TCD discovery may explain why humans can outperform supercomputers

Research may shed new light on workings of human consciousness

The human brain may have a remarkable ability to do quantum computation, according to a scientist at Trinity College Dublin.

This possibility could explain why we can still outperform supercomputer when it comes to unforeseen circumstances, decision making or learning something news

The discovery may also shed new light on consciousness — the workings of which remain scientifically difficult to understand and explain.

It resulted from adapting an idea developed to prove the existence of “quantum gravity” — a field of theoretical physics that seeks to describe gravity according to the principles of quantum mechanics — to explore the human brain and its workings.


The brain functions measured were also correlated to short-term memory performance and conscious awareness, “suggesting quantum processes are also part of cognitive and conscious brain functions”.

If the team’s results are confirmed — which will probably require advanced multidisciplinary research — “they would enhance our general understanding of how the brain works and potentially how it can be maintained or even healed”, said Dr Christian Kerskens, lead physicist at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience (TCIN) who led the research.

It may also help find innovative technologies and build even more advanced quantum computers, he said. Quantum computing enables vast quantities of data to be processed at speed.

“We adapted an idea, developed for experiments to prove the existence of quantum gravity, whereby you take known quantum systems, which interact with an unknown system,” explained Dr Kerskens, co-author of the research published in the Journal of Physics Communications.

“If the known systems entangle, then the unknown must be a quantum system too. It circumvents the difficulties to find measuring devices for something we know nothing about,” he said.

For their experiments they used the “proton spins” of brain water as the known system. Brain water builds up naturally as fluid in our brains and the proton spins can be measured using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). Sub atomic particles such as protons have mass and charge but also a property called spin. Technologies such as MRI imaging harness the proton’s spin to see inside the human body.

“Then, by using a specific MRI design to seek entangled spins, we found MRI signals that resemble heartbeat evoked potentials, a form of EEG [electroencephalogram] signals,” he pointed out.

EEGs measure electrical brain currents (ie brain activity), “which some people may recognise from personal experience or simply from watching hospital dramas on TV”.

Electrophysiological potentials such as heartbeat-evoked potentials — ie brain waves — are normally not detectable with MRI, and the scientists believe they could only observe them because the nuclear proton spins in the brain were entangled.

Dr Kerskens said: “If entanglement is the only possible explanation here then that would mean that brain processes must have interacted with the nuclear spins, mediating the entanglement between the nuclear spins. As a result, we can deduce that those brain functions must be quantum.”

“Quantum brain processes could explain why we can still outperform supercomputers when it comes to unforeseen circumstances, decision making, or learning something new,” Dr Kerskens said.

“Our experiments performed only 50 metres away from the lecture theatre, where Schrödinger presented his famous thoughts about life, may shed light on the mysteries of biology, and on consciousness which scientifically is even harder to grasp,” he said.

This research was supported by Science Foundation Ireland and TCIN.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times