In science often the brain is often compared to a kind of complex computer, with the neuronal connections—the synapses—equivalent to the memory gates of the computer. In this analogy, the brain stores memories in a similar fashion to how a computer records information. Viewed this way, immortality would be a simple matter of transferring the patterns of our neural connections into a supercomputer, allowing our consciousness to live on as long as the computer continued to function.
But is this computer-like physical structure of our brain all that defines our essence? Or does our conscious awareness and sense of self depend on more complex than just a series of on-off switches in our brain? The answer to these questions are likely a long way off, as neuroscientists continue to chase after the “seat” of our consciousness perhaps in wrong place. But some research hints that long-held ideas about how the brain stores memories may no longer hold sway.
In one recent study, published Nov. 17 in the journal eLife, David Glanzman and his colleagues at UCLA tested the limits of long-term memories in sea slugs. Researchers trained these creatures to respond to certain neurotransmitter signals. They then used chemicals to return the synapses to their pre-trained state, which basically eliminated the memorized reflexes. But even though the researchers had altered the neural connections, they found that the long-term memories for those reflexes still persisted covertly. According to the authors of the paper, “these results challenge the idea that stable synapses store long-term memories.”
It is even more clear when it comes to memories and consciousness that they might not be residing in the brain when you look at how Monarch butterflies are able to migrate thousands of miles throughout the United States and Canada. Remarkable feat in itself, but these insects are able to do it not as individuals—as birds do—but across generations of butterflies. Somehow the Monarchs pass a certain level of consciousness (or better said tap into it) from parent to offspring that enables their great great great grandchildren to return to the same spot each year.
While it’s possible that the monarch’s success at passing a migratory map from parent to offspring could be due to simple changes to the chromosomes—such as epigenetics—quantum mechanics may offer some insight into the long-term memories of monarchs and sea slugs, not to mention ourselves.
In quantum mechanics there is no separation between protons and neutrons, or you and I. Instead, everything arises as patterns in the fundamental space-time geometry that forms the background of the universe. Some scientists have compared this quantum field to the universal consciousness described by Indian philosophy. Viewed this way, the biological processes that occur in the neurons are not enough to produce consciousness. Instead you need a way—some have suggested microtubules in the neurons—for the brain to connect to the quantum field of the universe and ultimately to the universal consciousness that ties us all together.