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Quantum Effects In the Brain

Quantum Physics and the True Nature of Consciousness

Key points

  • Quantum physics provides the key to how consciousness works and to how the mind is unified with matter and the physical world.
  • Modulation of ion dynamics in the brain at the quantum level allows all parts of consciousness to be simultaneously interconnected.

Life is indeed a marvel. How is it that you can perceive other people in front of you in such 3-dimensional detail, each of you perceiving events subjectively, while also managing to communicate within a seemingly very real shared reality? How does your consciousness work?

To understand, consider the cloud of quantum activity that surrounds the brain’s countless neuro-electric occurrences. If it’s an observation made in consciousness, then why shouldn’t a subconscious event count?

The answer is that activities at a subconscious level are in a quantum superposition—meaning, all possibilities simultaneously coexist. But the moment their results pop into conscious awareness a perceptible “choice” is made. This is key because, as explained in the new book The Grand Biocentric Design, there are always many possible chains of brain activities. But when consciousness hangs up on one of them—subjectively perceived as the awareness of a definite outcome—this can now be mathematically described as a collapse of the wave function.

Recall the famous “Schrödinger’s Cat” thought experiment, in which a cat can be considered both dead and alive— it exists in a quantum superposition—until an observer opens the box and one state or the other is observed. In that example, a chain of events that leads to the cat's ambiguous state began with a radiation source monitored by a Geiger counter.

The wave function of the radioactive material was a superposition of two states—one in which there is a decay and one in which there isn’t. But let’s simplify by transferring the experiment to a modern lab. If there’s a decay, the counter detects a photon and produces a click that enters the ears of the technician. There the sound is transformed into an electrochemical signal that’s transmitted to the brain where it’s construed in consciousness as a click. This entire sequence of events comprises one possible chain of brain activity, but note that the physical radioactive decay and the neural responses are all inexorably linked in a single outcome! The other chain corresponds to the case in which there was no decay, and that corresponds to a different chain of brain activity leading to the awareness of “no click.”

There are thus two possibility branches—one ending with the conscious awareness of a click and the other in which there was only silence. According to quantum theory, both of these were equally real (in superposition) until the moment of perception. But from my first-person’s perspective, I cannot be in a superposition of these two states of awareness, for they are mutually exclusive: Obviously I cannot both hear a click and also not hear it. So I find myself in exactly one of those two states of awareness.

What may be news is that the two branches extend to include the radioactive radium, the ear’s vibrating tympanic membrane, and all the brain’s neurons. All are inexorably a part of a single possibility branch and are inseparable.

How the brain is involved in superpositions and their collapse into a singular experience depends on how it processes information. The brain processes information through electrochemical signals. Neurons are electrically excitable. Sodium, potassium, chlorine, and calcium ions flow along ion channels in the cell’s membrane causing changes in the membrane voltage. If the voltage changes enough, an electrochemical pulse is generated that can activate synaptic connections with other cells. All information in the brain is ultimately mediated through ion dynamics.

These ions and the channels they pass through are very small. As the physicist Henry Stapp pointed out: “This creates, in accordance with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, a correspondingly large uncertainty in the direction of the motion of the ion…That means that the issue of whether or not the calcium ion (in combination with other calcium ions) produces an exocytosis is a quantum question basically similar to the question of whether or not a quantum particle passes through one or the other slit of a double-slit experiment. According to quantum theory the answer is ‘both.’”

However, there’s much more to the mechanism than calcium channels. For instance, electrophysiology probes allow us to study the movement of ions within the cells of the brain, allowing us the ability to capture the entire mechanism involved in the emergence of time—starting from the quantum level (where everything is still in superposition) to the macroscopic events occurring in the brain’s neurocircuitry (see The Grand Biocentric Design for more about the brain and the emergence of time).

The equation reduces to a cloud of quantum information when you expand the mechanism to include the ion dynamics involved in the whole temporal sequence of events, from changes in ion gradients within the cell to axon firing. The underlying story involves the quantum information that arises all at once when the process is expanded to include the ion dynamics and their superpositions.

That’s because modulation of ion dynamics at the quantum level allows all parts of the information system that we associate with consciousness—with the unitary “me” feeling—to be simultaneously interconnected.

This is the key. What is relevant here is that those entangled regions of the brain, which together constitute the system perceived as consciousness, arise as such because a sense of “time” emerges simultaneously throughout all the spatial algorithms/neurocircuitry responsible for generating a conscious experience.

It’s important to note that the spatial separation between neurons in the brain is meaningless before this process occurs. It’s an all-or-nothing phenomenon.

At any given moment, there’s a cloud of quantum activity associated with consciousness. What you experience changes depending on which memories and emotions are recruited into the system at the time, corresponding to different networks in the brain. This spatiotemporal logic extends to the rest of the nervous system and to the entire world you observe at the time. Further evidence of this is found in patients with DID who have distinct identities as in the famous case of Sybil. The same brain can have multiple regions that each experience a different “me.” In such cases, a large portion of the neurocircuitry associated with each entangled system may overlap, and the distinctiveness—i.e., the different “me”—may arise because different memories and areas of emotion are recruited at different times. Sybil might be “Peggy” now and “Vicki” tomorrow, depending upon the areas of the brain that are entangled at any given moment.

We can actually observe the process, because analogous experiments have been performed that nicely illustrate superpositions. In an experiment published in the prestigious journal Science, scientists shot photons into an apparatus and showed that they could retroactively alter whether these photons behaved as particles or as waves. The photons had to “decide” what to do when they passed a fork in the apparatus. Later on, after traveling nearly 50 meters past the fork, the experimenter could flip a switch ... and whether or not they did determined how the particle had behaved at the fork in the past—in other words, nothing collapsed until the second choice/observation was made in the present.

This experiment and others like it seriously call into question whether there is a “fixed past.” Indeed, physicists like John Wheeler have expressed the firm conviction that the past doesn’t arise until the relevant objects are being observed in the present. Indeed, Stephen Hawking said, “the past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities.”

Similar quantum effects in the brain strongly suggest that conscious decisions cause a cascade of quantum consequences that can even seemingly “overwrite” previous configurations. The important point here is that ion dynamics at the quantum level provides the key to how consciousness works and to how the mind is unified with matter—and indeed, with the entire physical world.

Adapted from The Grand Biocentric Design by Robert Lanza and Matej Pavsic, with Bob Berman (BenBella Books).


The Grand Biocentric Design by Robert Lanza and Matej Pavsic, with Bob Berman (BenBella Books).