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I think that consciousness is a process literally on the edge between the quantum and classical worlds.
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What is Consciousness? A Conversation with Stuart Hameroff
Ed. Note: In the following dialogue, excerpted and edited from the Institute of Noetic Sciences’ teleseminar series “Essentials of Noetic Science,” IONS President Marilyn Mandala Schlitz talks with Stuart Hameroff, Professor Emeritus, Departments of Anesthesiology and Psychology, and Director for the Center for Consciousness Studies, both at the University of Arizona. The Center sponsors the annual Toward a Science of Consciousness conference, the largest and longest-running event of its kind in the world, which emphasizes rigorous and interdisciplinary approaches to the study of conscious awareness. Hameroff’s theories of the mechanisms of consciousness are starting to spark interest among both scientists and mystics.
Schlitz: By way of background, tell us how you came to have this deep and abiding fascination with consciousness?
Hameroff: I first got interested when I took a course in college on philosophy of mind. In medical school too, I was always intrigued by the brain-mind problem, how the brain produces conscious experience. I was drawn to neurology, psychiatry, and neurosurgery of the brain. I eventually wound up in anesthesiology—because I liked the lifestyle much better and because the fellow who would be my future chairman told me at the time that if I want to understand consciousness, I should figure out how anesthesia works because “we don’t know.” (Actually, we still don’t know, although I have some ideas about it.) The other reason was my almost-obsession with microtubules, the structures inside cells that form, do mitosis, pull the chromosomes apart, form the structure of cells, and regulate synapses. They seem to me to be like little computers. My future boss told me that an anesthetic depolymerizes these structures. So those were several reasons for me to choose anesthesiology to continue my interest in studying how the brain produces consciousness.
Schlitz: So what is consciousness? How do you answer that?
Hameroff: For me, it’s awareness. Sometimes we get caught up in the terms, and people use them to mean different things—group consciousness, self-consciousness. But I define consciousness as any awareness whatsoever, and that is the hard problem that needs to be explained. It’s still a mystery.
Schlitz: So how do you address the question of those places where we have experience but are not aware of it? For example, does inattentional blindness (not seeing something in plain sight) fit your definition?
Hameroff: I would say that is not consciousness. That is cognition; it is subconscious information. Our brains drive all kinds of behaviors and processes that are not conscious. I’ll give you one example. In anesthesiology, when surgeons perform surgery on the spine, we worry that they might do something to the spinal cord. So we monitor brain potentials. Electrophysiologists put electrodes on the brain, on the scalp, and stimulate the legs, the hands, or the eyes to get signals from the brain they can monitor to know whether the spinal cord is intact. And yet, the patients are completely unconscious. That’s an example of the brain doing something, processing information, without consciousness.
We do all kinds of things by autopilot, by habit. You know, when I’m driving to work, I frequently daydream about various things: what my case will be that day, what happened the previous night, a ball game, this or that. So, I’m sort of conscious. I’m not totally conscious of the road as long as everything is going smoothly, but if something happens, whether a car swerves or a horn honks or a light changes, then my consciousness immediately returns to driving. I’m actually driving on autopilot by and large, and I think most people have a similar experience. So behavior and cognition may or may not be conscious. I like the metaphor of an airplane pilot who can press a button to put the plane on autopilot and then go to the bathroom or take a nap or mess with the stewardess while the plane flies perfectly well as long as everything is routine. If something happens, the pilot immediately takes control. I think our brains work the same way. Consciousness can kind of wander around our brain, into memory, into fantasy, into various things, while our nonconscious brain continues driving or walking or even carrying on a conversation.
Schlitz: That brings up the question of the brain and consciousness. Are they equal or similar? How do you distinguish, or not, consciousness from the brain?
Hameroff: Well, the brain is the organ that manifests consciousness, at least our consciousness, and, you know, it depends on who you ask. If you ask most scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers, they would share the conventional wisdom that the brain is a computer of a hundred billion neurons acting like switches or bits in a silicon computer—without much significant difference—and that because of the setup, when it reaches a critical level of computation or complexity or some kind of magic threshold, consciousness emerges.
I don’t think that is the case at all. I think consciousness is actually fundamental and intrinsic to the universe, that it’s built into the universe. We need our brain to build this complex picture of consciousness—conscious images, conscious thought, and so forth—but the raw precursors of consciousness, the components of consciousness, are what philosophers call qualia. I think they are inherent in the universe, much like mass, spin, and charge are fundamental, irreducible components. Quantum processes in the brain connect our brain to these fundamental processes intrinsic to the universe.
Schlitz: That brings up the criticism that the brain can’t be a quantum processor because it’s too wet or too warm or whatever the criticism happens to be. What I’m hearing you say is that, in your view, the brain can be a signaling processor for a kind of quantum field. How does that happen then? How do you bring microtubules into this idea of the brain as a quantum processor?
Hameroff: First of all, what you said is exactly right. Most people do criticize the view that Roger Penrose and I came out with in 1995—that quantum computing and these microtubules inside brain neurons connect us to the fundamental level of the universe. They say, “Everybody knows that the brain is too warm, wet, and noisy to be a quantum computer.” They say this because of the problem technologists, engineers, and physicists face when trying to build quantum computers in a laboratory that will utilize these delicate quantum states. I should say a little bit about what that means: quantum superposition, where something can be in two states or places at the same time. When they try to do this with ions, individual atoms, or small particles, they run into the problem that any thermal vibration, any heat, will disrupt and destroy the quantum superposition and cause decoherence. And so to build a quantum computer in the laboratory and avoid the heat and the vibrations caused by the heat, they build them at absolute zero temperature.
But biology has had billions of years to evolve mechanisms to avoid decoherence, and, more importantly, it’s probable that biology has developed mechanisms to use the heat to drive coherence like a laser. A laser is a quantum device; it uses heat not to destroy quantum coherence but to pump it. And so we—and a lot of people—think that biology uses heat and ambient energy to drive quantum coherence, not destroy it.
Recent evidence in the last five or six years has come down pretty strongly on our side. For example, it’s been discovered that photosynthesis—the operation in all plants that give rise to our food, to everything we eat—utilizes quantum coherence. The photons from the sun are collected in one part of the cell and conveyed to another part of the cell to be made into chemical energy. This conductance of energy from point A to point B utilizes quantum coherence in ambient temperatures. If this happens in something as fundamental as photosynthesis, then it’s likely to be found throughout biology. And more importantly to our case, a fellow in Japan named Anirban Bandyopadhyay—it’s a hard name to say, but I think he’ll be quite famous within a few years—recently found that when vibrated at the right frequency, microtubules become quantum devices. And when that work comes out—Bandyopadhyay is presently writing it— it’s going to blow this field wide open.
Schlitz: So, the idea is that there is this broader quantum field, and the microtubules in our brains, in a sense, insulate the quantum process in the brain. How does that connect to a broader sense of consciousness as a field? How do you make the link there?
Hameroff: This is the kind of thing I’ve been talking about with Deepak Chopra. We’ve had a series of interviews online, radio interviews on his Sirius show, and blogs on the Huffington Post. He takes the Vedic perspective that consciousness is everywhere—consciousness is everything, and everything is consciousness. I wouldn’t go that far. I would say that protoconsciousness is everywhere—that there’s a field, if you will, or the very fine structure of the universe, which is everywhere and which is holographic, repeating at different scales, nonlocally. Consciousness is a fundamental property built into that. It’s not everything because there’s also mass, spin, or charge, which may not be consciousness. Still, intrinsic to the universe, everywhere you go, are the raw precursors of consciousness.
So you could call that a quantum field, or you could call it quantum gravity or space-time geometry—they’re all different descriptions of the same field or phenomenon or entity, which is everywhere. Wherever you go, there it is; that’s where the raw precursors of consciousness exist. I think the quantum processes in the microtubules access and connect our brains to this quantum field or quantum gravity at the fundamental level, and that’s what gives rise to experience and awareness. So I’m very sympathetic to the view that consciousness is in the quantum field, everywhere we go. But some fine-tuning of the idea is needed to make it compatible with modern physics.
Schlitz: We’ve been doing this research at the Institute of Noetic Sciences—both Edgar Mitchell’s work on quantum holography, which sounds very compatible with what you’re describing, and Dean Radin’s work, exploring the idea that if you wire somebody for their physiological response and then expose them to emotionally evocative pictures, you can actually see people respond to the emotional targets prior to seeing them. There’s a kind of presentiment that their body, their physiology, registers—in your definition it would be at the level below the threshold of awareness or consciousness. Somehow, people are perceiving information that their body knows, and it’s a two-second window. This study and this observation have now been replicated in various laboratories. In Amsterdam, Dick Bierman has been doing work. Daryl Bem . . .
Hameroff: . . . yes, Daryl Bem just wrote that meta-analysis.
Schlitz: That’s right. There’s something really interesting that’s happening in this field. So how do you bridge those kinds of empirical data that suggest, whether it’s consciousness or awareness, that our experience of the world may be able to anticipate our sensory encounter with that world? How does that then fit with your own theoretical framework?
Hameroff: It fits very well, actually. And in fact it goes back to Libet’s experiments in the late 1970s on patients having neurosurgery while awake under local anesthesia. He could access their brains and stimulate different parts of their bodies and get a verbal report, a subjective report, of their conscious experience. To make a long story short, he found that the brain requires several hundred milliseconds of time to reach a critical level for consciousness, but that the subjective experience was referred backward in time to the time of the evoked potential. Libet showed that the brain sends information—conscious information or conscious experience—backward in time. But people jumped all over him and got him to bend his story a bit. Roger Penrose was the first one I’m aware of to say, in his 1989 book, that this is perfectly allowable in quantum physics, because in quantum physics, when quantum collapse or quantum state reduction occurs, quantum information is sent both forward and backward in time. Aharonov has a dual vector theory which elaborates on that, and entanglement, which we know connects nonlocally, may require backward time effects. So backward time is perfectly permissible in quantum physics. To me it means that what’s going on in the preconscious brain is quantum, and when it reaches threshold, you have a moment of consciousness.
I want to add one more point because I think this is really, really interesting. Dick Bierman, a good friend of both of ours who did the experiments with Dean—beautiful work showing this backward time effect—has been saying for many years to look at the raw data in mainstream neuroscience. For example, he looked at Antonio Damasio’s data and said there are backward time effects there. The subjects respond before the signal (whatever it is, depending on the experiment) actually appears and occurs. When Bierman asked Damasio about it, Damasio said, “That’s crazy! That means there’s backward time, and that can’t be.” Bierman insisted Damasio look at his data, but Damasio (a mainstream neuroscientist) just wouldn’t go there.
More recently, Christof Koch’s graduate student Moran Cerf reported on some studies from UCLA in which seizure patients with electrodes implanted on their brain that mapped exactly where the seizure focus is were shown a variety of famous and not-famous faces. These depth electrodes find specific neurons that fire to a specific face. So they find, aha! the Halle Berry neuron, which only fires when Halle Berry is shown, or the Bill Clinton neuron, and so forth. I’ve heard this stuff for a while, and although there are problems with extrapolating it to tell us anything about consciousness, what is interesting was that when Moran Cerf showed the video of the pictures appearing and the video of the nerves firing on the same screen—the same time axis—the firing occurred about a half a second before the faces appeared. And he kept showing this over and over, and I’m sitting in the audience saying to myself, the nerve is firing before the face appears. I asked Cerf about it, and he said, we noticed that but it must be some statistical fluke. I said, you can’t just blow it off like that because this is important stuff. So I started bugging Christof about it, and to his credit he is trying to replicate Libet’s study. They are looking at this seriously.
I was talking to somebody today who said that a neuroscientist working with monkeys is seeing the exact same thing: the monkey reacts before the image appears, by the same several hundred milliseconds—up to two seconds—but even several hundred milliseconds is a long time in the brain. The point is that this backward-time effect is now appearing in mainstream neuroscience, and once people get over the fear of being ridiculed, I think everybody is going to come out and say, Oh yeah! I see that; everybody sees it. In the next few years we’re going to see this explode.
Schlitz: Clearly we’re living in the middle of some remarkable paradigm shift. A question I’d love to ask you is, Where is it going? What is the new story that is emerging? Here we are, living in a Newtonian world that is imbued with all kinds of quantum effects and the complexities of that—the nonsensical nature of quantum physics in a certain way. You and I both collaborate with Deepak Chopra, who is a scientist and a bridge to a spiritual tradition. What do you see as we’re looking forward? What you’ve just described is a fundamental shift in mainstream science around some ideas that are still pretty heretical. At the same time, a rapprochement is being built between mainstream science and the world’s religious and spiritual traditions. What do you sense is coming?
Hameroff: I think there’s a dichotomy—it’s like a political situation that is going two ways at the same time; maybe one will win over the other. I don’t know. For example, we have the “singularity” people talking about how bigger computers will become conscious because, after all, the brain is just a computer, and about transhumanism, and this and that about making ourselves better and evolving, blah, blah, blah. I think it’s a bunch of baloney, because I don’t think they have a clue what life is or what consciousness is. They’re assuming and asserting that it’s a matter of complex computation and that when they get enough bits operating in a complex enough pattern, consciousness will happen. That’s their assertion and assumption, and there’s absolutely no evidence for that. But there’s a lot of money behind that; there’s a lot of PR and hype going in that direction.
The alternative view is that we should get more in touch with our origin in terms of where we came from in the universe and what we actually are. I think that consciousness is a process literally on the edge between the quantum and classical worlds. You mentioned the Newtonian world and this hidden quantum world. You know, it says in the Kabbalah that there are two worlds and that consciousness dances on the edge between the two. I think that’s right on the mark. I’m hoping that the future will lead us to examine the nature of our existence more—what consciousness actually is in the universe.
A few moments ago you mentioned Edgar Mitchell and quantum holography. There’s a very interesting thing that came out of trying to measure gravity waves at the most fundamental level of the universe. They’ve been finding noise when they try to detect gravity—quantum gravity, gravity waves—and that the noise repeats at different scales, like every three or four orders of magnitude going up from the Planck scale—the tiniest scale repeating every three or four orders of magnitude with the same information. It’s called scale-free dynamics: the same information at multiple levels. They’ve seen it all the way up to very close to biological levels and within reach of microtubules, I would say. And from the other side, Marcus Raichle, a well-known neuroscientist, is talking about scale-free dynamics in the brain where you have holographic, fractal-like information. I think these are going to connect through the microtubules and other structures.
In the future we’re going to have a holographic universe, from the Planck scale up to consciousness and brain processes. Deepak and I have been talking about how, when you meditate or enter an altered state, you might be going deeper in terms of smaller scale, faster, more dense information into holographic levels of the universe. That’s very similar to what the Vedic mystics call locus—locations, astral projections, and astral planes. Something like that may be physically possible within cosmology and quantum physics in the not-too-distant future—at least an understanding or an explanation how that might occur.
Schlitz: This is supported empirically by some of our observations in the IONS lab, where we’re looking at some time-displacement notions with experienced nondual meditators who, from a phenomenological point of view, an experiential point of view, have this kind of deep wholeness that isn’t divided into temporal sequences that define most of the days for most normal people. There was a successful experiment looking at the ability of nondual meditators to anticipate at a physiological level those targets that would be exposed to them in the future. It supports what you just said about these kind of meditative traditions actually allowing a greater access to the whatever—let’s just call it the quantum field for lack of a better term—and it’s very exciting.