Your brain might be a quantum computer that hallucinates math

Your brain might be a quantum computer that hallucinates math

Quick: what’s 4 + 5? Nine right? Slightly less quick: what’s five plus four? Still nine, right?

There’s a code for arithmetic hidden inside your head

Quick: what’s 4 + 5? Nine right? Slightly less quick: what’s five plus four? Still nine, right?

Okay, let’s wait a few seconds. Bear with me. Feel free to have a quick stretch.

Now, without looking, what was the answer to the first question?

It’s still nine, isn’t it?

You’ve just performed a series of advanced brain functions. You did math based on prompts designed to appeal to entirely different parts of your brain and you displayed the ability to recall previous information when queried later. Great job!

This might seem like an old hat to most of us, but it’s actually quite an amazing feat of brainpower.

And, based on some recent research by a pair of teams from the University of Bonn and the University of Tübingen, these simple processes could indicate that you’re a quantum computer.

Let’s do the math

Your brain probably isn’t wired for numbers. It’s great at math, but numbers are a relatively new concept for humans.

Numbers showed up in human history approximately 6,000 years ago with the Mesopotamians, but our species has been around for about 300,000 years.

Prehistoric humans still had things to count. They didn’t randomly forget how many children they had just because there wasn’t a bespoke language for numerals yet.

Instead, they found other methods for expressing quantities or tracking objects such as holding up their fingers or using representative models.

If you had to keep track of dozens of cave-mates, for example, you might carry a pebble to represent each one. As people trickled in from a hard day of hunting, gathering, and whatnot, you could shift the pebbles from one container to another as an accounting method.

It might seem sub-optimal, but the human brain really doesn’t care whether you use numbers, words, or concepts when it comes to math.

Let’s do the research

The aforementioned research teams recently published a fascinating paper titled “Neuronal codes for arithmetic rule processing in the human brain.”

As the title intimates, the researchers identified an abstract code for processing addition and subtraction inside the human brain. This is significant because we really don’t know how the brain handles math.

You can’t just slap some electrodes on someone’s scalp or stick them in a CAT scan machine to suss out the nature of human calculation.

Math happens at the individual neuron level inside the human brain. EKG readings and CAT scans can only provide a general picture of all the noise our neurons produce.

And, as there are some 86 billion neurons making noise inside our heads, those kinds of readings aren’t what you’d call an “exact science.”

The Bonn and Tübingen teams got around this problem by conducting their research on volunteers who already had subcranial electrode implants for the treatment of epilepsy.

Nine volunteers met the study’s criteria and, because of the nature of their implants, they were able to provide what might be the world’s first glimpse into how the brain actually handles math.

Per the research paper:

We found abstract and notation-independent codes for addition and subtraction in neuronal populations.

Decoders applied to time-resolved recordings demonstrate a static code in hippocampus based on persistently rule-selective neurons, in contrast to a dynamic code in parahippocampal cortex originating from neurons carrying rapidly changing rule information.

An image of single neuron activity
Single neurons across multiple brain sectors responding to different encoded rules for math.

All Rights Reserved for Tristan Greene

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