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 amazingly powerful computers, using not only neurons, but also the connections between the neurons to process and interpret information.
And then there’s consciousness, the big question mark of neuroscience. What causes it? How does it arise from a tangled mass of neurons and synapses? After all, these may exist hugely complicatedbut 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 for quantum gravity, suggested that entanglement possibly at work in our brains. If confirmed, their results could be a big step towards understanding how our brain, including consciousness, works.
Quantum processes in the brain
Amazingly, we’ve seen some indications that quantum mechanisms are at work in our brains. Some of these mechanisms can help the brain process the world around it through sensory input. There are also certain isotopes in our brain whose spins change the response of our body and brain. For example, xenon can have a nuclear spin of 1/2 narcotic properties, while xenon without spin cannot. And different isotopes of lithium with different spins alter development and parenting in rats.
Despite such intriguing findings, the brain is largely believed to be a classical system.
If quantum processes were at work in the brain, it would be difficult to observe how they work and what they do. The fact that we don’t know exactly what we’re looking for makes quantum processes very hard to find. “If the brain uses quantum computation, then those quantum operators may be different from 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 one measure an unknown quantum system, especially if we don’t have equipment to measure the mysterious, 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 areas of physics. There is the physics of the tiny microscopic world – the 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 controls the movement of planets and stars and keeps us humans attached to the Earth. Uniting these realms under an overarching theory is where quantum gravity comes in – it will help scientists understand the underlying forces that govern our universe.
Because quantum gravity and quantum processes in the brain are both great unknowns, the researchers at Trinity decided to use the same method other scientists use to understand quantum gravity.
Take entanglement to heart
Using an MRI that can detect entanglement, the scientists looked at whether proton spins could interact in the brain and become entangled through an unknown intermediary. As with the study of quantum gravity, the goal was to understand an unknown system. “The unknown system can interact with known systems such as the proton spins [within the brain]”, explains Kerskens. “If the unknown system can mediate entanglement with the known system, then it has been shown to be unknown quantum.”
The researchers scanned 40 subjects with an MRI. They then watched what happened and related the activity to 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 send signals to each other. We see this when the heart responds to it different phenomena such as pain, attention and motivation. In addition, the heart rate can be tied to short-term memory and aging.
As the heart beats, it generates a signal called heart rate potential, or HEP. With each peak of the HEP, the researchers saw a corresponding peak in the NMR signal, which corresponds to the interactions between proton spins. This signal may be the result of entanglement, and if you see it, it may indicate that there was indeed a non-classical intermediary.
“The HEP is an electrophysiological event, like alpha or beta waves,” Kerskens explains. “The HEP is connected to consciousness because it depends on consciousness.” Similarly, the signal indicating entanglement was only present 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 can show that the brain is not classical, as previously thought, but rather a powerful quantum system. If the results can be confirmed, they could indicate that the brain uses quantum processes. This could shed light on how our brain performs the powerful calculations it does and how it manages consciousness.