By Aditya Nair
One of the most baffling problems in science is that of consciousness. How exactly does our brain create consciousness? What brain mechanisms allow for the development of thoughts? Is consciousness a physical phenomenon? Probing the boundaries of our very existence itself, scientists have been pushing at this question for hundreds of years, edging ever closer to the truth.
Many theories exist about the nature of consciousness, but one theory stands out as being particularly interesting and bizarre. A truly mind bending meld of physics and neuroscience, The Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch OR) model of consciousness – promoted by esteemed mathematician Sir Roger Penrose and anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff of the Univerity of Arizona – suggests that consciousness is the result of collapsing wave functions at a quantum level.
The world of quantum physics is known to be riddled with complicated and strange phenomena, such as particles that exist in two places at once and matter that exists and doesn’t exist at the same time. The quantum world is one of probability. This is obviously a far cry from the world of certainty that we have evolved to become extremely familiar with. The quantum world – the world of the extremely small – operates with a different set of rules than those of our everyday world.
Dr. Hameroff, an anesthesiologist by trade, cites this as one of the primary reasons that he endorses the Orch OR model of consciousness. Hameroff postulates that a collapse of a quantum probability wave is the only possible non-physical phenomena that could account for the non-calculable process of consciousness. In other words, his theory finally provides a link between the world of physics and the world of thought, and it could begin to answer the fundamental questions of how physical processes in the brain can produce non-physical abstractions such as “thoughts,” and what “consciousness” actually is.
Penrose, in his 1989 book The Emperor’s New Mind, lays out a similar argument: consciousness isn’t computable or algorithmic with classical physics; approaching the problem with quantum mechanics is the only way to arrive at an answer.
Most experts in the field, however, disagree with Hameroff and Penrose. With advanced scientific and philosophical arguments that extend far beyond the scope of this article, both philosophers and neuroscientists refute the idea that quantum processes must be the root of consciousness. On the other hand, they argue, classical physics and electromagnetism are enough to bring about the types of interactions necessary to produce consciousness.
Surely, the science of consciousness faces many years of refinement and evolution in the near future. What’s inspirational and exciting is that, while other fields of scientific research are facing deep budget cuts, interest in neuroscience seems to be growing and burgeoning. It is becoming a popular discipline, attracting the best and the brightest physicians, biologists, psychologists, philosophers, computer scientists, and yes, even physicists.