A journal of cognition, computation, cartoons and cooking; physics and phonotactics; academia, art, alcohol and angst.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Cells, visualization, and quantum consciousness nonsense

I'm a big fan of computer visualizations in science, both for the general public and for science students themselves (researchers, too). One project that I've been hoping to get off the ground soon is to build virtual worlds in special relativistic and quantum mechanical domains to help in building the modern "physical intuition" that all us students seem to lack.

Anyway, a couple videos caught my eye that were linked on Brain Windows: I enjoyed the videos by Drew Berry immensely (see Aptosis), as well as Harvard's The Inner Life of the Cell. Many more videos are available at the main site. Berry's videos were especially nice because of the use of environmental sound: there is a lot of useful information that can be effectively transmitted by sound. Accurate or not (and it's not, but neither is the visual information, since the scales of these videos are well below 400nm), it immerses the viewer in the environment.

One thing that kind of got me chuckling was the visualization of cytoskeletal microtubules and cytoplasm ions. Cytoskeletons are a nice modelling problem in physics (and under a lot of research at that), but I also came across them a lot in some light cog sci reading on quantum consciousness, or quantum computation in the brain (sometimes people, especially researchers in the field, confuse the two).

Yes, light cog sci reading. I could put the sum of physics in quantum consciousness theories on a napkin. I've seen two theories dominating the "literature" in this "field", with some overlap. The first is called Quantum Brain Dynamics (QBD), which asserts that applying the wave equations to the water in the brain creates a model for EEG signals while also creating quantum effects of wavefunction collapse and superposition. Then people decided a more convincing, less pseudoscientific mechanism for quantum processes than "water, ordinary water (laced with a healthy dose of LSD)" would be that computation occurs in the cytoskeleton of brain cells.

I won't say anything about the physics, because all the math that they do is probably fine enough, just not very interesting and certainly not enough to draw any conclusions from. But many good scientists (key example being Roger Penrose, a proponent of quantum consciousness theories) can fall victim to biasing their opinions based on how they think things should be. In spite of there being no reason for us to suspect quantum mechanics plays a role in cognition (no evidence for humans being capable of quantum computation, for example, and plenty of evidence that classical mechanics can model many cognitive processes), QBDers invoke it because consciousness is "exotic". I suppose it's an important idea to play around in just because any idea is worth investigating, but without even a mechanism for communication of quantum states between cells in the brain, the attention is very unwarranted. I shouldn't even be calling it a theory, since it has no basis in experimental or theoretical principles and makes no predictions.

Also, I will punch the next person who tells me to watch What The Bleep Do We Know?

No comments: