Strange to say, but the current ability we take for granted 'to think' may be the result of catching a virus, long ago in the development of animals that led to our species.
We have all heard of retroviruses, with the most famous example is seen in HIV. Such viruses are strands of genetic material (RNA) that travel around in packages and provide instructions to make more of themselves. They hop into cells, planting their instructions in the genes of those cells, effectively adding to the DNA of the cell, which contains the blueprints for structure and function. This way, when the cell divides it carries these new instructions for ever more into the daughter cells.
Our genome is riddled with such snippets of code but it was only a few years ago that scientists realised such an addition may lie at the base of the way our brain functions to produce 'thought'. By this I mean that an ancient virus may provide the underlying chemical machinery that structures our nerves and allows them to communicate and 'remember' in the way that they do.
The culprit is a protein called Arc, and the reason it is thought to be an introduced virus rather than an inherent part of our genome is that it moves around between our nerve cells exactly like a virus. What happens is that a strand of RNA (the messenger) produced from the cell is wrapped within a tiny spherical chamber that looks exactly like the encapsulation of a virus. It pops out of the nerve cell producing it and goes on to 'infect' another nearby nerve cell. It is the movement of these instructions between the cells that allows our neurons to have the plasticity that underlies the formation of memories: synaptic plasticity.
If this theory is correct, then rational thought and sustained memory may be something animals picked up rather than developed by themselves. It raises the question, are there other ways to think out there in the cosmos that developed without the intervention of such a virus?
A chemist by the name of Matthew Fisher is exploring the possibility of another type of thinking mechanism, which may also exist in our brain tissue. Perhaps it predates the arrival of the virus, or maybe developed after the complex web of neurons was able to develop. At any rate, this process also involves packets but much smaller ones, made of calcium phosphate (which we find in bone).
The idea is that in the brain, these tiny clusters called 'Posner molecules' each form a cage of calcium atoms in which six phosphorus atom exist, protected from the outside surroundings. This kind of existence allows the six atoms to remain in a kind of limbo, allowing something called quantum entanglement with other clusters, until that is, they dissolve and trigger nerve cell changes. Intriguingly, lithium appears to behave in much the same way, and we know this element has an impact on consciousness since it is prescribed for just that purpose.
Ordinary nerve cells are like the machinery in a binary-based computer. When a neuron is triggered and sends an electrical signal this is an all or nothing event (a one or a zero) that can be tracked like traffic lights in a road system. Many such systems can be collected together to produce what we know of as parallel processing, but even so, such systems are good for only certain kinds of problem-solving. An example might be straightforward mathematical calculation such as 346 times 546. Or perhaps a puzzle such as, which of a series of factors has the largest influence on an outcome?
Quantum computers use quantum entanglement (involving spatial non-locality) and can solve different kinds of problems from those just mentioned. Quantum processing can 'think' using a dispersed set of units that 'speak' to one another without direct contact or observation. They also use computational units that can hold multiple states rather than just the traditional one or zero, providing much more flexibility. Speed is not, as usually suggested, the benefit here. Instead, there is a focus on optimum solutions for complex sets of circumstances, which only become evident when the query parameters are met. In a brain, for example, the result of a quantum computation might only be seen when the system 'downloads' an effect into the entire system, changing its response.
Is it possible that our brains work both like a conventional computer and as a quantum computer? Could such forms of thought as intuition be the result of this quantum mind? Perhaps then, by contrast, the conscious, rational mind of local cause and effect may be mostly the result of that ancient virus. Fisher is running the QuBrain Project (short for Quantum Brain Project) to find out if there is evidence for the quantum computing possibility. An earlier talk he gave (in 2017) explains the basic premise, and the project is currently underway.
Till next time – B.W. Cribb