Is Quantum Mechanics Relevant To Understanding Consciousness?
||Roger Penrose's book Shadows of the Mind may be purchased
A Review of Shadows of the Mind by Roger Penrose
Stanley A. Klein
Department of Vision Sciences
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720
Copyright (c) Stanley Klein 1995
PSYCHE, 2(3), April 1995
KEYWORDS: consciousness, duality, Libet, metaphysics, Penrose, quantum mechanics,
REVIEW OF: Roger Penrose (1994) Shadows of the Mind. New York:
Oxford University Press. 457 pp. Price: $US 25 hbk. ISBN 0-19-853978- 9.
1.1 The present essay explores three issues raised by Penrose in Shadows
of the Mind (abbreviated Shadows from here on): (1)
is classical (non-quantum) science incapable of understanding brain operation?;
(2) are long-range quantum effects able to produce measurable changes in
neural activity?; (3) why have so many researchers proposed a strong connection
between quantum mechanics and consciousness? In connection with this third
topic, I will argue that although Penrose is probably wrong about the physics
of quantum mechanics being relevant to the (third person) neural correlates
of awareness, the metaphysics of quantum mechanics may be essential to understanding
the (first person) subjective nature of consciousness. In Penrose's approach
these two aspects become inseparably intertwined, adding confusion to an
already murky area.
2. The Presumed Deficiencies Of Classical Mechanics
2.1 The first half (Part I) of Shadows, titled "Why We
Need New Physics to Understand the Mind" clarifies Penrose's belief
that classical, algorithmic neural dynamics is insufficient for understanding
the operation of the brain. I will not examine his main argument, based
on Gödel's theorem, here, as it has been widely discussed elsewhere.
Instead I will examine several non-Gödel arguments regarding the purported
inadequacy of classical mechanics for understanding brain operation.
2.2 In his review of Shadows, Wilczek (1994) gave Penrose an
important challenge. Rather than searching for a Gödelian feat that
humans, but not robots, can do, Wilczek suggests merely looking for perceptual
feats that humans can do more efficiently than robots. As Penrose points
out in Section 7.3, quantum computing can be much faster than classical
computing. Perception is a good area to examine since evolution has been
perfecting perception for quite a while, making it an area in which humans
should excel. In my own area of research, visual perception, I am often
confronted with counterintuitive illusions and surprisingly rapid visual
effects. However, I have always been able to account for the data using
standard, classical neural models. I have never come across data from any
sort of mental processing (other than non-verifiable ESP effects) that could
not, in priciple, be accounted for by clever, non-quantum, physiologically
plausible neural models. While it is true that at the present time robots
do poorly at high level classifications such as face recognition, few researchers
would say that future classical robots will be incapable of doing such tasks
well and rapidly.
2.3 At the end of Chapter 7, Penrose cites two studies of Libet and colleagues
(see Libet, 1993 for an excellent summary) as providing evidence for the
non-classical nature of consciousness. The studies were concerned with the
timing relationships between brain activity, conscious awareness, and physical
action (sensory stimulation in one set of experiments and motor response
in a different set of experiments). Of these experiments, Penrose says:
we seem to be driven to the conclusion that in any action in
which an external stimulus leads to a consciously controlled response, a
time delay of some one and one-half seconds would seem to be needed before
that response can occur. For awareness would not even take place until half
a second has passed; and if that awareness is to be put to use, then the
apparently sluggish machinery of free will would then have to be brought
into play, with perhaps another second's delay.
2.4 Penrose believes (correctly) that a 1.5 second delay like this would
contradict our experience. He interprets this contradiction as providing
evidence for quantum processing (p. 388):
...if, in some manifestation of consciousness, classical reasoning
about the temporal ordering of events leads us to a contradictory conclusion,
then this is a strong indication that quantum actions are indeed at work!
2.5 As far as I can tell, however, nothing in Libet's experiments comes
close to requiring quantum explanations. Before invoking exotic explanations
it is useful to reconsider Libet's two experiments to see whether Penrose's
estimate of a 1.5 sec response time is valid. (The following analysis has
been developed in collaboration with my colleague Marcus Baldo.)
2.6 Consider first Libet's experiments with skin and cortical stimulation
that Penrose takes as evidence for a 500 msec delay. Libet (1993) is clear
that this long delay is only appropriate for stimuli that are near threshold.
He points out (p. 131) that a cortical stimulus of about 100 msec would
likely elicit awareness. The time of the actual awareness event is very
difficult to assess (as was pointed out by Ian Glynn (1990) in his very
useful commentary on Penrose's (1989) earlier treatment of Libet), but psychophysical
experiments such as that by Nijhawan (1994) lead me to believe that the
time delay between the sufficient stimulus and conscious awareness is less
than 100 msec. I know of no evidence that would imply the delay between
a suprathreshold stimulus and conscious awareness is greater than 100 msec.
2.7 Consider now the evidence that there is a 1-second delay from conscious
awareness to motor output. Penrose cites Libet's experiments with volitional
finger flexing, in which the moment of decision was determined from a subject's
report of the position of a rapidly rotating clock hand. According to Libet
(1993, p. 128), however, the subjective awareness of the decision to act
occurred only 200 msec before the motor act with substantial unconscious
processing taking place before that. No surprises there. Furthermore, Libet's
use of the rotating clock can overestimate the timing of awareness, as Nijhawan's
(1994) experiments, also using a rotating clock, showed. In any case, Libet's
experiments are not relevant to Penrose's calculation of a 1.5 sec delay:
the latter is related to a stimulus-response situation, whereas Libet's
experiments involved volitional motions.
2.8 It would be useful for Penrose, in his response, to clarify his calculation
of the 1.5 sec delay, since a 300-400 msec delay seems fully compatible
with Libet's data.
2.9 One last comment on Penrose's discussion of the presumed deficiencies
of classical mechanics. On pages 372-373 of Shadows, Penrose
discusses the global nature of consciousness:
The unity of a single mind can arise, in such a description,
only if there is some form of quantum coherence extending across at least
an appreciable part of the entire brain.
2.10 In Penrose's approach the unified feeling of consciousness is associated
with long range quantum coherence, but why can't the required coherence
be achieved classically? Classical neural networks with feedback can produce
surprisingly rich, coherent activity. With signals going from one neuron
to the next in a couple of milliseconds (and even faster dendritic processing)
it is possible for coherent, classical activity to spread across the brain
on a 10 msec time scale.
3. Penrose's New Physics, Microtubules, And Mind
3.1 Even though we are not driven to quantum mechanics because of an inability
of classical mechanics to deal with neural activity, it is still worth exploring
Penrose's quantum ideas. For one thing, there is the intriguing link between
quantum mechanics and the role of the observer. I will deal with Penrose's
quantum ideas in two parts. This section will examine Penrose's ideas on
the connection of quantum physics and brain operation. The next section
examines quantum metaphysics and subjective awareness.
3.2 For a brief, elegant introduction to the laws of quantum mechanics one
cannot beat Feynman (1985). There are two steps in quantum calculations.
First, one calculates the amplitude for the outcome of an experiment. This
calculation is achieved using the Feynman rules governing the interaction
of "particles" such as electron and quarks with "forces"
such as photons and gluons (Feynman, 1985). These rules are similar to rules
governing waves. Second, the square of the wave amplitude gives the probability
of finding a particular outcome of particle locations. A major question
is: at what point does the wave amplitude get reduced (Penrose's R process)
to particle probabilities? That is, when does one apply the second step?
Penrose devotes Chapter 6 to a discussion of whether the R process is real
and to several alternative interpretations of R. Penrose believes that the
reduction of the wave function is governed by a quantum gravity effect that
occurs at intermediate scales of size between microscopic atoms and macroscopic
brains. I have no hesitation in recommending Chapter 6 for anyone interested
in gaining a deep understanding of the quantum mysteries and the possibility
of novel solutions. My problem comes when he attempts to apply these ideas
to the brain in Chapter 7.
3.3 In order to clarify the problems facing Penrose, an example will help.
Suppose a neuron is in a quantum superposition of states A (the neuron fires)
and B (the neuron doesn't fire). The superposition of states can be written
as: a|A> + b|B>, where |a|^2 and |b|^2 are the probabilities that
the neuron fires or doesn't fire. For convenience we are using Dirac's notation,
|A> to represent the state A. A critical difference between classical
mechanics and quantum mechanics is that in the latter the relative sign
(or phase) of the amplitudes a and b can lead to measurably different outcomes
if the overlap between states |A> and |B> becomes substantial as they
evolve in time. The measurable difference is referred to as quantum interference.
In classical mechanics the relative sign (phase) of a and b is not measurable
since only the probabilities |a|^2 and |b|^2 ever enter classical calculations.
Thus the question of whether there are measurable quantum effects that differ
from classical predictions is directly connected with the question of overlap
of states. For our example with a neuron's firing I suspect everyone will
agree that the biochemical difference produced by firing is too large to
ever allow overlap between the fired and unfired state. Thus measurable
quantum effects would be expected to take place before a neuron fires.
3.4 It will be difficult to find quantum effects in pre-firing neural activity.
The big problem facing quantum superpositions in the brain is that the brain
operates at high temperatures (there are constant thermal vibrations of
the proteins and other molecules involved with neural activity) and is made
of floppy material (the neural proteins can undergo an enormously large
number of different types of vibration). Furthermore, it is highly likely
that states |A> and |B> will get entangled with different modes of
oscillation of the environment. When that happens it is exceedingly unlikely
that states |A> and |B> will ever develop substantial overlap, so
the intrinsically quantum effects (the deviations from classical predictions)
become negligible. The challenge facing Penrose is to convince the reader
that there is much less "floppiness" than appears to be the case.
3.5 To meet this objection, Penrose makes wishful conjectures about properties
of microtubules. These proteins, found in all cells, have properties that
could conceivably be useful for computation within individual neurons (Hameroff
& Watt, 1982). But while it may be conceivable that microtubules maintain
quantum coherence within a neuron, it is difficult to imagine how this coherence
can be maintained across neurons. Penrose is aware of this problem when
he says (p. 372): "... the quantum coherence must leap the synaptic
barrier between neuron and neuron. It is not much of a globality if it involves
only individual cells!"
3.6 What Penrose's story lacks is an account of how quantum coherence can
leap the synaptic barrier. All he says is that evolution is clever, and
maybe it has found a way to achieve this impossible sounding feat. He discusses
how microtubules can alter synaptic strengths in an interesting way, but
nowhere is there any discussion of the nature of synaptic modulations that
can be achieved quantum-mechanically but not classically. The quantum nature
of neural activity across the brain must be severely restricted, since Penrose
concedes that neural firing is occurring classically. I kept rereading Sections
7.6 (Microtubules and consciousness) and 7.7 (A model for a mind) in hopes
of finding a plausible argument for how a coherent quantum state could be
preserved across the brain. I thought that Penrose might invoke the .5 cm
microwaves that have been associated with microtubules, but he was too smart
for that. He must have felt that invoking microwaves to achieve quantum
coherence across neurons would be too easily disproved. For his hypothesis
to have any chance of success, Penrose needs new mechanisms of neural communications
other than the presently known electrochemical mechanisms, but given the
explanatory power of presently-known mechanisms, it is unlikely that neuroscientists
will mount a search for these new and exotic mechanisms soon.
4. Physics vs. Metaphysics
4.1 Given the skepticism I expressed in the preceding section about Penrose's
Chapter 7 "Quantum Theory and the Brain', it might seem that I am skeptical
about all aspects of Penrose's attempt to connect quantum mechanics and
consciousness. Not so. I believe that the metaphysical underpinnings of
quantum mechanics are crucial for a deep understanding of consciousness
and the connection between mind and brain. The distinction being made is
between science (asking testable questions) and metaphysics (asking nontestable
questions). The metaphysics of quantum mechanics, with its insight into
the role of the observer, may well be relevant to the subjective aspects
of how studies of mind can fit into the scientific worldview.
4.2 Chapters 5 and 6 of Shadows provide a wonderful presentation
of the paradoxical nature of quantum mechanics. The framework that Penrose
develops in those chapters has direct applications to the metaphysics of
the mind-brain connection. The challenge is to find a satisfactory way to
associate the "observer" of subjective awareness with the "observer"
of quantum mechanics (Penrose's R process). Stapp (1993) and Penrose would
like this association to be in the realm of science; Klein (1992, 1993)
has argued that it could be in the realm of metaphysics.
4.3 The big problem in the metaphysics of quantum mechanics is the question
of where to place the split between the observer and the observed. The astonishing
finding of von Neumann (1955) is that its placement is irrelevant to any
measured event. The Feynman rules for the world below the split and the
classical rules for the world above the split are so clever that the split
is moveable. This is the brilliant manner in which the quantum duality avoids
the difficulties encountered by the previous dualities of Plato, Descartes
and Kant. Previous dualities contained inconsistencies when the two sides
were compared. There are no inconsistencies between the two halves of the
quantum duality. Present quantum theory, with its flexible split placement,
allows the neural correlates of awareness to be above the split (the neural
correlates of awareness become the observer) and the remaining (unconscious)
neural activity to be below. This is the placement advocated by von Neumann
(1955), Wigner (1961) and Stapp (1993). Stapp, in particular, has been lucid
in writing about the conscious act being connected with the reduction process.
4.4 In Penrose's response to the present articles it would be helpful to
see a clarification about which aspects of the quantum-consciousness connection
he believes are within science and which are within metaphysics. Even if
it finally turns out that only the metaphysical aspects of quantum mechanics
are relevant to consciousness, Shadows of the Mind would still
be an excellent resource for gaining an appreciation for those aspects.
I would like to thank Marcus Baldo, Henry Stapp, David Chalmers and Dan
Rokhsar for useful comments.
Feynman, R.P. (1985). QED. Princeton: Princeton University
Glynn, I.M. (1990). Consciousness and time. Nature, 348, 477-479.
Hameroff, S.R., & Watt, R.C. (1982). Information processing in microtubules.
Journal of Theoretical Biology, 98, 549-561.
Klein, S.A. (1992). Duality of psycho-physics. In A. Gorea, ed., TacIt
Assumptions in Vision Research. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Klein, S.A. (1993). "Will Robots See?" In Spatial Vision
in Humans and Robots. Harris and Jenkin eds. Cambridge: Cambridge
Libet, B. (1993). The neural time factor in conscious and unconscious events.
Experimental and Theoretical Studies of Consciousness (CIBA
Foundation Symposium 174) 123-146. Chichester: Wiley.
Nijhawan, R. (1994). Motion extrapolation in catching. Nature, 370,
Penrose, R. (1989).The Emperor's New Mind. Oxford University
Stapp, H.P. (1993). Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics. Berlin:
von Neumann, J. (1955). Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics.
Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Wigner, E.P. (1961). Remarks on the mind-body question. Reprinted in Wheeler
and Zurek, eds., Quantum Theory and Measurement. Princeton:
Princeton University Press.
Wilczek, F. (1994). A call for a new physics.Science, 266,
1737 - 1738.