Friday, June 22, 2012

Measuring Consciousness?

Recently a number of articles have been posted on the magical blogosphere regarding the intersection of scientific and magical methods. My position has always been that since we as magicians are operating under the assumption that magick involves states of consciousness that produce particular effects in the environment, the tool that really is necessary to turn magick into a hard science is a reliable device for measuring the activity of consciousness itself. This poses a serious problem, as many scientists believe that what we experience as consciousness is related to the behavior of structures in the brain so small that they interact with matter on a quantum scale.

The mere act of measuring the states of these structures results in changes to their energy levels according to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which is quite difficult to surmount. I say "difficult" rather than "impossible" because, as this article published a few weeks back in Wired explains, scientists may finally have worked out a possible method for measuring the energy function of a particle without causing the wavefunction collapse that prevents accurate direct measurements. This method is based on properties found in a class of materials called "metamaterials" that are currently used to manipulate the behavior of light and other forms of energy.

Mathematicians now suspect quirks in energy-cloaking metamaterials could be exploited to create powerful quantum probes called “Schrödinger’s hats.” Although not yet built or proven in the real world, such hats — their name a nod at Erwin Schrödinger’s famous cat-boxing thought experiment — might record extremely subtle signals that would otherwise be scrambled by any attempt to measure them. Should the theoretical work pan out in the laboratory, Schrödinger’s hats could be a boon to nanotechnology, where the simple act of observing a nano-scale object can confound a measurement.

“Conceptually, a Schrödinger’s hat is like an invisible battery. It captures a tiny bit of energy without fiddling with the [energy] waves so you can later get a measurement,” said Allan Greenleaf, a mathematician at the University of Rochester. Greenleaf co-authored a study of the Schrödinger’s hats published May 29 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “If you’re trying to image something at the nanoscale, say a computer chip or nanodevice, you might get very close to it without disturbing it,” continued Greenleaf.

This might very well be the first step towards developing a device that could meaningfully measure consciousness at the quantum level. Obviously, the simple "quantum probe" idea would have to be expanded into a device that can scan vast fields of particles and integrate the data, sort of like how a functional MRI uses magnetic fields to map brain activity, and that in itself poses significant engineering challenges even if the individual probes can be built as Greenleaf envisions. But what this new approach means is that at some point in the future building a consciousness measure might not be impossible - and that's a good first step.

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