More than 20 years ago, a medical doctor and a theoretical physicist teamed up to answer the age-old question: what is consciousness? Their answer has tantalized many philosophers and scientists. Others have vehemently denounced it. But in the past few years, studies have provided some confirmation that they are on the right track.
Stuart Hameroff, MD, searched for the biological component of consciousness—how it physically works in the brain. Hameroff thinks that microtubules, which are structures found inside brain cells, are the main mechanisms related to consciousness.
But consciousness also has a component outside of the brain, according to his theory. That’s where physicist Sir Roger Penrose of Oxford University comes in. He tackled the quantum physics component of consciousness.
In a nutshell, consciousness is vibrations in the structure of the universe that our brain can decode.
Penrose has had an eminent career in physics: he worked with Stephen Hawking on black hole theories, was knighted for his service to science, and was a Nobel Prize candidate in 2008. He identified a mechanism at the subatomic level (where quantum physics operates) that he thinks could be the real source of consciousness.
Hameroff and Penrose put these two components together and called their theory Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch OR).
Put simply, their theory states that consciousness is rippling vibrations in the structure of the universe. These vibrations resonate from the microscale, where quantum physics operates, to the macroscale of the brain.
Microtubules in the brain act like quantum computers, processing these vibrations into a form we can use.
So, how does consciousness work within Orch OR theory and how has this theory endured for decades?
For a century, quantum physics has challenged scientists to explain consciousness.
Long before Orch OR, quantum physics was deeply connected to questions about consciousness. To illustrate this connection, we’ll describe the difference between an ordinary computer and a quantum computer.
In an ordinary computer, information exists in bits that can either be ones or zeros. In a quantum computer, information exists as qubits that we can think of as being both ones and zeros at the same time. This kind of paradox is common in quantum physics.
The qubits are waves, oscillating in this dual state of one-and-zeroness. Yet when measured or observed, the waves collapse and become fixed as either ones or zeros. The mechanism by which this collapse occurs is a mystery. It seems to have something to do with conscious observation, or consciousness.
“People thought that consciousness caused collapse of the wave function,” Hameroff said. “The problem with that is it puts consciousness outside the system, causing the collapse. Whereas Roger [Penrose] said, ‘No, the collapse occurs spontaneously and produces consciousness.’ He turned it around 180 degrees. So instead of consciousness causing collapse, collapse causes—or is—consciousness.”
Choices don’t create alternate realities—at least not for long.
Imagine you are choosing whether to eat an apple an orange. According to some theoretical physicists, when you choose to eat an apple, an alternate reality in which you ate the orange instead spins off and continues to exist separately.
Orch OR takes a different approach. When a fork occurs in which one possibility manifests, the other possibility does continue on in an alternate reality—but that alternate reality is unstable and collapses shortly thereafter. That’s how Penrose sees it.
This is important when contemplating the nature of our existence; whether or not these alternate realities continue to exist has implications for the concept that our creation was a random, chance event.
Our existence is a cosmic coincidence: how is it that all the conditions needed for conscious beings to exist are precisely right in the universe?
There are certain constants in the universe, like the mass of a proton, for example. If these numbers weren’t precisely what they are, we wouldn’t exist. The universe is finely tuned to exactly the right settings for the existence of us conscious beings.
Proponents of the multiple worlds theory say this is because gazillions of other worlds exist in which those settings aren’t right and conscious beings don’t exist in those worlds. In other words, among the multitude of alternate realities in which conscious beings don’t exist it is to be expected by chance that one teeny, tiny reality would exist that does contain consciousness.
This is called the Law of Truly Large Numbers by those who use probability to explain coincidences: in very large populations, very low probability events must happen.
Hameroff and Penrose take a different approach to the cosmic-scale coincidence of our existence.
Since they think alternate realities are unstable and collapse, the Law of Truly Large Numbers explanation also collapses. We are not one among gazillions of possible realities; we are the reality.
They think the Big Bang was not a one-time occurrence, but rather happened many times. Each time the cosmos was recreated, these constants changed slightly. They have become more and more refined and conducive to consciousness with each Bang.
Now that we’ve discussed our place in the universe and the existence of consciousness at the microscale, as the collapse of quantum waves, let’s bring it back to a scale we can more easily touch—to the brain.
Brain mappers are ‘barking up the wrong tree’ and wasting millions of dollars, says Hameroff.
Mainstream science generally reduces consciousness to the interaction of neurons in the brain. They treat the brain like an ordinary computer, with each neuron like a one-or-zero bit.
“Most people say, ‘Well the brain is 100 billion neurons and you get complex enough interactions among the neurons to get consciousness,’” Hameroff said. “But if you consider one cell, a neuron, as being in a simple on-or-off state, that’s an insult to the neuron. Because if you consider a single cell, like a paramecium, it’s one cell but it swims around, it finds food, it finds a mate, it can have sex, it can learn.”
“If a simple paramecium can be so clever, would a neuron be so stupid—just a yes or no, on or off?” he asked. “I think they don’t consider what’s going on inside the neuron.”
But there’s a lot of money bet on the brain-as-a-pile-of-neurons approach. “There’s a lot of momentum behind this brain mapping and because they have so much money they don’t want to recognize that they’re barking up the wrong tree,” Hameroff said.
He gave the example of a study in which scientists replicated all 302 neurons in the brain of a simple round worm called C. elegans. “The simulated worm just sits there. There’s no behavior, much less consciousness,” Hameroff said. “That should be a cautionary red flag for brain mappers.”
Hameroff considers what’s going on inside the neuron, in the microtubules.
Microtubules seem to ‘know’ a lot.
The complexity and importance of microtubules in neurons is well described by Jon Lieff, a Yale- and Harvard-educated medical doctor, on his website: “In neurons, microtubules respond instantly to mental events and constantly build and take down elaborate structures.”
He said that microtubules “orchestrate the rearrangement and sorting of the DNA during the extremely elaborate process of cell division. Complex arrangements of microtubules direct and pull all the elements of the division process through multiple phases. The structure for this process is considered the most complex machine ever discovered in nature.”
If microtubules mess up cell division even a little bit, cancer and maldevelopment can result. When Hameroff was in medical school learning about microtubules, he wondered how they could “know” what to do so precisely.
All of this, along with other characteristics of microtubules, led Hameroff to the hypothesis that they are the seat of consciousness in the brain. He described them as a “psycho-physical bridge.” Through quantum effects, they bring the consciousness (created at the microscale through the wave collapse) up to the level of the human body.
A study showed quantum vibrations do act on microtubules.
One of the major criticisms of Orch OR has been that these quantum effects can’t take place in warm, wet places like the brain. When scientists create quantum computers, they do so in controlled environments.
However, Dr. Anirban Bandyopadhyay at the National Institute of Material Sciences in Tsukuba, Japan has used nano-neuroscience to find quantum resonances in brain microtubules at warm temperatures. His studies on microtubules were published in 2013 in the journals Applied Physics Letters and Biosensors and Bioelectronics.
Hameroff and Penrose cited this research in one of many responses to criticisms they have published over the years. In 2014 they did a particularly thorough review of their theory and its criticisms, which was published in the journal Physics of Life Reviews.
Another major study in support of their theory was conducted by Roderick G. Eckenhoff, MD, at the University of Pennsylvania. He found that anesthetics work on microtubules to make a person unconscious.
Understanding how anesthetics knockout consciousness is a step toward understanding what consciousness is.
Mainstream science has not sufficiently explained how anesthetics work, Hameroff said. As an anesthesiologist, he is particularly interested in this aspect of consciousness.
It is commonly held that anesthetics work on proteins in the membranes of neurons, he said, but, “The problem is, some anesthetics will open them, some will block them, some will make them more active, and it’s chaotic; there’s no consistent effect. Some anesthetics don’t bind to all of these receptors. So there’s no unitary mechanism.”
He proposes that anesthetics inhibit the quantum processes in microtubules, and Eckenohoff’s study provides support for that hypothesis.
Orch OR could lead to treatments for Alzheimer’s, chronic pain, addiction, and more.
In 2013, Hameroff published a paper in the journal Brain Stimulation showing that ultrasound applied to the skull can improve a person’s mood. The idea is to literally send good vibrations into a person’s microtubules.
He is conducting research on mice for treating brain injury and addiction withdrawals and expects to start clinical studies on humans soon. Other applications could be treatments for chronic pain and Alzheimer’s, he said.
Enduring decades of criticism, Hameroff and Penrose have stood by their Orch OR theory. And now Hameroff feels it is paying off.
“There’s more and more evidence for quantum effects in biology, including microtubules,” he said. “Our critics have been refuted by and large, and also the notion of consciousness emerging from complex computation has failed to really do much.”
He said that mainstream neuroscientists are becoming more open to theories outside of the traditional view that consciousness is a product of firing neurons.
“They know a heck of a lot about the brain, but they can’t find consciousness.”
Stuart Hameroff will speak at Beyond the Brain, an annual conference held by the Scientific & Medical Network, Oct. 28 to 29 at Regent’s University London. Talks will be livestreamed on the conference website. The Scientific & Medical Network describes the conference: “Beyond the Brain is the world’s premier conference series exploring new research on whether and how consciousness and mind extend beyond the physical brain and body. This year’s event covers near-death experiences, the sense of being stared at, extra-sensory perception, technology and consciousness, magic and cosmic consciousness.”
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