    no matter how many times i see this question raised, it brings endless joy to read the misinterpretations of both QM and what consciousness is (well, might be). i’ve had family and friends suckered into things like the Secret and Law of Attraction stuff, so i have some familiarity with what they claim to be possible. also have done my own research into psychokinetics and the like… so can say with certainty that what we think and what reality does, are not related in any way save for how our thoughts influence our own actions, which then can influence other things / people. cognitive or experimental bias is all you will find in this field of study so far.

    moving along…

    as far as i have found: consciousness is entirely a biological (hence mechanical, physics-based) process, which we are slowly slowly beginning to understand within the frameworks of biochemistry and neural networks.

    i won’t even entertain a supernatural / transcendental view of the mind, it is equally sensitive to serotonin as it is sensationalism. but to the point if we are not talking about the mind existing necessarily correlated to the physical processes of the brain, then you can give up trying to introduce QM into the picture, it doesn’t fit this way else you don’t really understand what QM explains.

    quantum effects are likely at play in the brain, sure, but for quantum effects to ‘escape’ and influence something other than another part of the brain, you still need to get around the big big problem that is so often ignored… i don’t see a problem with a brick in my hand being entangled with some thought i’m having, or having my brain entangled with someone elses. ignoring the fact that entanglement alone will not really ‘do’ any of the things it is claimed in transcendentalist pseudo-psychological QM interpretations, you still can’t ignore the bigger problem: how did it become entangled in the first place?

    (plenty of articles here explaining entanglement and the requirements for it, won’t get into it)

    suffice to say that unless there is a quantum mechanical process that is able to create an isolated system between your brain / mind / consciousness and anything external to your own body, entanglement is not likely if at all possible. also ignoring what exactly is entangled (a brain cell, a synapse, a neurotransmitter molecule, etc) and to what…

    so we come to “vibrations”. that word again. ok, very quickly, vibration through/in what? entanglement could happen due to some coupling of fields-to-particles over a distance, sure, and that may involve a part of your brain. nevermind you have no cognitive control over the quantum states of your brain’s molecular, chemical and atomic structure (please do attempt to prove otherwise); if these became correlated for some reason i would be more concerned with physical damage to the brain and/or DNA.

    and yet despite saying all that i still like to believe its wrong too sometimes. i’m afraid that if you want to enhance humans or wield the mind as a blunt striking instrument, you’ll need technology to help – exoskeletons and brain implants are probably as close as you will get until we find a way (not that we are looking for one) to re-engineer our brains into a form where it can arbitrarily have cognitive control over the quantum.

  9. Xerenarcy says:

    oh, forgot to mention… regarding reading peoples minds to know what they’re saying just before they say it…

    markov chains and statistical entropy of the english language itself can explain that entirely – english has a very low information density, often each letter adds around 1 bit of information, so a word of 8 letters length would be one of roughly 256 expected combinations of letters.

    and markov chains… much theory, easier to state it this way: what you’re about to say can be narrowed down by the context in which you are about to say it, which usually is known beforehand (such as in the middle of a conversation). if i’m talking to you about planes for example, you know to possibly expect ‘pilot’ somewhere in my speech, and there are only so many ways to use it in an appropriate, on-topic sentence.

    combine both effects and, you’ll find that often you’re half a sentence ahead of the conversation (sometimes more than that for me), unless the person you’re talking to is just not interested in maintaining a fixed context of conversation.

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