S03E11: The Maternal Congruence

Tonight we learned that Leonard’s mother, Beverly Hofstadter (played by Christine Baranski),  and Sheldon have been collaborating on Quantum Brain Dynamics theory. This theory attempts to explain the origin of consciousness.  If Quantum Brain Dynamics theory is correct,  our brains are not mere  calculating machines, just complex enough to hear, see, taste and feel.  Rather they would rely on the non-deterministic nature of quantum mechanics to generate human consciousness.   If this is truly required for our brains to be conscious, the theory goes, then no conventional computer would ever emulate our human insights and experience.

Will computers someday have human consciousness?

Such a theory of the brain can be attractive for a couple of reasons.   First, suppose we think of our brains as just a fancy computer with a slightly better operating system than Windows.  (In my case, Windows-67, which fortunately still works better than Vista.)   It begs a disturbing question.  Will our laptops soon become sophisticated enough to become conscious?  And if so, will our own human consciousness start rolling off assembly lines?

Second, in the standard textbook treatment of quantum mechanics, observers play a special role.   Schrodinger’s cat may be simultaneously alive and dead until a observer takes a look and “collapses” the cat’s status into either 100% alive or 100% dead.  In quantum mechanics, the probabilities to find the cat alive or dead are precisely calculable, but on a case-by-case basis which you kind of cat you will find is impossible to predict.    But what is an observation?  If an atom bumps into another particle,  it does not seem to make sense to say the atom “observes” the particle; it  makes more sense to just say the atom and particle  just are parts of  a now larger system.   But when do interactions become complex enough to cause the “collapse” into a definite condition: dead or alive.   The Quantum Brain Dynamicists claim that the consciousness of the observer plays the key role in measurement and that consciousness itself is a quantum mechanical process.

So Quantum Brain Dynamicists have gone forward to even propose a few quantum mechanical processes might be occurring in a live human’s brain.   In modern laboratories, if extreme care is taken and samples are placed at very low temperatures you may be able to see quantum effects.  Careful laboratory techniques can coax atoms into a new state of matter called a “Bose Einstein condensate”, where many atoms lie in exactly the same quantum state and exhibit quantum behavior on a large scale.   It took 70 years between the time such a state was predicted and when it was finally produced in a laboratory.  It took the researchers’ ability to produce temperatures less than one-millionth of  a degree above absolute zero to accomplish.   Many tried and failed.  Finally the eventual success was recognized by the Nobel Committee as such a great feat that the few who accomplished it were awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics.     Quantum Brain Dynamicists entertain the idea that the same kind of condensate might exist in a living human brain, at normal body temperature.

Does that sound pretty unlikely?  It did to me.  So I poked around a bit.  The amount of published material in refereed scientific journals turns out to be small.  Most of what I found about it was published on webpages and small publishers which is a red flag.  But not so fast.   Roger Penrose, a highly respected mathematical physicist, the inventor of quasi-crystals and other important ideas, is an advocate of the theory.  Penrose suggested in his book The Emperor’s New Mind that the “collapse” due to observations is not based on any algorithm and therefore distinct from what any mechanical computer could ever perform.   Because no step-by-step method describes the “collapse” fundamental mathematical difficulties conveniently disappear.  There are a few papers  on these ideas published by Springer, a serious publisher of scientific work.   Usually ideas about how the world works  separate nicely into mainstream (even if speculative) versus crackpot.  Here we find the distinction is not so clear.

The writers had put Quantum Brain Dynamics into the script, which made me nervous.   Would millions of viewers balk?   Would they send millions of emails complaining that the show had confused pseudoscience with science?  Would they boycott the sponsors?  But as we’ve seen, the idea, while extreme, could not be fairly rejected out of hand.   The writers figured a way out.  Listen carefully to tonight’s dialogue.  The show’s writers don’t have Sheldon and Beverly merely working together on Quantum Brain Dynamics theory, but disproving Quantum Brain Dynamics theory.  Problem solved.

I don’t watch  first-hand  the writers at work, but they sometimes talk to me during their process.   One of the things I’ve learned is that a good part of comedy writing appears to be problem solving.  For example, how do you get two people who are fighting the last time they saw each other to be talking again so you can finish the story?   Likewise, physicists too are often led through their work by a big idea, inevitably finding obstacles to telling a consistent story.  Finding clever solutions seems to be a common part of the work of theoreticians and comedy writers alike.  In an example from physics, one of the biggest problems in theoretical particle physics today is that many models predict that protons decay in less than a second—thereby the Sun, Earth and Human Beings would never exist. Something had to be done. The particle theorists finally solved the problem by inventing (i.e., “making up”) something called “R-parity” that could not change, in order to put the brakes on proton decay.  The quantity now appears in many, if not most, theoretical models in particle physics.   And much like the solutions of comedy writers, “R-parity” may well turn out to be a joke.

29 Responses to “S03E11: The Maternal Congruence”

  1. Chris Says:

    I assumed I’d be reading about Leibnitz vs. Newton – this was much more interesting. Thanks!

  2. DJCinSB Says:

    “Tonight we learned that Sheldon and Leonard’s mother…”

    I didn’t think that they were related; isn’t Beverly Leonard’s mother, and part of the storyline is about how close she is to Sheldon, who grew up in a fundamentalist household?

    • Rob Says:

      I think that parentheses are in order.

      “Tonight we learned that (Sheldon) and (Leonard’s Mother)…”
      rather than
      “Tonight we learned that (Sheldon and Leonard)’s Mother…”

    • Joshua Says:

      I think your parsing would be rendered as “Sheldon’s and Leonard’s mother”. That shows that there is one mother for the both of them.

      If we were talking about their respective mothers it would be “Sheldon’s mother and Leonard’s mother”.

      You might try to be shorter for the second and write “Sheldon’s and Leonard’s mothers”, but that could be ambiguous. They are brothers and sons of a polygamist?

      Anyway, I think it was correctly written and incorrectly parsed.

  3. General Omar Windbottom Says:

    Well, you can hide the fundamental inner workings of the brain behind the opaque and slightly mystical quantum curtain.

    Or you can take Douglas Hofstader’s approach and look at an actual brain and notice that it has (1) a hierarchical network organization, and (2) many linear and nonlinear feedback loops.

    This second model of brain functioning does not involve tooth fairies and can actually be subjected to scientific testing. It also deals with a real brain, rather than abstract models of a brain.

    But apparently, most people prefer the excitment of pseudoscience to the clarity of reason. Such is the human condition as we approach 2010.

    Omar Windbottom

  4. Uncle Al Says:

    Physics demands the universe and its mirror image are fundamentally indistinguishable. Abundance of matter over antimatter is then mysterious. But… increasingly weak interactions are not parity-symmetric. Strong interactions are exceptions not the rule. Big Bang inflation was powered by chiral pseudoscalar background dilution that chose matter and the Weak interaction, and remnant persisted.

    That is crazy talk! A chiral vacuum background only active in the massed sector renders gravitation measurably divergent given opposite geometric parity atomic mass distributions.

    Somebody should look. Space groups P3(1) and P3(2) glycine gamma-polymorph also qualify.

  5. General Omar Windbottom Says:

    Somebody did look.

    Vacuum symmetry violations = null result.

    Try again, sunshine.


  6. ES Says:

    I suggest you look at Conway & Kochen 2006 (yes, THAT Conway) for an interesting take on the consequences of quantum consciousness.

  7. Uncle Al Says:

    Dear Windbottom: All vacuum isotropy and Lorentz invariance experiments are electromagnetic, arXiv:0706.2031, arxiv:0801.0287, Physics Today 57(7) 40 (2004). Optical rotation must integrate to zero over the EM spectrum (f-sum rule, Thomas-Reiche-Kuhn sum rule). EM does not observe mass distribution. Physics cannot quantitate enantiomorphic mass distributions.

    Stereograms and optical rotations
    J. Math. Phys. 40(9) 4587 (1999)
    Quantitative geometric parity divergence

    Physics drips parity exceptions: right hand rules, precession, Yang and Lee, teleparallelism… and R-parity mentioned above. Exquisite composition Eötvös experiments continuously run and fail,


    Gravitation theories ignore composition, being geometries not stockrooms. Parity divergence is likely the basis not the exception. Somebody should look.

    Biology is homochiral, all L-configuration chiral protein amino acids and all D-configuration chiral sugars. If the vacuum is massed sector trace chiral, there is your fundamental local to global connection outside classical anatomic reductionism.

    The Big Bang Theory is funny in part for its Profoundly Gifted theorist who cannot see beyond himself and its Severely Gifted experimentalist who cannot see within himself. Incongruence is amusing. Real world science is funny strange not funny ha ha. The way to seize a blue rose is to seek it where it is not.

  8. Erick Von Schweber Says:

    I love this show; that’s why I was greatly disappointed to hear the character of Sheldon taking such a conservative position with respect to quantum brain dynamics and quantum mind theories. At this point in time (Fall 2009) even the conservatively-minded Caltech professor Christopher Koch (protege of Francis Crick) and through and through materialist Dan Dennett have gone on record as admitting that it is possible that brain events may exhibit quantum statistics (and behavior) and that these quantum brain events may not necessarily average out, but be biologically relevant and significant. (Koch went on record at the Toward a Science of Consciousness conference in Tucson in the Spring of 2008; Dennett at a three-night seminar series at Harvard in the Spring of 2009).
    Each argument against, say, Hameroff-Penrose Orch OR (the leading quantum brain theory) has been refuted in detail. Sheldon’s issue, for example, that the necessary conditions preventing decoherence of a quantum superposition are not possible in the wet (and hot) environment of a living brain have been addressed through methods including ordered water, actin gelation, quantum topological error correcting codes, and others. Beyond this, Douglas Hofstadter’s own student, philosopher of mind Dave Chalmers, is an advocate of panprotopsychim, which sits well in the company of quantum mind theories. More and more evidence is emerging that biological systems have, through evolution, developed the capability to exploit quantum behavior, e.g., in the biochemistry of photosynthesis. Also take a good look at Johnjoe McFadden’s Quantum Evolution. Personally, I have what I believe to be the only defensible approach to the mind-body problem that does not end in either idealism or epiphenomenalism, called Aspect Oriented Quantum Monism.
    So, Chuck Lorre – if you are listening – WHEN DOING YOUR HOMEWORK FOR EACH SHOW PLEASE DO PERFORM YOUR RESEARCH FROM A MORE EXTENSIVE COMPENDIUM OF EXPERTS! Sheldon in particular is not someone I’d expect to toe the line.

  9. Andy Says:

    Excuse me ,could you explain “the assembly lines in China”, I know nothing about it and sciences, but I’m now interested in it, could you, please.

  10. Procyan Says:

    In science, the conservative position is the responsible position.

    There, you’ve made a statement and it sounds like you know something and yet tis naught but the hiss of gass. Conservative is ying to my yang! Stir it up.

    Next, Expecting a digital computer to become self-aware is akin to hoping to extract nutrition from a really good picture of a hamburger. Unless pixels are pixies which they are not. Drawing a link between BE condensates and consciousness is attractive to some because both seem to involve a state of transcendence from the ordinary to the sublime. That may be true but is not a sufficient condition to allow one to pose equality or any other relationship.

    and finally, lets get past this quaint notion that quantum phenomena are somehow optional features of this or that bit of reality. Regardless of the example, be it a beautiful mind or a chocolate mousse, quanta exist and the same rules apply whether we choose to observe them or not.

    I recommend Susan Blackwood. Her argument is built on experimental data. Somehow she comes to the wrong, classically reductionist, conclusion but you can learn a lot from her synthesis if you know when to jump. as, obviously, i do.

    Great show, great blog. thanks!

  11. thomas Says:

    Theory predicts, that protons would decay in less than a second? You seem to be pretty convinced by Supersymmetry ;-)

    Lets see, what LHC will show, now that its running. And I’m looking forward to see some LHC references in bbt

    • David Saltzberg Says:

      Read carefully. The entry says “many models” not “theory”. Whether I or anyone else believes these models or not is irrelevant. Experiments will tell us which models are right, if any.

  12. General Omar Windbottom Says:

    I’ll eat every SUSY partner they find.


  13. General Omar Windbottom Says:

    If you want to get a feeling for how pseudoscientific SUSY really is, read the comments of a theoretical physicst who understands SUSY at a high level, but has not been indoctrinated: T. Doriga,


    A real eye-opener! Well worth the time spent reading it.


  14. tbbtfans Says:

    Hi David Saltzberg i want to make sure if the chinese newpaper called thebeijingnews really got an interview you. coz i think maybe he copyed from http://the-big-bang-theory.com/saltzberg.interview/
    his website add is http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_4b2b7de20100gd8s.html

    • David Saltzberg Says:

      I did an interview with Xinhua which is in Beijing. Using Google Translate, this looks like that interview. There is plenty of fresh things in here from that interview. I also told them they could use an old UCLA Today interview (similar to this one) for background.

  15. feldfrei Says:

    Considering the role of consciousness in the context of the “measurement problem” in quantum physics (or more generally spoken: the role of the “observer”) one usually has to distinguish a quantum object from its environment. However, this distinction is to some extent arbitrary. An extreme case would be treating the entire universe as one single very large quantum system without any observer. Interestingly, such a universe lacks what we call “time” and, thus, we come to the question how time shows up in quantum physics (where we have no “time operator”). There is an interesting paper on this topic which aims to derive the time-dependent Schrödinger equation from the time-independent one by separating a small subsystem from a large environment:

    Following this ansatz, time emerges from the interaction of the subsystem with its environment. I like some analogies of this concept like the phenomenon that we somehow “loose time” when we “separate” ourselves from our environment, e. g. working very concentrated on a problem.

  16. Big Blog Theory: Learning science from a sitcom | Give the 'Net credit Says:

    [...] but his posts have gotten me thinking a lot about about science. I especially liked his post about quantum mechanics and the brain. We didn’t go into the same level of detail, but I participated in a similar discussion in an [...]

  17. Ross McKenzie Says:

    “Quantum dynamic brain theory” and Penrose’s ideas have been discredited in serious scientific journals. See for example:



  18. Tradução: “S03E11: The Maternal Congruence (A Congruência Materna)” « The Big Blog Theory (em Português!) Says:

    [...] feita a partir de texto extraído de The Big Blog Theory, de autoria de David Saltzberg, originalmente publicado em 14 de Dezembro de [...]

  19. TV Fact-Checker: Dropping Science on The Big Bang Theory « News Hub Today Says:

    [...] amusing one was when Sheldon and Leonard’s mother were working on a scientific problem called quantum brain dynamics theory…. This theory is about how quantum mechanics is important for consciousness in the brain. [...]

  20. TV Fact-Checker: Dropping Science on The Big Bang Theory | 13 News Says:

    [...] amusing one was when Sheldon and Leonard’s mother were working on a scientific problem called quantum brain dynamics theory…. This theory is about how quantum mechanics is important for consciousness in the brain. It’s [...]

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