A quantum theory of consciousness

We seldom have occasion to think about science and religion at the same time, but the most interesting experience I have had doing that came in October 2018, when I attended a conference called ‘Science for Monks’* in Gangtok, Sikkim. More precisely, it was one edition of a series of conferences by that name, organised every year between scientists and science communicators from around the world and Tibetan Buddhist monks in the Indian subcontinent. Let me quote from the article I wrote after the conference to illustrate why such engagement could be useful:

“When most people think about the meditative element of the practice of Buddhism, … they think only about single-point meditation, which is when a practitioner closes their eyes and focuses their mind’s eye on a single object. The less well known second kind is analytical meditation: when two monks engage in debate and question each other about their ideas, confronting them with impossibilities and contradictions in an effort to challenge their beliefs. This is also a louder form of meditation. [One monk] said that sometimes, people walk into his monastery expecting it to be a quiet environment and are surprised when they chance upon an argument. Analytical meditation is considered to be a form of evidence-sharpening and a part of proof-building.”

As interesting as the concept of the conference is, the 2018 edition was particularly so because the field of science on the table that year was quantum physics. That quantum physics is counter-intuitive is a banal statement; it is chock-full of twists in the tale, interpretations, uncertainties and open questions. Even a conference among scientists was bound to be confusing – imagine the scope of opportunities for confusion in one between scientists and monks. As if in response to this risk, the views of the scientists and the monks were very cleanly divided throughout the event, with neither side wanting to tread on the toes of the other, and this in turn dulled the proceedings. And while this was a sensible thing to do, I was disappointed.

This said, there were some interesting conversations outside the event halls, in the corridors, over lunch and dinner, and at the hotel where we were put up (where speakers in the common areas played ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ 24/7). One of them centered on the rare (possibly) legitimate idea in quantum physics in which Buddhist monks, and monks of every denomination for that matter, have considerable interest: the origin of consciousness. While any sort of exposition or conversation involving the science of consciousness has more often than not been replete with bad science, this idea may be an honourable exception.

Four years later, I only remember that there was a vigorous back-and-forth between two monks and a physicist, not the precise contents of the dialogue or who participated. The subject was the Orch OR hypothesis advanced by the physicist Roger Penrose and quantum-consciousness theorist Stuart Hameroff. According to a 2014 paper authored by the pair, “Orch OR links consciousness to processes in fundamental space-time geometry.” It traces the origin of consciousness to cellular structures inside neurons called microtubules being in a superposition of states, and which then collapse into a single state in a process induced by gravity.

In the famous Schrödinger’s cat thought-experiment, the cat exists in a superposition of ‘alive’ and ‘dead’ states while the box is closed. When an observer opens the box and observes the cat, its state collapses into either a ‘dead’ or an ‘alive’ state. Few scientists subscribe to the Orch OR view of self-awareness; the vast majority believe that consciousness originates not within neurons but in the interactions between neurons, happening at a large scale.

‘Orch OR’ stands for ‘orchestrated objective reduction’, with Penrose being credited with the ‘OR’ part. That is also the part at which mathematicians and physicists have directed much of their criticism.

It begins with Penrose’s idea of spacetime blisters. According to him, at the Planck scale (around 10-35 m), the spacetime continuum is discrete, not continuous, and that each quantum superposition occupies a distinct piece of the spacetime fabric. These pieces are called blisters. Pernose postulated that gravity acts on each of these blisters and destabilises them, causing the superposed states to collapse into a single state.

A quantum computer performs calculations using qubits as the fundamental units of information. The qubits interact with each other in quantum-mechanical processes like superposition and entanglement. At some point, the superposition of these qubits is forced to collapse by making an observation, and the state to which it collapses is recorded as the computer’s result. In 1989, Penrose proposed that there could be a quantum-computer-like mechanism operating in the human brain and that the OR mechanism could be the act of observation that forces it to terminate.

One refinement of the OR hypothesis is the Diósi-Penrose scheme, with contributions from Hungarian physicist Lajos Diósi. In this scheme, spacetime blisters are unstable and the superposition collapses when the mass of the superposed states exceeds a fixed value. In the course of his calculations, Diósi found that at the moment of collapse, the system must emit some electromagnetic radiation (due to the motion of electrons).

Hameroff made his contribution by introducing microtubules as a candidate for the location of qubit-like objects and which could collectively set up a quantum-computer-like system within the brain.

There have been some experiments in the last two decades that have tested whether Orch OR could manifest in the brain, based on studies of electron activity. But a more recent study suggests that Orch OR may just be infeasible as an explanation for the origin of consciousness.

Here, a team of researchers – including Lajos Diósi – first looked for the electromagnetic radiation at the instant the superposition collapsed. The researchers didn’t find any, but the parameters of their experiment (including the masses involved) allowed them to set lower limits on the scale at which Orch OR might work. That is, they had a way to figure out a way in which the distance, time and mass might be related in an Orch OR event.

They set these calculations out in a new paper, published in the journal Physics of Life Reviews on May 17. According to their paper, they fixed the time-scale of the collapse to 0.025 to 0.5 seconds, which is comparable to the amount of time in which our brain recognises conscious experience. They found that at a spatial scale of 10-15 m – which Penrose has expressed a preference for – a superposition that collapses in 0.025 seconds would require 1,000-times more tubulins as there are in the brain (1020), an impossibility. (Tubulins polymerise to form microtubules.) But at a scale of around 1 nm, the researchers worked out that the brain would need only 1012 tubulins for their superposition to collapse in around 0.025 seconds. This is still a very large number of tubulins and a daunting task even for the human brain. But it isn’t impossible as with the collapse over 10-15 m. According to the team’s paper,

The Orch OR based on the DP [Diósi-Penrose] theory is definitively ruled out for the case of [10-15 m] separation, without needing to consider the impact of environmental decoherence; we also showed that the case of partial separation requires the brain to maintain coherent superpositions of tubulin of such mass, duration, and size that vastly exceed any of the coherent superposition states that have been achieved with state-of-the-art optomechanics and macromolecular interference experiments. We conclude that none of the scenarios we discuss … are plausible.

However, the team hasn’t nearly eliminated Orch OR; instead, they wrote that they intend to refine the Diósi-Penrose scheme to a more “sophisticated” version that, for example, may not entail the release of electromagnetic radiation or provide a more feasible pathway for superposition collapse. So far, in their telling, they have used experimental results to learn where their theory should improve if it is to remain a plausible description of reality.

If and when the ‘Science for Monks’ conferences, or those like it, resume after the pandemic, it seems we may still be able to put Orch OR on the discussion table.

* I remember it was called ‘Science for Monks’ in 2018. Its name appears to have been changed since to ‘Science for Monks and Nuns’.