Mind4Children Research Group

International Mind-Brain and Consciousness Research Group


The problem of the origin of consciousness has been for several decades a frontier issue that requires a multidisciplinary approach. Everywhere in the world, neuroscientists, developmental psychologists and biologists, embryologists, geneticists, molecular biologists and evolutionary biologists, neurophysiologists and neuropsychiatrists, mathematicians and quantum physicists, collaborate to this fascinating quest. If we assume individual consciousness as an emergent property of the brain, developmental psychology represents the area in which the different approaches should converge to better define a scientifically based research path.

Defining consciousness, considering the possibility of different levels of consciousness, differentiating it from self-awareness, bringing these concepts back into a perspective of neurophysiological evolution from birth to adulthood, are open problems that have recently attracted scientists from different disciplines: from neuroscience to developmental biology, from genetics to epigenetics, from developmental psychology to philosophy. More recently, also quantum physicists have begun to contribute to reflection and research on the nature of consciousness and in particular on the relationships between mental events and the biochemical and bioelectrical actions of the brain.
Two enigmatic aspects of the mind-brain relationship have particularly attracted the attention of physicists. The first is the very low energy consumption by the brain despite the enormous ability to process information and store it in memory. A second aspect consists in having observed that some mental processes, in particular unconscious ones, can solve “non-computational problems”. In other words, the human brain does not work like a Turing machine, that is, it cannot be assimilated to a common computer – like the ones we know – even of extraordinary and unimaginable power and speed. These two aspects, for different and complementary reasons, lead us to believe that some phenomena of quantum physics must play a fundamental role in the ultrastructure of the neuronal network of the brain. Indeed, current models for the functioning of both individual neurons and neural networks cannot explain the aforementioned puzzles.
There are many supporters of this proposal. Among others, we can remember the Nobel Prize in Neurophysiology John Eccles and the Nobel Prize in Physics Roger Penrose. Penrose’s most recent arguments rule out the mind/psyche image as extraordinarily complex chemical-electrical wiring software in the brain that would represent the hardware of a biological computer. Indeed, if this picture were true, the non-computational actions of the mind could not exist. The ultrastructure of the neuronal network is identified by Penrose and Hameroff with the network of neuronal cytoskeletons, the elements of which are the so-called microtubules, hollow homopolymers of the tubulin protein. The microtubule network can host interesting quantum phenomena (in the absence of chemical reactions) that can link non-material mental processes with the functioning of the material brain, thus suggesting the existence of new territories to explore to deepen our understanding of the “mystery” of consciousness and, in particular, of its progressive construction in the child.
The growing awareness of the fundamental importance of the “first 1000 days” and, in particular, of the deep and complex interactions and communications between mother and fetus, should lead researchers to focus on this fundamental period of life for a better definition of the environmental factors that can favor or disturb the early development of neuronal networks. For this purpose, we have decided to set up an interdisciplinary research group inviting to join it national and international experts in the fields of development biology, human and comparative embryology, epigenetics of neurodevelopment, developmental psychology, neuroscience and, finally, physics applied to the study of consciousness.