The Role of Quantum Mechanics in Brain Function
An interview with Dimitri Nanopoulos, Ph D
"Live Long & Prosper"
A program presented by TALK AMERICA, Radio Network
November 12, 1996 ,
hosted by Lawrence Ricke and moderated by Stephen Price, MD
Biographical Background for Dr. Nanopoulos
Dimitri Nanopoulos, Ph.D., is head of the HARC Astroparticle Physics Group, distinguished professor of physics at Texas A&M University, and senior physicist at CERN's Theoretical Physics Division. World renowned for his work in particle physics and cosmology, he is one of the four scientists who predicted that all matter is divided into three families of fundamental particles. The author of more than 440 papers, Nanopoulos has served as Curie Fellow at the Laboratoire de Physique Theorique de l'Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris and as a research fellow at Harvard University's Lyman Laboratory of Physics.
INTRO: Price: I am very excited that we have as our guest an eminent distinguished physicist, Dimitri Nanopoulos, who is very noted for some remarkable work that he has done in physics proper including a theory known as flipped SU(5), but what is most amazing is that he has applied his very great talent to what I think is the single most interesting and important problem in all of science "Consciousness, how our brains work, how inert matter becomes something that can exhibit subjectivity and qualia." He has come up with a very remarkable theory that ties in superstrings with how our brains work, and I am just amazed at his creativity on this and I can't wait to hear him talk on this. How about you, Lawrence Ricke?
Ricke: As you mentioned, Stephen Price, M.D., our guest tonight is the eminent theoretical physicist, Dr. Dimitri Nanopoulos of the Houston Advanced Research Center. Dr. Nanopoulos has given insight into exactly what you said, that one of the most profound mysteries of the universe that is the nature of consciousness. Dr. Nanopoulos, how are you doing tonight?
Nanopoulos: Thank you very much, I am fine.
Ricke: Well, thank you for being with us.
Nanopoulos: Thank you for having me.
Ricke: If you could, Dr. Nanopoulos, tell us a little bit about what the Houston Advanced Research Center is, maybe to get us started.
Nanopoulos: Well, the Houston Advanced Research Center is an institution that is related with universities around the country, and specifically, there are several universities in Texas: Texas A&M, Rice University, University of Texas at Austin, and University of Houston. At the same time, it has an independent nature so that they can take professors, for instance, like myself --I am also a professor at Texas A&M-- and at HARC, create an atmosphere that is a little bit more liberal in the kind of research we do. It is beyond the strict university atmosphere, and we can do research in inter-disciplinary areas, for instance, brain research which, for a physicist like me would be a little bit peculiar in a university environment. So, it is an advantage of this type of form. I believe it is the kind of institution that looks forward to the next century.
Ricke: For listeners that are not familiar with HARC it is, I believe, in The Woodlands, and that is about as close to paradise as you can get around here.
Nanopoulos: Yes, actually it is very nice; it is 35 miles from downtown Houston. It is a very nice atmosphere; it is a very nice kind of town, which developed very, very fast. It is a very nice living environment and research environment; almost an ideal system.
Price: It really is, Professor Nanopoulos, I have several clinics in the city of Houston, but I live in the Woodlands. In fact, I live in an area called Wilding Estates in Grogan's Mill Village, and I can say that there is no place in the state of Texas that I would rather live than where I am right now. I can hardly think of any other place in the United States that matches The Woodlands, if you consider natural beauty, organization, good climate, proximity to a major city, and cost of living, I think it is truly a nice place to live.
Nanopoulos: I completely agree, you cannot put it more nicely than that. It is really very interesting place. It is what cities are going to be like in the future. You have the proximity of the big city and yet you have your kind of privacy. The Woodlands really is it.
Price: I would just like to say one thing to any of our listeners who may be seniors and who may be thinking of retirement, you really can't do any better than coming to the Woodlands beats Florida, beats Arizona ........
Nanopoulos: The view from my study room is a beautiful golf course.
Ricke: Of course we always want to say to our affiliates in Florida and California and Arizona, we're just kidding. Ha, Ha.
Price: They're all great places.
Ricke: Exactly, on this program we aim to please. Stephen Price, M.D., I know you have a lot of questions, a lot of email.
Price: I do, there is a long paper that you have written, Dr. Nanopoulos, about how string theory may be related to brain function. We had a number of guests on who talked about brain function and from different perspective. Dr. Hameroff has been a guest, actually twice, and he has talked about the theories that he and Sir Roger Penrose have put forth regarding microtubule function and a theory they have. We have had William Calvin on -- he has taken a more conventional, or how should I say a more orthodox approach where he has talked about his work, the work of the Churchlands, the work of Francis Crick and others. Your approach is a very exciting one, because it seems to tie consciousness to what may be the most fundamental entity in the physical world, the superstrings, or its progenitor -- M theory. What I would like to do first is to have you very briefly explain to our listeners just what superstrings are, we had Professor Ed Witten on as a guest and there may be some of our listeners who did not catch that show and may not know what superstrings are. If you could very, very briefly tell our listeners and you may want to tell our listeners what your great paper says and how consciousness, how brain function may be tied into superstrings.
Nanopoulos: Let me say that what we try to do is to find out what are the fundamental laws, the fundamental interactions, and the elementary particles that are involved in these interactions. For many years, almost 100 years, we have assumed that the most fundamental entities, the basic fundamental particles are point-like particles. When I say point-like, I mean like a mathematical point, they have no extensions. Unfortunately, we have come to a kind of dead end. When we try to unify all the interactions, the electromagnetic interactions, the gravitational interactions, the strong interactions and the weak interactions, we have a problem if we use only point-like constituents. In the last 10 years, we gave up the idea that the most elementary constituents of matter are point-like, and we moved on and have now considered that the most fundamental constituents are one dimensional objects. They have some extensions, like strings if you want, and that's how we came up with string theory. Now, I have to say immediately, this dimension is very, very difficult to observe because this length is tremendously small, lets say 25 orders of magnitude smaller than the dimension of the atom. The dimensions of the atom are very tiny, so now we are talking about very, very small dimensions. That means for everyday life, or for the particle accelerators, where we are doing physics, these things are very, very difficult to observe and that's why we have assumed for 100 years now that they are point-like. Why do we believe today that they have extensions and how does the idea of strings come into the game? Now, one of the most fundamental things that the string theory is solving is that for the first time we have now have a consistent theory of quantum gravity. Until now we didn't have a theory putting together the two revolutions of this century, quantum physics and gravity. Now for the first time with string theory we have a consistent theory that provides us a very great kind of unification for all interactions together. So it looks as if it is pertinent that we have to have strings, that are fundamental objects in nature that have to be at least one dimensional, they may have more dimensions, but let us say at least one dimension. This is a very new concept. It has completely revolutionized physics..
Now, what this thing has to do then with brain function? The subject we have to discuss is big, but the idea that follows is very, very interesting. For the last 70 years, quantum mechanics, or quantum physics in general, i.e., the physics of the atomic world, seems to be the correct theory. It has some dark corners and one of the dark corners that is very well known is this thing that has to do with the problem of measurement and with the problem of how you make an observation. What results you are getting are probabalistic because of the nature of quantum mechanics. This has left a queasy feeling even among people like Schroedinger who discovered quantum mechanics. This problem was always lurking below ground because usually people become excited with the good things, and somehow we tend to forget a little bit the dark corners. Now for the first time, having in our hands a quantum theory of gravity, finally we can go back and try to also enlighten this kind of problem. We have come up with a new kind of quantum mechanics that can explain the measurement problem or as it is sometimes called, the collapse of the wave function. But, what it says is that gravity seems to play a very fundamental role. We have for the first time put gravity and quantum mechanics together and basically clarified some points of quantum mechanics.
Ricke: Dr. Nanopoulos, we will have to take a little break now.
Ricke: Welcome back to the show. Our guest tonight is Dr. Nanopoulos and we are talking about consciousness and its relation to fundamental laws of physics.
Price: I feel very, very excited about this. Anything that can tell us what makes us human, what makes us thinking beings, what gives us this power of introspection is something that is going to be a major, major landmark in science. If we know what consciousness is, we can do things to try to enhance it in theory in productive ways. The implication for Dr. Nanopoulos' theory if it's confirmed experimentally absolutely boggles the mind. Dr. Nanopoulos, you were telling us about how the measurement problem has been a very basic one, and for our listeners what I will go ahead and do is just add that in quantum mechanics which is the basic theory of physics on the small scale, it seems that the basic entity that one considers, the wave function behaves in two different ways depending on whether you are looking at it or not looking at it. If you are not looking at it, it seems to be a diffuse entity, and it rolls along. If you do look at it and make a record or observation or a measurement of it, then it changes and it collapses, as the term goes. It is a very, very strange thing, it is almost as if there were two separate laws and no one could really figure it out. Now we at last have some good ideas on just what may be going on, and what is most fascinating, how this can relate to consciousness. Tell us specifically how your ideas can go ahead and relate to brain function and consciousness.
Nanopoulos: Yes, absolutely, what you were saying, you could not put it nicer than that. So let me take it from there now. As you just said correctly, we have this basic wave function that sometimes behaves like a wave and sometimes when we look at it, it behaves like a particle, a localized entity. To all physicists, it was kind of strange-this duality between particles and waves-and what happens if you have to have a measurement. Now, what we found is that even if we do not look at the system, the system basically erodes because there is always gravitational interaction that exists. And somehow the interaction of the system with the gravitational force makes it erode. That means that the wave function is eventually going to localize even if there is no external observer there. This is the fundamental notion that the string theory is putting forward, that we have a spontaneous collapse independent of the observer. So what does it? If we have a microsystem like the electron or the proton, then the time of collapse is going to be very, very, very long, perhaps trillions of years. And that means from a practical point of view that there's no collapse. It is going to need an external observer. But if we go to large systems, if we put many protons together and we go to somewhat macroscopic systems, like ourselves, and like cars, then the interactions with gravity becomes so strong that gravity induces collapse spontaneously within let's say nanoseconds. This means basically that the macroscopic objects are behaving like classical physics objects.
Ricke: We have to take a break. We will be back in a second. ... Welcome back to the show. Dr. Nanopoulos why don't you continue now.
Nanopoulos: Yes, lets go to the brain now. The brain is a macroscopic object, it is about 3 pounds or something like that. The basic constituents of the brain are the neurons i.e. the nerve cells. What has been discovered is that inside the neurons there are structures that are called microtubules that have been pushed forward by Dr. Hameroff and Professor Penrose of Oxford. Microtubules can support quantum waves that somehow transfer information. What is happening is that these quantum waves can really suffer spontaneous collapse because of the gravitational effects described before. The final decision of how we are going to react to an external signal, we believe, is due to the gravitationally induced spontaneous collapse of the brain wave function. Of course, because of the probabalistic nature of quantum mechanics, we do not know a priori the decision we are going to take. Of course, it is within some reason, and that's, for instance, how we can explain the origin of the non-deterministic free will. So that means, that in several occasions different people may react differently to the same kind of external stimulus and I think it is a big problem in conventional neuroscience to explain something like indeterminism of the free will. Also, there is another big problem that is called the "binding problem." That means when we see an apple, there are different parts of the brain that give us this mental representation that we see an object like an apple. But the neurons that react to this object are in different parts of the brain.
Price: Question from Larry from MIT - He asks how your theory is similar to and different from the orchestrated objective reduction proposal that Hameroff and Penrose have put forward.
Nanopoulos: Yes, what is happening is that while in the beginning it is the same, that microtubules, i.e. subneural structures, are microsites of consciousness, the difference with Hameroff and Penrose is that they don't have a specific mechanism. Their ideas are generic. String Theory is the only theory we have in our hands about quantum gravity, and so this is, I believe, the only way we have to work on this problem. While, in general, the starting point is the same, and we are in agreement, it is in the way we are solving this problem where we disagree. Hameroff and Penrose are agnostic about quantum gravity or what it should be. They have some generic ideas, while I have put forward a very specific proposal with very detailed structure on this kind of thing. So this is the difference.
Ricke: We have another email here from Edward who is in Sunvalley, California and he asks "How can your theory be put to experimental tests with current technology? What can be done? Nanopoulos: OK. In our papers, we have proposed several experiments involving microtubules both in vivo and in vitro in which these ideas can be tested. For instance, among the very amazing properties the microtubules have is that they seem to be the only other part of the cell, known today, that is carrying a code, like the DNA genetic code. Thus if we can take microtubules to the laboratory and isolate them, then we may put, for instance, an electromagnetic signal on one side and check if it propagates according to the way we are talking about. So there are very specific kinds of experiments people are discussing about that can vindicate or refute these ideas.
Ricke: We have another email over here. From Bill - St. Louis - Graduate student from Washington University. Bill says he is very skeptical of anything that tries to tie in quantum mechanics in general and string theory in particular with brain function, he asks given that all the important elements that neurophysiologists have identified in brain structure and function are based on large molecules that behave in a basically classical way, why should anyone think that there is a need to bring in anything other than classical operations in and to try to understand these functions.
Nanopoulos: Yes, let me answer in two ways. First thing is, the reason that we have to go to this kind of quantum level is that there are problems, as I said before, in classical neuroscience, like the binding problem and the problem of indeterministic free will and so forth. Things that cannot be explained with classical kind of structures. Secondly, and to me this is the important issue, is I find it unbelievable, mind boggling, that inside the neurons we have these kinds of paracrystaline structures, like small crystals all the way along the neurons which are the microtubules and are ideal, and I repeat ideal, quantum systems. That is why I am saying, coming back to the previous question, on the difference between Hameroff and Penrose and us, that we have worked out all quantitatively how these microtubules structures can be support this kind of wave we are talking about. And I cannot believe that nature has taken through billions of years of evolution to create inside the neurons this amazing quantum structures just for fun.
Ricke: We have another email from Jacob who is in Orlando Florida. Jacob says he read Roger Penrose's book "The Emperor's New Mind" and "Shadows of the Mind". and he's very skeptical, because it seems that Penrose is making statements that are not really not logically supportable and he says over here in terms of microtubules, they are found not only in neurons but in every cell of the body, why is it that kidney cells can't think, why is it that cells in your finger can't think, if microtubules in fact are the substratum for consciousness.
Nanopoulos: Yes, I am getting these questions very often in my talks. Now, we have to remember that the microtubules are inside the neurons and the neurons are very, very, very specific cells. So yes, microtubules are parts of the cytoskeleton, yes everywhere, but they're not of the size nor of the form that they have in the neurons. You know very well that the neurons have very specific structure, they have a long axon, and this long axon supports these very long microtubules, and we need to have this kind of very, very long structures in order to have this phenomenon. While other cells are everywhere in our bodies they do not have this specific neuronic structure. It is not the specificity of the fundamental elements of the microtubules, but it is the specificity they're getting inside the neurons. It is very different from the other kinds of cells.
Ricke: I have another email from Edwin from Austin, Texas and he would like to find out what are the implications, if your theory is correct, for technology and for our society, if you are proven right.
Nanopoulos: OK, there are different issues here. First thing is, if something like that is remotely close to reality, then of course it would be the first time that we understand how consciousness or awareness is created. If this is the mechanism, i.e. microtubules are the microsites of consciousness, then, of course, since we know how to deal with microtubules, then maybe we can invent something to make things better for our lives. Beyond that, beyond the very philosophical level, one of the things I have proposed with this work is what's happening with some diseases and of course one of those that comes to mind is Alzheimer's disease. In the late 80's, there were some suggestions that maybe the reason for Alzheimer's disease has something to do with the microtubules. Many of them are assigned to one neuron, but instead of remaining parallel they get basically knotted together, and somehow destroy the neuron, and that is how memory fails and things like that. That means now, that if indeed we understand better, we have a fundamental kind of structure for the brain through the microtubules, and because of all the genetic research with respect to microtubules, maybe eventually we can go back and see how, first, we can best foresee if someone is going to get something like Alzheimer's Disease or eventually find something to make the MT to remain straight not knotted and not to destroy the neuron. So that would be one of the consequences of this theory. Also, for technology it would be very interesting, because these microtubules have these codes that would be very useful to be used in vitro for, let's say, quantum computers and things like that. I am talking about very, very futuristic things, but things like that can cross your mind.
Price: This is a fascinating point, Dr. Nanopoulos, and for our listeners I am just going to go ahead and mention Quantum Computing is one of the most exciting frontiers in science and technology right now. I think we all know how dramatically our lives have been changed by ordinary computers. And if Quantum Computers become a reality, all I can say folks is "you ain't seen nothing yet" and what we may have over here is a biologically evolved example of a functioning quantum computers and the work that people have done recently has been in a lot of concern about being able to have a useful quantum computer, something we can go ahead and maintain coherence and a lot of very important people have written on this, David Lloyd, Arthur Eckerds, especially Peter Shore. There is a really interesting experiment that has been done in Colorado at MIST by Wyland and Monroe where they created what we might call a Schroedinger's berrylium ion, and it is hoped that something like this can be used to build a quantum computer but it's really like a stone wheel compared to what nature has evolved in the brain.
Nanopoulos: That's right, that's exactly right. Coming back to what someone asked before, why we believe that quantum theory has anything to do with the brain, I repeat again, that maybe this theory is wrong, or it has nothing to do with reality, but I think that now, the cat is out of the bag, and we really have to work and find out why the neurons have this amazing substructure, the microtubules.
Ricke: Dr. Nanopoulos, we only have a couple of minutes left, I would like to get to a quick email, we've got Karen from Washington, she goes to Georgetown, she listens to the program, her sisters in the sorority listen to it and they like it a lot. But we always ask our guests about that book 'The End of Science' by Horgan a writer for Scientific American and she wants us to ask you about that, are we at the end of science or at the beginning of science?
Nanopoulos: That's a book that I have glanced at. I don't like these titles 'the end of anything', I think the human mind is so versatile and so diverse that even things we talk about now maybe after a few years will look ridiculous. So, I don't like to think in these terms. I don't like the end of history; I don't like the end of civilization. I think there's so much there that we have to know and we're going to find out, that I'm somehow opposed to such kinds of titles.
Ricke: Stephen Price, M.D., do you have any last comments?
Price: I have an email over here which is an interesting one from Janice from Las Vegas and characteristically enough, a Las Vegas listener, she asks, 'what realistically do you think the chances are that your theory is correct?'
Nanopoulos: Ha, ha, that's a good one. Frankly, I don't know. This is a hypothesis. I find it interesting that several kinds of pieces of the puzzle come together, frankly I don't know if this thing is going to be correct or not, I believe that some part of this has to be there, and it has to be correct, but if all the details are all right, I don't know, so I think I have to leave it there. But I am working on this because it's very, very exciting. It is a good kind of excitement. I try always like a physicist to get some experimental evidence. Because otherwise, we are philosophizing. So we don't have yet, of course, the results of the experiments to make an assessment of the situation, but we hope that some part of this will be right.
Ricke: Dr. Dimitri Nanopoulos, thank you for being our guest this evening. Hopefully, George Mitchell will consent to be a guest with us one day.
Nanopoulos: Thank you very much for having me. Congratulations on the quality of your show.
Ricke: Thank you very much.
Price: You have been a fascinating guest. I think our listeners were all vere excited. We are finally making inroads into the puzzle of consciousness. It is fantastic.