Our species has long agonized over the concept of human consciousness. What exactly causes it, and why did we evolve to experience consciousness? Now, a new study has uncovered a clue in the hunt for answers, and it reveals that the human brain might have more in common with the universe than we could have imagined.
According to a team of researchers from France and Canada, our brains might produce consciousness as something of a side effect of increasing entropy, a process that has been taking place throughout the universe since the Big Bang.
Their study has been accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review E.
The concept of entropy is famously confusing, and the definition has evolved over time. Essentially, entropy is a thermodynamic property that refers to the degree of disorder or randomness in a system. It can be summed up as the description of a system's progression from order to disorder.
The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy can only remain constant or increase within a closed system — a system cannot move from high entropy to low entropy without outside interference. A common example that demonstrates entropy is an ice cube melting — the cube is in a state of low entropy, but as it melts and disorder grows, entropy increases.
Many physicists think that the universe itself is in a constant state of increasing entropy. When the Big Bang occurred, the universe was in a state of low entropy, and as it continues to gradually spread out, it is growing into a higher entropy system. Based on this new study, our brain may be undergoing something similar, and consciousness happens to be a side effect of the process.
The Brain and Disorder
To see how the concept of entropy could be applied to the human brain, the researchers analyzed the amount of order in our brains while we're conscious compared to when we're not. They did this by modeling the networks of neurons in the brains of nine participants, seven of whom had epilepsy.
They looked at whether or not neurons were oscillating in phase with one another as this could tell them if the brain cells were linked. They compared observations from when patients were awake, when they were asleep, and when patients with epilepsy were having seizures.
The researchers found that the participants' brains displayed higher entropy when fully conscious. "We find a surprisingly simple result: normal wakeful states are characterized by the greatest number of possible configurations of interactions between brain networks, representing highest entropy values," the team wrote in the study.
This finding prompted the researchers to suggest that consciousness might be a side effect of a system working to maximize information exchange. In other words, human consciousness emerges due to increasing entropy.
While the team's theory is exciting and will likely lead to further research exploring a potential link between human consciousness and entropy, it is far from conclusive. The study's sample size was exceptionally small, so they'll need to replicate their results on larger groups and different types of brain states. Still, it provides a fascinating explanation for human consciousness and may be the clue that eventually helps us fully understand the strange phenomenon.