Is consciousness just a complex electromagnetic field?
A conversation with Johnjoe McFadden about his “conscious electromagnetic information” (cemi) field theory of consciousness
Solving the riddles of consciousness will require deep inter-disciplinary knowledge in neuroscience, physics, philosophy, genetics and biochemistry. Johnjoe McFadden, a professor of molecular genetics at the University of Surrey in England, is one of a few scholars who enjoys a deep knowledge across many of these fields.
His primary field has been systems-based approaches to infectious diseases, but he has written a number of papers and books that involve consciousness and his “conscious electromagnetic information” (cemi — he prefers it to be lower case) field theory of consciousness. Field theories of consciousness suggest that consciousness is a manifestation of an underlying field or fields, rather than being the result of computation or simply an inherent property of matter.
McFadden has written a number of engaging books that included extensive discussions of consciousness and his own theories, including in 2001 Quantum Evolution: The New Science of Life, and 13 years later, with Jim Al-Khalili, the 2014 Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. He first proposed the cemi field theory, that electromagnetic fields in the brain integrate our thoughts to generate our conscious mind, in his book, Quantum Evolution.
There are many field theories of consciousness and McFadden is not the first to develop an electromagnetic field theory of consciousness. Field theories were first proposed in the 1940s by Kohler, Wallach and Held. John, Libet, Pockett, Jones and others have proposed electromagnetic theories in the last twenty years. Mostyn Jones’ 2013 paper, “Electromagnetic-field theories of mind,” is a great overview of this history.
My own General Resonance Theory of consciousness includes electromagnetic fields as a possible seat of consciousness, and the same holds with any physical field. EM fields differ, in my approach, in that while other physical fields like gravity or nuclear forces could be the seat of consciousness in some systems, EM fields are capable of far more complex and fast-acting consciousness. We see below that McFadden holds a similar view in this regard.
McFadden’s approach seems to be panpsychist, as Jones has suggested in his work, but McFadden denies this and, as with Giulio Tononi in my 2011 interview of him in my book, Eco, Ego, Eros, seems to shy away from the panpsychist implications of his theory.
I’ve been inspired by McFadden’s work over the years, even though we differ on some key issues (such as panpsychism), and it was an honor to be able to dialogue with him here. We conducted this interview by email in the latter half of 2019.
You’ve proposed many interesting ideas about the nature of life, consciousness and the interaction between the world of classical physics and the world of quantum physics. What are the key unifying ideas for your system of thought?
That life operates at both the quantum and classical level — “life on the edge,” as we call our latest book [Life on the Edge, by McFadden and Al-Khalili] — and has thereby evolved to take advantage of both realms.
You’ve suggested that the electric and magnetic fields produced by the brain may be the seat of consciousness. What’s your argument for this intriguing notion?
Because matter is intrinsically corpuscular, and thus made up of atoms and molecules that are separated in space, it could thereby never give rise to our unified conscious experience. In contrast, fields are intrinsically unified: that is what we mean by a field. Information in the brain is encoded in both matter and fields. But it is only in fields where it is unified.
How do you distinguish between the electric fields created by any electromagnetic (EM) machine, a computer for example, which presumably are not conscious, and EM fields created by brains, which we know from our own experience are associated with consciousness in some manner?
Not all matter is alive and not all EM fields are conscious. To be conscious, an EM field must be complex enough to encode thoughts such as ‘I exist’ as well as being dynamic enough to keep track of sensory input and with access to a motor output to communicate those thoughts. Fields of this nature exist, as far as we know, only in the brain.
Why does this kind of complexity have to occur for consciousness to be associated with EM fields? At what level of complexity does it emerge? Or are you saying that it’s there even in simple EM fields but only becomes interesting when it reaches this level of complexity?
That is like asking the question ‘at what level of complexity does life emerge’. Our only example of life is its existing level of complexity. For consciousness, we know humans are conscious and we suspect higher animals are also conscious, but that is mostly because many of them behave a bit like we do. I would argue that our best correlate of consciousness is the tasks that we have to perform consciously. Firstly, it is important to recognize that complexity is not enough for consciousness. There are many highly complex tasks, such as walking or riding a bike, touch-typing, playing a an instinctive shot in tennis, or even playing a complicated learnt piece on the piano, that we can do without conscious awareness of our precise actions. I expect animals can do the same.
There is also recent evidence from studies of subliminal responses, masking effects, blind-sight and related phenomena that we can identify the meaning of words (from speech or written), the emotional content of a face or simple mathematical tasks, such as discerning whether one number is bigger or smaller than another, without conscious awareness.
Note that these kind of complex tasks can often be performed in parallel. We can ride a bike whilst whistling a familiar tune. We can chat to a friend whilst touch-typing. Our unconscious brain appears to be a parallel computer.
However, some tasks cannot be performed unconsciously, such as engaging in a natural language conversation, solving complex problems, or planning sequential tasks. A key signature of these obligatory conscious tasks is that they have to be performed serially — we cannot solve a crossword puzzle whilst conversing with a friend — we would have to switch between tasks. Our conscious brain is a serial computer.
As far as we know at this point, none of these obligatory conscious tasks can be performed by any animals other than humans. This does not mean that animals are not conscious but only that, at present, we do not have a means of testing whether they are or they aren’t. So, at the moment, I must remain agnostic about the level of complexity necessary for consciousness.
If I am able to prove my cemi field theory then it would open up the possibility of being able to probe for consciousness by some kind of measurement of how much the actions of a brain are influenced by its endogenous EM fields. This would be a measure of conscious awareness of those actions. However, as far as I know, there is no currently available technology that can do this.
Similarly, if consciousness requires a brain, where does the dividing line lie for consciousness to occur? That is, can you speculate at what evolutionary level consciousness springs forth where it didn’t exist before?
The cemi field theory proposes that consciousness is complex information in the brain’s EM field. All brains generate EM fields, so, by this measure, all brains are conscious. However, the EM fields present in the minds of most animals probably do not have much of an influence on brain activity. Their kind of consciousness, what I would term awareness, is probably more like a vague mute awareness of the moment rather than an active consciousness like ours.
Our kind of consciousness includes a will that can drive future actions, through a memory that can be consciously accessed to manipulate ideas that are behind words, thoughts, language, future planning, etc. — our internal voice.
I have proposed that the origins of humanity derives from the takeover of a significant fraction of the brain’s activities by the cemi field to drive a significant fraction of our actions to perform these kind of tasks. This takeover represents the transition from awareness to consciousness. I would speculate that the seeds of this process are present in higher primates and may also be present in other highly intelligent animals such as rodents, some birds and cephalopods such as octopuses.
Is it fair to describe what you’re calling “consciousness” as what others may call “self-consciousness,” a variety of consciousness that includes awareness of itself as a center of perception and action?
Yes, I would say that the reflexive kind of awareness of one’s self as the centre of perception and action is a component of consciousness. However, to be the subject of scientific investigation, consciousness needs an output — it needs to generate effects in the world. So although I can’t imagine consciousness without self-awareness, I can imagine self-awareness without an output, a kind of locked-in mind that is aware of itself and the outside world but only passively — what I call ‘mute awareness’. I cannot see how we can ever detect such a ‘observer-only’ mind so I prefer to reserve the term ‘consciousness’ for minds that have outputs.
What kinds of experimental tests would provide support for your conscious electromagnetic field theory of consciousness?
The cemi field theory proposes that thoughts are EM fields so it predicts that the strongest EM fields, those generated by synchronous neural firing, should represent our thoughts. This has been tested and shown to be true. The theory also proposes that external EM fields should be able to interfere with our thoughts. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) has proven this prediction to be true.
The theory predicts also that complementary EM fields should be capable of neutralising a thought, such as directing a particular motor output. This remains to be tested. The theory also predicts that conventional computers will never be conscious because the EM fields that they generate do not contribute to their computations. This is clearly true. However, the theory predicts that a new generation of computers whose generated EM fields contribute to their computation will be conscious.
How would computers be designed to allow EM fields to contribute to computation and thus become conscious in some manner?
They have to be designed to be sensitive, rather than insulated from, the EM field. Remarkably, an experiment performed more than 20 years ago by the COGS group of the University of Sussex actually achieved such a feat. They evolved, rather than designed, an electrical circuit (on FPGA chips) to perform a simple task. The evolved circuit used EM interactions, as well as wired connections, to perform that task. Perhaps they inadvertently built the first artificial conscious mind. However, as far as I know, nobody has yet attempted to repeat and extend this approach but I would be very interested to hear from anyone who be willing, and would have the resources, to give it a go.
Are only EM fields associated with consciousness? What about other fields?
In principle, any dynamic field that encodes information (that is, any physical field) could develop awareness and potentially become conscious. However, as I have emphasized, awareness and consciousness only make sense if the field can encode complex thoughts such as ‘me’, ‘you’ or ‘I think’. Otherwise, they may be a kind of mute dumb awareness but not associated with any thoughts (because thoughts are both complex and dynamic).
Although the gravitational field, say inside a galaxy, may be complex, they are dynamic only on very slow timescales and thereby cannot encode the kind of thoughts that drive our consciousness. Nuclear forces and fields are very short range and mostly stable rather than dynamic (except in, say, nuclear decay) and thereby can only influence a limited number of particles inside an atom. So they couldn’t encode complex thoughts.
Only EM fields are sufficiently strong, complex and dynamic to be capable of encoding the kind of minds that we would call conscious. It is, however, only in brains where we find sufficiently strong and dynamic EM fields capable of driving motor actions.
Dr. Mostyn Jones has proposed a modified version of your theory (Jones 2016) that is panpsychist (all matter and fields are associated with some degree of consciousness). What are your views on Jones’ proposed modifications?
I do not believe panpsychism has any useful scientific content. We can propose that a rock, table or tree is aware but how would we ever, in principle, find out? Such questions are metaphysics rather than science. In order for consciousness to be demonstrable, conscious fields have to be complex and dynamic enough to encode thoughts, such as words, and have access to a motor system capable of betraying their presence by spontaneously reporting their state (‘hello world’).
Rocks and tables have neither the complex dynamic fields that could encode a thought nor access to a motor system. Ascribing awareness or even consciousness to entities that do not possess these capabilities is like debating whether a tree that falls in the desert makes a sound. It may keep the conversation going in the early hours of the morning in a student dorm, but it’s not science.
Very few versions of panpsychism would suggest a rock or a table has any consciousness. Rather, it would be the atoms and molecules in such “mere aggregates” that would enjoy a rudimentary kind of consciousness. Freeman Dyson, the American physicist, stated: “[T]he processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call ‘chance’ when made by electrons.” Does this type of panpsychism have any utility for you?
No. It has no scientific meaning. How could we ever measure it? My definition of reality is that real things have effects in the world. If an atom’s ‘consciousness’ makes no difference to the world — it doesn’t matter whether it is or isn’t conscious, then it has no more reality than fairies, Santa Claus or unicorns. It is a topic for philosophical speculation but not science.
Jones describes your approach as panpsychist (Jones 2013, p. 139: “McFadden says that information is conscious at all levels, which is panpsychism,” citing McFadden 2002b). Clearly, you don’t agree with this statement but please explain why Jones is wrong.
Because my definition of consciousness is “awareness with a motor output that can report its state.” Panpsychism does not include output. Although my theory does allow non-conscious systems’ EM fields to possess awareness, without a motor output it is a non-scientific speculation. Although I can’t rule it out, neither could I ever confirm it.
If a human coma patient can’t report any conscious states are they not conscious? What if they suffer from locked-in syndrome in which they have conscious states but no control over any muscles and thus can’t report such states?
We cannot confirm consciousness without some way of it influencing the world. Locked-in patients can sometimes report their state by, most famously, blinking. Brain-scanning techniques can also provide locked-in patients who can’t even do that with a motor output: you can ask them to imagine a face and the technology demonstrates that the area of the brain associated with thinking about faces lights up. That is a motor output, equivalent to Steven Hawking’s speech synthesizer. We cannot know whether those locked-in patients who are unable to generate even a brain response are aware or conscious.
Are there signatures of consciousness in EEG and MEG patterns (as Dehaene, Kouider, et al. have suggested) that we can reasonably identify as states of consciousness whether or not they are linked to motor control?
Most definitely. Early experiments by Wolf Singer and others demonstrated that synchronous firing of neurons in the brain is a correlate of awareness and probably consciousness. It was his findings that inspired the cemi field theory. I realized that synchronous firing of neurons automatically generates strong local brain EM fields that would integrate the information in the firing neurons. I claimed that this field-integrated information is the conscious mind. More recently Dehaene and Kouider’s excellent work has found additional signatures in the brain, such as the P3 wave, that are also strong signatures of consciousness. Once again, the P3 wave is associated with a strong and distributed EM field perturbation in the brain — it is an EM field manifestation of the conscious mind.
So what if a coma patient can’t report anything or exert any motor control, but does at times display P3 waves? This does happen sometimes and you may be aware that Dehaene and others are conducting studies examining coma patients for these kinds of signatures in order to assess how likely a recovery is. Does the existence of P3 waves and other neural signatures of consciousness in coma patients constitute a case of inferred consciousness without any observable behavior or motor control?
I would guess so, but until Dehaene and colleagues have demonstrated that this P3 wave responds to, say, verbal instructions, to generate some kind of response that indicates awareness, then this is pure speculation.
Do new findings about the presence of “negative differential response” in many living things support your views on electric fields and consciousness?
No, I don’t see the link.
You discuss Penrose and Hameroff’s Orch OR (Orchestrated Objective Reduction) model of consciousness briefly in your book, as an example of a quantum theory of consciousness. While you agree that there is a strong possibility of quantum effects involved in consciousness you aren’t convinced that microtubules and quantum effects in the tubulin dimers of microtubules is a very good candidate for the key mechanism of consciousness. Can you explain why?
Any quantum physicist will tell you how hard it is to maintain delicate quantum states. They are normally confined to the atomic scale, within single atoms, or at most to the molecular scale within single molecules. Occasionally, under highly controlled conditions, such as close to a temperature of absolute zero, in a vacuum and on a vibration-shielded table, it is possible to generate macroscopic quantum phenomena, such as superconductivity, but not in any condition remotely like a hot, wet and highly dynamic living brain.
I have written extensively on the exciting findings of quantum biology (my book Quantum Evolution in 2001 and Life on the Edge, with Jim Al-Khalili in 2014) in which I described recent exciting research implicating quantum phenomena in biology. However, the systems that have been proposed to host quantum phenomena remain very small, on the nanoscale — a single molecule like that in a protein or a single photosystem within the antennae complex of a plant or microbe.
They also maintain quantum coherence within single cells for only hundreds of femtoseconds, which is surprisingly long in particle physics terms but a million times faster than our millisecond thoughts. The Penrose-Hameroff Orch OR theory requires coherent quantum states between billions of cells over centimeter length-scales to be maintained for at least milliseconds in the hot wet and highly dynamic brain. I know many quantum physicists and none consider this to be remotely feasible. I also know of no neurobiologist, other than Hameroff, who believes it. You will not find it referred in any standard neurobiology text or paper. No one, outside of the Penrose-Hameroff consciousness fan club takes the theory at all seriously.
We also know it is impossible. As I mentioned, quantum states are very delicate and only exist for at nanometer length scales and femtosecond timescales in any dynamic system at ambient temperatures. The microtubules on which the Orch OR theory is based on, are amongst the most dynamic objects that we know of inside cells. They are continuously being rapidly polymerized and depolymerized as cells respond to stimuli. This process of continuous polymerization and depolymerization is totally incompatible with long-lived quantum states. To claim quantum coherence could survive in such busy molecules would be like claiming that a snowflake can survive inside a furnace. The Orch OR theory is not just wrong. It’s impossible. And it is not supported by any scientific evidence.
Do you view Integrated Information Theory (IIT) or any other quantification of consciousness approaches being at all promising for making sense of consciousness?
There is no doubt that consciousness integrates information. This is surely the most obvious introspectively observed (but reportable) feature of consciousness — disparate information is unified in our perceptions and thoughts. This is what the gestalt psychologists, such as Wolfgang Köhler, insisted upon about a hundred years ago. So the idea that consciousness represents integrated information is nearly a hundred years old. But how is information integrated? The physicist, Rolf Landauer, famously insisted that ‘information is physical’ so integrated information, if it exists at all, must be encoded by a physically integrated substrate. The gestalt philosophers, who were influenced by quantum mechanics, knew this and proposed that conscious information is integrated in some kind of field. The cemi theory takes up this idea to claim that consciousness is information integrated in the brain’s EM field.
Unfortunately, when people usually talk about ‘integrated information’ they do not usually refer to physically integrated information. Instead, they refer to what I call causally integrated information, in the sense of an effect that has multiple causes.
For example the output of an integrated circuit that predicts the weather from multiple inputs of temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, humidity etc. depends on multiple inputs and can be said to integrate the information in those inputs. However, the output itself, say a line of text ‘it will rain’ is physically distinct from its inputs. It does not physically integrate those inputs; instead, it is causally dependent upon them. Neurons similarly integrate information in this causal dependence way.
This kind of integrated information, which is the kind described by IIT, is everywhere, so the IIT theory has no explanatory power in the sense of accounting for why some integrated information processing systems, such as brains, are conscious, whereas the mainframes that perform weather predictions are not. It also fails to account why some operations in the brain, such as understanding language, are always conscious, but others that much surely similarly integrate large quantities of information, such as the motor movement of your lips, tongue and vocal chords, when speaking language, are not conscious.
Information encoded in matter is discrete and localized: this is what we mean by ‘matter’. It cannot provide the physically unified substrate of the conscious mind. Only fields physically integrate information. This is obvious to anyone who downloads complex information of, say, a movie from a laptop with a tiny antenna located anywhere within the EM field generated by a router located in some other part of the room. The brain is both router and antenna for the complex information it transmits from neurons into its EM field conscious mind and then back to neurons to generate motor outputs such as language.