Consciousness can rely 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 routinely perform that computers simply can’t match: interpreting events and situations, and using imagination, creativity, and problem-solving skills. Our brains are incredibly powerful computers, using not only neurons but also the connections between neurons to process and interpret information.

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

Some scientists suspect that quantum processes, including entanglement, may help explain the enormous power of the brain and its ability to generate consciousness. Scientists at Trinity College Dublin recently, using a technique to test quantum gravity, have suggested that entanglement may be at work in our brains. If their findings 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 some hints 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 brains whose spins change the way our body and brain react. For example, xenon with a nuclear spin of 1/2 may have anesthetic properties, whereas spinless xenon does not. And various lithium isotopes with different spins change development and parenting ability in rats.

Despite such intriguing findings, the brain is largely 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. In fact, not knowing exactly what we’re looking for makes quantum processes very hard to find. “If the brain uses quantum computing, then those quantum operators may be different from the operators known from atomic systems,” Christian Kerskens, a neuroscience researcher at Trinity and one of the paper’s authors, told Big Think. So how can we measure an unknown quantum system, especially when we don’t have any equipment to measure the mysterious and unknown interactions?

Lessons from 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 realms 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 attached to the Earth. The unification of these realms under a general 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 large unknowns, the Trinity researchers decided to use the same method that other scientists have used to try to understand quantum gravity.

Taking the tangle to heart

Using an MRI that can detect entanglement, the scientists set out to see if proton spins in the brain could interact and become trapped 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 such as the spins of the proton [within the brain]Kerkens explained. “If the unknown system can mediate entanglement to the known system, then, it has been shown, the unknown must be quantum.”

The researchers scanned 40 subjects with an MRI. Then they observed what happened and correlated the activity with the patient’s heartbeat.

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The heartbeat is not just the movement of an organ within our body. Rather, the heart, like many other parts of our body, is engaged in two-way communication with the brain: both organs exchange signals. We see this 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 the heartbeat potential, or HEP. With each peak in the HEP, the researchers saw a corresponding peak in the NMR signal, which corresponds to the interactions between the spins of the protons. This signal could be the result of a tangle and witnessing it could indicate that there was indeed a non-classical intermediary.

“HEP is an electrophysiological event, like alpha or beta waves,” Kerskens explains. “HEP is related to consciousness because it depends on awareness.” Similarly, the signal indicating entanglement was present only during conscious awareness, which was illustrated when two subjects fell asleep during the MRI. When they did, this 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 findings can be confirmed, they could provide some indication that the brain uses quantum processes. This may begin to shed some light on how our brains do the powerful computations it does and how it handles consciousness.

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