yet another spawn of quantum consciousness

Famed physicist Roger Penrose and an Arizona doctor are claiming that our brains are quantum computer in a white paper that will surely be seized by the woo faithful as proof of "quantum consciousness."

digitized brain

Today’s pseudoscience often uses the word quantum as a substitute for magic, a kind of deus ex machina of woo which exploits a complex discipline in physics to argue that literally anything is possible at any time, and disputing the pseudoscientific assertion would require that you disprove quantum mechanics. This is exactly why it landed very high on my top five list of science terms most abused by cranks and serves as the main engine behind Deepak Chopra’s technobabble about consciousness.

Given how fond cranks are of using a quantum phenomenon, one would surely think that a giant of physics like Roger Penrose would steer clear of any ideas which say that what we define as consciousness is born out of the universe’s quantum mesh and that our brains are essentially quantum supercomputers. And it seems like one would be wrong to do so.

The problem with any theory which describes a brain as a computer is the notion that somehow, the thoughts and chemical reactions taking place in our brain are comparable to binary signals being crunched by multiple processor cores and work corresponding to a computer’s logic gates. That’s not really what happens. Instead of acting like a computational device, the brain deals with much more complexity and disorder. It’s imprecise, misfires on a regular basis and has evolved not to become incredibly efficient at calculations and considering probabilities, but to put up with the more or less organized chaos of firing neurons and make decisions with a number of specialized brain structures working in an improvised concert.

But Penrose and an Arizona doctor Stuart Hameroff, decided to go even further, claiming that tiny structures in brain cells act like the qubits of an advanced quantum computer with a computational capacity beyond any supercomputer in a 1996 paper. Even stranger, Hameroff has been claiming that consciousness simply emerges from the quantum mesh and that a single celled organism like an amoeba can live in total self-awareness thanks to this phenomenon.

Allow me to put it this way. If the human brain was really proven to be a quantum computer, I would never look at modern evolutionary biology the same way again and take back all the ridicule to which I subjected quite a few high brow creationists because the level of precision it would take to create a computer out of molecules, atoms and other tiny particles requires some very delicate engineering. Without strict controls, the waveforms of the quantum particles begin to collapse within femtoseconds, way too quickly to actually compute anything, or produce the kind of resonance that Hameroff claimed as evidence for the quantum processing happening in the mind.

Rather than being housed in a warm, soggy brain, quantum computing has to be done in chilled labs where the particles’ coherence can last long enough to produce some sort of meaningful result that can be gathered by indirect observation instead of direct output. The other problem here is the fact that while using a quantum computer would allow someone to peruse algorithms which would be highly impactical to run on a conventional machine, the device would still work in a very similar way.

The difference between quantum computers and the computer you have on your desk is that the quantum bits of the former would be able to generate more than 0s and 1s and could use superimposition to process more data in parallel, a bit like superscalar processors use redundancies in their structure to multithread. Note that this is not how the brain works and while Hameroff and Penrose pondered the possibilities of how some tiny cellular structures could achieve the kind of quantum state capable of data processing, they haven’t explained how these signals would be governed, how the different, specialized parts of the brain play a role, or how the actual processing gets directed if it’s over within less than a millisecond.

And this is why the idea of Orch-OR, as it’s called, still remains a speculative and largely unsupported idea more than a decade after it was shown to the scientific public. We could say that at least they went much further with it than any New Age woomeister, but then again, that may not be saying much…

# science // computer science / computers / neurology / quantum physics


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