Sir Roger Penrose is known for his maths. But maths reaches out into most places if you let it. So will his pal Stuart Hameroff, he proposed an idea back in the 1990s that consciousness came from quantum vibrations in the inner working of brain neurons. The idea seemed wacky at the time, but as the quantum nature of the universe, the world and everything in it has become more apparent, they two boffins recon that it’s time to revisit the idea.
In an article the journal Physics of Life Reviews, they suggest that quantum vibrations in the microtubules inside neurons could be the stuff of consciousness, and that manipulation of these vibrations could provide treatments for a range of mental, neurological, and cognitive conditions.
The whole idea is complex and intriguing, but for the moment I’m less interested in the fine details under discussion than the discussion itself.
The materialist view is that you need to find the structure that is causing consciousness, because consciousness, like everything, is just a matter of material. Finding that this but of matter vibrates in a curious manner then lays itself open to the idea that it proves the material underpinning of this intriguing phenomenon.
But the problem here is that the same vibrations could be a consequence of consciousness and not the cause. The material observations would be similar if not identical but the drivers are wholly different.
The two scientists recognise this in their piece. “Did consciousness evolve from complex computations among brain neurons, as most scientists assert? Or has consciousness, in some sense, been here all along, as spiritual approaches maintain?” ask Hameroff and Penrose. The theory is quite capable of accommodating each view.
So is consciousness a merely material thing, or a spiritual entity lived out in a physical being?
“The question is not whether we can upload our brains onto a computer, but what will become of us when we do” says neuroscientist, novelist and composer Michael Graziano in his recent blog. This sort of rubbish about uploading is so easy to write, but so difficult to evidence.
Before rushing out and getting ready to jump into his uploaded world, lets check his level of certainty. One quick things to do is look for words of uncertainty. I did a quick ‘if’ count. I spotted 20. Lets look for ‘might’. I spotted 17. How about the security of his argument. “And my best guess is: yes, almost certainly.”
It’s interesting to see that there is no technical justification behind his claim, except the statement that his is a neuroscientist who has been around for a bit, and a strong reliance on fictitious worlds presented in various movies… as if they have any bearing on reality.
The most sane comments in this page come in the comments after the piece, most of which are a refreshing breeze of common sense. Most pick the piece to pieces.
Increasing how well our brain works is one of the key goals of education systems, and for many people it is an on-going drive through life. Many careers involve a need to think more clearly that the competition, to see problems with greater clarity than others or handle more data than the opposition. There are claims that a modest increase in average IQ translates into a noticeable increase in national wealth, and national wealth has linkage with national health. So if you could find a brain boost it would be a no-brainer to use it.
An article in the Guardian eloquently shows just how far we are from achieving that.
In it, Oliver Burkeman checked out the various claims associated with products ranging from brain-food drinks, to on-line mind trainers and electrodes stuck to the head. The end outcome is that the highest achievers are controversial at best. Most are in the snake oil territory, but even the ones that have some claim for success are disputed.
For a brain booster to be worthwhile, the benefit needs to be out of dispute. If you need to have a massive population take the stuff before you can start to see a statistically significant benefit above the random noise of normal, then the effect isn’t very effective.
Interestingly the take home from the piece is that if you really want to boost the brain, then stop using tools that make life easy. Using a sat-nav soon causes you to loose the ability to map read. Using a diary makes you sloppy at remembering where you need to be. It’s just the same as driving to work will reduce your fitness to walk.
To boost the brain you need to use it. There is still no magic fix.