This is the latest in a long series of articles about the relationship between the quantum physics revolution and a spiritual worldview. For what has preceded, see the top of the Blog Index Page. I am currently summarising the book The Quantum Self by Danah Zohar, and what follows will make most sense if you have read the three preceding articles, which deal with the earlier chapters.
Having outlined the basic issues, Zohar now begins her search for an understanding of the mystery of consciousness. It is important to note that, even though this series is about the relationship between quantum physics and a spiritual worldview, this section is about Zohar’s book, which has as its theme one physicist’s attempt to understand this mystery. She is aware of the parallels with Eastern Mysticism, as outlined for example by Fritjof Capra, but does not think that they are necessary in this investigation. She is attempting to understand consciousness from a scientific/physics point of view. It will, however, be interesting to see where this journey takes her later.
Spiritually minded people will therefore have reservations about what she says in what follows here, that she is looking at things from the bottom-up. For example, Ken Wilber believes that physics is purely the study of matter, and that consciousness belongs to higher realms of spirit and soul. It could be argued therefore that a physics of consciousness is impossible in principle, so we should note that Zohar is merely attempting to understand consciousness as it manifests itself within a human being, and its relationship to the brain.
In chapter 5 she discusses some of the alternatives offered: dualism, materialism, and functionalism — the tendency to compare the brain to a computer. She finds all these inadequate. She even has reservations about the holographic model, advocated by David Bohm, which she believes has attractive qualities, but cannot account for the ‘I’ of consciousness, the unity of conscious perception. She says that her book “can be seen as part of that general holistic movement”, although holism “must be grounded in the actual physics of consciousness, in a physics which can underpin the unity of consciousness” and be related “both to brain structure and to the common features of our everyday awareness”. She believes that to achieve this we must turn to quantum mechanics.
She begins chapter 6 by quoting Bohm who believes that there is a “close analogy between quantum processes and our inner experiences and thought processes”. Since the problem with computer and holographic models is their failure to explain the unity of consciousness, she finds it interesting that “now that special sorts of specifically quantum mechanical unity are recognized, both physicists and philosophers have begun to wonder whether they might not have some meaningful relevance to the unity of consciousness”.
Her assumption is “that there is a vital link between thought processes and quantum processes, between ourselves and electrons”, and that “the many analogies between the two are both tantalizing and suggestive”. Even on the strength of analogies alone, it is possible to make a powerful case. We do, however, remain at the level of analogies, and require harder scientific proof: “If it really were possible… to go beyond analogy, to get beyond saying that thought processes are like quantum processes and go further on to explain consciousness in terms of quantum mechanical features in the actual structure and functioning of the brain, we would have taken a truly revolutionary step… We would have gone a long way towards understanding our relation to Nature and the material world”.
She says that at the time Bohm first made these analogies, it would have been impossible to go much further, since neurobiology and quantum physics were not sufficiently developed. Since then, however, we have had the proof of non-locality, and “the even stronger unifying effects found in some large, ordered structures like lasers and superconductors”. With all this “a quantum mechanical approach becomes attractive”.
Such thinking appeals even to physicists as prestigious as Roger Penrose, whom she quotes in relation to non-locality: “It seems to me to be a definite possibility that such things could be playing a role in conscious thought modes. Perhaps it is not too fanciful to suggest that quantum correlations could be playing an operative role over large regions of the brain. Might there be any relation between a ‘state of awareness’ and a highly coherent quantum state in the brain? Is the ‘oneness’ or ‘globality that seems to be a feature of consciousness connected with it? It is somewhat tempting to believe so”.
She goes on to describe some scientific experiments which lean towards such a conclusion:
- “Nerve cells in the human brain are sufficiently sensitive to register the absorption of a single photon (mirroring the passage of an individual electron from one energy state within the atom to another) — and thus sensitive enough to be influenced by the whole panoply of odd quantum-level behaviour, including indeterminism and non-local effects”.
- “Further experiments proved that quantum indeterminacy is built into the functioning of the brain itself, through random variations in the chemical concentrations surrounding nerve junctions (neurone synapses)… The levels at which neurones fire vary according to definite statistical law, just like any other quantum process. Of the brain’s 10¹⁰ neurones, some 10⁷ are believed sensitive enough to register quantum-level phenomena at any one time”.
She then mentions the work of Ninian Marshall and Yuri Orlov who argue in similar vein that free thought processes, free will or intention (Marshall) and doubt, resolution or creative thinking (Orlov) are impossible in a brain obeying the laws of classical determinist physics, so that “quantum indeterminism and superimposed probability states must be playing a role in the brain’s openness to all the potentialities latent in consciousness” (Orlov). (Various scientists, philosophers, and writers on Medium do of course argue, somewhat counterintuitively and obviously unaware of these quantum developments, that free will is an illusion.)
This still leaves much unexplained, however; “What sort of quantum process might it be, for example, and what properties of the brain could possibly sustain it?” She says that, for consciousness to be unified, as it appears to be, its background state must be what physicists call a ‘steady state’, “uniform in space and persistent in time”. In plain language, you may be driving a car, carrying on a conversation, while simultaneously being aware of the car radio in the background, yet no one assumes that these are three separate people. “This considerably limits the choice of underlying physical explanations, as can be gathered from the failure of all attempts to explain consciousness in classical terms”. She points out that “this kind of settled uniformity is rare amongst dynamic processes in Nature, but it does occur in materials which exist in ‘condensed phases’ ”.
It is therefore worth investigating this phenomenon. A phase or state is a condition of some material system. Thus water has three phases or states — gaseous, liquid, and solid. Other examples she gives are: “ordinary magnets, superfluids, superconductors, laser light, electric currents in metals and sound waves in crystals”. “The property that all these things have in common is some degree of coherence, such that the many atoms or molecules which make up the substance suddenly (or gradually) behave as one”. This is what we are to understand by a condensed phase.
She then wonders how the neurones of the brain could possibly get into such a state; what kind of neurobiological mechanism would be required to line up neurones in this way? It has been suggested that consciousness might “depend on the brain somehow taking on the characteristics of a superfluid or a superconductor”. These, however, exist only at very low temperatures, whereas brains function at normal body temperature. “There would have to be some such mechanism that functions at normal body temperature”.
She says that there is indeed one such system, Herbert Fröhlich’s ‘pumped’ system, which “seems to satisfy all the necessary criteria”. This is “simply a system of vibrating electrically charged molecules… Fröhlich demonstrated that beyond a certain threshold, any additional energy pumped into the system causes the molecules of that kind to vibrate in unison. They do so increasingly until they pull themselves into the most ordered form of condensed phase possible — a Bose-Einstein condensate”. (This is named after Albert Einstein who predicted its existence following the work of Satyendra Nath Bose.) The parts not only behave as a whole, but they become whole. For consciousness to draw together the various elements into a unity, some such process would be crucial.
Zohar says that at any given moment there are at least one hundred different pieces of information, and “to bring all this together… necessitates that the separate brain states attending to each element become identical. All their properties and all their information must entirely overlap. This kind of unity is only found in Bose-Einstein condensates. And it is only in such condensates, where individuality breaks down, that we can find distinctively quantum mechanical effects in large-scale systems”. She says that “when cell membranes vibrate sufficiently to pull themselves into a Bose-Einstein condensate, they are creating the most coherent form of order possible in Nature, the order of unbroken wholeness”. This is a term which, of course, occurs very frequently in the literature of quantum physics.
She mentions the work of some other scientists, and then concludes: “Evidence for coherent states (Bose-Einstein condensates) in biological tissue is now abundant, and the interpretation of its meaning lies at the cutting edge of exciting breakthroughs in our understanding of what distinguishes life from non-life”, and that the same process among neurone constituents is what constitutes the physical basis of consciousness.
If that is true, we then have to look for the features of a Fröhlich-style system in the brain. Her whole explanation is too complicated to go into here, but she believes that at a crucial point “the movements of the synchronized molecules within neurone cell walls would take on quantum mechanical properties — uniformity, frictionlessness, unbroken wholeness. In this manner they would generate a unified field of the sort required to produce the ground state of consciousness. The phase shift, then, is the moment when ‘an experience’ is born”.
Such thinking “lends support to the view that some rudimentary consciousness may well be the property of all living systems”, although “a snail would have a much more limited consciousness than we do”. “Indeed, no reason in principle to deny that any structure, biological or otherwise, which contained a Bose-Einstein condensate mightn’t possess the capacity for consciousness”. As in her chapter 4, she is again contemplating panpsychism.
Her next section is somewhat technical, so I’m going to jump ahead to the conclusions she reaches. She arrives at a quantum mechanical model of consciousness “which is neither entirely like a computer nor entirely like a quantum system… (It is) a complex, multi-layered dialogue between the quantum aspect (the ground state) and a whole symphony of interactions that cause patterns to develop in the ground state”. Such a model is “already pregnant with far-reaching philosophical implications”.
- “The unbroken wholeness which is a prerequisite for any such model, and hence the loss of individuality of its constituent parts, bears on the whole question of personal identity and group relations”.
- “Any quantum mechanical model is necessarily a physical model, and thus assumes that the phenomena of consciousness (awareness, perception, thought, memory, etc.), along with those of physics, chemistry and biology, belong to the order of Nature and can be experimentally investigated. This way of looking at consciousness also implies that consciousness and matter are so integrally bound up with each other that either consciousness is a property of matter (as in panpsychism) or else… that consciousness and matter arise together from the same common source — in our terms, from the world of quantum phenomena”.
She says that “either view takes consciousness out of the realm of the supernatural and makes it a proper matter for scientific enquiry”, and that the assumptions of dualism are profoundly challenged. The next task is “to reassess the whole question of how the mind and the body relate”. That is the subject of her next chapter, and the next article.