Some research topics, says conventional wisdom, a physics PhD student shouldn’t touch with an iron-tipped medieval lance: sinkholes in the foundations of quantum theory. Problems so hard, you’d have a snowball’s chance of achieving progress. Problems so obscure, you’d have a snowball’s chance of convincing anyone to care about progress. Whether quantum physics could influence cognition much.
Quantum physics influences cognition insofar as (i) quantum physics prevents atoms from imploding and (ii) implosion inhabits atoms from contributing to cognition. But most physicists believe that useful entanglement can’t survive in brains. Entanglement consists of correlations shareable by quantum systems and stronger than any achievable by classical systems. Useful entanglement dies quickly in hot, wet, random environments.
Brains form such environments. Imagine injecting entangled molecules A and B into someone’s brain. Water, ions, and other particles would bombard the molecules. The higher the temperature, the heavier the bombardment. The bombardiers would entangle with the molecules via electric and magnetic fields. Each molecule can share only so much entanglement. The more A entangled with the environment, the less A could remain entangled with B. A would come to share a tiny amount of entanglement with each of many particles. Such tiny amounts couldn’t accomplish much. So quantum physics seems unlikely to affect cognition significantly.
Yet my PhD advisor, John Preskill, encouraged me to consider whether the possibility interested me.
Try some completely different research, he said. Take a risk. If it doesn’t pan out, fine. People don’t expect much of grad students, anyway. Have you seen Matthew Fisher’s paper about quantum cognition?
Matthew Fisher is a theoretical physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has plaudits out the wazoo, many for his work on superconductors. A few years ago, Matthew developed an interest in biochemistry. He knew that most physicists doubt whether quantum physics could affect cognition much. But suppose that it could, he thought. How could it? Matthew reverse-engineered a mechanism, in a paper published by Annals of Physics in 2015.
A PhD student shouldn’t touch such research with a ten-foot radio antenna, says conventional wisdom. But I trust John Preskill in a way in which I trust no one else on Earth.
I’ll look at the paper, I said.
Matthew proposed that quantum physics could influence cognition as follows. Experimentalists have performed quantum computation using one hot, wet, random system: that of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). NMR is the process that underlies magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a technique used to image people’s brains. A common NMR system consists of high-temperature liquid molecules. The molecules consists of atoms whose nuclei have quantum properties called spin. The nuclear spins encode quantum information (QI).
Nuclear spins, Matthew reasoned, might store QI in our brains. He catalogued the threats that could damage the QI. Hydrogen ions, he concluded, would threaten the QI most. They could entangle with (decohere) the spins via dipole-dipole interactions.
How can a spin avoid the threats? First, by having a quantum number . Such a quantum number zeroes out the nuclei’s electric quadrupole moments. Electric-quadrupole interactions can’t decohere such spins. Which biologically prevalent atoms have nuclear spins? Phosphorus and hydrogen. Hydrogen suffers from other vulnerabilities, so phosphorus nuclear spins store QI in Matthew’s story. The spins serve as qubits, or quantum bits.
How can a phosphorus spin avoid entangling with other spins via magnetic dipole-dipole interactions? Such interactions depend on the spins’ orientations relative to their positions. Suppose that the phosphorus occupies a small molecule that tumbles in biofluids. The nucleus’s position changes randomly. The interaction can average out over tumbles.
The molecule contains atoms other than phosphorus. Those atoms have nuclei whose spins can interact with the phosphorus spins, unless every threatening spin has a quantum number . Which biologically prevalent atoms have nuclear spins? Oxygen and calcium. The phosphorus should therefore occupy a molecule with oxygen and calcium.
Matthew designed this molecule to block decoherence. Then, he found the molecule in the scientific literature. The structure, , is called a Posner cluster or a Posner molecule. I’ll call it a Posner, for short. Posners appear to exist in simulated biofluids, fluids created to mimic the fluids in us. Posners are believed to exist in us and might participate in bone formation. According to Matthew’s estimates, Posners might protect phosphorus nuclear spins for up to 1-10 days.
How can Posners influence cognition? Matthew proposed the following story.
Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is a molecule that fuels biochemical reactions. “Triphosphate” means “containing three phosphate ions.” Phosphate () consists of one phosphorus atom and three oxygen atoms. Two of an ATP molecule’s phosphates can break off while remaining joined to each other.
The phosphate pair can drift until encountering an enzyme called pyrophosphatase. The enzyme can break the pair into independent phosphates. Matthew, with Leo Radzihovsky, conjectured that, as the pair breaks, the phosphorus nuclear spins are projected onto a singlet. This state, represented by , is maximally entangled.
Imagine many entangled phosphates in a biofluid. Six phosphates can join nine calcium ions to form a Posner molecule. The Posner can share up to six singlets with other Posners. Clouds of entangled Posners can form.
One clump of Posners can enter one neuron while another clump enters another neuron. The protein VGLUT, or BNPI, sits in cell membranes and has the potential to ferry Posners in. The neurons will share entanglement. Imagine two Posners, P and Q, approaching each other in a neuron N. Quantum-chemistry calculations suggest that the Posners can bind together. Suppose that P shares entanglement with a Posner P’ in a neuron N’, while Q shares entanglement with a Posner Q’ in N’. The entanglement, with the binding of P to Q, can raise the probability that P’ binds to Q’.
Bound-together Posners will move slowly, having to push much water out of the way. Hydrogen and magnesium ions can latch onto the slow molecules easily. The Posners’ negatively charged phosphates will attract the and as the phosphates attract the Posner’s . The hydrogen and magnesium can dislodge the calcium, breaking apart the Posners. Calcium will flood neurons N and N’. Calcium floods a neuron’s axion terminal (the end of the neuron) when an electrical signal reaches the axion. The flood induces the neuron to release neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that travel to the next neuron, inducing it to fire. So entanglement between phosphorus nuclear spins in Posner molecules might stimulate coordinated neuron firing.
Does Matthew’s story play out in the body? We can’t know till running experiments and analyzing the results. Experiments have begun: Last year, the Heising-Simons Foundation granted Matthew and collaborators $1.2 million to test the proposal.
Suppose that Matthew conjectures correctly, John challenged me, or correctly enough. Posner molecules store QI. Quantum systems can process information in ways in which classical systems, like laptops, can’t. How adroitly can Posners process QI?
I threw away my iron-tipped medieval lance in year five of my PhD. I left Caltech for a five-month fellowship, bent on returning with a paper with which to answer John. I did, and Annals of Physics published the paper this month.
I had the fortune to interest Elizabeth Crosson in the project. Elizabeth, now an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico, was working as a postdoc in John’s group. Both of us are theorists who specialize in QI theory. But our backgrounds, skills, and specialties differ. We complemented each other while sharing a doggedness that kept us emailing, GChatting, and Google-hangout-ing at all hours.
Elizabeth and I translated Matthew’s biochemistry into the mathematical language of QI theory. We dissected Matthew’s narrative into a sequence of biochemical steps. We ascertained how each step would transform the QI encoded in the phosphorus nuclei. Each transformation, we represented with a piece of math and with a circuit-diagram element. (Circuit-diagram elements are pictures strung together to form circuits that run algorithms.) The set of transformations, we called Posner operations.
Imagine that you can perform Posner operations, by preparing molecules, trying to bind them together, etc. What QI-processing tasks can you perform? Elizabeth and I found applications to quantum communication, quantum error detection, and quantum computation. Our results rest on the assumption—possibly inaccurate—that Matthew conjectures correctly. Furthermore, we characterized what Posners could achieve if controlled. Randomness, rather than control, would direct Posners in biofluids. But what can happen in principle offers a starting point.
First, QI can be teleported from one Posner to another, while suffering noise.1 This noisy teleportation doubles as superdense coding: A trit is a random variable that assumes one of three possible values. A bit is a random variable that assumes one of two possible values. You can teleport a trit from one Posner to another effectively, while transmitting a bit directly, with help from entanglement.
Second, Matthew argued that Posners’ structures protect QI. Scientists have developed quantum error-correcting and -detecting codes to protect QI. Can Posners implement such codes, in our model? Yes: Elizabeth and I (with help from erstwhile Caltech postdoc Fernando Pastawski) developed a quantum error-detection code accessible to Posners. One Posner encodes a logical qutrit, the quantum version of a trit. The code detects any error that slams any of the Posner’s six qubits.
Third, how complicated an entangled state can Posner operations prepare? A powerful one, we found: Suppose that you can measure this state locally, such that earlier measurements’ outcomes affect which measurements you perform later. You can perform any quantum computation. That is, Posner operations can prepare a state that fuels universal measurement-based quantum computation.
Finally, Elizabeth and I quantified effects of entanglement on the rate at which Posners bind together. Imagine preparing two Posners, P and P’, that share entanglement only with other particles. If the Posners approach each other with the right orientation, they have a 33.6% chance of binding, in our model. Now, suppose that every qubit in P is maximally entangled with a qubit in P’. The binding probability can rise to 100%.
I feared that other scientists would pooh-pooh our work as crazy. To my surprise, enthusiasm flooded in. Colleagues cheered the risk on a challenge in an emerging field that perks up our ears. Besides, Elizabeth’s and my work is far from crazy. We don’t assert that quantum physics affects cognition. We imagine that Matthew conjectures correctly, acknowledging that he might not, and explore his proposal’s implications. Being neither biochemists nor experimentalists, we restrict our claims to QI theory.
Maybe Posners can’t protect coherence for long enough. Would inaccuracy of Matthew’s beach our whale of research? No. Posners prompted us to propose ideas and questions within QI theory. For instance, our quantum circuits illustrate interactions (unitary gates, to experts) interspersed with measurements implemented by the binding of Posners. The circuits partially motivated a subfield that emerged last summer and is picking up speed: Consider interspersing random unitary gates with measurements. The unitaries tend to entangle qubits, whereas the measurements disentangle. Which influence wins? Does the system undergo a phase transition from “mostly entangled” to “mostly unentangled” at some measurement frequency? Researchers from Santa Barbara to Colorado; MIT; Oxford; Lancaster, UK; Berkeley; Stanford; and Princeton have taken up the challenge.
A physics PhD student, conventional wisdom says, shouldn’t touch quantum cognition with a Swiss guard’s halberd. I’m glad I reached out: I learned much, contributed to science, and had an adventure. Besides, if anyone disapproves of daring, I can blame John Preskill.
1Experts: The noise arises because, if two Posners bind, they effectively undergo a measurement. This measurement transforms a subspace of the two-Posner Hilbert space as a coarse-grained Bell measurement. A Bell measurement yields one of four possible outcomes, or two bits. Discarding one of the bits amounts to coarse-graining the outcome. Quantum teleportation involves a Bell measurement. Coarse-graining the measurement introduces noise into the teleportation.