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FEATURE

An Exploration of
Quantum Consciousness
with Stuart Hameroff, MD
by Tom Huston with Joel Pitney

Finding Spirit Over the past thirty-five years,


the mysterious connection between
quantum physics and human conscious-
ness has steadily become a central tenet
of East-meets-West spirituality. Somehow,
people have managed to find an irresist-

in the Fabric of
ibly compelling relationship between the
intangible world of subatomic particles and
the immaterial realms of consciousness and

Space & Time


spirit. It began with Fritjof Capra’s Tao of
Physics in 1975, shifted into high gear with
Gary Zukav’s Dancing Wu Li Masters in 1979,
and fired up the afterburners throughout
the eighties and nineties—with the help
of Deepak Chopra—until the idea became
nearly impossible to avoid. Upon entering
a Seattle bookstore one fateful afternoon in
the summer of 1997, I encountered no fewer
than three publications exploring the rela-
tionship between mind and matter through
the lens of quantum physics: The Self-Aware

44 EnlightenNext magazine
Finding Spirit in the Fabric of Space & Time

What Are Microtubules?


Universe by Amit Goswami, The Spiritual Uni- But that was before we met Stuart
verse by Fred Alan Wolf, and Issue 11 of this Hameroff. Although he holds the title of
In Hameroff and
magazine, whose cover posed the question Professor Emeritus of Anesthesiology and
Penrose’s model, neuronal
“Can Science Enlighten Us?” Psychology at the University of Arizona connections are only
I eagerly bought the two books, but after and spends much of his time in surgery at part of the story. Within
skimming through the magazine, I decided the University of Arizona Medical Center, each neuron, there
to leave it on the rack. Already a firm Hameroff is best known for his work in In the standard model are hundreds of tiny
of brain functioning, cylindrical polymers
believer in the physics-equals-mysticism the arena of consciousness studies. In
consciousness arises called microtubules.
idea, I found EnlightenNext’s special brand of 1994, he founded the Toward a Science of
through 100 billion single-
playful skepticism off-putting. Why did they Consciousness conference series, bring- celled organisms known
doubt, when the evidence was so clear? It ing together the world’s leading experts on as neurons transmitting
Stuart Hameroff, MD, electrochemical signals
was obvious that the deeper dimensions of consciousness every two years in Tucson,
is an anesthesiologist and to each other.
consciousness and the deeper dimensions of Arizona,1 to explore various shades of
consciousness researcher
matter converged in the mysterious realm of something called the “hard problem”— at the University of Arizona.
quantum physics. Right? how and why subjective mind appears to
Not necessarily. I soon realized that arise from objective matter. And for nearly
just because the nature of consciousness twenty years, Hameroff has collaborated mysticism.” And I’m sure others will find
is mysterious and the nature of quantum with Oxford mathematical physicist Sir his arguments equally illuminating.
physics is also mysterious, it doesn’t mean Roger Penrose to develop (and defend) That said, consider yourself warned:
that both mysteries are ultimately the same a quantum-physics-based theory of The interview that follows is not an easy
thing. By the time the enormously popular consciousness that is impressive, original, read. In fact, it may require more than
film What the Bleep Do We Know!? hit the and ambitious, to say the least. The theory one careful reading before the different
scene in 2004, launching the physics- is a fusion of Hameroff’s and Penrose’s threads that Hameroff lays out begin to
and-consciousness idea into a whole new distinctly different areas of expertise: stitch themselves together in your mind.
quantum orbital, I was working as an editor Hameroff’s studies of tiny structures called But the payoff is worth the effort. I’m
for EnlightenNext and took it upon myself “microtubules” within human brain cells not sure if I agree with all of Hameroff’s
to review the movie with a newfound appre- and Penrose’s work on the relationship conclusions—and he himself insists
ciation of the many subtleties involved. between quantum physics, gravity, and the that his theory has yet to be proven—
As it turned out, as far as I and my fellow geometry of space and time. In some sense, but I do know that his arguments for a Zooming in on a single
editors were concerned, the supposedly their work could be considered a “grand relationship between quantum physics microtubule, one sees
perfect marriage between quantum physics unified theory” of quantum physics and millions of protein
and consciousness are among the most subunits called tubulin
and consciousness was probably little more consciousness—a theory somewhat more persuasive I’ve ever heard. arranged in complex
than wishful New Age thinking. And when sophisticated than anything you’re likely molecular lattices.
it came to the more serious scientific sug- to find in the spiritual section of your local
1
 he next Toward a Science of Consciousness
T
Conference is happening April 13–17, 2010
gestions that physics had something to say bookstore. After interviewing Hameroff, I (see consciousness.arizona.edu for details).
about consciousness, we generally found found myself questioning my previous dis-  ote: For a more technical, extended edit of this
N
the arguments less than persuasive. missal of what I’ve come to call “quantum interview, visit enlightennext.org/hameroff46.

M
Within a single neuron,
Studying mostly science and math, I took a course called the combined micro-
Philosophy of Mind and was intrigued by the problem of
YSTERY OF THE tubule activity equals
potentially 1,000 trillion
explaining how conscious experience arises from the pinkish- Every nanosecond, tubulin
MICROTUBULES gray meat we call the brain. And I remained interested
operations per second in
proteins can flex between
computing power. Con-
through medical school, being drawn toward fields having to sciousness arises through two shapes—“open”
these countless quantum or “closed”— acting as
ENLIGHTENNEXT: You’re best known as one of the world’s do with consciousness—psychiatry, neurology, neurosurgery.
computations amplifying, microscopic computers
leading proponents of a quantum-physics-based theory of the But one day, while doing research in a cancer lab in the early driven by quantum-
or magnifying, the latent
mind. How did you first become interested in the mystery of 1970s, I was looking at cells dividing under a microscope, field of conscious aware- mechanical processes.
consciousness? observing how the DNA-containing chromosomes were sepa- ness embedded in the
rated and pulled apart into perfectly equal mirror images of fabric of spacetime itself.

STUART HAMEROFF: I first got interested in consciousness each other. These tiny strands called microtubules and these
while taking a philosophy course in college in the late 1960s. little machines called centrioles, which were composed of

46 EnlightenNext magazine Spring/Summer 2010 47


Finding Spirit in the Fabric of Space & Time

microtubules, would pull the chromosomes apart in an elegant you see hundreds of microtubules composed of something
dance that had to be perfect, because if they divided unequally, like one hundred million tubulin protein subunits. You
abnormal cancer cells could result. could say that neurons are actually made of microtubules.
For some reason, I became fixated on how these little
molecular machines knew exactly what to do. I wondered how EN: Interesting! Most people think that consciousness arises
they were organized and guided, and whether there might be from activity between brain cells, or neurons, but you’re
some intelligence, if not consciousness, at that level. Around saying, well, no, it may actually be these extraordinarily
the same time, it was discovered that these microtubules tiny structures within neurons that provide the real physical
existed in all cells—especially neurons. Brain neurons are just basis for consciousness.
full of them. So it occurred to me that microtubules, which
seemed to display some kind of intelligence or consciousness SH: Yes, exactly. Although I should add that a couple of
in cell division, might have something to do with conscious- other things helped lead me in this direction. The first was
ness in the brain. that I looked at single-celled organisms like paramecia.
I was in medical school in Philadelphia then, and after I A paramecium is one cell and therefore has no neurons,
graduated I decided to take a clinical internship in Tucson, because those are also single cells. But it swims around,
Arizona, to figure out what I wanted to do next. I was leaning finds food, avoids obstacles and predators, finds a mate,
toward neurology, but then I met the chairman of anesthesiol- has sex, and can learn. It seems to have some intelligence.
ogy at the new University of Arizona medical school hospital. Not necessarily consciousness, but it has cognitive func-
He told me that if I really wanted to understand consciousness, tions—“cognition” meaning sensory processing, control of
I should figure out how anesthesia works, because anesthesia behavior, and so forth. It has some intelligence and yet it
selectively erases consciousness while sparing other brain has no neurons. It does, however, have microtubules, which
functions. He showed me a paper that a colleague of his had
written in 1968, suggesting that if you apply the gases used
in anesthesia to microtubules, they depolymerize—they
suggested to me that the paramecium might use its micro-
tubules to organize its behavior and cognition.
The second thing was that around the time I learned
The Cat Is Dead. The Cat Is Alive.
fall apart. So there was a theory that anesthesia worked by about microtubules, I also began to discover comput- Erwin Schrödinger’s Quantum Paradox
deconstructing brain microtubules. It turns out, fortunately, ers, and I started reading about how computer switching
that that’s not true. You need about five times the amount matrices, lattices, and networks worked. As I looked more
According to the Copenhagen interpre- a living cat—to the governing principles of with the cat’s fate tied directly to the state
of anesthesia for microtubule depolymerization than you closely at the structure of microtubules, consisting of a
tation of quantum physics, elementary quantum mechanics by linking its fate to of the particle, does that mean that the
need to cause somebody to lose consciousness. But it showed complex lattice of tubulin proteins that can switch rapidly
particles remain in indeterminate states the unpredictable activity of a subatomic cat too is both dead and alive at the very
that anesthetics do affect microtubules, which further sug- between being open or closed—oscillating in the nanosec- of “superposition”—existing in multiple particle. He imagined the cat inside a same time?
gested that these things might have something to do with ond range—it occurred to me that microtubules might be places simultaneously—until they are sealed box along with an unopened bottle Yep, you heard that right. If the rules
consciousness. acting as molecular-scale computers, the intelligence system measured by a human observer. But could of cyanide, some radioactive material, and of quantum physics hold true at this large
inside cells. As an analogy, if you think of a building, you the same thing be true of everyday objects a Geiger counter. The box is then closed for a scale, then Schrödinger’s cat would
EN: What, exactly, is a microtubule? have the girders and the structural supports and you also like rocks, apples, and skyscrapers? Could a period of time, during which the radioac- appear to be caught in some strange
have the wiring and the communication systems. So the the entire visible universe really require a tive material has a 50 percent chance limbo of simultaneous life and nonlife until
SH: Microtubules are molecular assemblies; they’re cylindrical idea was that microtubules are both of these, acting not conscious observer to bring it into being? of decaying and emitting a particle. If a such time as somebody decides to open
polymers composed of repeating patterns of a single, peanut- only as structural supports and the machinery involved in Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger particle is detected by the Geiger counter, the lid and take a peek. Schrödinger, of
shaped protein called tubulin that can flex “open” and “closed.” cell division but also as computers related to intelligence thought not. In fact, he found the notion it sends a signal to a mechanical hammer course, believed that this couldn’t possibly
so strange that he used his Nobel Prize– that breaks the bottle, releases the cyanide, be true. But his thought experiment sent
The tubulin proteins self-assemble into these beautifully and consciousness.
winning imagination to develop a thought and—you guessed it—kills the cat. shock waves through twentieth-century
elegant hollow cylinders with walls arranged in hexagonal
experiment highlighting the absurdity Here’s where things get weird. The science, challenging physicists to more
lattices. And these cylinders form the cytoskeleton, the bone- EN: So you basically started to realize that there’s actually a
of extending the rules of indeterminacy Copenhagen interpretation tells us that fully explain the mysterious relationship
like structural support or scaffolding, inside all animal cells. lot more activity—and maybe even conscious activity—going beyond the quantum realm. Now known the particle exists in a state of simultane- between the microscopic world of quan-
But they’re continually moving and rearranging. The rear- on inside the brain than most people imagine? as “Schrödinger’s Cat,” his mental exercise ous decay and no-decay until the box is tum phenomena and the macroscopic
rangements account for all cell growth, development, move- subjected an everyday object—in this case, opened and its contents are observed. But world of you and me.
ment, and synaptic regulation—pretty important stuff. Now, SH: That’s right. I realized that to understand the human
the more asymmetrical a cell is, the more it needs the struc- brain, rather than looking at it as one hundred billion
tural support. So neurons, with their long axons and dendrites, dumb neurons interacting together to produce something
need a lot of microtubules. If you look inside a single neuron, intelligent and conscious we needed to recognize the fact

48 EnlightenNext magazine Spring/Summer 2010 49


Finding Spirit in the Fabric of Space & Time

that each neuron was itself incredibly complicated and had, theorem—that consciousness involves something noncom-
if not some degree of consciousness of its own, at least some putable. Understanding, or awareness, in other words, is not
internal intelligence or processing related to consciousness. a computation. But after ruling out the idea that conscious-
So I started working with some engineers and physicists ness was strictly a computation, he then offered a mechanism
doing modeling and simulations of microtubules, and we for consciousness that involved something so far out of left
showed that microtubules could indeed be very efficient field that most people considered it—and still consider it—
computational devices. Instead of each neuron registering rather bizarre. And that has to do with quantum physics.
as a single bit in the computer of the brain—a one or a zero, Reading The Emperor’s New Mind, I was floored with the
firing or not firing—the combined microtubule activity breadth and subtlety of Penrose’s knowledge, much of which
within a single neuron equaled potentially one thousand I didn’t understand. I did know that anesthetic gases exert
trillion operations per second in computing power. And that their effects by quantum forces, so consciousness having
model raised the complexity of the brain tremendously. something to do with quantum physics made sense to me.
This was mostly in the 1980s, and I was going to a lot of And I had this gut feeling that he was onto something; he
artificial intelligence conferences where they were trying to had a mechanism for consciousness based on neurons in
model and simulate the brain as a network of simple neu- the brain being in a state of what physicists call “quantum
ronal switches, and I was saying, “No. Each of your simple superposition,” which I’ll explain in a minute. I read that
switches is incredibly complicated. You have to take into and thought there was something to it, but his model didn’t
account this added computational complexity.” And seem to have the right biological structure. I said to myself,
they didn’t like that very much because it pushed their well, maybe microtubules are the quantum computers that
goal of simulating a human brain way, way down the road. Penrose is looking for. So I wrote to him and we eventually
So I became kind of unpopular among that crowd. arranged a meeting in his office at Oxford.
But then one day someone said to me, “Okay, let’s say Roger is a gentle, unassuming man, despite being
you’re right. Let’s say each neuron has all this enormous incredibly brilliant and well regarded. And he had me

The Big Wow


added computation going on. How would that explain do almost all the talking. So I just started talking about
conscious experience? How would that explain why we microtubules and showed him the 1987 book I’d written
have feelings, why we see red, why we feel pain? How does on the subject. He listened intently, asking questions, and
that explain consciousness?” And I realized I didn’t have was particularly taken by the Fibonacci geometry of the
an answer to that, which brings us to what the Australian microtubule lattice, because he’s basically a geometry expert
Paola Zizzi, PhD, is an Italian philosopher David Chalmers famously dubbed the “hard at heart. After several hours, he finally said, “Well, that’s
astrophysicist at the University of According to the generally accepted period, the universe had reached the problem” of consciousness research. very interesting.” I said goodbye and didn’t think anything
Padova near Venice. cosmological model, there was a period same critical threshold was going to come of it. But about two weeks later, I was
of rapid inflation during the split for quantum collapse that Roger EN: The question of how we get mind out of matter. having dinner with some friends in London and they said,
second that directly followed the big Penrose had found to occur in the “Guess what? We were at this conference at Cambridge and
Penrose and Hameroff’s theory about the
quantum origins of consciousness has bang—something like 10-33 seconds—in human brain during each moment SH: Exactly. Roger Penrose was talking about you and your microtubule
created ripples in the worlds of quantum stuff.” Soon after that, I received an invitation to a confer-
which the universe expanded very, very of consciousness. In other words, in

R
physics and consciousness studies alike ence in Sweden that Roger was attending, and we struck up
quickly. After this initial burst, it slowed the split second after the big bang,
and has sparked other physicists to explore a friendship and decided to start developing a formal model
down and has been expanding much the universe had a cosmic moment of OGER PENROSE &
the implications of Penrose and Hamer- of consciousness based on his theory of quantum gravity
off’s work with theories of their own. One more gradually ever since. An Italian consciousness. This was later named SCHRÖDINGER’S CAT and the possibility of quantum superposition among micro-
particularly wild example comes from an physicist named Paola Zizzi came up “the Big Wow theory.” Zizzi went on tubules in the brain.
Italian physicist named Paola Zizzi. In a with a theory that during this rapid to suggest that our human conscious- SH: Fortunately, someone suggested that I read a book by
paper titled “Emergent Consciousness: expansion, the entire universe may ness may be a literal microcosm of the EN: Pretend I don’t know anything about quantum physics.
the English mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose called
From the Early Universe to Our Mind,” have been in a kind of cosmic state cosmic-consciousness moment that The Emperor’s New Mind. So I did, and it was really amaz- Could you explain what a quantum superposition is? And how
Zizzi builds upon Penrose and Hameroff’s
of quantum superposition in which occurred during the big bang. This ing. The book’s title was intended as a slap in the face to it relates to consciousness or microtubules?
objective-reduction theory to propose that
the universe was born with a single cosmic multiple universes were possible. She means that we’re all subcomponents artificial intelligence theorists, because they maintained that
moment of consciousness. Here is her idea made some calculations and found of that initial conscious awareness if you had sufficiently complex computation in a computer, SH: Quantum means, literally, the smallest fundamental
as described by Hameroff: that by the end of the rapid expansion that still pervades the entire universe. it would be conscious. But Roger argued, in a somewhat unit of energy, like a photon—an indivisible unit of light.
obscure mathematical direction—something called Gödel’s But behavior at the quantum level is bizarre. It’s so bizarre,

50 EnlightenNext magazine Spring/Summer 2010 51


Finding Spirit in the Fabric of Space & Time

A
it’s like another world. In fact, reality seems to be divided into
two different worlds—the classical world and the quantum
world. The classical world is our everyday, familiar world, in
QUANTUM OF
which Newton’s laws of motion, electromagnetism, and other CONSCIOUSNESS
basic physics describe pretty much everything very well. If
you throw a ball, its trajectory, speed, location, and so forth EN: And you prefer one of these alternatives to the Copenhagen
can be easily predicted. But as we go to smaller scales—let’s interpretation?
say, for argument’s sake, atoms and smaller—we enter a world
where completely different physical laws apply, and predic- SH: Well, Roger’s theory was one of these alternatives. He said
tions become a lot more difficult. For example, particles can be that a quantum superposition may indeed be collapsed into a
in two places or states at the same time. They can be not just single, definite state through conscious observation, but what
here or there, but here and there, simultaneously. That’s what about a system that’s never observable from the outside? What
superposition means. Things can be in multiple places or act
like waves, kind of smeared out as probabilities, rather than
being definite particles with specific locations and trajectories.
about quantum activity inside a human brain?
Roger proposed that in such cases, once the wave func-
tion proceeds to a certain point, it self-collapses due to an
Science Fiction or Quantum Fact?
And some quantum physicists say that until a quantum system intrinsic, objective threshold in the fabric of spacetime An Interview with author Robert J. Sawyer
is consciously observed or measured, it remains in a super- itself. And when the collapse of that superposition happens,
position of multiple possibilities, multiple coexisting states. it results in a moment of consciousness. In other words, Canadian author Robert J. Sawyer says the Robert J Sawyer: I think it’s certainly pos- neurobiology these days is the hunt for what
But once measured, the quantum probability wave instantly he argued that consciousness doesn’t cause the quantum mission behind his science fiction (SF) is sible. Quantum physics tells us that nothing are called the neural correlates of conscious-
collapses or reduces to just one state. wave-function collapse, as the Copenhagen interpretation to “combine the intimately human and the in the universe can be created without some ness. People are looking for what happens
says. Rather, he suggested that consciousness is the wave- grandly cosmic.” And over his thirty-year kind of conscious observer. But human con- at the neuronal level in the brain every time
career he’s done this very well, winning just sciousness has only existed for about forty a conscious thought occurs. And a lot of
EN: This means that a human observer is required to collapse function collapse, or at least one particular kind of collapse.
about every SF award on the planet, inspiring thousand years. And even if you say that people are saying, “Oh, I see. When that
a state of superposition? It’s a quantum collapse that gives off fundamental units of
the hit TV series FlashForward, and publishing consciousness emerged with the first single- thing happens there, that’s consciousness,
conscious awareness, just like an electron orbital shift gives
nearly twenty novels that explore the moral celled life form, well, life has only existed on right?” But we haven’t really found that yet. In
SH: In one interpretation of quantum physics, yes. The off a photon of light. And like photons, quanta of conscious- and philosophical implications of some of his book Shadows of the Mind, Roger Penrose
the planet for three and a half billion years.
Danish physicist Niels Bohr popularized this model, which ness come in a spectrum of different intensities, frequen- today’s most far-out scientific theories. His Yet we know that the universe is at least says that all of the electrochemical activity
became known as the Copenhagen interpretation. And if you cies, and qualities. WWW trilogy—the second installment, thirteen billion years old. that’s happening between our neurons is just
take this to its extreme, you might suppose that if you’re Watch, is due out this April—imagines Again, quantum physics says that noth- like a shadow being cast by consciousness. It
sitting in a room and there’s a picture hanging behind you, EN: Wow! In this interpretation of quantum physics, super- what might happen if the internet became ing can come into existence except through isn’t the real consciousness, because the real
then the picture might be smeared out in multiple places positions naturally collapse themselves? And those collapses self-aware. In 2005’s Mindscan, Sawyer used the observance of an event by a qualified consciousness is quantum mechanical. So
at once until you turn around and look at it. In other words, somehow produce consciousness? Hameroff and Penrose’s theory about the observer. If we believe in that model of phys- yes, I think it’s a legitimate possibility that con-
anything unobserved would be in a wave-like state of quan- quantum origins of consciousness to envi- ics, then there had to be some kind of con- sciousness exists at the quantum-mechanical
tum superposition. That idea is pretty bizarre, however, and SH: Yes. In Roger’s model, which he calls orchestrated objec- sion a future in which human minds can be sciousness that predated consciousness on level and therefore exists at the very tiniest of
scanned and uploaded into artificial bodies. Earth. I think it seems quite legitimate then levels in our universe.
Erwin Schrödinger, another early quantum physics pioneer, tive reduction, you don’t always need an outside observer.
While remaining a hardnosed rationalist, to propose that part of the overall makeup of
thought it was downright silly. So he came up with his If a quantum system evolves to a critical threshold—which
Sawyer is rare among his SF peers in that he the universe is a field of consciousness—that EN: So in that, would you subscribe to a tran-
famous thought experiment, called Schrödinger’s Cat, involves gravitational warping on the quantum scale—it will
gives serious consideration to nonmaterialis- consciousness is pervasive and perhaps not scendent or possibly spiritual explanation for
to try to demonstrate how nonsensical it was. [See “The self-collapse. There’s an objective, natural reduction of the tic explanations for reality. So we asked him consciousness?
merely confined to the physical apparatus of
Cat Is Dead, the Cat Is Alive,” p. 49] quantum wave function that results in a single moment of to tell us what he really thinks about some of the brain. Indeed, we seem to have a good
Now, the question raised by Schrödinger’s thought experi- consciousness, or a single “quantum” of consciousness, if you his favorite subjects: consciousness, quantum model through quantum physics suggest- RJS: Yes. If you ask me “Does God exist?”
ment is, how big can a quantum superposition get? It’s been will. And when these collapses happen again and again in your physics, and the nature of God. ing that there has always been something and you mean “Does God exist in the sense
shown repeatedly in experiments that small particles can be brain, you get a series of conscious moments that give rise to observing reality, or reality never would have of the white-bearded guy who handed tablets
in a superposition of multiple coexisting possibilities until your experience of a stream of consciousness. So conscious- EnlightenNext: In your novel Mindscan taken on concrete form. to Moses on the mountain?,” the answer is
you make a measurement, but could something as large as a ness, in this model, consists of a series of discrete events, yet you explore the notion that consciousness isn’t no. But if you ask me “Does God exist in the
cat be in two states simultaneously? There’s still no answer is experienced as continuous. You can think of it kind of as necessarily confined to the physical brain but EN: Are you saying that consciousness goes sense that consciousness, awareness, and
to that, but the question has led physicists to come up with frames in a movie, only with a movie you have an outside may possess nonlocal, field-like properties— down to the quantum level? purpose exist in the most basic fabric of the
based on quantum physics—that transcend the universe?,” I would say it’s a distinct possibil-
alternatives to the Copenhagen interpretation—different observer. In this case, the frame itself has the observer built
normal limitations of time and space. Do you RJS: Why not? I mean, we don’t know ity that the answer is yes.
models of wave-function collapse that don’t necessarily into it. The conscious moment and the quantum wave-
personally believe in this idea? what consciousness is. The big thing in
require a conscious observer. function collapse are one and the same event.

52 EnlightenNext magazine Spring/Summer 2010 53


Finding Spirit in the Fabric of Space & Time

It’s a pretty profound idea. Roger starts off with Einstein’s Whitehead’s perspective also helps to explain the hard wave-function collapses, which occur within the wider, SH: There has to be a critical amount of gamma synchrony,
general relativity, which shows that a large mass, such as the problem, or why we have conscious experience in the first universal field of protoconscious experience that is Planck- but yes. And it can occur in different parts of the brain, kind
sun, would cause a large gravitational curvature in the fabric place. When Roger and I first came out with our theory, scale spacetime geometry. of moving around. For example, if somebody is smelling a
of spacetime itself. And Roger said, well, there’s no reason that we didn’t address the hard problem per se, but once the I wouldn’t say the universe is conscious, just like I rose, they’re going to have this gamma synchrony in the
general relativity wouldn’t also hold true at very small scales. Journal of Consciousness Studies did a special issue devoted wouldn’t say the universe is entirely yellow, or purple, olfactory cortex, the part of the brain dealing with smell.
He said it’s possible that if you have a quantum particle in two to nothing but the hard problem, we took a stab at it. And or wet, or whatever. But under the right conditions, any If you’re having visual consciousness, you’re going to have
places at the same time—in a state of superposition—then the we basically took a sort of Whiteheadian, “proto-panpsychist” of these can be true for small regions of the universe. gamma synchrony in the visual and frontal cortices. For
particle on the left and the particle on the right could each be approach. Ordinary panpsychism would say that everything The uncollapsed, still-superpositioned precursors of sexual pleasure, there is gamma synchrony in a part of the
creating a tiny amount of curvature, resulting in a bifurcation has consciousness—every atom, every molecule, every this, consciousness are somewhat like dreams. When objective brain called the nucleus accumbens. And so on. The gamma
in spacetime geometry. According to something in quantum every that. But that idea just never really made sense to me. reduction occurs, the universe—at least a tiny portion of synchrony can be anywhere in the brain at any time, and it
physics called the Many Worlds Hypothesis, each of those cur- So we used a variation on panpsychism that I think does it—wakes up. does correlate with consciousness. So the idea, again, is that
vatures might then branch off and form a whole new universe. make sense, and this was a proto-panpsychism saying that our consciousness is actually a sequence of discrete events, a

G
But Roger said no, these quantum curvatures and separations at least the precursors for consciousness are fundamental sequence of quantum frames occurring at roughly forty times
are unstable, and after a given time they will self-collapse to and built into the universe at what’s known as the Planck per second. And just like frames in a movie, our conscious-
AMMA FREQUENCY
either one curvature or the scale, which is the tiniest, most ness appears continuous because the frames are happening
other. And when that type primordial level of quantum & ALTERED STATES in rapid succession.
of gravitational self-collapse The conscious moment spacetime. Now, I should note that the frequency of conscious events
occurs, it results in a moment of
consciousness. and the quantum wave- If you imagine the Planck
scale as basically a complex
EN: We began by talking about microtubules, so please tie
these together for me. How do these quantum wave-function
can vary. And it could be that in heightened or altered states,
we’re having more conscious moments per second, which would
He came to this through
several lines of reasoning
function collapse are one geometric pattern that is
fractal in nature, capable of
collapses relate to what is happening with the microtubules
in the brain?
mean that our perception of the outside world would be slower.
For example, when there’s a car accident and the car is spin-
that are pretty breathtaking and the same event. repeating itself at higher ning, people often report that time seems to slow down and
in terms of his audacity and scales and sizes, then embed- SH: Well, if we look at what’s happening among the micro- the outside world appears to be moving half as fast as it usually
insight—and, some would say, ded in that geometric quan- tubules, we know that consciousness in the brain happens does. This could be because their rate of gamma synchrony is
craziness. But this was both Roger’s solution to the problem tum pattern are the presumably irreducible components about forty times per second. It’s called gamma synchrony, changing from around forty hertz to eighty hertz. And similarly,
of what collapses the quantum wave function and also to the of reality, the basic building blocks of existence. Physics and this comes from something a guy in Germany named someone once asked Michael Jordan, when he was in his prime,
hard problem of consciousness. Amazingly, he also tied gen- says that fundamental properties of matter such as spin, Wolf Singer discovered in the 1980s while experiment- how he was able to outperform the other team so well. And he
eral relativity, quantum gravity, and so forth into this single mass, and charge are irreducible components of the uni- ing with highly sensitive EEG machines. Typically with an said when he’s playing well, it’s like the other team is in slow
theory, killing about four or five birds with one stone. verse that are somehow embedded in this Planck-scale EEG you get squiggly lines on the display showing you motion. So maybe Michael Jordan was experiencing sixty, sev-
geometry. So Roger and I proposed that maybe the qualia— delta, theta, alpha, and beta waves. These indicate electri- enty, or eighty conscious moments per second and the defense
EN: So according to Penrose, gravitational effects at the quan- the primary components of consciousness, of awareness, or cal impulses in the brain ranging from zero up to about was only experiencing something like forty.
tum level are causing wave functions to collapse automatically, at least their precursors—are also fundamental, irreducible, thirty hertz, or waves per second. But Singer discovered a We also see it in meditating monks. Buddhist texts
emitting little bursts of consciousness that somehow result in and built into the basic fabric of the universe. This could higher, perfectly coherent frequency that came to be known describe flickerings of pure awareness that have actually been
our own continuous, moment-to-moment experience of being include Platonic information as well, such as the qualities as gamma synchrony, which ranged from thirty to ninety counted—something like six and a half million conscious
conscious, aware, and alive? of goodness, truth, and beauty. After all, why should the hertz, or even higher, though forty hertz is typical. This moments in a day, which turns out to be in the gamma syn-
precursors to matter be present at that level but not the perfect electrical synchrony is the best marker we have for chrony range. And a few years ago, the Dalai Lama sent some
SH: That’s right. I don’t know how familiar you are with the precursors to mind? a neural correlate of consciousness in the brain. And in the of his best meditators to a lab up in Wisconsin. They found
English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North White- model that Roger and I have developed, we’ve proposed that, while meditating, the monks had the highest gamma
head, but his thinking was very much along these lines as EN: Good question. You’re saying it’s possible that at least that Singer’s gamma synchrony is actually evidence of synchrony ever recorded. They were actually operating at
well. He said that consciousness and matter were inextricably some basic level of consciousness may be as fundamental to quantum-state collapses happening forty times per sec- about eighty to one hundred hertz, whereas the experimental
linked, emerging in a sequence that he called “occasions of the universe as the laws of physics? ond—or more—among coherent, organized networks of control subjects were at forty. And even at baseline, before
experience.” In his view, the universe isn’t made of things the brain’s microtubules. they would sit down to meditate, the monks showed an
or particles. It’s a process. It’s made up of events. And in the SH: Yes. Whitehead had the idea that these occasions of unusually high rate of gamma synchrony. Years of meditat-
early nineties, a physicist named Abner Shimony pointed out experience, or discrete moments of conscious awareness, arise EN: You’re saying that by monitoring someone’s brain with ing had changed their brains so that they were just normally
that Whitehead’s occasions of experience are very much like like ripples within a wider ocean of protoconscious experi- an EEG, researchers have been able to isolate a certain in this higher-frequency gamma range. That suggests they’re
quantum wave-function collapses, so our view seems pretty ence. And in the model I’ve developed with Roger, those dis- frequency of activity that only correlates with conscious having a richer and more intense conscious experience more
consistent with Whitehead’s. crete moments of human consciousness are actually quantum experiences? frequently than the average person.

54 EnlightenNext magazine Spring/Summer 2010 55


Finding Spirit in the Fabric of Space & Time

T
attending a conference on atheism. I called the post “Being
the Skunk at an Atheist Convention,” because I made quite a
HE SPIRITUALITY OF
stink about spirituality there that didn’t go over well. Basically
SPACETIME GEOMETRY what I said was that I don’t follow any organized religion—and
Richard Dawkins, Patricia Churchland, and other atheists were
EN: Okay, I have a question about this. If consciousness is arising there bashing religion pretty hard—but I said that based on
as a certain frequency of quantum collapses in the brain, then your what we know of quantum physics and consciousness, we have
model could still be considered materialistic, right? Conscious- to take seriously the scientific possibility of spirituality. And
ness is still ultimately a byproduct of brain activity, just pushed in defining what I meant by spirituality, I mentioned three
down to the level of what you’re calling quantum spacetime? things. The first was an interconnection between living beings
and the universe as a whole, and I said that this could be pos-
SH: Hang on a second! Material means “matter.” Matter derives sible through the phenomenon of quantum entanglement,
from something more fundamental, which is quantum space­ which refers to the ability of two particles to be intimately con-
time geometry. So this goes way below the scale of matter. The nected beyond the normal limitations of space and time. The
basis of matter is . . . immaterial. second was some kind of divine guidance or cosmic wisdom
influencing our choices, which could be due to Platonic values
EN: Can you elaborate? embedded in fundamental spacetime geometry. And, finally,
there was the possibility of consciousness persisting outside of
SH: Basically, if you think of mind and matter and the relation the body or after death.
between them, there are a number of different philosophies to About ten years ago, there were these two studies about
choose from. First you have dualism, where mind and mat- near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences that
ter don’t relate; there’s a brick wall between them. Next, you came out of Europe. Both involved several hundred patients
have ordinary materialism, the conventional view that says who had cardiac arrests, and I think they found that around
that matter creates mind. Then you have idealism and various seventeen percent of the patients had these near-death or plausible that if consciousness is a quantum effect occurring in Of course, putting consciousness at the most fundamental
mystical approaches, which say that mind creates matter. But out-of-body experiences. Then the BBC did a show called spacetime geometry, then any particular pattern of consciousness level of the universe also has big implications for enlighten-
in my opinion, none of these work. They all have problems. So “The Day I Died,” in which they asked the researchers who did doesn’t go away, because quantum information doesn’t go away. ment and spirituality. And I would say, to speculate a bit,
the final choice, I think, is what’s called neutral monism, which the studies if they could explain these experiences scientifi- It just reorganizes itself within spacetime geometry. that when anyone meditates or becomes enlightened, they’re
has been put forth by such figures as Bertrand Russell, William cally. And they replied, “We have no idea. Why don’t you ask moving more deeply into that quantum realm. I think that
James, and Baruch Spinoza in Western philosophy, and various Penrose and Hameroff, because they have this weird quantum EN: Let’s see if I’ve got the gist of your theory straight. Essen- when you meditate and attain nothingness, or what people call
nondual positions in Eastern philosophy. Neutral monism says thing?” Anyway, Roger wouldn’t comment, but I said, well, tially, you’re saying that at least some basic degree of con- nothingness in their meditation, it isn’t quite nothingness. I
that there’s one common underlying entity that gives rise to, under normal conditions, consciousness is happening at the sciousness is woven into the fabric of spacetime itself, and it’s think it’s actually spacetime geometry, and you’re accessing
on the one hand, matter, and on the other hand, mind. In our level of spacetime geometry in and around the microtubules in the coherent quantum activity among the microtubules in our the source of enlightened wisdom by tapping into that funda-
model, that underlying entity that gives rise to both matter and the brain. However, when the blood and oxygen stop flowing, brain that allows us to amplify or strengthen the basic universal mental field. You move more deeply into the basic fabric of the
mind is quantum spacetime geometry. In the Vedic traditions, and quantum coherence in brain microtubules stops, then the consciousness that’s already there? universe and actually become more consciously a part of it.
you could call it Brahman, the underlying ground of being. So quantum information that was there isn’t destroyed. It contin- In fact, the Kabbalah says that we have this world of wis-
it’s not materialistic—it goes below matter. We’re talking twenty- ues to exist at the Planck scale, and it can leak out or dissipate SH: Yes. Or simply to gain access to it, connect to it, become dom and light and then we have the world of aggravation and
five levels of magnitude smaller than an atom. There’s no matter but remain entangled as a certain pattern, at least temporarily. one with it. In our model, consciousness is a natural process strife, and that consciousness dances on the edge between the
there! There’s something else. I call it spacetime geometry; the So if the patient is revived, the quantum pattern gets drawn occurring in spacetime geometry at the Planck-scale level. And two worlds. I think that’s very close to what’s happening—that
Hindus call it Brahman. You can call it whatever you like—spirit, back into the microtubules inside the brain, and the patient the microtubules in the human brain have evolved into a spe- consciousness is dancing on the edge, or is a process on the
the cosmos, quantum gravity—whatever it is that gives rise to reports having had a near-death or out-of-body experience. cific configuration that allows this process to happen in a way edge, between the quantum and classical worlds. So spiri-
both mind and matter and underlies all of reality. If the patient actually dies, then it’s conceivable that the quan- that also involves cognition, computation, and intelligence. tual practices such as meditation allow you to dive deep and
tum information can remain entangled in some sort of afterlife You know, most people think that consciousness emerged become immersed in that quantum Platonic world of wisdom
EN: So you’re saying that based on your model, reality could state. And perhaps the information can get pulled back into over eons as a byproduct of random mutations and the inher- and light, which is the foundation of all things, both mental
be seen as being fundamentally spiritual? a new creature, a zygote or embryo, in which case you’d have ent complexity of natural selection, but I look at it the other way and material. You could even call it God if you wanted to.
something like reincarnation happening. around. I think a fundamental field of protoconscious experience And that’s why I believe that if the quantum conscious-
SH: First of all, let me say that Roger doesn’t relate his work Now, I’m not offering any proof that this happens. I’m just has been embedded all along—since the big bang—in the Planck ness hypothesis is proven, it will give credence to the spiritual
to spirituality. But I personally have nothing to lose, so I providing a plausibility argument. I’m saying that if it does happen, scale, and that biology evolved and adapted in order to access it dimension of life. It will undermine the materialists. I think it
figure why not? I recently wrote a blog about this topic after here’s how it could happen based on our model. It’s scientifically and to maximize the qualities and potentials implicit within it. will give people a lot of hope. n

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