QR6.3.13 The Evolution of Consciousness

  The origin of the universe, life and consciousness are the three great mysteries of science. Quantum realism connects them, as our universe began from a single quantum event, life arose from a quantum effect and consciousness evolved from quantum proto-consciousness. If matter and life evolved by the same universal process, this grand evolution connects us back to the first event that created our universe.

   My body came from a single cell and bacteria evolved into us so when did life become conscious? We consider ourselves uniquely conscious but evolution doesn’t do unique. Growth and evolution are step-wise sequences so there is no line between us and them. We aren’t a realm apart from animals and life isn’t a realm apart from matter, so consciousness as the ability to observe didn’t suddenly begin at some past moment. In quantum realism everything observes, so even trilobites in the primeval seas observed things (Figure 6.38). The grand evolution of matter and life is reflected in the time-scale of observations, starting with a photon:

Figure 6.38 Even Trilobites observed

Planck time is the shortest possible time in physics. An observation at this scale would occur more times a second than there have been seconds in the life of the universe. Planck time is taken to represent photon scale observations.

A yoctosecond (ys) is a trillion-trillionth of a second. A top quark’s lifetime is  estimated at half a ys, bosons have lifetimes in ys and quark plasma light pulses are a few ys, so this timescale may represent basic matter observations.

A zeptosecond (zs) is a billion-trillionth of a second and the shortest time measured so far. Physicists estimate a few hundred zs for the two atoms of a hydrogen molecule to photoionize (Grundmann et al., 2020), so this timescale may represent atomic observations.

An attosecond (as) is a million-trillionth of a second. Ultrafast x-ray sources with as time resolution reveal bromine molecule vibronic structures (Kobayashi et al., 2020), so this timescale may represent molecular observations.

A femtosecond (fs) is a thousand-trillionth of a second or 0.000000000000001second. It is to a second as a second is to about 32 million years. High-energy fs scale X-rays that probe complex protein molecules in light harvesting bacteria respond to light in the order of one fs (Rathbone et al., 2018) p1433, so this timescale may represent macromolecule observations.

A picosecond (ps) is a trillionth of a second or a million-millionth of a second. Estimates of coherence times for cells range from 100fs to 1 ps (Rathbone et al., 2018) p1447, so this timescale may represent simple cell observations.

A nanosecond (ns) is a billionth of a second. A billion is a big number as it takes 95 years to count to a billion. Nanosecond pulsed electric fields elicit various responses in human and other cells (Koga et al., 2019), so this timescale may represent complex cell observations.

A microsecond (μs) is a millionth of a second. Bacteria existed three billion years ago but the leap to multi-cell life happened only 800 million years ago, when cells began to move ions across cell walls using ion channels that act in a few microseconds (Minor, 2010) p201, faster than any nerve, to let simple marine animals with no nerves move towards the algae they feed on (Smith et al., 2019). Microsecond pulsed electric fields are used in food production as mushrooms exposed to a ten μs electromagnetic burst can double their growth (Edwards, 2010), so this timescale may represent multicell observations.

A millisecond (ms) is a thousandth of a second. As animals grew larger, electrochemical nerves replaced chemical signals. Jellyfish nerves are all over their body but oysters have a neuroendocrine center (Liu et al., 2016), and the ten-thousand nerves of worms and slugs and the hundred-thousand nerves of crabs and insects form a chord. A honeybee with nearly a million nerves in a mm volume can fly, navigate and communicate where pollen is. These instinctive brains are fast, as an insect startle response can be less than 5ms (Sourakov, 2011) and a praying mantis can sense the vibrations of a bat attack and evade in 8ms (Triblehorn & Yager, 2005), so this timescale may represent instinctive brain observations.

A centisecond (cs) is a hundredth of a second. Frogs and reptiles evolved brains with tens of millions of nerves to process sense data from one nerve to the next. It takes at least a cs for a signal to travel a meter of nerve, so the response time for cerebellum-based one-center brains is in hundredths of a second. Tadpole startle responses occur within 1-2cs (Yamashita et al., 2000) and our blink responses take 3-4 cs, so this timescale may represent one-center brain observations.

A decisecond (ds) is a tenth of a second. Bird and small mammal brains are about ten times larger than same-size frogs or reptiles mainly due to midbrain and neocortex increases. Two-center mammal brains require thalamic coherence that takes two-tenths of a second to occur, so the rat reaction time of about 2-3ds is expected (Blokland, 1998). In 100m races, elite sprinters take 1.2-1.6 tenths of a second to start moving (Tønnessen et al., 2013) and responses under a tenth of a second are a false start, so this timescale may represent two-center brain observations.

The speed of thought seems to be about a second. Lower brain areas respond faster but brain-wide consciousness takes about half-a-second, so human thought will take longer. Our brains blink in hundredths of a second and change highway lanes in tenths of a second, but it takes longer to think. It takes about a second to mentally rotate an 80° shape (Harris et al., 2000) or a 3D shape (Shepard & Metzler, 1988) or do mental arithmetic (Han et al., 2016), so this timescale may represent three-center brain observations.

Table 6.1 (below) estimates observation timescales from a photon to a human, where the times increase with evolution. It’s hard to swat a fly that sees 250 frames a second to our 60 because to the fly, we move in slow motion. The ability to observe evolved as life did, so the difference in consciousness between us and a fly is one of scale not of kind. Working back from us to what came before suggests that consciousness was always there, just on a shorter time scale.

Figure 6.39 S. Roeselii responses

Consciousness benefits all life, as even single cells face choices that demand unified actions. The trumpet-shaped S. Roeselii is a one-cell animal that attaches to sea rocks to feed on passing rotifers. When subjected to an irritant, it tries various responses (Figure 6.39) in order, before finally detaching to relocate elsewhere (Dexter et al., 2019):

They do the simple things first, but if you keep stimulating, they ‘decide’ to try something else. S. roeselii has no brain, but there seems to be some mechanism that, in effect, lets it ‘change its mind’ once it feels like the irritation has gone on too long.

How does a cell with no brain make choices like that? The answer proposed is that cell-level observations allow cell-level choices. The evidence suggests that consciousness helped every step of evolution, from cells to our brains, by allowing more complex systems to act in a unified way.

When observing a movie, consciousness combines sight and sound into one experience. Bottom-up sensory competition would pit vision against sound, but we experience both and can choose to focus on either. If consciousness is a quantum entanglement, where it collapses will alter the observed result. Each brain area has a stronger electromagnetic field closer to it, so switching attention to the sound of a movie may be choosing a collapse close to where hearing occurs. In general, switching attention between brain functions, like feelings, thoughts or parts of the body, may be consciousness choosing a collapse location that maximizes the strength of that function. No other theory can explain attention, as there is no wiring switch in the brain to do what attention does.

Each of us is a walking, talking, thinking collection of 30 trillion cells that grew from a cell by a path discovered by evolution. We evolved from cells one step at a time and are conscious because countless less-conscious life forms found ways to become more so. Our consciousness must have evolved from what went before, whether we care to admit it or not.

   Evolution is going nowhere if only physical reality exists but if the physical universe is a virtual reality, it could exist to evolve consciousness.


Table 6.1 The Evolution of Consciousness


Time Scale



Planck time

̴10−44 seconds


Basic matter


10−24 seconds

Electrons, quarks, neutrinos



10−21 seconds

Periodic table atoms.



10−18 seconds

Oxygen, carbon dioxide …



10−15 seconds


Simple cells


10−12 seconds

Bacteria and organelles

Complex single cells


10−9 seconds

Paramecium, amoeba

Multicell life


10−6 seconds

Placozoa, algae, fungi

Instinctive brains


10−3 seconds

Fish, insects, crabs

One-center brains


10−2 seconds

Reptiles, amphibia

Two-center brains


10−1 seconds

Mammals, birds

Three-center brains