A few years ago, deep under the Apennines in Italy, a team of physicists hunted for flashes of light that might suggest human Awareness is the product of gravity.
Just because they came empty-handed doesn’t mean we’re all flesh computers with no free will; however, it makes the search for a suitable model for explaining consciousness a much greater challenge.
If the idea of not having free will is uncomfortable, you’re not alone. In the 1990s, Nobel laureate Roger Penrose and an anesthesiologist named Stuart Hameroff argued that quantum properties of cellular structures called microtubules could introduce enough room for brain movement to free itself from the ‘one input, one output’ constraints of classical mechanics.
Although their hypothesis, called Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch OR), is on the fringes of physics and biology, it is nevertheless complete enough to provide researchers with predictions that can be scientifically researched.
“What I loved about this theory was that it’s basically testable, and I decided to look for evidence that could help confirm or falsify it,” say physicist Catalina Curceanu of the Laboratori Nazionali di Frascati in Italy.
Penrose and Hameroff’s concept may be testable, but it still rests on a mountain of assumptions about how physics and neurology function on a fundamental level.
Fundamental to quantum mechanics is the idea that all particles exist as a set of possibilities unless they are quantified in some way through a measurement.
Exactly what this means is not clear, leading some to interpret the difference as a “collapse” of the wave-like haze of maybe into a concrete absolute of harsh reality.
Equally tempting is the question of why a swarm of possible values should be based on a single measurement at all.
One idea defended by Penrose and colleagues Lajos Diosic in the late 20th century suggested that the curvature of space-time might favor some possibilities over others.
In other words, mass and its gravity could somehow flatten quantum waves.
Applying this assumption to competing quantum states of cellular material — namely the tubulin that shuffles chemicals around in neurons — Penrose and Hameroff calculated the time it would take for quantum effects to translate into mechanisms that would affect consciousness.
While their model doesn’t explain long enough why you made a conscious choice to read this article, it does show how neurochemistry can deviate from classical computational operations in something less restrictive.
The idea of gravitational collapse of Penrose and Diósi has been tested before, by none other than Diósi himself. Their experiment at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory examined the simplest collapse scenarios and found no sign of the hypothesis being correct.
In light of those findings, the team now asks how their previous results might influence Penrose and Hameroff’s Orch OR hypothesis.
Their critical analysis of the model suggests that at least one interpretation of the hypothesis can now be ruled out. Given what we know about quantum physics, the distribution of tubulin in our neurons, and limitations imposed by Diósi’s previous experiments, it is highly unlikely that gravity will pull the strings of consciousness.
At least, not in this particular way.
“This is the first experimental investigation of the gravity-related quantum collapse pillar of the Orch OR consciousness model, which we hope will be followed by many others,” say Curceanu.
Exactly what it would mean if some research found a speck of evidence for Orch OR is hard to say. Non-computational descriptions of consciousness are not only difficult to study; they are challenging to define. Even indisputable programs echoing human thinking challenges our efforts to discover examples of feeling, self-awareness and free will.
But the idea that biological systems are too chaotic to allow for delicate quantum behavior has been weakened in light of the evidence of entanglement plays a role in features such as bird navigation.
Perhaps a flash of inspiration is all we need to get us started on understanding the physics of our souls.
This research was published in Physics of Life Reviews†