Strange Birth of a Brainwave

King of ClubsConsciousness

You don't believe in ESP? Then maybe your mind's taken a quantum leap.

Imagine what it might be like to be a sub-atomic particle living in the bizarre and ambiguous world described by quantum mechanics.Single particles going through two holes at once; matter existing in several states simultaneously;pairs of electrons influencing each other though separated by great distances.But suppose those were the rules governing our everyday world?
 This radical proposal has just been put forward at an Institute of Psychiatry conference in South London."I don't think we have to assume a universe of independent atoms," declared Chris Clarke, Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Southampton."I believe global quantum effects with entities acting in concert are not that uncommon."
 One impetus behind Prof Clarke's thesis is the long running problem that consciousness poses for classical physics.What is awareness doing in a universe described totally in terms of matter? A growing number of researchers believe that some features of the mind are better explained by a quantum model.Recently a number of simple psychology experiments have come up with results that pose serious problems for the classical model but fit the quantum one quite well.
 One of these was performed at the Institute of Psychiatry last summer by Dr Peter Fenwick,a clinical neurophysiologist and organiser of the conference.He found that one half of a couple who have a strong emotional connection - lovers or parent and child - can tell when something is happening to their other half although both are in separate rooms and cannot hear or see each other.
 Dr Fenwick hooked the couples up to EEG machines,which measure brainwaves,and at intervals played a sound to one of them."We found a definite response in the brainwaves of the other half of the couple a few seconds afterwards,but the effect only happened with people who were close," he says.
 According to our current scientific model these results are not possible.Brainwaves are strictly located in the brains and the only way they communicate with other brainwaves is through the five senses.A way to bring Dr Fenwick's experiment back to the scientific fold is to interpret it in terms of quantum mechanics,which is not so hostile to action at a distance.
 Traditionally,of course,quantum and classical mechanics rule quite different realms.But other apparently quantum effects,such as the rule that the act of observing something actually changes it, have also been emerging from experiments.
 In a study at Southampton University,reported in the first issue of a new publication The Journal of Consciousness Studies,psychiatrist Dr Chris Nunn and his colleagues measured subjects' brainwaves while they were performing a simple - pressing a button when certain numbers appeared on a screen.
 Sometimes the EEG machine recorded from the left side of the brain,which is involved in this sort of task,and sometimes from the right,which is not,but neither the subjects nor the experimenter knew which side was being recorded.The key finding was that when the left side was being recorded the subjects did better and missed fewer numbers.Recording from the right side made no difference.
 This also doesn't make any sense in terms of Newtonian physics and the implications for years of brainwave studies are horrendous,but it fits a quantum model - that observing something turns a possibility into an event.
"We did this experiment to test the hypothesis that conscious decision-making is associated with the end of a quantum computation," says Dr Nunn."Very much to our surprise we found evidence that it was."
 Until very recently such an idea would have been rejected out of hand.But a new candidate for this role has emerged in the form of minute structures within brain cells called microtubules.
 In another of the lectures at the conference Roger Penrose,professor of mathematics at Oxford, talked about his new book,Shadows of the Mind which describes how microtubules,once thought of as mere scaffolding for cells,might be orchestrating the brain's quantum activity.
"I believe consciousness is not just something arising out of the activity of brain cells but a global capacity that allows us to take into account the whole of a situation at once," he says.
 "It could be that the microtubules in the brain provide a unique environment where the possibilities of the quantum level collapse into an actual state without being influenced by the environment." But how this works or what the implications for psychology or neurosciences might be if it were true are not all that clear.
Many believe that if the brain and consciousness are functioning at a quantum level then all of that damned data from parapsychology suddenly has a home.Endless ESP studies showing that people can identify the card someone is looking at in another room more accurately than chance,or even predict what card they are going to look at,are given a rationale.
But Dr Penrose is not very happy with a mystical free-for-all.He locates his quantum effects firmly within the brain.
"I am very cautious about the quantum - psychic connection.It is entertaining speculation but that's all. Quantum mechanics has very specific rules.For instance,complex numbers are central to the theory but people who construct quantum-based mystical metaphors ignore them because they don't fit."
 "I think there is strong evidence for precognition but I haven't done the maths yet to work out what else is allowed," he says.

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All in the Mind

You dream about an old school friend and they drop you a line the next day,or the phone rings and you know who it is before you answer it.Telepathy or coincidence? The latter, say experts at Hertfordshire University,having carried out a major study,which concludes that there is no such thing as telepathy."Strange as these incidents seem,they're nothing more than coincidences,that were bound to happen to someone, somewhere",says Dr Richard Wiseman."The evidence simply isn't there."

| Problem of Consciousness | Brain Tour | Machinery and Intelligence | Alan Turing | Amanda Sharkey | New Scientist : Read My Mind | The Edge: Mirror NeuronsStuart Hameroff |







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