The Looking Glass

The Looking Glass

The Department of Psychology


Dr. Fleur Yano

Recently I learned that my late father, Charles K.A. Wang, had been a founding member of the
Psi Chi chapter at the University of Chicago in 1927. This fact led to a request that I write an
article for The Looking Glass. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to make this contribution in
my father's memory.

Eugene Wigner, the recently deceased eminent physicist, once observed that progress in
science was the serendipitous result of the clear delineation between the observer and the
observed. At the quantum level, this is not an obviously expected result since the act of
measurement in general disturbs the system.

Turning to the workings of the human mind, it seems a priori that such a separation is
"unthinkable." Nevertheless, in recent years some physicists have been drawn irresistibly to the
dreaded "C" word, consciousness. They have joined psychologists, along with
neurophysiologists, microbiologists, biochemists, mathematicians, and computer scientists to first
work on the more accessible topics such as artificial intelligence and neural networks. The
greater leap has been to confront the physical mechanisms and hierarchies in the brain itself
which control conscious and unconscious thought.

One approach has been taken by Francis Crick, the physicist and biochemist who shared the
1962 Nobel Prize for discovering DNA structure. Crick tried to use visual awareness as a hook to
apply the standard scientific method of theory and experiment to study the "C" word. He
concludes in his recent book, The Astonishing Hypothesis, that the study of consciousness can be
approached experimentally and scientifically and that the solution will probably be found in
complex patterns of neural networks.

On a deeper level, Roger Penrose, another physicist, has argued that a quantum theory of the
brain must precede our understanding of perception and consciousness. In his book, Shadows of
the Mind, Penrose gives evidence from general anaesthetics that synaptic connections and
therefore consciousness are controlled by some collective phenomenon involving a large number
of cytoskeletons. He also discusses microtubules within the neuron and suggests that large scale
quantum coherence of these microstructures may solve the mystery of consciousness.

Whether one is interested in a more fundamental understanding of the physical world and our
quantitative description of it in terms of rigorous mathematics and how the human brain
assimilates this understanding, or if one seeks practical remedies for brain damage or disease,
there is a wealth of problems to be solved in the multidisciplinary fields mentioned above.


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