The Wikipedia states “The basic mechanism by which the brain produces complex phenomena such as consciousness and intelligence are still poorly understood.” That may be true, but with the continuing discoveries of the quantum world and its unveiling encroachment into our macro world, there are some very intriguing, perhaps enlightening, explanations surfacing today. I would like to explore one cutting edge theory that resonates in my soul and speaks truth to me.
Dr. Stuart Hameroff of the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona is an anesthesiologist and expert in the field of consciousness. He believes consciousness is tied to the most basic level of reality, the level of quantum mechanics. As Hameroff expresses it on his web site, “At its base, the universe follows the seemingly bizarre and paradoxical laws of quantum mechanics, with particles being in multiple places simultaneously, connected over distance, and with time not existing. But the ‘classical’ world we perceive is definite, with a flow of time. The boundary or edge between the quantum and classical worlds somehow involves consciousness.” If, as some scientists think, consciousness is just a product of material evolution, how can a “biological computer”, i.e., the brain alone, account for feelings, awareness, and attributes such as love, beauty, values, and creativity; what the philosophers call ‘qualia’ and Plato called the transcendent reality. Dr. Hameroff believes that these ‘qualia’ are quantum fluctuations in space-time geometry. Because space-time geometry is holographic, when we perform quantum processes in our brain, we gain access to the holographic ‘qualia’ of the quantum world. These are very up-to-date scientific terms for something basically expressed by Plato 2300 years ago. But rather than just a philosophical discourse, solid science is providing the “how” to Plato’s insights. Dr. Hameroff also believes that the ‘Universal Consciousness’ is linked to our individual consciousness at the quantum level. He calls his theory “Quantum Consciousness.”
Deepak Chopra hypothesizes that the qualities and tendencies of consciousness are the same as the tendencies and qualities of the quantum world: non-locality*,
*Non-locality: “an instantaneous influence or communication without any exchange of signals through space-time; an unbroken wholeness or nonseparability that transcends space-time (Amit Goswami, PhD., Physics of the Soul)
no physical properties and virtuality (Deepak Chopra: Will the ‘God Particle’ replace God? Posted on the Internet June 25, 2010). Dr. Chopra brings a level of spirituality to the question of consciousness when he says “the maker must be impersonal, intelligent, universal, invisible, yet manifest in the visible world. The only viable candidate is consciousness.” This theory of creation, that consciousness is the basic fabric of the universe, the common denominator, the creative force, is not really all that new, but now this belief is being supported by scientific possibility. And if true, it would mean that the world of quantum mechanics is conscious.
Dr. Chopra is intrigued by the theories of Dr. Roger Penrose, a physicist at Oxford University, and Dr. Hameroff. Their theories link the universal consciousness to individual consciousness. “Instead of the conventional view that consciousness emerges from complex computations among brain neurons, they (Penrose and Hameroff) propose that consciousness involves sequences of quantum computation in microtubules inside brain neurons, not between them in the dendrites and synapses.” In other words, while some may see consciousness as a product of biological evolution, Penrose and Hameroff propose that consciousness occurs because of quantum processes in the brain that tap into the universal consciousness. On March 27, 2010 Dr. Chopra interviewed Dr. Hameroff for the Washington Post. The topic was “Is Consciousness Connected to the Fine Structure of the Universe?” The interview can be found on the internet under “Quantum Consciousness.” We have already touched on what consciousness may be and will now concentrate on the where and how of consciousness, much of which is delineated in this interview.
So we know that Penrose and Hameroff hypothesize that consciousness is a quantum process within brain neurons and that this process links individual consciousness to universal consciousness. To understand their theory of where consciousness resides in the brain, you must understand microtubules. For clarity’s sake I will quote extensively from the interview with Dr. Hameroff. In answer to the question, what are microtubules, Dr. Hameroff replied, “Microtubules are hollow cylinders made up of single peanut-shaped proteins called tubulin which self-assemble to form the architecture and geometry of the cell…Once cells are formed, microtubules seem to process information and organize activities.” It wasn’t until the 1970’s that scientists realized that microtubules were in neurons and that they were almost crystalline in appearance. To Dr. Hameroff, they resembled a computer switching network. “If that were true, that would mean there was a lot of information processing going on inside cells. Most people think about the brain as 100 billion neurons, with each synapse among those neurons switching as a bit in milliseconds. Each neuron is a switch, a bit, a 1 or a 0. But if you looked inside each neuron, you see this faster, denser level of microtubule information processing.”
Conventional opinion is that each neuron is a simple on-off switch. But Hameroff disagrees. He gives the example of a single-celled organism, the Paramecium. “They swim around, they find food, they find mates, they have sex, they learn, they can escape from capillary tubes faster each time. They don’t have neurons, they don’t have synapses, they do it all with their microtubules. So, if they can do it, then a neuron should be able to use its microtubules intelligently also.” But how does this get us closer to consciousness? Just because the brain/neurons/microtubules can compute more information faster, that doesn’t translate on its own to “consciousness”, self-awareness. It wasn’t until Dr. Hameroff read the work of Oxford University physicist Sir Roger Penrose (thesis advisor to Steven Hawking) that he saw the possible connection between the microtubules and consciousness. Dr. Penrose proposed that when the quantum energy wave that is full of potential and is everywhere, collapses into a particle (Dr. Penrose calls it objective reduction or OR), that it becomes the mechanism for consciousness. As Dr. Hameroff explained it: “He needed a quantum computer in the brain. I thought microtubules. He agreed. We developed our theory in which synaptic inputs ‘orchestrate’ quantum computing in microtubules which terminates by Penrose’ OR, hence ‘Orch OR’ (orchestrated objective reduction). It’s been heavily criticized but never refuted.” This process in the microtubules of brain neurons that connects us to the quantum world, gives us access to ‘qualia’ (attributes) like love, values, beauty, free will, and creativity. It gives us consciousness.
It might be necessary at this point to review some definitions of quantum terms. A quantum superposition refers to the very, very small world of quantum particles which act as both waves and particles. They do not exist in time and they occupy all space. They are everywhere at once. It is only when the wave function collapses that the wave turns into a particle and is in one place at one time. A theory devised by physicist Niels Bohr, referred to as the Copenhagen interpretation, believes that it is necessary for there to be an observer in order for the wave to collapse into a particle. In other words, consciousness causes the collapse. This puts consciousness outside of the material world, and makes it the reason why the world exists. Many scientists who favor the idea of consciousness being the result of the material world do not accept the Copenhagen interpretation. But believing in the Copenhagen interpretation, the team of Penrose and Hameroff postulate that the state of being everywhere at once is observed (collapsed) by a perhaps cosmic mind which depending upon on how the observation occurs, produces either just matter, or matter with mind. And if a special kind of reduction (Penrose’s Orchestrated objective reduction) takes place, there will be mind with consciousness. Penrose and Hameroff define consciousness as a process precisely on the edge between the micro-quantum and the macro-classical world..
Ultimately, both Dr. Chopra and the Penrose/Hameroff team are suggesting that there is an underlying something that produces matter on the one hand and consciousness or mind on the other. Dr. Hameroff explains: “If you look at the underlying being as the quantum superposition state connected to fundamental space-time geometry, then depending on how the system collapses, you’ll either get strictly matter, or you’ll get matter along with mind-with a moment of consciousness if it happens by Penrose objective reduction (OR). So, our approach is very consistent with this underlying ground of being in the context of neutral-monism in the West, or non-duality in the East (from the Interview).” (from the Hameroff web site).”
Penrose’s idea is further explained by Hameroff in his interview with Dr. Chopra: “consider what the universe is made of, smaller than atoms…If you go down in scale, much, much smaller than atoms, below the level of matter, as things get smaller and smaller, everything would be sort of smooth and featureless, until 25 orders of magnitude smaller than atoms, you get to the very bottom level called the Planck scale, where there’s some kind of patterns, coarseness, geometry, information.” “We don’t really know what to call it, at this most basic level of quantum gravity. But somehow, Planck scale geometry gives rise to irreducible features in physics, like mass, spin, and charge. And also qualia, we think. The precursors of consciousness, or consciousness itself, may actually be embedded in Planck scale geometry, just like spin, mass, and charge that gives rise to the material world.” In other words, the essential features of consciousness are built into the universe at its most basic level, and repeat in scale holographically, so qualia become accessible to quantum biology in the brain.
In summary, what is consciousness? Where is it? How does it come about? These questions, asked at the start of this paper, have been answered through the definitions of consciousness discussed here. What is it? “Consciousness is the primary reality.” It is embedded at the most basic level of existence. Consciousness also has been defined as a “process on the edge between the micro-quantum and the macro-classical worlds.” So consciousness is a quantum process, and that is the how of it. The where is also discovered in a definition when Penrose and Hameroff say that consciousness “is a sequence of quantum computation in microtubules inside brain neurons.” So individual consciousness springs from the universal consciousness found at the most basic level of reality, the quantum world. And we access it through quantum processes that occur in the Microtubules of brain neurons. I think Plato would be proud.
We will let Dr. Chopra have the last thoughts. Does quantum physics demonstrate that “the all-inclusive consciousness is the self-interacting dynamic of observer, observed and process of observation?” Does it give “rise to all diversity and phenomenon while it remains unaffected by it?” Science is worth studying, for it explains us. It answers our most intimate questions and may show us that “the tangible springs from the intangible, and that intangible is what we are and what we call God.” Something to think about.
Linda Storsteen, M.S., M.A.
Edited by Karen Storsteen, M.S., M.A.
August 9, 2010
Copyright©2010 Linda and Karen Storsteen
Contrary to popular belief, Rene Descartes did not say "I think, therefore I am." To paraphrase, what he actually said was something like, “after eliminating everything else that seems to be, I can not doubt that I am doubting.” He could not deny that he was self-aware; he could not deny that he was conscious. But what is consciousness? Where does it come from? How do we “get” it?