Brain experiment suggests consciousness relies on quantum entanglement

Brain experiment suggests consciousness relies on quantum entanglement

Supercomputers can beat us at chess and perform more calculations per second than the human brain. But there are other tasks our brains do on a regular basis that computers simply can’t match – interpreting events and situations and using imagination, creativity and problem-solving skills. Our brains are amazingly powerful computers, using not only neurons but also the connections between neurons to process and interpret information.

And then there’s consciousness, the giant question mark of neuroscience. What are the causes? How does it arise from a confused cluster of neurons and synapses? After all, these can be extremely complex, but we’re still talking about a wet bag of molecules and electrical impulses.

Some scientists suspect that quantum processes, including entanglement, could help us explain the enormous power of the brain and its ability to generate consciousness. Recently, scientists at Trinity College Dublin, using a technique to test quantum gravity, suggested that entanglement might be at work in our brains. If their results are confirmed, they could be a big step towards understanding how our brains work, including consciousness.

Quantum processes in the brain

Surprisingly, we have seen clues that quantum mechanisms are at work in our brains. Some of these mechanisms could help the brain process the world around it through sensory input. There are also certain isotopes in our brain whose spins change the way our body and brain react. For example, xenon with a nuclear spin of 1/2 can have anesthetic properties, whereas spinless xenon cannot. And various lithium isotopes with different spins alter development and parenting ability in rats.

Despite these intriguing findings, the brain is widely assumed to be a classical system.

If quantum processes are at work in the brain, it would be difficult to observe how they work and what they do. Indeed, not knowing exactly what one is looking for makes quantum processes very difficult to find. “If the brain uses quantum computing, then these quantum operators may be different from operators known to atomic systems,” Christian Kerskens, a Trinity neuroscientist and one of the paper’s authors, told Big Think. So how do we measure an unknown quantum system, especially when we have no equipment to measure mysterious and unknown interactions?

The lessons of quantum gravity

Quantum gravity is another example in quantum physics where we don’t yet know what we’re dealing with.

There are two main areas of physics. There’s the physics of the tiny microscopic world – atoms and photons, particles and waves that interact and behave very differently from the world we see around us. Then there’s the realm of gravity, which governs the motion of planets and stars and keeps us humans glued to Earth. Unifying these areas under one overarching theory is where quantum gravity comes in – it will help scientists understand the underlying forces that govern our universe.

Since quantum gravity and quantum processes in the brain are both big unknowns, the Trinity researchers decided to use the same method that other scientists use to try to understand quantum gravity.

Take entanglement to heart

Using an MRI capable of detecting entanglement, the scientists investigated whether proton spins in the brain might interact and become entangled through an unknown intermediary. Similar to quantum gravity research, the goal was to understand an unknown system. “The unknown system can interact with known systems like proton spins [within the brain]“, explained Kerskens. “If the unknown system can mediate entanglement with the known system, then, it has been demonstrated, the unknown must be quantum.”

The researchers scanned 40 subjects with an MRI. Then they observed what was happening and correlated the activity with the patient’s heart rate.

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The heartbeat is not just the movement of an organ in our body. Rather, the heart, like many other parts of our body, is engaged in two-way communication with the brain – the organs both send signals to each other. We see it when the heart reacts to various phenomena such as pain, attention and motivation. Additionally, heart rate may be linked to short-term memory and aging.

When the heart beats, it generates a signal called heartbeat potential, or HEP. With each peak in the HEP, the researchers saw a corresponding peak in the NMR signal, which corresponds to interactions between proton spins. This signal could be the result of entanglement, and witnessing it could indicate that there was indeed a non-classical intermediate.

“HEP is an electrophysiological event, like alpha or beta waves,” Kerskens explains. “The HEP is linked to consciousness because it depends on consciousness.” Similarly, the signal indicating entanglement was only present during awareness, which was illustrated when two subjects fell asleep during MRI. When they did, that signal faded and disappeared.

Seeing entanglement in the brain may show that the brain is not classical, as previously thought, but rather a powerful quantum system. If the results can be confirmed, they could provide an indication that the brain uses quantum processes. This could begin to shed some light on how our brain performs the powerful calculations it performs and how it manages consciousness.

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