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Neuroscience in Fiction: Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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“Avout: (1) A person who has sworn a vow to submit himself or herself to the Cartasian Discipline for one or more years; a fraa or suur. (2) A plurality of such persons. (3) A formally constituted community of such persons, e.g., a chapter or a math. —THE DICTIONARY, 4th edition, A.R. 3000”

Stephenson, Neal (2008-08-26). Anathem (p. 85). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Last weekend I had the chance to meet Neal Stephenson, my favorite writer. I was thrilled, and if you missed the interview you can check it out on Monday’s Illusion Chasers blog post. I’ve read each and every one of Stephenson’s books. All of them are consistently and completely novel in their focus and scope, supremely well written, and as  Stephenson himself  might put it, great yarns.

I’ve gone back and forth about  reviewing Anathem or Cryptonomicon (my two personal favorites), and finally chose Anathem because of its relevance to a discussion of the neural underpinnings of consciousness.

On the planet Orth, science and the acquisition of knowledge is the responsibility of the Avout, a monk-like intelligentsia recruited at a young age to live a cloistered existence in walled concents (not misspelled), immersed in the joys of science and philosophy. Outside these walls, cities and governments rise and fall, but two-way communication between the inside and outside of the concents occurs only at specified times every few decades, in a celebration called the Apert.

This time, however, the Apert is different. Fraa Erasmus is thrust into an adventure beyond anybody’s wildest dreams when his mentor and father figure, Fraa Orolo, an astronomer, makes an astonishing discovery and is suddenly ejected from the order. Orolo has discovered a ship approaching the planet. A ship that means they are not alone in the multiverse. A ship that changes everything.

By dleithinger ; cropped by Beyond My Ken (talk) 06:50, 11 February 2010

I love the fact that Stephenson unapologetically forces the reader to learn a new language that is close to, but not quite the same as, English. This in and of itself is an important clue to what is going on throughout the story.

In the end, the central thrust of the opus rests on the concept that consciousness is a function of quantum processing in neurons. An idea originated by Roger Penrose to link the fact that quantum theory was weird and mysterious, and so was consciousness. Since Penrose’s proposal, neurophysiologists like me have looked at the problem and generally agreed that the quantum mechanics is not necessary to explain consciousness, beyond known physiological processes. Another problem, as Stephenson pointed out in our interview, is that the brain is too wet and too warm for stable quantum processing (it could only work in temperatures near absolute zero). But it is fun to consider what it would mean for the multiverse if evolution had somehow found a way to make it work in spite of these obstacles.


Stephen L. Macknik About the Author: Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik are laboratory directors at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. Follow on Twitter @illusionchasers.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. sunspot 3:30 pm 04/8/2013

    “… neurophysiologists like me have looked at the problem and generally agreed that the quantum mechanics is not necessary to explain consciousness, beyond known physiological processes.”

    Who has explained consciousness in terms of known physiological processes? Do you exaggerate a little perhaps? Please give a link or reference to the neurophysiologist who has accomplished this marvelous feat.

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  2. 2. Stephen L. Macknik in reply to Stephen L. Macknik 8:31 pm 04/8/2013

    Thanks for your comment “sunspot”. I didn’t say consciousness had been explained. I merely said that there is no reason to invoke quantum effects to explain consciousness. There is zero evidence for it and the fundamental premise for the idea is unprincipled. Quantum consciousness is far-fetched and consciousness is more likely to be explainable from basic neurophysiological principles. For example, we know for sure that simple reflexes are mediated by basic neuronal properties… no quantum effects necessary (or appreciable experimentally). Why can’t consciousness be due to a more complex traditional neural circuit? Answer: it can and almost certainly is. The environmental conditions in the brain are too warm for quantum effects. Further, we and others have shown that neural activity correlated to consciousness is found in specific groups of neurons in the brain (counter to the quantum consciousness prediction): Tse et al. PNAS (2005). Further, disabilities with consciousness (coma, neglect, sleep issues, etc) also occur due to damage of specific brain circuits (quantum consciousness does not explain this). Finally, the same physical properties proposed by quantum consciousness theories occur in the spine, the liver, and most internal organs… but those organs are not conscious.

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  3. 3. sunspot 4:18 pm 04/9/2013

    Thanks for taking the time to elaborate; but the cavalier dismissal of a genius like Penrose inclines the reader to challenge you. I do not defend Penrose, but the word “unprincipled” is far too harsh and certainly premature. See the recent (2011) defense of Quantum Consciousness in Penrose & Stuart Hameroff, “Consciousness in the Universe: Neuroscience, Quantum Space-Time Geometry and Orch OR Theory”. The debate on QC has all the signs of being alive and well, so your dismissal of QC does not ring true.

    In addition, your definition of consciousness appears to be unduly restricted, and it does not delineate animal consciousness from self-awareness. Also, you seem to ignore recent work in quantum biology and information science. In short, you and your author may owe Penrose an apology.

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