Quantum Biology?

This morning I was poking around the home page of Johnjoe McFadden, scheming about how I might interest him in some of my own corresponding ideas (such as my “dual computers” model of brain function, or perhaps my “thumb pain” thought experiment which suggests that the reigning consciousness paradigm in neuroscience rests upon a supernatural premise). Anyway from his Twitter log I came across a podcast that he did on June 29 of this year (2020) with Gaute Einevoll associated with an Oslo trip for an antibiotic conference. (Given Covid-19, wouldn’t that have been canceled? Or maybe the conference happened before things got crazy in the western world?) Regardless I decided to have a listen, and even though the central topic was stated to be his ideas about how various life processes may depend upon quantum dynamics.

To me he did make an intelligent case, including independent corroborating evidence. Furthermore I learned that his theory of consciousness by means of electromagnetic radiation struck him after he realized that the Penrose and Hammeroff quantum consciousness proposal was technically ridiculous. I guess this consideration jogged his mind in the form of “While that may be idiotic, here’s something which might make sense …”. Thus his 2002 paper on the topic.

Sure, though with so many supernatural to just plain silly consciousness proposals in academia today, it may take a while for his proposal to adequately be explored. Still his website did provide me with a bone in that regard.

Em fields are waves that tend to cancel out when the peaks and troughs from many unsynchronised waves combine. But if neurones fire together, then the peaks and troughs of their em fields will reinforce each other to generate a large disturbance to the overall em field. In recent years neuroscientists in many laboratories across the world have become interested in the phenomenon of neuronal synchrony. Experiments from Paris’ Laboratoire de Neurosciences demonstrated synchronous firing in distinct regions of the brain when a subject’s attention is aroused by a pattern that resembled a face. When the subject saw only lines then his neurones fired randomly but when the subject realised he was looking at a face, his neurones snapped into step to fire synchronously. In this, and in many similar experiments, neurone firing alone does not correlate with awareness but the em field disturbance generated by synchronous firing, does. The simplest explanation is that the brain’s em field is conscious awareness – the cemi field.

http://www.johnjoemcfadden.com/popular_science/consciousness/

If a person is “consciously” trying to interpret lines, then theoretically there will be synchronous firing somewhere in the brain for that. But if a certain example of synchrony does correlate with the point that a person can say that he or she recognizes a face, well that does seem interesting. With enough such correlation in enough such ways, we should ultimately presume a causal link! Regardless, this is all quite testable stuff.

Here’s the podcast


28 Comments on “Quantum Biology?”

  1. James Cross says:

    Not much to disagree with here.

    One of McFadden’s predictions that I thought most interesting is that there would be no one to one relationship between a conscious experience and the underlying neural circuits that are firing. In particular, more than one pattern of neural circuits could corelate to the same experience – a many to one relationship – because different circuits could add together to create the same wave pattern., just like we can derive 4 from 2 + 2 or 1 + 3.

    EM is a fundamental force and still has some mysteries from the standpoint of physics.

    • Right James, I can see how if qualia does exist through the physics of electromagnetic radiation, then it wouldn’t matter if a given waves were created in one way or another. Furthermore it does astound me how complex a given example should tend to be in order to represent all instances of my own qualia, as well as for all that has been or will be experienced. In a sense the whole brain potentially contributing to a given set of radiation qualia does at least suggest a larger set of tools from which to fabricate such waves.

      I think I recall you reading McFadden’s “Life on the Edge”, though I don’t notice a dedicated post on your site about the book. Did you write such a post, and if not, would you consider doing one?

      • James Cross says:

        I might at some point post something on “Life on the Edge” but not likely soon. Too many other things on my agenda. Some of the examples from the podcast you mention in your comments below are in the book too, probably in greater detail.

        The other thing that is hard to visualize with EM fields is that they working in three dimensions. We find it easy to visualize the typical oscilloscope two dimensional wave but try to think of that in three dimensions.

        Waves also provide an explanation why consciousness is a simplification of brain processes and that a lot of information is dropped out/remains unconscious. Potentially most or almost all parts of the brain and any or almost all circuits could form a part of consciousness, but at any given time most of the circuits are subsumed into the overall pattern which may not actually reflect any particular circuit to a large degree. The result is a unique product not able to be reversed engineered directly to the underlying circuits and that contains less information than the underlying circuits. I am not aware McFadden or anyone else has written on this but maybe they have and I missed.

  2. I’m glad this didn’t end up being a post about quantum biology. The biggest issue I’ve always seen with speculation on that front, is how noisy the biological environment is, how difficult it would be to maintain quantum coherence for any period long enough to effect biological processes.

    I think you know my stance on EM theories. I would just point out that all you need to establish synchronized frequencies between brain regions are reciprocal connections that enable recurrent excitation between the regions. Of course, whether a particular region actually gets excited depends on the logical processing there, on the synaptic connections.

    • James Cross says:

      You should read McFadden’s book on quantum biology – Life on the Edge. He is aware how noisy the biological environment is and the special circumstances required QM effects to work in it.

      “I would just point out that all you need to establish synchronized frequencies between brain regions are reciprocal connections that enable recurrent excitation between the regions.”.

      That doesn’t invalidate anything in the theory. But it does understate slightly the difficulty of maintaining synchronized behavior over multiple parts of the brain when the distances are variable.

      Oscillatory behavior can found in neurons in a Petri dish so it is fundamental to how nervous systems work. What role does it play in your brain-as-computer model?

      • Oscillations are just repetitive firing patterns in a collection of neurons. Information processing happens in the variances of these patterns. And binding between brain regions is a major part of global workspace theory. When regions are communicating with each other, it makes sense that their firing frequencies would gravitate toward being the same, that they’d be working on a composite concept.

    • Mike,
      The point of my post was mainly just that McFadden seems pretty competent. We obviously tend to be a bit concerned when we hear that someone specializes in something like “quantum biology”. I probably should have at least mentioned some points from his interview.

      Yes I do think I know your stance on EM consciousness theories. My understanding is you’re so confident that qualia exist when the right information become processed into other information, as in global workspace theory, that you’ll not consider any dedicated physics based proposals instead. Here you believe that Occam’ razor should be used to excise any proposed instantiation mechanisms for qualia.

      Anyway if McFadden weren’t a foe given the challenge that he presents to the consciousness theory form that you prefer, you might find some of his ideas interesting. I think I’ll add the following to the post:

      Around minute 13 he mentions three elements of quantum mechanics which life might implement. They are (1) tunneling, where a particle / wave may get somewhere without traveling between points, (2) coherence / superposition where a particle / wave can effectively be many places at once, and (3) entanglement, where such particles in different places function as if there were no separation given a bond which they share.

      At about minute 22 he explains that photosynthesis is an incredibly involved process that plants shouldn’t be able to do under classical dynamics. Apparently he thinks that electrons in the process might use superpositions to result in the most efficient paths to provide associated energy.

      At about minute 34 he discusses how quantum mechanics might help birds “see” the Earth’s magnetic field and so provide them with the information of a compass (whether this sense is conscious or not I suppose).

      At about minute 55 gets into his problem with the Penrose and Hameroff quantum consciousness proposal, and apparently this is what got him thinking about consciousness as the radiation produced by means of neuron firing.

      • Eric,
        I’ll accept anything if it manages to wrack up evidence in its favor (reproducible or otherwise verifiable evidence using rigorous methodologies).

        When it comes to speculation that doesn’t contradict known evidence, then it depends on how many assumptions are in that speculation, and what’s motivating those assumptions. One assumption motivated to fit the data results, I think, in plausible extrapolations. Lots of assumptions motivated to fit some preconceived idea seem far less plausible.

        I think quantum biology falls into that latter category. The popular press has made a mess of this topic, presenting a lot of this speculation as scientific fact. None of it is. I used to think that photosynthesis, at least, was confirmed to be quantum. It isn’t.
        https://gizmodo.com/are-plants-quantum-1842734189

        On EM theories, if evidence starts to confirm any of it, I’ll become more interested. But based on the neuroscience I’ve read, none of it currently points in that direction. The closest might be Case Western University’s experiment showing ephaptic coupling between neurons, but only in vitro so far. Even if that result holds up, it only shows perturbation. It’s a long way from systematic communication, which would have to be reconciled with a lot else that’s already known about neural circuitry.

        • James Cross says:

          “I’ll accept anything if it manages to wrack up evidence in its favor (reproducible or otherwise verifiable evidence using rigorous methodologies)”.

          Except when you don’t as with MWI.

            • James Cross says:

              The point is that you seem to apply stricter evidentiary standards selectively.

              And you ignore evidence if it doesn’t suit your ideas.

              Take this review of evidence summarized in the abstract:

              “The review concludes that these fields are not just an “epiphenomenon” but play a fundamental role in neuronal processes. For example, electromagnetic fields from brain cells feed back to their generating cells and to other cells (ephaptic coupling) and, for example, modulate the spiking timing of them. It is also discussed that cell membranes of neurons have specific resonance properties which possibly determine the impact of endogenous electric field fluctuations with respect to field strength and frequency. In addition, it is reviewed how traveling and standing waves of the endogenous electromagnetic field produced by neuronal and non-neuronal cells may play an integral part in global neuronal network dynamics.”

              https://www.researchgate.net/publication/276210768_Two_emerging_topics_regarding_long-range_physical_signaling_in_neurosystems_Membrane_nanotubes_and_electromagnetic_fields

              • James,
                I don’t see any evidence discussed in that abstract, just assertions labeled as “review” or “conclusions”. Does the paper identify actual evidence? How much interpretation is involved in his conclusions? What assumptions do they include? Are those assumptions explicitly stated?

                I will say that if an idea is failing to make headway with people in the field, that’s a red flag for me. As amateurs, we’re not really equipped to directly assess most of the evidence or the methodology used to acquire it. We have to depend on which papers the experts we trust are sharing, the reputation of the journals (the one that published this paper has pretty low impact), and a general assessment of the field as to the ideas plausibility.

                • James Cross says:

                  Sorry, I didn’t realize you wouldn’t even glance at the paper.

                  Section 3 has an extensive review of a half dozen or more papers.

                  But what people in what field? It’s a big field.

                  This paper is from Nature Neuroscience but it is just one of many.

                  https://www.nature.com/articles/nrn3241

                  Among key points:

                  The voltage gradients generated by highly synchronous activity of neuronal groups can affect the transmembrane potential of the member neurons and alter their excitability through ephaptic coupling.

                  Synchronous spiking of nearby neurons is the main source of the high-frequency components of the local field.

                  But like I said it is one of many.

                  No problem with disagreeing with the theory as a whole but that there is plenty of evidence of electromagnetic field activity having effects in the brain.

                  • James,
                    My time is limited (as I’m sure yours is), so when someone points me toward a paper, book, or talk, with vague assurance it will prove their point, I’m not inclined to invest time in it. It’s why I usually ask the referrer to note the main takeaways as they see them.

                    The field is neuroscience. And as I’ve noted before, the only way electromagnetism gets mentioned in most neuroscience textbooks or general books is for discussions of scanning technologies, or something like TMS.

                    On the Nature piece, I did search through it to see what it said about ephaptic coupling. It’s far more limited than what I perceive a McFadden type theory to need. But more in line with the perturbations everyone acknowledges are there. It means if all the neurons in a particular region are firing, and a particular neuron is right on the margin, it’s more likely to fire.

                  • James Cross says:

                    “It means if all the neurons in a particular region are firing, and a particular neuron is right on the margin, it’s more likely to fire”.

                    Yep. That’s the key point that McFadden is making and evidence of EM field effects beyond epiphenomenon. I didn’t suggest that the paper agreed with McFadden’s theory but that it and many other papers suggests a significant role for EM fields in the brain, one which should be taken into account in even the more computational models.

                    I don’t have time to read every reference or paper somebody points me too but I usually at least glance at them if I intend to object to them.

                  • I did ask questions in my response.

                  • James Cross says:

                    Funny but I don’t see a question mark anywhere in your previous comment.

                    If you are talking about the comment before that, then I pointed you to section 3 in the paper which you can scan in about two minutes to get the gist of it. Essentially it discusses a variety of studies from multiple researchers showing possibly significant EM field activity in the brain that would be of consequence to brain functioning. The review isn’t arguing a particular point of view. Its intent is: “an overview is given of two emerging research topics that address the importance of longrange physical signaling in living biosystems”.

        • Mike,
          It’s difficult for me to put much stock in the article that you’ve provided. The tone of it screams “sales pitch”. First he set up his adversary from the perspective of “Everyone wants to believe this”, and then implied that evidence now exists such that no one sensible can pursue this anymore. Apparently Elisabet Romero, chemist at the Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonia, wasn’t happy with the article. Her emailed clarification has now been included. Notice that in the author’s second to last sentence he unwittingly tipped his hand. “As for photosynthesis, it seems like there’s nothing particularly mystical about it.” So speculation about QM influence upon biology… would be “mystical”? HA!

          If you were to listen to this McFadden podcast interview, you’d instead hear epistemically responsible statements. In that sense he reminds me of myself (though we differ in that he’s extremely smart and well spoken!). It’s a lovely interview, though I suppose it should seem quite the opposite if you consider him to be on the opposing team.

          • Eric,
            The point is quantum biology remains speculative. It’s often presented as though it was firmly established. It isn’t. We might well find out at some point that biology uses quantum physics somewhere. It might be something that magnifies particular quantum events for some purpose. But speculation involving something maintaining coherence long enough to be a factor in biological processes doesn’t seem compatible with the environment.

            • Mike,
              I don’t know who presents quantum biology like it’s firmly established, but certainly not McFadden. He considers it very much a new path in science that has been met with disdain from the beginning. This seems to be a standard perception. I winced at his specialty as well given that I consider his EM consciousness theory quite intriguing. But apparently there are various known quandaries associated with life that do not seem possible to overcome given classical theory. Thus his efforts.

              For example, according to McFadden the photon based energy conversion in photosynthesis has been shown to be converted into plant energy with near 100% efficiency. From a classical perspective this seems extremely improbable. Here we’d expect some of the energy to be taken away in the process through extraneous heat and such. So either estimations of near perfect energy conversion should be wrong, or perhaps something non-classical is happening?

              McFadden proposes that electrons might be going into superposition states in a quantum sense, or effectively traveling all potential paths where they end up taking the least resistive. If our measurements keep validating that sunlight is being converted with amazing efficiency, then (pending evidence) this might help explain why.

              Beyond the Gizmodo article that you’ve shared, which I found biased, I do see that it provided an extremely technical paper which argues against effective quantum dynamics in photosynthesis. https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/14/eaaz4888.full

              To effectively parse a paper like this, specialists seem needed. Quickly looking up Ryan F. Mandelbaum, “Science Writer and Founder of Birdmodo”, I see that my skepticism that he’d have such expertise was well placed.

              Regardless it’s clear to me that we need specialists in science to explore paths which diverge from the mainstream. But without generally accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, or axiology, modern scientists should sometimes make a mess of this. You know my thoughts on “multiverses” for example. Conversely I consider McFadden’s speculation to have some potential to get somewhere at some point. To me this seems like how science is suppose to work.

              • Eric,
                We do need specialists. It’s why I need some reasonable portion of specialists in the relevant field to see merit in a proposition, enough that it shows up in textbooks and other general texts at least as a footnote, before I’ll invest much time in it. I might also invest time if a specialist I’ve learned to trust shows interest, although with more skepticism than usual.

                • Mike,
                  Well that’s square with my position, and surely James’ also. In the end if you were more interested in mechanism based qualia (like us) than its existence through generic information processing alone (which my thumb pain thought experiment suggests is supernatural), then you’d have more reason to explore the general ideas of McFadden.

                • James Cross says:

                  I find textbooks represent established knowledge at the point they were published and hence frequently to be out of date.

  3. James has probably seen this already, but just in case: Integrating information in the brain’s EM field: the cemi field theory of consciousness
    https://academic.oup.com/nc/article/2020/1/niaa016/5909853

    A key aspect of consciousness is that it represents bound or integrated information, prompting an increasing conviction that the physical substrate of consciousness must be capable of encoding integrated information in the brain. However, as Ralph Landauer insisted, ‘information is physical’ so integrated information must be physically integrated. I argue here that nearly all examples of so-called ‘integrated information’, including neuronal information processing and conventional computing, are only temporally integrated in the sense that outputs are correlated with multiple inputs: the information integration is implemented in time, rather than space, and thereby cannot correspond to physically integrated information. I point out that only energy fields are capable of integrating information in space. I describe the conscious electromagnetic information (cemi) field theory which has proposed that consciousness is physically integrated, and causally active, information encoded in the brain’s global electromagnetic (EM) field. I here extend the theory to argue that consciousness implements algorithms in space, rather than time, within the brain’s EM field. I describe how the cemi field theory accounts for most observed features of consciousness and describe recent experimental support for the theory. I also describe several untested predictions of the theory and discuss its implications for the design of artificial consciousness. The cemi field theory proposes a scientific dualism that is rooted in the difference between matter and energy, rather than matter and spirit.

    • Thanks Mike! It’s really good to hear that McFadden is still actively working on this. I realize that quantum biology is his main focus, so I can see how he might have given this project up to go exclusively with that one. Fortunately not.

      One thing that I don’t understand, is why he hasn’t directly stated that this is the sort of answer which is required to be on the right side of Searle’s Chinese room thought experiment? Technically that’s nearly all he talked about, but only by means of abstract technicals rather than any explicit acknowledgements or practical reductions. And since he even brought in the old “Where’s the university?” line of Gilbert Ryle, and for what seemed like a minor point to me, why not champion the computational observations of John Searle given that his position (unlike many) conforms?

      McFadden is a relative nobody who has an idea which people laugh at given that they find the thought of consciousness as EM radiation, to be unnecessary or just plain ridiculous. Conversely Searle is a living legend. I wonder if there’s a backstory here? Have various Searle supporters (or perhaps Searle himself?), also been disrespectful? Before I think harder about making a Quixotic attempt to interest McFadden in my own “thumb pain” version of Searle’s thought experiment, I’d like to know why Searle’s version isn’t already an explicit feature of McFadden’s presentation?

      • Eric,
        I thought you might find it interesting. It’s still not a theory I put much credence in, for various reasons (one of which you noted, it doesn’t seem necessitated by the data), but in my skimming, I noticed he did cite and link his ideas with Chalmers, which I thought was interesting, but know you won’t see that as a plus.

        I totally missed the Ryle reference on my skimming pass. Interesting.

        Searle’s personal reputation has taken a hit in recent years due to the scandal, so that might have something to do with the lack of tie in, although most people are able to keep intellectual ideas separate from personal issues.

        • Mike,
          The sex scandal shouldn’t be sufficient, since McFadden didn’t tie the Chinese room into his 2002 paper either, which was long before Searle’s offenses became public in 2017. Furthermore even in 2020 that should ultimately be considered irrelevant. If associating with the ideas of Searle could have helped McFadden both then and now, and to me this seems like a no brainer, then why has he not taken this path? I simply do not have a good answer for this yet.

          My own very brief look at the scandal itself suggests that UC Berkley was playing with fire, and rightly got burned. Apparently some 84 year old men have incredibly strong libidos. School officials must have been pleased as punch that he’d continue associating with their institution, as well as had numerous demonstrations that one of his motivations to continue there was to teach, work with, and have romances with, young cuties. That’s a natural resource they had plenty of. It was stupid of them to think that trouble wouldn’t result, like when he lowered the pay of a 24 year old colleague who had rejected his advances. Very stupid!


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