A QUANTUM MECHANICAL MODEL OF
THE BRAIN AND CONSCIOUSNESS
DR. GRANVILLE DHARMAWARDENA
UNIVERSITY OF COLOMBO.
Psychologists often speak of the mind and the body as two separate entities for convenience, but most acknowledge that they are intimately entwined. Yet none knows exactly how or how intimately. So the mind body problem keeps stubbornly resisting a definite solution. Philosopher John Searle ( Mills Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Berkley ) says that today's philosophers are reluctant to tackle such big problems as how people have been trying to understand their relationship to the universe.
All these refer to the elusive relationship between the body and the mind referred to more generally as the brain mind problem. Brain mind relationship has baffled mankind for a very long time . One main reason for this is that it was not considered as a candidate for scientific study until recently.
Psychology and related sciences were able to continue for many years by either ignoring the brain entirely or at best treating it as a black box whose rules of operation could be understood without reference to its internal contents or composition.
Human brain without doubt is the most complex organ in the universe. It is physical and biological. Therefore it has to be amenable to scientific probing without the intervention of such considerations as the Godels theorem, which states that there are statements in mathematical systems which are true but cannot be proven within those systems.
Consciousness on the other hand is neither physical nor biological. Therefore it is a more elusive subject to deal with and Godel's considerations may have a role to play there. Attempts to understand brain and consciousness have been mostly based on restrictive Newtonian classical science and exclusively material realm.
Although the powers of understanding of human senses and the scope of Newtonian science are limited to three spatial dimensions, the scope of our universe is not limited to three dimensions. Many of the natural phenomena happening within our universe transcend the three dimension scene. Therefore it is not possible to assume that the mechanisms of operation of the brain and consciousness remain imprisoned within the confines of Isaac Newton's three dimensional material universe.
Attempts to understand the brain-mind problem within Newton's universe over centuries have introduced divisions and concepts that have become detrimental to having a new look at it from the point of view of modern science, more specifically quantum mechanics.
Intellectual acrobatics within the domain of classical science to find solutions to a problem that transcends the limits of classic science cannot yield any valid solution.
In trying to interpret the mechanisms of operation of the human brain and developing a model for consciousness that explain all practical observations, it is necessary first of all to jettison traditional baggage and clean up the scene. It is also necessary to enlist all the observed properties of the brain and consciousness and ensure that the developed model explains all of them.
There is general agreement that the seat of consciousness is the brain. We can go along with this concept. Philosopher Colin McGinn ( Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University, New Jersey the USA ) introduces a property P of the brain in virtue of which the brain is the basis of consciousness and a theory T, referring to P, which fully explains the dependence of conscious states on brain states. He adds that if we knew T, then we have a constructive solution to the mind-body problem.
It is reasonable to consider a property P of the brain , but it is not possible at this stage to shut the possibility that, as Nobel Laureate Neurobiologist Sir John Eccles points out, the scope of consciousness may not remain limited within the confines of the human skull. This is specially so because many of our practical observations and those of many others clearly show that consciousness at times can remain completely disembodied. We can hence, focus our attention on understanding three factors, viz., the nature of consciousness, the property P of the brain that enables consciousness to operate within the brain and a model that explains the behavior of the brain and consciousness as practically observed.
Brain which is material has received much attention over a very long period from both classical and modern scientists. The classical science explanation of the structure and the mechanisms of operation of the brain is easily accessible through medical and biology text books. The brain consists of about 1.3 kg. of gray matter which is made up of dozens of billions of specialized cells known as neurons which have electrical properties akin to those of transistor circuits in computers. Like in transistor circuits these cells are interconnected and there are trillions of such neuron-neuron connections in the brain. Like in transistor circuits electrical signals are transmitted through neurons by unidirectional electrical pulses which are excited, modulated or inhibited by pulses in other neurons, and passed on to other neurons.
However there are differences. In transistor circuits electrical pulses are transmitted across the circuits by the migration of electrons at an enormous velocity of half the speed of light, where as in neurons, electrical pulses are transmitted by the movement of ions which are much heavier than electrons, at a much slower maximum speed of 120 meters per second. This speed is not fast enough to account for the speed of human actions. The interneuron links are established through biochemical junctions, through which signals are passed from one neuron to another by the release of ions. In transistor circuits all connections are exclusively electrical.
Brain is the most complex and most important (from hierarchy point of view ) organ in the human body and it is a voracious consumer of energy, consuming ten times more energy per unit mass as compared to other body organs. Failure to supply energy to the brain for a few minutes can cause substantial brain damage and ultimate brain death. The variety of different proteins expressed in neurons is about 30,000. This is greater than in any other body organ.
The importance of understanding the structure and mechanisms of operation of the brain prompted President George Bush of the USA to proclaim the 1990's as the decade of the brain. EEG (Electro Encephelo Graph ) was the original technique used to study brain mechanisms. Three new techniques, PET ( Positron Emission Tomography ), MRI ( Magnetic Resonance Imaging ) and Magneto Encephelography have come into use in studying brain mechanisms during the last decade . As a result we understand the functioning of the brain much better today than a couple of decades ago.
The slow electrical pulses moving at a maximum speed of 120 mps may, perhaps, be adequate to account for some of the involuntary functions inside the human body. But they are certainly not adequate to account for the speed of human activities that involve computing and the mind. The similarities between the computer circuits and the brain cells have driven brain researchers to construct computer models for the brain. Initially they tried serial computers and then to account for the speed parallel computers came in. Today computer models dominate most brain research.
However computer models are many orders of magnitude slower than needed to account for the speed of human beings. A Neurologist has calculated that if the brain was a standard serial or a parallel computer it would take more time than the age of the universe to perform all the necessary calculations associated with just one perceptual event. But if the brain were a quantum computer, it would try out all the various possible combinations of data arrangement at once and thus unify its experience.
Many who research on the brain-mind problem proceed with the a priori assumption that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain. They consider consciousness as another property, emerging as a result of P from trillions of electrical pulses shuttling across the brain. According to this assumption consciousness is only a property and not an entity. John Searle introduces consciousness as a natural biological phenomenon that does not fit comfortably into either of the traditional categories of mental and physical, caused by lower level micro processors in the brain. However on the basis of practical observations made by us and many others we have to reject these assumptions and regard consciousness as a non-material entity capable of independent existence.
Observations on OBE (Out of Body Experience ) and NDE (Near Death Experience ) show that while the body is in an anaesthetized or inactive state consciousness can remain disembodied, observe events from outside the body and later relocalize in the brain. After the body renormalizes the person can relate what his consciousness observed and heard from an out of body location while the body was inactive. Other experiments have shown that consciousness can leave a dying person, float around observing things and events and later, as Eccles had pointed out, attach itself to an unborn foetus to start a new existence as another individual.
Consciousness is therefore a non material entity capable of independent existence and not a property. Consciousness is not emergent. It can remain localized in the human brain and interact with the brain through the property P of the brain and thereby control the activities of the human body. Whenever the property P collapses consciousness can leave the brain and go into an independent floating existence.
This behavior of consciousness is akin to the behavior of an electron in and out of an atom. Electron which is a quantum entity can remain localized inside an atom by quantum mechanical interaction with the electromagnetic field around the atomic nucleus, which itself is quantum in nature, so long as the energy of the atom's quantum state it occupies matches the energy possessed by the electron. Whenever the energy of the electron does not match, it has to shift to another matching state or leave the atom and start floating as a free electron. In this case the property that localizes the electron inside the atom, the nature of the electron and the relevant atomic model are well known. All these are quantum in nature.
Let us consider the nature of consciousness, the property P of the brain and a model that satisfactorily solves the brain-mind problem.
Nature of Consciousness
Defining consciousness has been considered as a frightfully difficult problem. Does the word " Consciousness " have one single meaning or does it have two meanings like the words " bank " and " palm ". In my mother tongue, Sinhala, and in Sanskrit there are two separate words with separate meanings relevant to this problem. Words " Smruthi " and " Vignana " in Sanskrit have two separate meanings and the English word " Consciousness " is a common word that covers both these meanings.
The " Vignana " meaning of consciousness refers to the non-material entity which is capable of independent existence and interacts with the brain through the property P. Let me use the word " Consciousness " to mean this entity. The " Smruthi " meaning of consciousness refers to a state created by the interaction of the above entity with properly functioning brain and sense organs. It is what a person loses when he/she is anesthetized or receives a hard blow on the head. Let me use the term " S-consciousness " to refer to this state.
Quantum Physicist Danah Zohar describes consciousness as something that includes general capacity for awareness and purposive response. By this description she accepts the above two meanings of the word consciousness. Roger Penrose refers to these as active consciousness and passive consciousness.
When a person is awake information about his/her surroundings is presented to his/her brain by his/her sense organs. The brain processes and computes millions of bits of information presented to it every second by the sensory organs and presents the processed information to consciousness.
Through this process consciousness remains aware of the surroundings and we say that the person is s-conscious of his/her surroundings. When this link between consciousness and the surroundings is interrupted and consciousness is not able to be aware of events in its surroundings we say that the person is s-unconsciousness. It has been found that when a stimulus is presented to a sensory organ of an anaesthetized person all brain processes relevant to that stimulus takes place as if he/she is not anesthetized. Physicist and Pharmacologist Susan Greenfield ( Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University and Professor of Physics at Gresham College, London ) points out that none has yet pointed to a single event that occurs in awake but not in anaesthetized brain.
Hence when a person becomes s-unconscious, the property P breaks down and severs the link between consciousness and the brain.
In that state it is possible that consciousness can disembody and observe events in the surroundings directly without the help of sensory organs, keep them in memory and relate what was seen, after consciousness returned to the body and re-established links with the brain. According to our observations the disembodied consciousness possesses visual, auditory and olfactory senses.
It has been shown using such techniques as PET and MRI that the above process of receiving data from a stimulus by a sensory organ, transmitting them to the brain, computing and processing the data and passing the processed data to consciousness, can be reversed by hypnotizing a person. When a hypnotherapist suggests, for example, that he/she is seeing red light to a hypnotized subject, all above processes take place in the brain as if the subject is actually seeing red light.
The ability of a person to describe what his/her consciousness had observed or heard while it is in a disembodied state makes us to believe that memory is, at least partly, non-material.
Several decades ago David Bohm pointed out many striking similarities between the behavior of our thought processes and that of some quantum processes. For example while entertaining a vague train of thought, the act of concentrating on one in order to bring it into better focus, changes the original sequence. Like electrons governed by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which are never the same again once they have been looked at or measured, a thought which has been highlighted through attention is different from the vague musing which preceded it. The focused thought has " position " like the particle aspect of an electron's two sided nature, whereas the vague musing has " momentum " like the electron's wave aspect. We can never experience both simultaneously. This is a characteristic feature of a quantum entity.
Quantum systems are essentially unified, so are our thought processes. David Bohm says, " Thought processes and quantum systems are analogous in that they cannot be analyzed too much in terms of distinct elements, because the " intrinsic " nature of each element is not a property existing separately from and independently of other elements but is instead a property that arises partially from its relation with other elements ".
Danah Zohar analyses the quantum like behaviour and concludes that consciousness functions, according to the laws of quantum mechanics.
We can conclude that consciousness is a quantum mechanical entity that can have an independent existence. It can localize in the human brain when the property P provides the necessary quantum mechanical base conducive for it to interact with and function in the brain. When the property P breaks down, consciousness takes flight and starts floating. It takes away with it at least a part of the contents of the memory. It possesses the ability to acquire visual, auditory and olfactory information in spite of the fact that there are no sense organs associated with it.
Property P of the Brain that Establishes Brain Consciousness Interaction
In most attempts to solve the mind-body problem, it is assumed that computers can be used to simulate or model mental and neuro-biological processes in the brain and this can explain consciousness. Roger Penrose ( Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics, Oxford University ) points out that quantum mechanics and Godel's theorem makes us to reject these assumptions.
John Searle points out that a brain made of neurons is aware of what it is dealing with whereas a computer modeled to simulate some activity of the brain cannot be aware of what is being dealt with inside it. Penrose points out that there is something in the physical actions in the brain that evokes awareness. This aspects is beyond computation. Also it has been pointed out that anything that is infallible cannot be intelligent. Computer being infallible cannot be intelligent. A computer model of the brain cannot explain the distinctive indivisibility of our thoughts, perceptions and feelings.
In most standard brain models, mind is believed to emerge from trillions of signals shuttling across billions of neurons in the brain. A brain structured on mechanical principles cannot account for the property P that can create s-consciousness by interacting with consciousness.
Recent EEG experiments carried out by a team of physicists at Southampton University
( England ) confirms that thought processes are quantum in nature. Here the effect of measuring right and left brain activity on a left brain task was tested. They found that measuring left brain EEG improves performance whereas measuring right brain EEG disrupts it. In another experiment it has been found that measuring the left brain EEG makes a right hand activity more accurate.
The major stumbling block in solving the brain mind problem had been how does the brain-mind bind together millions of disparate neuron activities into an experience of a perceptual whole. How does the " I " or " Self " or the perceived wholeness of my world emerge from a system consisting of so many parts, billions of neurons. What creates the " Oneness " or the " Globality " of thought processes ? What creates individuality and " I " ness or " self "? What creates feelings, free will and creativity ?
No mechanistic system consisting of separate interacting parts could give rise to above. What are the structures in the brain that create the property P which grant us access to the quantum realm ?
It has become clear that to explain the property P one has to consider the most highly ordered and highly unified structures possible in the universe. The structure that possesses both characters ,the most highly ordered and most highly unified is the Bose-Einstein condensate.
In classical science the most ordered structure that we can find is the Crystal. Crystals are rigid, immovable structures. In Bose-Einstein condensates, the quantum properties allow both a " fluid " order and a high degree of unity. Each particle in a Bose-Einstein condensate fills all the space and all the time in whatever container that holds the condensate. Many of their characteristics are correlated. They behave holistically as one. The condensate acts as one single particle. There is no " noise " or interference between separate parts. This is why super fluids and super conductors have their special frictionless qualities and laser becomes so coherent. Super conductors , super fluids and lasers are Bose-Einstein condensates. The photon of a laser beam overlap their boundaries and behaves as one single photon and the whole system can be described by a single equation.
Super conductors, super fluids and lasers are either very low temperature or very high energy systems. Super conductors and super fluids loose their quantum coherence long before they reach room temperature. Quantum coherence at body temperature in body cells was found by Herbert Frolich. Prior to that quantum physciscist Fritz Popp discovered that biological tissue emits a weak glow when stimulated at the right energy levels .
Cell walls of biological tissue contain countless proteins and fat molecules which are electrical dipoles. When a cell is at rest these dipoles are out of phase and arrange themselves in a haphazard way. But when they are stimulated they begin to oscillate or jiggle intensely and broadcast a tiny microwave signal. Frolich found that when the energy flowing through the cell reaches a certain critical level, all the cell wall molecular dipoles line up and come into phase. They oscillate in unison as though they are suddenly coordinated. This emergent quantum field is a Bose-Einstein condensate and has holistic properties common to any quantum field.
Dana Zohar points out that ion channel oscillations in neurons are quantum phenomena which generate a Frolich like coherent electric field. There are ion channels ( protein molecules ) lining the membrane walls of individual neurons, which open or close in response to electrical fluctuations resulting from stimulation. They act like gates to let Sodium , Potassium and other ions through.
They are of a size to be subject to quantum fluctuations and superposition. Each channel as it oscillates generates a tiny electric field. When a large number of ion channels ( there are 10 million in each neuron ) open and close in unison, as they do when stimulated, the whole neuron fires or oscillates and a large scale electric field is generated across the neuron. Certain neurons act as pace makers. When a pacemaker neuron oscillates in response to a stimulation whole bundles of neurons oscillate with it. A finding by a neurobiologist that when a person sees an object all neurons in the Cerebral Cortex , associated with that perceptual object, oscillates in unison regardless of their location in the brain.
Danah Zohar suggests that the original ion channel oscillations are quantum phenomena which, as in Frolich systems , generates a coherent quantum electric field. It is a Bose-Einstein condensate. Existence of such large scale coherent electrical fields across the brain explains how a large number of disparate and distant neurons can integrate their information to produce a holistic picture. The proof fairly recently that nonlocal ( instantaneous or faster than light ) quantum correlations exists between particles apparently separated in space and time has helped us to understand these effects.
The crucial distinguishing feature of Bose-Einstein condensate is that many parts which go to make up the ordered system not only behave as a whole , but they become whole. There identities merge and overlap in such a way that they lose their individuality entirely. This is a quantum property. Such a large quantum synchronicity exists in and accounts for the special properties of lasers, super conductors and super fluids. Only this type of quantum correlated condensed state could explain the unbroken wholeness of thought process.
The property P of the brain which is the non local quantum correlate, or the Bose-Einstein condensate behaves as above . It creates a unity from the diverse bits of information drawing them to a meaningful whole. The millions of sensory data from sense organs received every moment are chanelled to various disparate areas of the brain and processed by the computing facility of the brain. Consciousness receives this processed information through P and creates a holistic scene.
It is this integration of all the processed bits of information to create a one whole that creates the identity as a person , the self or the " I " ness. Here P is the coherent non local quantum correlation of the brain and it is an emergent property.
Model of The Body-Brain- and Consciousness
From the above considerations it is possible to propose a three tier model for Body- Brain and consciousness, where the brain is sandwitched between the body and consciousness. Here the brain-body link is mechanical and it is fairly well understood from classical science considerations. Body and brain operate in Einstein's space-time domain where non locality is forbidden.
The brain consciousness link is established by the property P which links the brain to the quantum domain where nonlocality can operate . Consciousness is a non material entity in the quantum domain that is capable of independent existence. Consciousness can remain localized in the brain so long as the emergent quantum property P is functional , just as an electron which is a quantum entity can remain localized in an atom so long as the energy of the electron matches the quantum state it occupies. Whenever the property P breaks down or becomes weak consciousness can leave the brain and take up a floating existence in the way an electron leaves its atom if it acquires excess energy and starts a floating existence as a free electron. Consciousness can return to the brain if the property P is re-established.
This model explains all the observed properties of Consciousness including NDE , OBE and reincarnation. Since all information transfer in a non local quantum correlation is instantaneous, it explains the speed of human action. It can be extended to explain phenomena such as telepathy. It explains the individual identity or the " I " ness or self.
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