Binocular rivalry is a phenomenon which occurs when conflicting information is presented to each of our two eyes, and the brain has to cope with the contradiction. Instead of seeing a superimposition or “average” of the two, our perceptual machinery entertains both possibilities in turn, randomly flickering from one to the other. This presents an interesting way to stress-test our visual system and see how vision works. Unfortunately, talk of “perception” leads to talk of “consciousness,” and once “consciousness” has been raised, an invocation of quantum mechanics can’t be too far behind.
I’m late to join the critical party surrounding E. Manousakis’ paper, “Quantum theory, consciousness and temporal perception: Binocular rivalry,” recently uploaded to the arXiv and noticed by Mo at Neurophilosophy. Manousakis applies “quantum theory” (there’s a reason for those scare quotes) to the problem of binocular rivalry and from this hat pulls a grandiose claim that quantum physics is relevant for human consciousness.
A NOTE ON WIRES AND SLINKYS
First, we observe that there is a healthy literature on this phenomenon, work done by computational neuroscience people who aren’t invoking quantum mechanics in their explanations.
Second, one must carefully distinguish a model of a phenomenon which actually uses quantum physics from a model in which certain mathematical tools are applicable. Linear algebra is a mathematical tool used in quantum physics, but describing a system with linear algebra does not make it quantum-mechanical. Long division and the extraction of square roots can also appear in the solution of a quantum problem, but this does not make dividing 420 lollipops among 25 children a correlate of quantum physics.
Just because the same equation applies doesn’t mean the same physics is at work. An electrical circuit containing a capacitor, an inductor and a resistor obeys the same differential equation as a mass on a spring: capacitance corresponds to “springiness,” inductance to inertia and resistance to friction. This does not mean that an electrical circuit is the same thing as a rock glued to a slinky.
MIXING THE QUANTUM AND THE CLASSICAL
One interesting thing about this paper is that the hypothesis is really only half quantum, at best. In fact, three of the four numbers fed into Manousakis’ hypothesis pertain to a classical phenomenon, and here’s why:
Manousakis invokes the formalism of the quantum two-state system, saying that the perception of (say) the image seen by the left eye is one state and that from the right eye is the other. The upshot of this is that the probability of seeing the illusion one way — say, the left-eye version — oscillates over time as
[tex]P(t) = \cos^2(\omega t),[/tex]
where [tex]\omega[/tex] is some characteristic frequency of the perceptual machinery. The oscillation is always going, swaying back and forth, but every once in a while, it gets “observed,” which forces the brain into either the clockwise or the counter-clockwise state, from which the oscillation starts again.
The quantum two-state system just provides an oscillating probability of favoring one perception, one which goes as the square of [tex]\cos(\omega t)[/tex]. Three of the four parameters fed into the Monte Carlo simulation actually pertain to how often this two-state system is “observed” and “collapsed”. These parameters describe a completely classical pulse train â€” click, click, click, pause, click click click click, etc.
What’s more, the classical part is the higher-level one, the one which intrudes on the low-level processing. Crudely speaking, it’s like saying there’s a quantum two-state system back in the visual cortex, but all the processing up in the prefrontal lobes is purely classical.
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