The Big Questions
The strange link between the human mind and quantum physics
Nobody understands what consciousness is or how it works.
Nobody understands quantum mechanics either.
Could that be more than coincidence?
By Philip Ball
16 February 2017
The perennial puzzle of consciousness has even led some researchers
to invoke quantum physics to explain it. That notion has always been met
with skepticism, which is not surprising: it does not sound wise to explain
one mystery with another. But such ideas are not obviously absurd,
and neither are they arbitrary.
For one thing, the mind seemed, to the great discomfort of physicists,
to force its way into early quantum theory. What's more, quantum
computers are predicted to be capable of accomplishing things ordinary
computers cannot, which reminds us of how our brains can achieve things
that are still beyond artificial intelligence. "Quantum consciousness"
is widely derided as mystical woo, but it just will not go away.
Quantum mechanics is the best theory we have for describing the world
at the nuts-and-bolts level of atoms and subatomic particles.
Perhaps the most renowned of its mysteries is the fact that the outcome
of a quantum experiment can change depending on whether or not
we choose to measure some property of the particles involved.
When this "observer effect" was first noticed by the early pioneers
of quantum theory, they were deeply troubled. It seemed to undermine
the basic assumption behind all science: that there is an objective world
out there, irrespective of us. If the way the world behaves depends
on how – or if – we look at it, what can "reality" really mean?
Some of those researchers felt forced to conclude that objectivity was
an illusion, and that consciousness has to be allowed an active role
in quantum theory. To others, that did not make sense.
Surely, Albert Einstein once complained,
the Moon does not exist only when we look at it!
Today some physicists suspect that, whether or not consciousness
influences quantum mechanics, it might in fact arise because of it.
They think that quantum theory might be needed to fully understand
how the brain works.
Might it be that, just as quantum objects can apparently be
in two places at once, so a quantum brain can hold onto two
mutually-exclusive ideas at the same time?
These ideas are speculative, and it may turn out that quantum physics
has no fundamental role either for or in the workings of the mind.
But if nothing else, these possibilities show just how strangely
quantum theory forces us to think.
Beginning in the 1980s, the British physicist Roger Penrose suggested
that the link might work in the other direction.
Whether or not consciousness can affect quantum mechanics, he said,
perhaps quantum mechanics is involved in consciousness.
'' It is hard to avoid the implication that consciousness
and quantum mechanics are somehow linked ''
''Other researchers have found evidence for quantum effects in living beings ''
"Quantum consciousness" is widely derided as mystical woo,
but it just will not go away