Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

Why a 'genius' scientist thinks our consciousness originates at the quantum level

Do our minds have quantum structures that give rise to consciousness? Sir Roger Penrose, one of the world's most famous scientists, believes this and can explain how he thinks it works.

Credit: Alex Grey

Human consciousness is one of the grand mysteries of our time on earth. How do you know that you are “you"? Does your sense of being aware of yourself come from your mind or is it your body that is creating it? What really happens when you enter an “altered" state of consciousness with the help of some chemical or plant? Are animals conscious? While you would think this basic enigma of our self-awareness would be at the forefront of scientific inquiry, science does not yet have strong answers to these questions.

One way to think of consciousness is to conceive of it as a byproduct of numerous computations that are happening in your brain.

The integrated information theory, created by neuroscientist Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, proposes that conscious experience is an integration of a great of amount of information that comes into our brain, and that this experience is irreducible. Your brain interweaves a sophisticated information web from sensory and cognitive inputs.

The global workspace theory of consciousness, developed by Bernard Baars, a neuroscientist at the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California, says that maybe consciousness is simply the act of broadcasting information around the brain from a memory bank.

But there are some who think our attempts at understanding the nature of consciousness through neuroscience are doomed to fail unless quantum mechanics is involved. World-renowned Oxford University mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose, for one, thinks that consciousness has quantum origins.

Together with noted anesthesiologist Stuart Hammeroff, who teaches at the University of Arizona, Penrose came up with the Orchestrated Objective Reduction theory of the mind. The theory is somewhat outlandish, but cannot be easily dismissed considering that Roger Penrose is regarded by many as one of the world's most brilliant people for his contributions in cosmology and general relativity. He is known also for his prize-winning work with Stephen Hawking on black holes. Physicist Lee Smolin once remarked that Penrose is “one of the very few people I've met in my life who, without reservation, I call a genius."

Sir Roger Penrose in 2011.

Penrose believes that consciousness is not computational. Our awareness is not simply a mechanistic byproduct, like something you can make a machine do. And to understand consciousness, you need to revolutionize our understanding of the physical world. In particular, Penrose thinks the answer to consciousness may lie in a deeper knowledge of quantum mechanics.

In an interview with Nautilus's Steve Paulson, Penrose uses an example from quantum computing to explain that qubits of information remain in multiple states until coming together into an instantaneous calculation, called “quantum coherence," making a large number of things act together in one quantum state.

Here's where Penrose's theory draws upon the work of Hameroff by saying that this quantum coherence takes place in protein structures called “microtubules". These microtubules reside inside the neurons in our brains and can store and process information and memory. Penrose and Hameroff think that microtubules are quantum devices that are orchestrating our conscious awareness.

This theory is not appreciated by everyone in the scientific community, with many critics saying the brain is too “warm, wet, and noisy" and cannot sustain a quantum process. Another physicist, Max Tegmark, even calculated that the brain cannot possibly think as fast as this idea requires. Hawking is also not on board, suggesting Penrose should stick with his field of expertise.

Yet, a 2013 study by Japanese scientists added some proof to the theory by Penrose and Hameroff as researchers detected vibrations in the microtubules. Penrose and Hameroff then proposed that by focusing brain stimulation on these vibrations one could conceivably “benefit a host of mental, neurological, and cognitive conditions."

Still, this theory of consciousness is rather on the outs in a field that hasn't had much advancement in a while.

In 2017, Sir Roger Penrose launched the Penrose Institute to study human consciousness through physics and to differentiate it from any potential artificial intelligence.

Watch Sir Roger Penrose explain how he came to conceive of quantum structures in the brain:

How accountability at work can transform your organization

If you don't practice accountability at work you're letting the formula for success slip right through your hands.

Videos
  • What is accountability? It's a tool for improving performance and, once its potential is thoroughly understood, it can be leveraged at scale in any team or organization.
  • In this lesson for leaders, managers, and individuals, Shideh Sedgh Bina, a founding partner of Insigniam and the editor-in-chief of IQ Insigniam Quarterly, explains why it is so crucial to success.
  • Learn to recognize the mindset of accountable versus unaccountable people, then use Shideh's guided exercise as a template for your next post-project accountability analysis—whether that project was a success or it fell short, it's equally important to do the reckoning.

What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien himself hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
Keep reading Show less

Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

An eight-metre-long Whale shark swims with other fish at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium on February 26, 2010 in Motobu, Okinawa, Japan.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
Keep reading Show less

A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

Future of Learning

Changing the way we grade students could trigger a wave of innovation

How students apply what they've learned is more important than a letter or number grade.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast