Science: A Fringe Theory of Consciousness Goes Mainstream

The Story:

There has long been a theory in some quarters that human intelligence, the distinctive ability of human beings to do things like think about thinking, derives from quantum effects in microtubules, hollow cylinders within cells. This theory has become mainstream of late, as study of the microtubules of human neurons has lent it some experimental support.


Roger Penrose, a great astrophysicist, did some moonlighting in the worlds of neurology and neuropsychology in the late 1980s, and he developed the theory at issue: the quantum theory of consciousness. The idea is that microtubules, particularly those in neurons, are small enough so that quantum effects become pertinent in understanding their operations.

Penrose contended that quantum physics allows for deterministic but non-algorithmic processes, and that these may be harnessed by the operations of the brain, resulting in consciousness. To put the idea crudely, using an old image, the microtubule is the closed box inside which a “cat” is both dead and alive.

Penrose believes that there are important limits to the development of artificial intelligence that derive from this fact. Digital computers are algorithmic, and each bit is either “on” or “off.” There is no superposition of on with off such as can happen in a quantum world. Thus digital computers can never become intelligent in the way in which humans are.

Strange New Worlds:

Although Penrose has continued to elaborate these theories over recent decades, the predominant response of mainstream neurology has been disapproval.

Yet an experimental team led by Jack Tuszynski at the University of Alberta in Canada has just found that anesthetic drugs allow microtubules to re-emit trapped light in a much shorter time than originally thought. This is potentially important.

If consciousness is an active process working through the microtubules, then the removal of consciousness from the picture, through anaesthesia, may change the energy dynamics there. Was the light “trapped” because of the quantum effects that show up as consciousness and intelligence? Is the trap released as the anaesthesia takes over? It is intriguing thought, and will surely be the subject of follow-up research.



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