Despite all the research we’ve done, we still know relatively little about how the human brain works, and we know even less about the mystery of “consciousness.” Scientists disagree about whether consciousness exists at all outside the illusions of our own collective imagination. Some believe it exists independently although we’ve yet to understand its origins have brought quantum physics into the discussion.
This is probably in part because of the way that the “observer effect” challenged one of science’s most basic tenets: that there is an objective, observable reality that exists whether we’re looking at it or not. The revelation that observing and measuring quantum effects changes their behavior is troubling, but it also suggests to many people that consciousness itself is part of quantum theory. Moreover, as humans creating AI that, for all its achievements still can’t master some of the things that come so easily to our own minds (at least not yet), we are bound to see a blurry reflection of ourselves in quantum computers, which promise to achieve so much more than ordinary computers ever could.
However, it was the British physicist Roger Penrose who pointed out that, observer effect aside, quantum mechanics may be involved in consciousness. More specifically, he thought it might be possible that quantum events cause molecular structures in the brain to alter their state and trigger neurons in different ways; that literal quantum effects within the brain exist.
For all we can accomplish with the human brain, it has its foibles, and perhaps suspecting the existence of quantum consciousness is one of them. We possess superior intellects because of our high-level pattern processing abilities, but it is also a well-proven fact that the human brain is prone to see meaningful patterns where none exist; in the midst of meaningless noise. And while the study of quantum physics is certainly not meaningless noise, it’s possible that our minds — which are meaning making machines — are wrong to see themselves in quantum effects. Does it really make sense to think that our lack of understanding of both consciousness and quantum mechanics points to a larger connection?
Our Participatory Universe
There is more to this question than the raw interest of philosophy: if there is in fact a connection between quantum mechanics and human consciousness, any major breakthrough in our understanding of either could help us understand both. For example, advances in quantum computing could enable us to master brain augmentation and uploading consciousness, opening the door to a form of immortality. Improved understanding of the superposition property could teach us how to conquer multiple mutually-exclusive ideas at once.
Or, perhaps we’ve been approaching this in the wrong way. As we look at quantum mechanics, we ask ourselves whether we disturb the effects by measuring, or whether it is the act of noticing the measurement impacting our consciousness that causes the disturbance. Is it possible that knowing how to think in the right way—achieving a quantum consciousness—will allow us to perceive quantum mechanics properly for the first time? We’ve always been part of Wheeler’s participatory universe in some sense, lending our interpretation to what reality is as we record our own history.
For now, most of the scientific community regards quantum effects in the brain skeptically—an appropriate response at this point. Fueling the fast retreat from any quantum consciousness theories in the scientific community is the New Age quantum consciousness trend and the cottage industry arising from it with plenty of avid bloggers writing about things like telepathy, the afterlife, and telekinesis, and crafters selling art and other products.
Whether or not consciousness influences quantum mechanics, and whether or not we eventually require quantum theory to fully comprehend how the brain works, for now we can enjoy the useful discomfort the association provides. Quantum theory has forced us out of our collective comfort zone as we consider new ways of thinking, and found ourselves living inside our own theories.