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Death and conservation of information

  1. May 3, 2012 #1
    Hi, it's quite long time I didn't post so let me start by saying that I'm not religious, not even a deist. Let me also say that I'm just a layman intersted in science without any real knowledge of theoretical physics.
    I'm putting this question from a purely scientific standpoint, without any metaphysical intentions.

    Conservation of information is some kind of dogma in modern physics, it is frequently mentioned that the possibility of its violation in black holes fueled the big debate between Hawking and Leonard Suskind, finally settled in favour of Suskind and the confirmation of conservation of information.

    How does physics handle this principle when it comes to biological organisms?

    I guess there is no denying that our brains gather and store information. Before we die we have memories of our lives, we have learnt things, we can even have memories of dreams we have had during our life.

    When we die the atoms which formed our body get scrambled to a point where we have no hope of retrieving information from them, but if we understand information as purely positions and momentums of subatomic particles, we can say that the information of our bodies is still there, contained in all the constituent subatomic particles, even if we can not practically recover it.

    But, can we say the same about the information which was in our brains before we died? Do we really believe that the information of a dream of a person who lived 500 years ago is still contained in the subatomic particles which formed his/her brain at the time?

    Does information generated or stored by biological organisms, and the fact that these organisms die, challenge the principle of conservation of information?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 3, 2012 #2
    I'm not a theoretical physicist nor information theorist, so as a layman, you get another layman's thoughts from me. My interpretation of the meaning is that it is analogous to conservation of energy and mass and how a closed thermodynamic system can transfer energy and matter into and out of the system. Potential energy can be transferred into heat energy, so the original energy is not in the same state as it was after the system has changed, even though energy is conserved.

    The physical meaning of information involves the more general quantity of information entropy, rather than specific arrangements of bits of information, where information is characterized by how ordered/organized a system is, rather than what the specific (dog memories, etc.) information is stored. So when a biological organism dies, its information is not preserved in the same state necessarily, but rather the net transfer of information order is conserved in the system.
  4. May 5, 2012 #3
    I'm being completely serious when I say I love these kinds of questions. They are the kind that a working Physicist might never even think to ask ; )

    That being said there are couple of things I think I could add to help you understand this. The first being that you are asking about a part of science that simply is not entirely understood right now. We aren't exactly sure how the brain stores memories so first principles is what we must rely on here.

    Secondly, another part of the story from Susskind vs Hawking is that every piece of information in the universe can be coded as a series of bits like in your computer. It is those bits of information that seem to be conserved. Now, just like in thermodynamics where we admit the details are too complicated for us to ever accurately know EXACTLY we might never be able to track every little bit that makes up your memory of your childhood dog, but we can deduce that if every bit of information is conserved and you and your memories appear to be stored as bits then, yes, those memories, in some form, will never be lost from the universe.

    I think you actually made the most important statement in your OP.

    "[the information] get scrambled to a point where we have no hope of retrieving information from them"

    This is the REAL problem with trying to "find" these lost memories. As it appears now, just like in the example from thermodynamics, there may be no conceivable way for someone to ever reattach these bits to form the image of your dog, but that doesn't mean it isn't there still. GREAT QUESTION. Maybe you should consider becoming a physicist...you've got the thought process down ; )
  5. May 6, 2012 #4


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    They are the kind that a working physicist should have already asked them.

    The position of the atoms today (not only the atoms from his brain, but every atom on earth*) depend on the thoughts of any person in the middle age. There is no practical way to restore the thoughts (and due to quantum physics, not even a theoretical way), but the "conservation of information" does not say anything about the accessibility.

    *even more: Every particle within a sphere of 500 light years diameter
  6. Jul 8, 2012 #5
    I am neither a believer nor a nonbeliever when it comes to religious/spiritual issues. I am a psychologist who is stuck somewhere in the middle and trying to make sense out of many thousands of reports of near death experiences (NDEs) and after death communications (ADCs). And yes, I have seriously considered all of the alternative hypotheses--e.g wishful thinking, hallucinations, projection, brain malfunction, and so on. None of these hypotheses seem to work. I am at a loss to explain this this phenomenon. People who have these experiences are generally very convinced about their authenticity, regardless of their prior beliefs. In addition, there is a rather amazing consistency when it comes to the content of these experiences across a wide variety of people and cultures.

    If information is conserved in the form of bits, and if these bits of information are enough to conserve consciousness (?), then while we may not be able to retrieve that information in a physical way, is there any chance a person who experiences an NDE or ADC is in fact somehow retrieving it? The brain does seem to work in a bit sort of way in that all neural firing is "all or nothing" (i.e 1 or 0).

    I have considered the conservation of energy, and the biophysicist F.A. Popp and his work on "biophotons". Popp argues that biophotons originate in our DNA and "carry and transmit information" in all biological systems. While that seemed to be a promising lead, the idea that there might be such a thing as conservation of information is also intriguing.

    I have also wondered about the relationship between energy and information. Aren't they essentially the same thing? Doesn't energy tell something else what to do? Isn't a transfer of information always implied?

    I know, I may seem to be way "out there". I tried talking to Leon Lederman once (in his office at Fermilab) about biophotons, but he wanted nothing to do with it because the experiments I showed him were not conducted by physicists. I think, however, that some of our most important findings in the future will cross between traditional academic domains. The only thing I am sure of is that we humans don't know very much. I saw a t-shirt recently that read "98% chimp". I complimented the owner for her insight. Who knows? Does anyone out there know? Are we closing in with the discovery of the Higgs boson, or are we still just scratching the surface? Will we ever know?
  7. Jul 8, 2012 #6


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    DrAl, it is unfortunate that many of the basic laws of physics are being warped and used in areas where they simply don't apply. Conservation of information and energy have nothing to do with death and consciousness in the way described. Your brain is an organ that uses chemical reactions and electrical impulses to operate. Once it is dead these reactions and impulses simply stop.

    Picture it like this. Imagine your brain is like a race track where cars of different colors go by the stands where someone records the color of the car. It takes energy to send the cars along, but once they get around they stop in the pit until they are needed again. If no cars are going by that simply means that nothing is going on, not that information or energy has been lost.

    We know a lot about how the brain works, but we don't know an even greater amount, so it is no surprise that there are going to be things that science can't answer currently.
    Given that our brains all work in a very similar way, it comes as no surprise to me that these experiences are very similar. Also consider that there are many near-identical ideas of afterlives around the world, so multiple people from different areas believing in different things may still have very similar experiences.

    There are no ways of retrieving information other than "physical" ways according to science. There has never been a reputable experiment or test that has provided evidence of these events being anything more than a natural occurrence due to brain injury, or a delusion. Furthermore, there have been many people caught providing ADC's that end up being frauds. The evidence is simply against it being something real.

    A photon is the quantum of the electromagnetic field, specifically it is what an EM wave interacts with matter through. It is the "particle of light". I have no idea what a "biophoton" is, and unless you have a reputable reference then we cannot discuss it here on PF per the rules.

    No. Energy is, in it's simplest definition, an indirectly observed quantity that measures the ability for one system to perform work on another. Information is harder to define, as the wiki article explains: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information

    Personally I believe that we know a phenomenal amount of information. Our DNA may be extremely similar to a chimp, but our DNA is not the only thing that makes us who we are. Our experiences in life matter a great deal, as any set of identical twins can tell you. They are not identical people even though they have the same DNA.

    Lastly, just be aware that most of your post is against PF rules and could cause this thread to be locked. PF is here to teach people mainstream science, not delve into pseudoscience or new theories that haven't been accepted yet. If you would like to continue to be a member, and I hope you do, then please read the rules page to ensure that you run into no more problems when posting.

    I hope I have helped, and if you would like answers to specific questions regarding the physics of something that isn't against the rules then feel free to make a thread in one of the subforums.
  8. Jul 8, 2012 #7
    Good question; science has no complete answers yet.

    If I forget someone's name, is that information 'lost'?? If I fall into a black hole, will you
    be able to retrieve my mother's name from my memory? Why do repeated measurements
    of a radioactive nucleus prevent it from decaying? [quantum zeno effect]. Somehow quantum information is tied to the behavior of matter but nobody knows the exact link.

    Referring to the original question, I'm pretty sure nobody even knows what consciousness means.
  9. Jul 9, 2012 #8


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    Maybe none of these (and not even the combination?) can provide a full description today. However, they are still the best hypotheses.

    But I am sure that some experts of the concerned fields are involved.

    There is a big difference between "we do not know everything" and "we know nothing". Most successful theories of the past are still good approximations.
    Newton was wrong. But every engineer uses his formulas, as they are a good approximation in everyday life.

    Probably not (but it may be), but black holes are a bit special...
  10. Jul 9, 2012 #9


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    Sorry guys if I'm telling something already said,but your posts are just too long to read!

    The information mentioned in physics is not like the information stored in our brains.
    Its about the state of the system.

    Imagine we have a law in physics which says:
    If we are in state A
    If x happens go to B
    If y happens go to C
    And from B
    If z happens go to D
    If w happens go to E
    and from C
    If v happens go to F
    if m happens go to G

    Now imagine we measure the system to be in state E
    We know that the only way is that at a previous time,the system was at state B and then w has happened.And we know before that,the system should have been at the state A and x has happened.So we could retrieve the history of the system.For this system,the information is conserved

    But imagine another set of laws
    If we are in state A
    if x happens go to B
    if y happens go to C
    And from B
    if z happens go to D
    And from C
    if w happens go to D

    Now imagine we measure the system to be at state D
    We can't tell whether the system was at state B and z has happened or it was at state C and w has happened,so we can't track the system's history to the beginning and we say some of the information of the system is lost
  11. Jul 9, 2012 #10
    There is plenty on "FA Popp" (a biophysicist) on Wikipedia, along with a long list of his mainstream journal publications. For those of you who think that nobody knows what consciousness is, and that we should therefore outright reject the concept, take a look at Steve Chalmers (a philosopher) on Wikipedia.
    I didn't mind the hint of arrogance from DraKKith when he was describing models physicists use to decribe the world. After all, I am not a physicist. I was accepted to this site because I correctly named the largest planet in out solar system! I did mind DraKKith's arrogance when lecturing me about subjects that I am much more familiar with than he/she is. That was hard to take.
    Yes, it is all about best hypotheses. That kind judgement however requires that one be fully informed. Being a good physicist doesn't automatically make you a good biophysicist, philosopher, or psychologist. I firmly believe that all of these different levels of analysis are of value.
    Anyway, I am out of here. I felt compelled to say the above. Thanks for listening. Bye. Good luck.
  12. Jul 9, 2012 #11


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    I think your attitude here is totally misplaced and uncalled for. I don't see that Drakith was in the least arrogant, he was simply trying to be helpful by giving you the physics point of view.
  13. Jul 9, 2012 #12
    What does the human stored information have to do with nuclear physics? Once we die the mechanism which controlls the molecular and cranial nerve operations in our brain is no longer fueled and every form of information structure starts to degenerate...
  14. Jul 9, 2012 #13
    I appreciate Drakkith giving me the physics point of view. He was even nice enough to invite me back. All I am saying is that there are other points of view that are based upon empirical findings in other fields of science that I feel are equally worthy of serious consideration. The arrogance I perceive comes from the above statements that have more to do with knee jerk beliefs about topics (e.g. now neuroscience) that fall outside of the purview of physics.

    I believe that it all has to do with different levels of analysis. Knowing the properties of hydrogen and oxygen, for example, does not help in predicting the properties of water.

    I understand now that this string is not the place to bring up other points of view, and while I personally experienced this as arrogance, I also undertand that this is just not the right place to discuss topics in a more interdisciplinary way. This is just about physics. Be careful though, and do not wander too far off topic.

    BTW, its David Chalmers, not Steve
  15. Jul 9, 2012 #14


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    The only issue I had was with the After Death Communication. That's just nonsense. It has nothing to do with any discipline at all and isn't based on empirical data. And neuroscience is well within the bounds of science, and people are welcome to discuss it here on PF.
  16. Jul 10, 2012 #15


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    Physics is a bit special as it is the most fundamental natural science. With powerful supercomputers, you can reduce every chemical reaction to physics - chemistry is just applied physics. And the usual view is that this is true for all processes in nature: everything consists of objects which can be described by physics. Actually, you can just define physics as science of everything fundamental, in this case the statement is trivial.

    In this way, it is perfectly valid to view a human as extremely complex physical object. Luckily, there are laws which are independent of the complexity: A human body follows the laws of thermodynamics, it follows energy conservation and so on.
    A "biophoton" should have some description in physics. Is it composed of known particles? If it is a new particle, how does it react with existing particles? Are there any experiments showing this?
    The same applies to all the other claims of "supernatural" things.

    Knowing the properties of hydrogen and oxygen atoms and their components does.
  17. Jul 10, 2012 #16
    Will quantum mechanics ever help explain the influence of a social group on an individual's behavior (i.e. social psychology)? I would be very surprised if you believed that. That would amount to the most reductionistic world/scientific view I have ever heard.

    For those of you who think that biophotons sound like total BS, PLEASE take a look at FA Popp (Wikipedia is the easiest).

    In fact, "after death communications", or ADCs, are now being studied in university departments. For example, brain studies are in progress at the University of Virginia. Psychotherapeutic outcome studies related to ADC experiences are being addressed at Siena College in New York, and the Univerity of North Texas. Numerous surveys and books have been written on the topic from people with doctorates in various fields (primarily MDs who have knowledge of brain function and who have patients who routinely report these kinds of experiences). So, while it may seem from some distance that ADC must be some sort of nonsense, you need to know that there are many other reputable scientists who are taking the issue very seriously.

    By the way, the term "ADC" is the common way people refer to these experiences. The use of the term does not imply that the user believes that these experiences must be "spiritually real". It simply describes a very large set of experiences (many millions). In fact, I believe that it may be true that our brains are just wired that way. But, even if that is true, the psychotherapeutic benefits will change psychotherapy as we know it. To heal people with grief and trauma (PTSD), all we would have to do is tap into that part of the brain. In fact, we seem to now have a way to do that in a reliable way.

    The "Big Bang" initially sounded like nonsense, and so did Einstein's theories of relativity, and so on, and so on, and so on.

    I appreciate Kuhn's insights in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Its all about how scientists are prone to defend their current paradigm (i.e. world view), and how they tend ignore empirical anomalies that challege the prevailing and consensual scientific view. Bottom line is that scientists are not quite as objective as most people imagine. We get personally attached to our beliefs, and tend to be defensive about our list of publications, and our life's work. Those who are willing to stick their neck out seem to be the ones who make a difference in the long run. Sometimes its a dead end, sometimes it isn't. Spending one's professional life deducing predictions from well accepted theories has its place, but we need pioneers too.

    Anyway, I keep telling myself that I am done with this, but for some dumb reason, I keep coming back. It even messed up my sleep last night. Feel free to delete me off of this string, and put me out of my misery.
  18. Jul 10, 2012 #17


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