Connections Between Quantum Physics and the Brain

I’ve always had an interest in Quantum physics.

I wasn’t taught the subject in depth but for any scientist (or pop scientist), the mystery of it is irresistible. The most ‘spooky’ aspect (as Einstein described it) is the nature of entanglement, where two atoms are separated across a universe yet somehow connected and behave in a joined up way. Equally mysterious is that it turns out that these smallest of particles making up every single thing, behave differently to regular particles. For example, the physical forces we are familiar with don’t work in the same way with quantum particles as they display light wave and discrete behavior both at the same time. In this atomic world, the only way to make sense of it is to theorize new laws which could explain the observations we see. All of this is wrapped up in a layer of uncertainty, as the quantum world works with probabilities rather than straightforward calculations. This is a lightning fast summary of quantum that clearly doesn’t do it justice but is meant as a teaser to a fascinating field of study. No matter how many times I read about this well established topic, it still feels unbelievable.

What we know

We see a lot about the concept of time in relation to quantum physics. The two topics are bonded together. I recently re-read The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (a professor of Quantum Gravity and best selling author) which is all about this closely entwined relationship. I wrote a short piece about the book here. In particular, the link between time, heat and entropy is discussed. Time could be dependent on heat or even be absent without it. There are many in depth articles on Quanta Magazine if you haven’t come across this which reports on new scientific research including this one on the possibility that quantum could reverse the thermodynamic arrow of time.

As we head into an era of applying quantum to real solutions, there have been some interesting developments. Quantum based technologies can work much faster and tackle more complicated problems and the concept of a quantum computer is a race that’s already begun. But there are some really mind blowing possibilities. Last year, there were attention grabbing headlines claiming that engineers had discovered a way to reverse time using a quantum computer. It was quickly followed by a reality check – no we hadn’t really reversed time but for a brief second we may have believed it.

Further, this research from last year at the University of Berkeley, explains the discovery that heat energy can leap through empty space thanks to ‘quantum weirdness’.

This is just a taste of the research out there. You’ll find a lot more available now and soon to be revealed as people are just starting to figure out the huge impact that Quantum technology could have.

What I found

I decided to do some research of my own into quantum and another area I’ve been looking into recently; the brain. Given quantum particles exist in everything including ourselves, could this spooky behavior be affecting the brain. Is there any research into it?

At this point, it’s challenging to find hard scientific evidence and I turn to this quote from Rovelli as a justification for trying to look for a connection.

‘Ability to understand something before it’s observed is at the heart of scientific thinking’

This whole premise could be regarded as ‘new age’ but many new scientific proposals have started out this way. I might not be the only crazy one to ponder on it – at least some were hypothesizing and attempting to experiment (this is from 2016).

In this research the proposal is that quantum effects might indeed play some role in human cognition. It attempts to combine our understanding of biology, neuroscience, chemistry and quantum physics to see if entanglement may be enabling quantum connections in the brain.

As we already heard, temperature has a big part to play in the quantum environment. So how might fluctuations between hot and cold that involve tiny agitations that lead to entropy be affecting the delicate arrangement of neurons and their connections? The answer is we don’t know and maybe we don’t need to as the body does a tremendous job of maintaining constant temperature.

However, there has been some research and experiments on the effect of temperature on our cognitive function. I could only find these that consider the impact of heat and as you might suspect, the impairment that can arise with high temperatures. It will come as no surprise that warm weather makes it hard to think straight and too much sun to the head is said to affect cognition.

Perhaps at some point in the future we will be trying to understand what is happening at a quantum level in our brains. In the same way that the physical world is altered with forces that we can’t see but we find a way to measure, could the brain and its thought processes also?

Experiments based on the brain and thought are tricky but over the last decade there has been a lot research in this area. It can be attempted scientifically e.g. MRI brain scans, researchers observing human behavior, and many strands of cognitive science. We have developed impressive technologies to measure what is changing in our brains as we think. This book by Leonard Mlodinow called Subliminal is worth reading on the examinations into what happens to the brain during unconsciousness and provides a review of how far we’ve come to understand it over the last few decades.

Research that brings together different fields to focus on the brain is occurring. The Brain Engineering Lab has a goal to gain a fundamental understanding of the brain, its mechanisms, operations and processes. Its members are experts in their fields that include neuroscience, computer science, cognitive sciences, and artificial intelligence. I couldn’t find any reference to quantum in the research. This might be a long way into the future.

Finally I came across some attempts to understand ‘quantum cognition’, a possible new field that tries to marry human behavior and quantum thinking. In this case, an experiment was performed to model human decision making with quantum mechanics.

So what?

What happens if we did find something? If we can unlock secrets on how the brain and thinking can be manipulated, the applications could be ground breaking with benefits for humans and the machines that we use. However like every powerful technology usually is, it could come with even bigger concerns than the misuse of AI. The need for ethical principles and safeguards will be more important than ever.

We still have so much to discover about the quantum world but one thing we can expect is that it is likely to be stranger than we ever imagined.



If you share the same interest in humans and technology, please check out the ‘Who Else’ section of Recknsense where I post about what I’ve read and watched. Let me know if you have done the same and tell me more including how to connect to you.

Featured image courtesy of egnianomis (find more on instagram)

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