Photons as carriers of consciousness

Herms Romijn

Netherlands Institute for Brain Research

Are Virtual Photons the Elementary Carriers of Consciousness

Journal of Consciousness Studies, 9, No. 1, 2002, pp. 61-81

Romijn puts forward the concept that subjectivity or consciousness is coded into the virtual photons that generate electric and magnetic fields. This approach has considerable advantages. Photons intermediating the electromagnetic force are, as far as we know, the most basic level of the universe. At this level the fundamental components of the universe have given properties that cannot be explained, analysed or reduced further. So both the charge on the electron and the ability of the photon to intermediate it across space are given properties that cannot be explained or reduced. This is the only physical level at which it is possible to have properties that cannot be reduced to something more fundamental.

The article suggests that photons carry subjectivity or consciousness as such a given property. This is in principle possible because irreducible properties are present at this level. It is more reasonable than the mainstream approach, which suggests that a new property of consciousness can be produced by banging together previously unconscious bits of matter. The problem would be the same if we tried to say that electrical charge was a function of banging things together in some complex system. It might look plausible, but we would forever be looking for what actually happened that produced the charge. Romijn’s theory is not fully panpsychic. Although subjectivity is present at the level of photons, it requires brain sytems to generate ordered patterns that are the basis of actual conscious experience.

Romijn views the brain as a chaotic self-organising process, the outcome of which is the pattern of electric and magnetic fields generated by the dendritic trees of neurons. The author thinks that these patterns code for the qualia. Virtual photons comprise the electric and magnetic fields and it is these which are claimed to encode conscious experience. Romijn argues that they are causally necessary and sufficient for consciousness.

Romijn takes an initially conventional approach in pointing out that brain scan studies show a correlation between neural activity and subjective experiences (Raichle, 1998) (1) (Schacter et al) (2) and (Frith et al, 1999) (3). Romijn takes the view that subjective experience is as real for the experiencer as brain scan activity is for the third party investigator.

The Role of Dendrites

Romijn discusses the detailed behaviour of dendrites. When a dendrite receives a signal from another neuron there is a depolarisation of the membrane, in the case of an excitatory signal, and hyperpolarisation in the event of an inhibitory signal. This creates an electric field between the the part of the dendrite membrane that has become polarised or hyperpolarised and the rest of the membrane. The greater part of the electric field will flow towards the cell body and the axon hillock because the dendrite is thicker in that direction. This action along the dendrite also generates a magnetic field.

The dendritic tree has been shown to use several different forms of information processing. At the synapse the incoming pattern of action potentials determines which of various neurotransmitters stored there are released. (Salter & DE Koninck, 1999) (4). On the dendritic side, receptors are sensitive to particular neurotransmitters. The receptors are clustered in complex spatial patterns. Receptors can modulate each others performance. Outside the synaptic cleft, the extracellular fluid has a low concentration of ions, neurotransmitters and hormones that may exert a synchronising effect between neurons (Zoli et al, 1998) (5). Studies have shown that the dendritic tree can detect the individual discharge of synapses and has mechanisms for amplifying the signal to noise ratio (Maren & Baudry, 1995) (6). Dendritic spines provide the postsynaptic contact sites for 80% of excitatory synapses (Andersen & Figenschou, 1999) (7). Spines can change their shape in a period of milliseconds, which changes the flow of information into the dendrites (Rusakov et al, 1996) (8) Fischer et al, 1998) (9), (Smith, 1999) (10).

Protein molecules constitute ion channels, receptors and enzymes and have electrically charged groups held together by van der Waals forces. These electrostatic binding forces determine the tertiary structure of proteins, and thence some of their properties. The ions, receptors and enzymes experience fluctuations as a result of the electrical field around the dendrite (Fröhlich, 1975) (11), (Goodman et al, 1995) (12) and (Hong, 1995) (13). It has been shown that postsynaptic receptor and ion distribution continually undergoes non-linear changes because of the synaptic electric fields. All this means that the dendritic tree has the ability to tune itself to the inflow of information, which in turn results in ordered electric and magnetic fields.

Romijn points out that synaptic transmissions are probabilistic. When an action potential reaches a synapse, there is no certainty that the synapse will fire. There is only a probability, of between 30% and 80%, depending on the type of synapse, that it will fire. In some studies (Lehman et al, 1998) (15), (Zeki & Bartels, 1998) (16), field configurations, which had to remain stable in the cortex for a minimal time such as 120ms were related to various types of mental activity. Shorter lived fields are thought to relate to the unconscious level. The electrical and magnetic fields are seen as having a vast number of possible semi-stable configurations they can take up in response to either external stimuli or existing memories (Sakai & Miyashita, 1994) (17) and Tononi et al, 1994) (18). These fields formed out of virtual photons, the intermediating particle/waves of the electromagnetic force, are deemed to be the carriers of consciousness in the brain.


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