Thanks to the work of a small group neuroscientists and theoretical physicists over the last few years, we may finally have found a way of analyzing the mysterious, metaphysical realm of consciousness in a scientific manner. The latest breakthrough in this new field, published by Max Tegmark of MIT, postulates that consciousness is actually a state of matter, allowing us to scientifically tackle murky topics such as self awareness, and why we perceive the world in classical three-dimensional terms, rather than the infinite number of objective realities offered up by the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.
The latest attempts to formalize consciousness come from Giulio Tononi, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who proposed the integrated information theory (IIT) model of consciousness — and now Max Tegmark of MIT, who has attempted to generalize Tononi’s work in terms of quantum mechanics. In his research paper, “Consciousness as a State of Matter” [arXiv:1401.1219], Tegmark theorizes that consciousness can be understood as a state of matter called “perceptronium” that can be differentiated from other kinds of matter (solids, liquids, gases) using five, mathematically sound principles.
The paper, as you can imagine, is a beastly 30-page treatise, but the Physics arXiv Blog does a good job of summarizing it (if you’re comfortable with quantum mechanics, anyway). In short, though, it outlines Tononi’s ITT — that consciousness results from a system that can store and retrieve vast amounts of information efficiently — and then moves onto his own creation, perceptronium, which he describes as “the most general substance that feels subjectively self-aware.” This substance can not only store and retrieve data, but it’s also indivisible and unified (this is where we start to wander into the “here be dragons” realm of souls and spirits and so forth). The rest of the paper mostly deals with describing perceptronium in terms of quantum mechanics, and trying to work out why we steadfastly perceive the world in terms of classical, independent systems — rather than one big interconnected quantum mess.