Is consciousness a state of matter?

Can a theoretical physicist investigate consciousness? For decades the few serious academics who tried were fatted to ridicule and marginalization. However, the times are changing, disciplines once disparate have found common ground. Information Theory and Quantum Mechanics are fighting side by side in the quest to understand the deepest and oldest of questions; what is consciousness, and further, can it be described by a rigorous scientific theory?

Max Tegmark thinks so. Tegmark is a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and he has been working using mathematics and physics to analyze systems involved in conscious thought.  Using Quantum Mechanics and Information Theory ( a branch of applied mathematics used in the quantification and analysis of information) Tegmark is working to demonstrate how thinking about consciousness as a physicist and not a philosopher  can lead to precise questions about the nature of  being that the scientific method can answer. 

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According to Tegmark’s approach is to think of consciousness as a state of matter, like a solid, a liquid or a gas. “I conjecture that consciousness can be understood as yet another state of matter. Just as there are many types of liquids, there are many types of consciousness,” he says.

He goes on to show how the particular properties of consciousness might arise from the physical laws that govern our universe. And he explains how these properties allow physicists to reason about the conditions under which consciousness arises and how we might exploit it to better understand why the world around us appears as it does.

If you are feeling like you would like some context for all this, Max Tegmark teamed up with Minute Physics to demonstrate how seemingly, non-mathematical entities can be understood by mathematics

Among others, Tegmark’s work builds off of the of the recent work of  neuroscientists Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

“Unless one has a theory of what consciousness is, one will never be able to address these difficult cases and say anything meaningful,” Dr. Tononi said.

In 2008, Tononi proposed that a system demonstrating consciousness must have two specific traits. First, the system must be able to store and process large amounts of information. In other words consciousness is essentially a phenomenon of information.

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 In 2010 the New York Times highlighted Tononi’s work. The times explained that according to Tononi our neurons are basically fancy photodiodes, producing electric bursts in response to incoming signals. While a photodiode can be in one of two states, our brains can be in one of trillions of states. The Times noted that not only can we tell the difference between a Chaplin movie and a potato chip, but our brains can go into a different state from one frame of the movie to the next.

“One out of two isn’t a lot of information, but if it’s one out of trillions, then there’s a lot,” Dr. Tononi said.

Consciousness is not simply about quantity of information, he says. Simply combining a lot of photodiodes is not enough to create human consciousness. In our brains, neurons talk to one another, merging information into a unified whole. A grid made up of a million photodiodes in a camera can take a picture, but the information in each diode is independent from all the others. You could cut the grid into two pieces and they would still take the same picture.

Consciousness, Dr. Tononi says, is nothing more than integrated information. Information theorists measure the amount of information in a computer file or a cellphone call in bits, and Dr. Tononi argues that we could, in theory, measure consciousness in bits as well. This is the great hypothesis of researchers like Tononi and Tegmark, that the state we experience as being conscious, is measurable and quantifiable. They are working to create experiments that will demonstratively prove or disprove this hypothesis , analysis it further and hopefully in the process pull back , just slightly, the curtain on the mystery of life.


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