The “quantum brain,” the bold theory that may help solve the mystery of how human consciousness arises

Despite advances in brain studies, the question of what consciousness is and how it arises remains a mystery.

Two recent studies conducted at the Institute of Neurosciences at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, suggest that the answer to this mystery may lie in quantum physics.

In the quantum world, the certainties of classical physics give way to a dimension of probability. And phenomena that may seem strange are also recorded, such as the connection between objects even when they are very distant.

Both studies, published in the journal Journal of Physics Communicationsindicate that our brains may function as quantum computers.

If the researchers’ findings are confirmed, they could help understand not only how the brain works, but what happens when there is cognitive decline due to age or disease.

classic vs. quantum

In the realm of classical physics, which includes everything from a table to planets, objects have definite positions and speeds.

In the physics of the very small, the quantum scale, on the other hand, particles do not have fixed positions, but a probability that they exist in a certain place and time.

Also on this scale is so-called quantum entanglement, a phenomenon that occurs when two particles are so connected that what happens to one immediately affects the other, no matter how far apart they are.

“Traditional physics is responsible for explaining the macroscopic effects we observe,” he said BBC World Spanish scientist David López Pérez, doctor of neuroscience and co-author of both studies.

“Quantum physics is usually probabilistic since we can never know for sure what a specific thing will become.”

David López Pérez is a doctor of neuroscience and co-author of both studies.

What was the experiment about?

In the first of the studies, López Pérez and co-author Christian Kerskens of Trinity College used modified MRI machines to scan the brains of 40 individuals.

For magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), strong magnets cause the magnetic particles in the body to line up in the same direction. One can therefore observe the movement of matter within the body.

In the case of the study, what the scientists observed in the scanner was the behavior of protons in the brain.

“The brain has a lot of water. In MRI, a signal is sent, an impulse so that the protons in the water are excited and therefore return to their original position,” explained López Pérez.

“It’s like when you have a party. They’re all talking to each other and suddenly the DJ plays music that everyone likes and everyone turns to the DJ to play the music. And when that music finishes everyone goes back to what they were doing This is what you do in MRIs to measure protons in water.

Scientists discovered in this experiment that a quantum entanglement between protons in the brain was recorded.

“The protons interact with each other, it’s as if they are separate there and suddenly a relationship is established.”

“The experiment is something that hadn’t been done until now, because what we’ve done is saturate the signal. It’s like the DJ is always playing the best music and there’s always people watching. It’s at that moment that we see those effects”.

Illustration of the phenomenon of quantum entanglement. “The protons (in the brain) are interacting with each other, it’s like they’re separate there and suddenly there’s a relationship.”

What does this tangle have to do with consciousness?

To explore how the brain works, the researchers applied a tool they developed in the past to try and test a phenomenon called ‘quantum gravity’.

That tool points out that when there are two known quantum systems interacting with an unknown system, if the known systems are entangled, the unknown must also be a quantum system.

“This avoids the difficulties of finding measurement devices for something we know nothing about,” Kerskens explained.

In the MRI experiment, the known systems are entangled protons. And the unknown system that they interact with is brain function.

“We claim that protons are entangled because there is a function that is mediating this entanglement, and for us that function is consciousness that is mediating,” said López Pérez.

“We can’t measure it directly, but we do measure protons.”

The scientist explained to BBC World that “quantum gravity is a purely theoretical world that has not yet been explained experimentally, which wants to unite two incompatible a priori theories (quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity). For this they created the figure of the graviton, which is something which we don’t know how it is but which would be the bridge between the two theories”.

“It’s as if we have two people with different political views who are unable to reach any kind of agreement, who thanks to a negotiator can put their differences aside and sit down to talk.”

“In the brain we propose something similar. We propose that the way our MRI signal works cannot be explained in a classical way.”

“We observe protons becoming entangled, but we don’t know how or why. Well, what we have done is take the ideas of quantum gravity and propose that there is a mediator in this process that allows this to happen. That mediator for us is awareness “.

Scientists began to think about the relationship to consciousness due to a patient who fell asleep.

“At first we didn’t think there was a relationship to consciousness. This idea came to us from a participant who apologized for falling asleep in the scanner,” said López Pérez.

“We observed how the signal decayed the moment the participant fell asleep inside the scanner to reappear the moment they woke up. We then started to think that there was the possibility of a relationship with the conscious state of the participant”.

“It’s the only explanation we’ve found, but we need to reproduce the experiment and make a more advanced study that allows us to demonstrate what was presented in the two studies we recently published.”

In the second experiment magnetic resonance images were obtained from two groups of patients differentiated by age.

the role of the heart

The scientists also observed a relationship between the entanglement signal and heart function.

“Our signal is very sensitive to any disturbance and the signal that comes from the heart will definitely disrupt the interlacing and that’s why our signal resembled that of an electrocardiogram,” said López Pérez.

The scientist explained that the entanglement signal is very sensitive.

“If you’re in the MRI and you move, the signal is lost.”

“And what the heart does is send blood all the time. When blood enters the brain, it expands and contracts. When it expands, the cerebrospinal stream leaves and blood enters. When it contracts, blood leaves and the liquids.

“So we believe this motion is what generates the change in the signal, because we’re losing that quantum relationship to the motion for a very short moment.”

The scientists attached a heart rate monitor to the participants’ fingers to measure blood flow.

“We found that the changes in the entanglement signal and heart rate were quite temporally coupled: they were synchronized.”

What future applications can the research have?

In a second study, the researchers demonstrated that the entanglement signals also depended on the age of the participants.

In this second experiment magnetic resonance images were obtained from two groups of patients differentiated by age. One of them had people aged 18 to 30 and another aged 65 or over.

“What we’ve seen is that there have been pretty big changes in the signal with age.”

“It’s something we still can’t explain. We even did a pilot project with some depressed patients. There were few of them, but it seemed that the signals were also different.”

“So what’s going on there with the entanglement? Are those brain communications not working right anymore?”

“We know that with age there are a lot of structural changes in the brain. It gets smaller, blood pressure goes up, blood flow changes.”

“Maybe in the future these studies can be used to generate some kind of drug.”

Kerstens noted that “because brain functions have also been correlated with short-term memory performance and awareness, it is likely that quantum processes are an important part of our cognitive and conscious brain functions.”

David López Pérez: “I believe that if we want to understand the brain we have to go down to the quantum ladder.”

quantum brain

The researchers note that the next step is to conduct large-scale studies.

“What we were trying to do with the experiments was basically demonstrate that the brain can behave in a quantum way. We wanted to provide physical evidence of something that has been talked about for many years. Because there are speculations that the brain may be quantum since the time where quantum mechanics began, in the 1930s or 1940s,” said López Pérez.

“But no one has been able to prove it.”

“What we’re trying to do in the study is continually throw away classical physics to show that ultimately the brain behaves in a quantum way.”

The Spanish scientist pointed out that classical physics can explain many aspects of the brain, such as changes in blood flow or the firing of neurons.

“But conscience, for example, is something you don’t understand.”

“I think if we want to understand the brain we have to go down another level on the quantum ladder.”

“With this study we hope to play our part in the field of neuroscience and to follow a line of research (the quantum world). Until now it had been theorized (although for many this type of entanglement cannot exist in a hot and humid body like our brain), but no scientific evidence such as the one we present had been found”.

For Kerstens, “quantum brain processes could explain why we can still outperform supercomputers when dealing with unforeseen circumstances, making decisions, or learning something new. Our experiments…can shed light on the mysteries of biology and consciousness.”

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