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Quantum Physics & Consciousness

What has physics got to do with it? - Subatomic physics and the possible nature of consciousness

In the most simple terms consciousness refers to the unified sense of awareness that we all have of who we are and what we are. It is the unique subjective inner world that we all experience during our daily lives. Understanding the nature of consciousness and the self, has become one of the most intriguing mysteries.

Although at present no one yet knows how our sense of self and consciousness arises, there have been many theories put forward (for more information please review the mind body problem). The current lack of plausible biological mechanisms to account for how consciousness and our sense of self arises has led some to present some other possible theories.

Stuart Hameroff, an anesthetist at the University of Arizona, and Roger Penrose, a mathematician from the University of Cambridge, have argued that consciousness may be a property of processes occurring within small protein structures within brain cells. According to these scientists however these processes are not taking place where brain cells connect with each other, but at a level far smaller than that. They argue that there is a process going on at the subatomic or quantum level - a level where things are even much smaller than atoms.

The quantum processes theory put forward by Hameroff and Penrose is based upon the principle that there are two levels of explanation in physics: the familiar classical level used to describe large-scale objects and the quantum level used to describe very small events at the subatomic level.

At the quantum level superimposed states are possible, that is, two possibilities may exist for any event at the same time, but at the classical level either one or the other must exist. Hameroff and Penrose propose that consciousness arises from tiny tube-like structures made of proteins that exist in all the cells in the body, including brain cells, and act as a skeleton that allows cells to keep their shape. They propose that these small structures are the site of quantum processes in the brain, due to their structure and shape. They argue that consciousness is thus not a product of direct brain cell to brain cell activity, but rather the action of subatomic processes occurring in the brain.

At present there is little experimental scientific evidence to support this view, but it is an intriguing hypothesis.

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