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Science or pseudo-science? A debate rekindled

By, New Delhi
Jan 30, 2024 06:08 AM IST

Indian-American doctor Deepak Chopra presented his latest book, Quantum Body, proposing the idea of a "quantum body" distinct from our physical body. Chopra asserts that understanding the quantum body can revolutionize disease eradication. The theory of consciousness, which suggests consciousness arises from quantum activity in the brain's neurons, is distinct but related. While some scientists have dismissed Chopra's ideas, others have taken the theory of consciousness seriously. Recent experiments have shown indications of quantum phenomena in the brain, but the Orch OR theory that connects these phenomena to consciousness remains unproven.

Earlier this month, the Indian-American doctor Deepak Chopra presented his latest book, Quantum Body, to AIIMS New Delhi, from where he graduated decades ago.

Deepak Chopra (centre) presented AIIMS Delhi with a copy of his latest book Quantum Body earlier this month. (AIIMS)
Deepak Chopra (centre) presented AIIMS Delhi with a copy of his latest book Quantum Body earlier this month. (AIIMS)

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.

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“Unlike our physical body, which is subject to aging, injury, and decay, the quantum body exists on a subatomic level and is the infinite, invisible source of everyday reality that affects your thoughts, feelings, sensations, and biological responses,” Chopra says 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 asserts.

Over the years, several scientists have dismissed Chopra’s ideas as pseudo-science. 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.

Since the early 1990s, the 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 not been completely ruled out either.

To make it clear, the idea of a quantum body and the quantum theory of consciousness are distinct from each other. While many scientists have been sceptical of Chopra’s spirituality, many 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.

Theory of consciousness

The conventional view is that consciousness results from interactions between our neurons. Penrose and Hameroff, on the other hand, propose that conscious 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.

Orch OR, broadly speaking, rests on two pillars. One, that in the brain, specifically in microtubules, there exist quantum superposition states. The term refers to quantum systems that exist in multiple states at the same time (think Schrodinger’s cat that is alive and dead until you look at it, at which point it will certainly be dead).

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 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 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 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 in 2023, 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 brain) … 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 next for Orch OR?

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.

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.

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 best-selling 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.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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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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