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Why Many Researchers Now See the Brain as a Quantum System

The hypothesis is that the brain relies on quantum physics, not classical physics, to power thinking processes

Astrophysicist and science writer Elizabeth Fernandez asks us to consider whether quantum processes might help us understand better how the brain works and shed light on consciousness:

Some scientists suspect that quantum processes, including entanglement, might help us explain the brain’s enormous power, and its ability to generate consciousness. Recently, scientists at Trinity College Dublin, using a technique to test for quantum gravity, suggested that entanglement may be at work within our brains. If their results are confirmed, they could be a big step toward understanding how our brain, including consciousness, works.

Elizabeth Fernandez, “Brain experiment suggests that consciousness relies on quantum entanglement” at Big Think (November 22, 2022) The paper is open access.

Her thesis is that the brain relies for thinking on quantum processes, not classical physics:

If quantum processes are at work in the brain, it would be difficult to observe how they work and what they do. Indeed, not knowing exactly what we are looking for makes quantum processes very difficult to find. “If the brain uses quantum computation, then those quantum operators may be different from operators known from atomic systems,” Christian Kerskens, a neuroscience researcher at Trinity and one of the authors of the paper, told Big Think.

Elizabeth Fernandez, “Brain experiment suggests that consciousness relies on quantum entanglement” at Big Think (November 22, 2022)

The researchers scanned forty subjects with an MRI that can sense entanglement. Entanglement?:

When two particles, such as a pair of photons or electrons, become entangled, they remain connected even when separated by vast distances. In the same way that a ballet or tango emerges from individual dancers, entanglement arises from the connection between particles. It is what scientists call an emergent property. – CalTech Science Exchange

No one knows how they manage to remain connected. The researchers wanted to see if proton spins within the brain become entangled through interaction involving an unknown intermediary.

They correlated the brain activity with the heartbeat, which is in constant communication with the brain. The heartbeat generates a heartbeat potential (HEP), which corresponds to a spike in the NMR signal, which corresponds to the proton spins’ interactions. Fernandez tells us, “This signal could be a result of entanglement, and witnessing it might indicate there was indeed a non-classical intermediary.” If so, the bran is not operating according to classical physics but quantum physics, which allows for entanglement, and that may play a role in the uniqueness of our consciousness. Here’s an intriguing fact:

“The HEP is an electrophysiological event, like alpha or beta waves,” Kerskens explains. “The HEP is tied to consciousness because it depends on awareness.” Similarly, the signal indicating entanglement was only present during conscious awareness, which was illustrated when two subjects fell asleep during the MRI. When they did, this signal faded and disappeared.

Elizabeth Fernandez, “Brain experiment suggests that consciousness relies on quantum entanglement” at Big Think (November 22, 2022)

Of course, it’s always possible that — apart from anything else — none of us will never really understand our own consciousness for the same reasons as it is difficult to see ourselves as others see us. It may be a point of view problem that isn’t really solvable. But we shall see.

Meanwhile, theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser reminds us of the strangeness of the world we really live in. Light, subject to quantum mechanics, is both a particle and a wave, at one and the same time (or maybe neither). It is hard to picture but easy to demonstrate:

The photons’ dual behavior emerges as a response to how we set up our experiment. If we have light passing through narrow slits, it will diffract like a wave. If it collides with electrons, it will scatter like a particle. So, in a way, it is our experiment, the question we are asking, that determines the physical nature of light. This introduces a new element into physics: the observer’s interaction with the observed. In more extreme interpretations, we could almost say that the intention of the experimenter determines the physical nature of what is being observed — that the mind determines physical reality. That’s really out there, but what we can say for sure is that light responds to the question we are asking in different ways. In a sense, light is both wave and particle, and it is neither.

Marcelo Gleiser, “Not just light: Everything is a wave, including you” at Big Think (December 15, 2022)

Quantum processes are helpful to know about when we hear a gimcrack new theory that dismisses or explains away human consciousness. We know it can’t just be that simple.

You may also wish to read: Researchers: The brain’s claustrum acts as a router for thoughts Francis Crick thought the claustrum might be the “seat of consciousness,” an inherently materialist concept. The researchers think he was wrong. Of course, seeing the claustrum as a router is more consistent with the immaterial nature of consciousness than seeing it as a seat.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Immortal Mind: A Neurosurgeon’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Why Many Researchers Now See the Brain as a Quantum System