Quantum Mechanics And The Collective Unconscious

Chapter Three: The Collective Unconscious Revisited


Introduction: The C. Word

As will become apparent in this section, using the word 'consciousness' to denote some active principle of the brain or aspect of cognition is a popular sport. The problem is that these users of 'consciousness' hardly ever stop to define the word or the concept, so that it becomes a chameleon passe-partout. The problem of the definition of the word was addressed comprehensively in Agent Human: Consciousness At The Service Of The Group; see particularly the Introduction. A summary of that material is included as Appendix One of this volume.

In recent consciousness literature, sometimes the C. word is used to denote some guiding force outside any or all brains as such, human or otherwise; sometimes it is used to describe a combination of what we would term the conscious and the unconscious; and sometimes it incorporates the idea of the collective unconscious, that is, a resource or 'field' that is supplementary to and may be external to any known, neurally-based cognitive brain process, to which all humans have access through an unknown mechanism, or at least which can have an impact on human individual development, and represents in some measure a storehouse of human archetypes and the moral burden of human groupishness.

Before arriving at a treatment, in a later chapter, of how the concept of the collective unconscious has taken on greater proportions over the past decades, due partly to the gradual exploration of quantum mechanics, so that its outlines can be glimpsed partially and intermittently through the fog of our ignorance, we mean to review briefly some of the more relevant thinkers who have attempted to tackle the problem of consciousness and the collective unconscious, in the context of psi and/or quantum mechanics, from a variety of perspectives over the last 100 years or so. They are in alphabetical order. This is by no means intended to be a complete survey of the field; it is merely a collection of disparate theories which illustrates the type and variety of thinking being applied to the problem. Theorists who have worked directly on neural and behavioural aspects of the phenomenon of consciousness itself are dealt with much more thoroughly in Agent Human: Consciousness At The Service Of The Group.

Consciousness Researchers

Grover Cleveland Backster (1924 - 2013) was mentioned in Chapter Two. He proposed the existence of a 'field' which interconnects all life forms, and allows a form of biocommunication which he termed 'primary perception' and some commentators have likened to esp. Backster's experiments have been replicated on a number of occasions, but there has been some methodological criticism of the work.

Sir John Carew Eccles (1903 – 1997), neurophysiologist, was a professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand and at the John Curtin School of Medical Research of the Australian National University. He won the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on synapses. Later he worked in US universities. Study of the 'mind-body' problem was a lifelong preoccupation; he agreed with Karl Popper's analysis of the three worlds (roughly, the material world, the world of subjective knowledge, and the world of human intellectual constructs). Together with Popper he wrote (1977) The Self and its Brain, in which he speculates that the self-conscious mind (aka consciousness) directly operates on the synapses in the brain. John Eccles was highly religious and certainly accepted the likely role of an external agency (we may call it God) in the operation of evolution and physiological development. Later he wrote How The Self Controls Its Brain, in which he expands on the neural mechanisms involved in conscious control of the brain: he called the fundamental neural units of the cerebral cortex "dendrons", which are cylindrical bundles of neurons arranged vertically in the six outer layers or laminae of the cortex, each cylinder being about 60 micrometres in diameter. Eccles proposed that each of the 40 million dendrons is linked with a mental unit, or "psychon", representing a unitary conscious experience. In willed actions and thought, psychons act on dendrons and, for a moment, increase the probability of the firing of selected neurons through a quantum tunneling effect in synaptic exocytosis, while in perception the reverse process takes place.

Stuart Hameroff (born 1947) is Emeritus Professor for Anaesthesiology and Psychology at the University of Oxford and associate director for the Center for Consciousness Studies. With Sir Roger Penrose (born 1931), Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the Mathematical Institute of the University of Oxford, he developed a theory of consciousness based on quantum effects in micro-tubules in neurons, labelled Orch-OR (orchestrated objective reduction). Microtubules are protein polymers inside brain neurons, and are thought to govern both neuronal and synaptic function. Under their theory, first promulgated towards the end of the last century, and met with by a barrage of criticism from many other consciousness researchers, micro-tubules are a likely site for quantum effects to manifest themselves, making opportunities for tunneling between different regions of the brain, and creating a basis for consciousness to arise. The authors go further, asserting that consciousness is a universal phenomenon, a position which is close to panpsychism.

A revised version of the Orch-OR theory, responding to some of the criticisms that had been voiced, was published in 2011; and in 2014 Hameroff and Penrose compiled a review of the status of the theory in Physics of Life Reviews, accompanied by critical commentary and responses to it.

In 2014, a group led by Anirban Bandyopadhyay, PhD, at the National Institute of Material Sciences in Tsukuba, Japan (and now at MIT) reported the discovery of 'quantum vibrations' in microtubules in brain neurons. The vibrations appear to form interference patterns, producing the well-known but much slower EEG 'beat frequencies', whose origins have long been mysterious. Until this work, there was no relevant experimental evidence that such quantum phenomena exist in the brain, although in 2012 (see Chapter Two) Summhammer et al modelled ion channels that conduct electrical membrane signals in the nervous system, building potentials that propagate along the membranes. The model shows that alkali ions can become highly delocalized in the filter region of proteins at warm temperatures, so that quantum effects result in faster and more selective transmission of ions. Many researchers say that the relatively hot and wet conditions of neural tissue make quantum entanglement physically unlikely, or at least too short-lived to permit its use in cognitive traffic, but recently entanglement has been shown to exist in many more situations than initially predicted.

While by now it seems that quantum effects are implicated across a wide range of cell functions (see Chapters 4 and 5), and while it seems self-evident that neuronal activity is a part of the functioning of consciousness, it is a major step from there to the assertions of Orch-OR. The theory treats consciousness as a unitary phenomenon, whereas Agent Human charts its emergence through a series of stages linked to the increasing sophistication of the neural apparatus. As one commentator said, Hameroff and Penrose have linked quantum mechanics and consciousness with little more basis than the fact that both are mysterious.

Christine Hardy Ph.D. is a psychological anthropologist who has conducted cross-cultural investigations into states of consciousness and techniques of mental self-control over a period of several years, during her travels in the Middle East, the Far East and Africa. She was president of Interface Psi (LRIP), a research association investigating extended psychophysical interactions and latent human potentials, for more than ten years. Hardy's “Semantic Fields theory” based on a merging of neural nets, chaos theory and systems theory views the mind as a lattice of semantic constellations or SeCos, generated by the interplay of experience, genetic constraints and cultural context.

"SeCos are self-organized dynamical networks that interweave processes ranging from high-level abstract ones to low-level neuronal ones. From the perspective of semantic fields theory, psi events are a fundamental feature of the underlying connective dynamics across SeCos-networks. It is postulated that the mind is also the source of a projective process imprinting organization and order upon the outer world. This dynamic generates a semantic dimension in objects themselves – eco-semantic fields or eco-fields. As suggested, semantic connective processes are organized not by space-time parameters, but by semantic parameters (such as semantic proximity), which instantiate nonlocal connections between distant semantic fields – whether between minds or between minds and the environment. Semantic dynamics are the ground for both ESP and PK phenomena, whether conscious or nonconscious. The model hypothesizes that the organizing influence of the mind on surrounding eco-fields will affect the nature and probability of events connected to the person. . . .

Thus, my position is that we may assume mind as being a necessary condition for psi, and explore the mental facet of psi, while leaving open the possibility that additional necessary condition(s) will turn up at some later date. . . . Insofar as psi seems to be non-dependent (in the sense of a necessary condition) on Newtonian time and space parameters, it displays nonlocality. . . . While I think the case for quantum events in the brain is well grounded, and that psi theories based on QM are an important line of research for physicists, I also believe it is sound to focus on the global architecture and dynamics of the mind, without committing to a particular view on quantum brain processes."

So Hardy has a position which, while fully accepting quantum effects as being central to the operation of psi, and of psi as being integral to human cognitive processes, stops short of creating a separate external 'field'; and she does not take a position on the collective unconscious.

Robert G. Jahn, Ph.D. (born April 1, 1930 and mentioned in Chapter Three in the context of psi) is a retired American plasma physicist, Professor of Aerospace Science, and Dean of Engineering at Princeton University. Jahn studied psychic and parapsychological phenomena for many years. With Brenda Dunne, he established the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab (PEAR) in 1979; PEAR reported statistically significant causal relationships between intention in subjects' minds and the behaviour of electronic random event generators, i.e. that the results generated are non-random. These effects are termed low-level PK (psychokinesis). There is a problem that 'consciousness' is taken as the proponent of the effects, but as usual this is probably just a misuse of the term, and unconscious processes are also allowed to be part of it. It's another 'field' theory, allowing for interaction ('resonance') between individuals and machines. Jahn and PEAR have produced many books and papers on the subject, of which the reference below is one example. Jahn notes that the mind/machine phenomena display many similarities with quantum mechanical effects, but he does not directly say that the two are related.

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) certainly believed in the existence of a collective unconscious for humans, seeing it as a repository of archetypal, mythic material common to all humans. He wrote about it in numerous publications, of which The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious (1958) is the most obvious. In Psychology and the Occult, he said:

"The psyche's attachment to the brain, i.e., its space-time limitation, is no longer as self-evident and incontrovertible as we have hitherto been led to believe. . . . It is not only permissible to doubt the absolute validity of space-time perception; it is, in view of the available facts, even imperative to do so."

However, Jung did not attempt to describe the mechanisms by which a collective unconscious might come into being or communicate with individual humans. In The Structure of the Psyche he said:

"The collective unconscious – so far as we can say anything about it at all – appears to consist of mythological motifs or primordial images, for which reason the myths of all nations are its real exponents. In fact, the whole of mythology could be taken as a sort of projection of the collective unconscious... We can therefore study the collective unconscious in two ways, either in mythology or in the analysis of the individual."

Jung's work on 'synchronicity', described in the Introduction, moved a step towards the concept of an external field, but not necessarily identifying it with the collective unconscious.

Charles Laughlin, Ph.D., born 1938, is a professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. His theories (1996) regarding the 'quantum sea' were described briefly in the Introduction, and amount to another 'field' theory; but while he admits connections between archetypes, the collective and the 'quantum sea', he does not explicitly locate them in the 'sea', indeed the contrary:

The archetypes as structures mediating intuitive and symbolic knowledge are undoubtedly located in the areas of the nervous system that appear to have evolved most dramatically during the course of hominid encephalization and that produce the distinctly human quality of mentation, learning, communication, and social action characteristic of our species today.

He hypothesizes however that there are multiple quantum-type interconnections between the 'sea' and the brain.

William McDougall (1871-1938), a psychologist, taught at Duke University from 1927 until his death, and also carried out experiments in the University's Parapsychological Laboratory, in which he demonstrated that successive generations of rats learned to escape from mazes more quickly than previous generations. Lamarckian explanations for this effect have been denied by other researchers. McDougall's hormic theory says that members of a species have a set of shared goals which they pursue more or less regardless of individual experience, and which he equates to instinct, although not in a strictly genetic sense. This is again a 'field' theory; the species' goals exist outside their expression in any given individual. Says McDougall (An Introduction to Social Psychology):

'Hormic activity is an energy manifestation; but the hormic theory does not presume to say just what form or forms of energy or transformations of energy are involved. It seems to involve liberation of energy potential, or latent in chemical form in the tissues; and hormic theory welcomes any information about such transformations that physiological chemistry can furnish.'

For McDougall, the rats' learning takes place in the hormic field, and should therefore be applicable by rats wherever they are, and some researchers have brought forward evidence that such species learning does take place; one example is the ability of sheep to pass cattle grids by rolling over them. McDougall does not propose any mechanism according to which a hormic field might operate. Separately, McDougall wrote about 'The Group Mind' (at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/40826/40826-h/40826-h.htm), but it doesn't venture into the collective unconscious; it's more to do with the formation of national identity, and actually rejects the notion of a 'collective consciousness'.

Roger D Nelson, Ph.D., born 1940, was Coordinator of Research at the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) laboratory at Princeton University under Robert Jahn (see above) from 1980 to 2002, and has directed the Global Consciousness Project (GCP), since its inception in 1997. The Project aims to test the impact of communal consciousness, particularly at moments of heightened global attention or arousal, such as 9/11 or New Year's Eve, on the behaviour of random event generators (REG) worldwide, which feed their results into Princeton. Nelson says: 'an inclusive and multi-disciplinary approach combining scientific, aesthetic, and spiritual perspectives is essential if we are to come to terms with consciousness as it exists and operates in the physical world.' The results of the research suggest something like a 'consciousness field', generated by resonant or coherent interactions of groups during special moments, says the laboratory, calling it a 'noosphere'. Statistically significant results have been reported.

Michael A Persinger (born June 26, 1945) was described in the previous chapter in the context of 'remote seeing' experiments. He has proposed a non-local 'field' in which extremely low frequency electromagnetic waves may be able to carry telepathic and clairvoyant information.

Sir Karl Raimund Popper (1902 - 1994), Austrian-born, lived most of his professional life in the UK, and is best known for his work on the philosophical aspects of science. His doctorate was in psychology, but from 1949 he was professor of logic and scientific method at the University of London. He was eminent in many fields of philosophical enquiry. Popper did some work on quantum mechanics (he was against the Copenhagen understanding), supporting Albert Einstein's theories of relativity, and he wrote extensively on free will, influenced partly by the indeterminacy of nature. But his relevance to the current subject stems mostly from his collaboration with Sir John Eccles on their book The Self and its Brain (1977), which is described above. He was profoundly dualist.

Alastair I M Rae, Lecturer, Department of Physics, University of Birmingham, UK, is the author of a number of books on Quantum Mechanics, including a standard textbook on the subject. In Quantum Physics - Illusion or Reality? he explores the issue of observation and the role of consciousness in measurement. He equates 'consciousness' to alternatively a person's 'mind' or 'self' or 'soul', which nicely illustrates the essential fuzziness of the word as used in quantum and psi studies. He extensively describes Popper & Eccles book The Self And Its Brain (1977) which is a highly dualist affair (see above) in which consciousness is taken to be the only reality, eventually rejecting such a 'subjectivist' view in favour of a more naturalistic model, pointing out that, the closer we get to understanding the workings of consciousness at a neural level, the more 'doubtful' become subjectivist theories of the primacy of consciousness in the creation of reality. He also considers whether psi phenomena contradict the established basis of quantum mechanics, concluding that if for instance pk is real, then it operates on principles that are as much outside quantum mechanics as they are outside classical mechanics.

Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D., b 28 June 1942, is a former research fellow of the Royal Society and former director of studies in biochemistry and cell biology at Clare College, Cambridge. He has written 80 peer-reviewed papers and ten books, but is best known for his theory of 'morphic resonance' which in many ways is close to the idea of the collective unconscious as espoused by Jung, but is much more specific, including a morphogenetic mechanism which applies some sort of memory of past phylogeny to the evolution of new forms but also to the development of current individuals, not limited to humans, of course. This can be called 'vitalism', see Driesch (below). Sheldrake's 'field' is species-specific, but permits cross-species links (see his book 'Dogs Who Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home'). His theory includes such ideas as the existence of social bonds via the morphic field in and between people and animals, collective memory, morphic fields of ant colonies and other animal groups, and the 'collective minds' of flocks and herds. He supposes that morphic fields must have originated among the earliest social animals.

Euan J Squires, (1933 - 1996), physicist, was a Professor at the Department of Mathematical Sciences, University of Durham. He wrote extensively on the nature of consciousness in relation to quantum phenomena, starting from the (Copenhagen consensus) proposition that observation changes quantum states, so that consciousness has to stand outside physical reality. His book The Mystery Of The Quantum World (see reference) contains scientific arguments for God's existence based on quantum mechanics (or more exactly, two technical ways in which God could play a role in quantum mechanics). In effect he removes indeterminacy and replaces it with God; Einstein would have liked it. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/20117831?uid=3738296&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21102623642607 is an early article by him.

Henry Stapp, b 1928 and now retired, remains a scientific associate of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Using a mathematical theory of quantum mechanics developed by John von Neumann (1903 - 1957) he proposed a theory according to which consciousness would be an immanent property of the brain, although not going as far as Hameroff and Penrose. For Stapp, it is the ion channels connecting neurons that are the site of quantum effects due to their extremely small size, which causes indeterminacy. It is then consciousness (the mind) that causes quantum collapse by choosing one state rather than another; but because this is an ongoing process, coherence is continually re-established.

Evan Harris Walker (1935 – 2006), was an American physicist. In 2000 Walker published The Physics of Consciousness, The Quantum Mind and the Meaning of Life, which attempts to describe how quantum mechanical processes may be responsible for the creation of human consciousness, arguing that quantum tunnelling has a vital role in synaptic transmission, and that the indeterminacy that is inevitably a part of that is resolved by 'conscious' choices made by the mind among the elements of a quantum superposition. There is no real evidence to support this theory, and later neurological research has tended to undermine the likelihood of such a mechanism. The consequences of Walker's theory would seem to be that the universe consisted of one enormous quantum superposition until Man came along to 'observe' it and cause it to collapse into physical reality. In the end it's just another case of replacing indeterminacy with God.

John Archibald Wheeler (1911 – 2008), an American physicist who worked on relativity as a collaborator of Einstein, and on nuclear fission, quantum mechanics and gravitation. He was a Professor at Princeton for much of his career. He developed a unified theory of space-time including gravity, called geometrodynamics, but abandoned it when discoveries in particle physics contradicted it. He coined the term 'black hole' and used 'it from bit' as a motto:

"It symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom – a very deep bottom, in most instances – an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes/no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe."

Wheeler speculated that reality is created by observers in the universe, we being participators in the process. Another one who thought that consciousness came first.

Eugene Paul Wigner, 1902-1995, Visiting Professor at Princeton, Physics Nobel Prizewinner in 1963, contributed mathematical foundations to many aspects of quantum theory. Wigner was another believer in the causal effect of observation:

'When the province of physical theory was extended to encompass microscopic phenomena, through the creation of quantum mechanics, the concept of consciousness came to the fore again: it was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics without reference to the consciousness. All that quantum mechanics purports to provide are probability connections between subsequent impressions (also called "apperceptions") of the consciousness, and even though the dividing line between the observer, whose consciousness is being affected, and the observed physical object can be shifted towards the one or the other to a considerable degree, it cannot be eliminated. It may be premature to believe that the present philosophy of quantum mechanics will remain a permanent feature of future physical theories; it will remain remarkable, in whatever way our future concepts may develop, that the very study of the external world led to the conclusion that the content of the consciousness is an ultimate reality.'

Wigner claimed that a quantum measurement requires a conscious observer, without which nothing ever happens in the universe, who has come to be called 'Wigner's Friend' and occupies a place similar to the observer of Schrodinger's Cat. Another dualist.


Other names will be added to this list as time goes by, but some common themes emerge from the work of these people, many or most of them being eminent researchers in their own disciplines, so that they have to be taken seriously:

  • There is some type of 'field' which operates according to principles that are not known to modern science, even allowing for the existence of quantum phenomena, and permits communication by an unknown mechanism of informational content to and between animals (which includes us), some of which we loosely label 'psi'.
  • This 'field' shares with quantum phenomena such characteristics as non-locality, i.e. it operates outside the known dimensions of space and time. Although that is not to say that the fields associated with psi and quantum mechanics are identical. None of our listed heroes is brave enough to make that assertion, although other researchers have done so.
  • 'Consciousness' (but please remember our strictures laid out above concerning the use of this word) is involved in the basis of physical reality in the sense that in order to 'collapse' the quantum superposition of particles they have to be 'observed' by some aspect of mind, which researchers are apt to label 'consciousness'.

The problem with the requirement for an active principle of mind to exist as a precondition for objective reality (which we may label as a 'dualist' position) is evidently that, while consciousness (to continue to misuse the word) clearly exists in humans, and possibly in some other higher mammals, that only takes us back some tens of millions of years, forcing us to accept that an amoeba, and eventually a rock, is as capable of 'observing' an atomic particle as you and I. In reality, while nuclear physicists may be able to observe and collapse a superposition, this author has never done so, and you, the reader of these words, have probably never done so either. Only a tiny fraction of humanity has ever sat in front of an electron scanning microscope, and only a vanishingly small fraction of particles have ever been 'observed' by nuclear physicists. So the 'consciousness' brigade would have us believe that the overwhelming portion of the universe does not exist and never has done, except as a series of fleeting superpositions. You may believe that if you want to, but this author doesn't! So there is something wrong with the current set of beliefs and theories which incorporate 'observation' as a necessary part of objective reality, and later in this book we will attempt to find out what it is.


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