Weird Science | The theory of everything, quantum body and mind edition - Hindustan Times

Weird Science | The theory of everything, quantum body and mind edition

Jan 29, 2024 02:23 PM IST

This is not the first time that someone has connected the mysteries of everyday life with the quantum world. The end effect is a whole lot of unknowns

Earlier this month, the X handle of All India Institute of Medical Sciences New Delhi (@@aiims_newdelhi) posted about receiving a copy of Quantum Body, a book co-authored by one of its alumnus, globally recognised wellness guru Deepak Chopra.

The idea of a quantum body and the quantum theory of consciousness are distinct from each other(Pixabay) PREMIUM
The idea of a quantum body and the quantum theory of consciousness are distinct from each other(Pixabay)

The subject of the book, written with co-authors Jack Tuszynski (a physicist) and Brian Fertig (an endocrinologist), is as exotic as the title suggests. Chopra, whose work straddles the line between modern science and spirituality, proposes that we have a “quantum body” that is distinct from our physical body.

“Unlike our physical body, which is subject to ageing, injury, and decay, the quantum body exists on a sub-atomic level and is the infinite, invisible source of everyday reality that affects your thoughts, feelings, sensations, and biological responses,” Chopra writes on his website.

In the quantum world, Alzheimer’s, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease do not exist. Unlocking the secrets of the quantum body can revolutionise how we ultimately eradicate disease, Chopra goes on.

Over the years, several scientists have dismissed Chopra’s ideas as being pseudoscience. While his latest idea is indeed revolutionary, this is not the first time that someone has connected the mysteries of everyday life with the quantum world, which is mysterious in itself. That’s a whole lot of unanswered questions in a soup of unproven hypotheses.

Quantum consciousness

Since the early 1990s, Nobel laureate Roger Penrose — one of the world’s most respected physicists — and Stuart Hameroff, an American anaesthesiologist, have been working on a theory that proposes our consciousness is the result of quantum activity inside the brain’s neurons. Over three decades, their theory has not yet been conclusively proved, but — and that’s the nature of science — it is not completely ruled out either.

The idea of a quantum body and the quantum theory of consciousness are distinct from each other. So, while many scientists have been sceptical of Chopra’s spirituality, many others have examined Penrose and Hameroff’s theory in all seriousness. Not everyone, however, has been fully convinced by the consciousness theory which, even today, exists largely on the borderline between mainstream and fringe.

The conventional view is that consciousness results from interactions between our neurons. Penrose and Hameroff, on the other hand, propose that consciousness arises inside the neurons themselves. This happens as a result of quantum processes, which are orchestrated by cellular structures called microtubules. They describe this as “orchestrated objective reduction”, or Orch OR, which is how their theory has come to be known.

They describe this as “orchestrated objective reduction”, or Orch OR, which is how their theory has come to be known.

Orch OR, broadly speaking, rests on two pillars. One, in the brain, specifically in microtubules, there exists quantum superposition states. The term refers to quantum systems that exist in multiple states at the same time (think Schrodinger’s cat hypothesis).

Orch OR’s second pillar is that when we express a specific thought, quantum states spontaneously “collapse” into a single state due to gravitational interactions. The mathematics of this gravity-related collapse, in various scenarios, is described by the “DP model”, named after physicists Lajos Diósi and Penrose.

Testing the theory

In experiments starting in 2014, scientists at Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics set out to test the second pillar of Orch OR, based on the DP model. From the results of their experiments in the world’s largest underground laboratory at Gran Sasso, they concluded in Physics of Life Reviews quarterly journal in 2022 that Orch OR, “when based on the simplest version of gravity-related dynamical collapse, is highly implausible in all the cases analysed”.

That said, the researchers left the door open, because not all variants were tested. “To be sure, the results in this paper do not rule out Orch OR theory in general. Rather, they rule out variants of Orch OR based on the simplest version of the DP theory,” the study’s corresponding author, Catalina Curceanu, said over email.

The intriguing thing though…

The first pillar of Orch OR, meanwhile, continues to intrigue scientists. Indeed, there have been indications that quantum phenomena may occur in the brain. In one of the most recent experiments, described in ACS Central Science, a monthly peer-reviewed open-access scientific journal, scientists found that electronic energy passing through microtubules defied the predictions of classical physics.

The paper’s co-authors include Penrose, Hameroff and, incidentally, one of Chopra’s co-authors on Quantum Body (the physicist Tuszynski). The paper’s lead author, Aarat Kalra, then at Princeton University, is now an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at IIT Delhi.

“The experiments that I performed measured the distance to which electronic energy can migrate in microtubules (which were extracted from pig brains) … There was an appreciable difference between theoretical (classical) predictions and experimental results,” Kalra said.

What explains the mismatch? While it is possible that quantum effects were at play in the microtubules, Kalra chose not to connect his results directly with Orch OR. “In my opinion,” he said, “the experimental results don’t really do much for or against Orch-OR.”

What's next

Kalra’s (and Chopra’s) co-author Tuszynski felt that Orch OR has not yet demonstrated the main tenets it claims to be fundamental to consciousness. He cited a number of issues that remain. For example, in microtubules, quantum states exist for too short a time to be physiologically relevant, and the distance over which they extend is too small to explain global coherence, Tuszynski said over email.

Kalra agreed that there are some large issues that Orch OR does not address, and felt the theory could be improved. Yet, he was not entirely dismissive. “My own view of the theory is that it is a rare example of a complete theory of consciousness, and unlike some other more ‘mainstream’ theories, it actually aims to provide a mechanistic explanation for consciousness. This makes it interesting.”

Curceanu, meanwhile, having tested one cornerstone of Orch OR, said there is still a lot of work to be done.

“Ours is only the tip of the iceberg! We are working on developing other models and refining our techniques to continue tests of collapse models [and] also studying the possible impact on life (including aspects such as consciousness, which is indeed very fascinating). We are convinced that these studies are worth continuing, theoretically and experimentally,” she said.

So what’s the quantum body?

Among the issues with Orch OR that Tuszynski raised, one was that the theory in its description does not include metabolism in any form. Unless metabolism has a defined role, his argument is that Orch OR cannot be limited to living systems.

“By extension, this would indicate panpsychism at work. I find it far-fetched, to say the least,” he said.

Panpsychism is the view that everything, even non-living/non-sentient things has a mind or a consciousness. A sort of Avatar meets New Age-Buddha Lounge view.

In the idea of a quantum body, metabolism plays a central role. “We present (in the book) a view that quantum interactions extend over the entire body, not just the brain and result in a synchronised, coordinated and correlated functioning of all our cells, tissues and organs. We claim that the reason for it is metabolism, which is the ‘quantum glue’ bringing together all these seemingly independent activities,” Tuszynski said.

The book also talks about how this physics-based viewpoint is consistent with Eastern philosophy and spirituality, he added.

While on spirituality, any description of Chopra’s work would be incomplete without a mention of the scepticism it has earned. Chopra’s strongest critic has been Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and bestselling author. The two have often faced off over the years, including on television shows and videos.

In 2015, Dawkins described Chopra’s spirituality as “worse than organised religion”, according to media reports. Four years previously, Chopra had dismissed Dawkins as being an “idiot”. The American journalist Tom Roston has written a book about their showdown, titled The Quantum Prophets: Richard Dawkins, Deepak Chopra and the spooky truth about their battle over God.

And while scientific-minded detractors may continue to hold valid criticisms, scientists must continue their experiments before they can disprove the theory.

Kabir Firaque is the puzzles editor of Hindustan Times. His column, Weird Science, tackles a range of subjects from the history of inventions and discoveries to science that sounds fictional, but it isn't.

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    Puzzles Editor Kabir Firaque is the author of the weekly column Problematics. A journalist for three decades, he also writes about science and mathematics.

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