Your Brain Isn't a Computer — It's a Quantum Field

By examining our minds at a quantum level, we change them, and by changing them, we change the reality that shapes them.


The irrationality of how we think has long plagued psychology. When someone asks us how we are, we usually respond with "fine" or "good." But if someone followed up about a specific event — "How did you feel about the big meeting with your boss today?" — suddenly, we refine our "good" or "fine" responses on a spectrum from awful to excellent.

In less than a few sentences, we can contradict ourselves: We’re "good" but feel awful about how the meeting went. How then could we be "good" overall? Bias, experience, knowledge, and context all consciously and unconsciously form a confluence that drives every decision we make and emotion we express. Human behavior is not easy to anticipate, and probability theory often fails in its predictions of it.

Enter quantum cognition: A team of researchers has determined that while our choices and beliefs don’t often make sense or fit a pattern on a macro level, at a "quantum" level, they can be predicted with surprising accuracy. In quantum physics, examining a particle’s state changes the state of the particle — so too, the "observation effect" influences how we think about the idea we are considering.

The quantum-cognition theory opens the fields of psychology and neuroscience to understanding the mind not as a linear computer, but rather an elegant universe.

In the example of the meeting, if someone asks, "Did it go well?" we immediately think of ways it did. However, if he or she asks, "Were you nervous about the meeting?" we might remember that it was pretty scary to give a presentation in front of a group. The other borrowed concept in quantum cognition is that we cannot hold incompatible ideas in our minds at one time. In other words, decision-making and opinion-forming are a lot like Schrödinger’s cat.

The quantum-cognition theory opens the fields of psychology and neuroscience to understanding the mind not as a linear computer, but rather an elegant universe. But the notion that human thought and existence is richly paradoxical has been around for centuries. Moreover, the more scientists and scholars explore the irrational rationality of our minds, the closer science circles back to the confounding logic at the heart of every religion. Buddhism, for instance, is premised on riddles such as, “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without it.” And, in Christianity, the paradox that Christ was simultaneously both a flesh-and-blood man and the Son of God is the central metaphor of the faith.

[D]ecision-making and opinion-forming are a lot like Schrödinger’s cat.

For centuries, religious texts have explored the idea that reality breaks down once we get past our surface perceptions of it; and yet, it is through these ambiguities that we understand more about ourselves and our world. In the Old Testament, the embattled Job pleads with God for an explanation as to why he has endured so much suffering. God then quizzically replies, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4). The question seems nonsensical — why would God ask a person in his creation where he was when God himself created the world? But this paradox is little different from the one in Einstein’s famous challenge to Heisenberg’s "Uncertainty Principle": “God does not play dice with the universe.” As Stephen Hawking counters, “Even God is bound by the uncertainty principle” because if all outcomes were deterministic then God would not be God. His being the universe’s “inveterate gambler” is the unpredictable certainty that creates him.

The mind then, according to quantum cognition, "gambles" with our "uncertain" reason, feelings, and biases to produce competing thoughts, ideas, and opinions. Then we synthesize those competing options to relate to our relatively "certain" realities. By examining our minds at a quantum level, we change them, and by changing them, we change the reality that shapes them.

Changing the metaphors we use to understand the world — especially the quantum metaphor — can yield amazing insights. Jonathan Keats, experimental philosopher, explains:

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.