I talked with Stuart Hameroff this month about his ideas about quantum physics and consciousness. Dr Hameroff is a clinical anesthesiologist and Director of the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona, and lead organizer of the Toward a Science of Consciousness conferences that took place in Tucson, Arizona in 1994.
Stuart Hameroff's research involves a theory of consciousness developed over the past 20 years with British physicist Sir Roger Penrose. Their Orchestrated Objective Reduction (‘Orch OR’) theory suggests that consciousness arises from quantum vibrations in protein polymers called microtubules inside the brain’s neurons. For a review, along with critical commentaries and replies, see: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1571064513001188
Hameroff and Penrose suggest these vibrations compute, collapse, interfere and resonate, regulating neuronal processes and connecting to the fundamental level of the universe, providing moments of conscious experience and choice.
STUART: I think that the brain is a little bit more clever, that there are alternating phases of isolated/quantum and dissipative/classical processing. Quantum and classical, quantum and classical, quantum and classical. The classical is dissipative and interacts with the environment, bringing information in and letting information out, exerting causal efficacy in the world. But classical phases alternate with quantum phases at EEG frequencies, for example, at 40 Hz. Or maybe even faster, at megahertz. So for 40 Hz, that would imply every twenty-five milliseconds there is a cycle of quantum processing followed by collapse, a classical result that interacts with the outside world. In this classical phase information comes in and that’s when it’s dissipative, and then the cycle repeats. So you have a quantum phase that’s isolated, then an open phase that’s dissipative and brings information in, and then another quantum phase, so on in alternating phases. I think consciousness consists of sequences of these alternating phases, the end of each quantum phase a discrete event. Consciousness is a sequence of discrete events, not a continuum. A movie appears continuous to us, but it’s actually a sequence of frames; I think consciousness is like that, and these frames alternate, quantum and classical.
CYNTHIA: I love your theory, which is about the best one I’ve seen for bringing that together. When we look in the brain, would you say we see evidence of this quantum logic happening? You might say that we do?
STUART: As far as quantum logic, specifically, I think that you see that in dreams. I think dreams are quantum information without collapse—you stay in the quantum phase, without the dissipative phase. If there’s a loud noise, you wake up, so you’re shielded, isolated. Except for sleepwalkers, or something like that.
CYNTHIA: And lucid dreaming is interesting.
STUART: Lucid dreaming, exactly.
CYNTHIA: In that case, maybe, would there be alternation?
STUART: Lucid dreaming, I have to think about that. Probably there’s some collapse, but maybe infrequent, or not total, or something like that. I’m not sure. That’s certainly an exception to the rule. Sleepwalking and lucid dreaming are special cases. Matte Blanco described the logic of dreams which is very similar to quantum logic.
CYNTHIA: You can find the extremes there, but they come together.
STUART: Well the big issue in quantum logic is noncommutativity. In regular logic, A times B equals B times A, but in quantum logic, A times B is not equal to B times A. Paradox reigns. Opposites co-exist.
STUART: Irreversible steps are one of the keys.
CYNTHIA: In addition to the irreversible steps, some people have noticed that quantum logic is a little bit like four-fold logic—so-called “Asian logic”—because it does have True, False, True-and-False, and Not-True-Not-False.
STUART: Yeah, superposition, quantum superposition. Or as Stuart Kaufman talks about, Aristotle’s ‘excluded middle’ actually occurs in quantum logic.
CYNTHIA: Would you say that quantum logic feels like an equal partner to classical logic, or do you feel it’s more of the primarily logic that is constantly there? This gets to what you were noticing about the brain.
STUART: I think the logic of the quantum world underlies the classical world—but then when collapse occurs—you get the classical world. I believe in collapse, but quantum field theorists don’t necessarily agree with collapse. And then you have Henry Stapp’s view, that collapse is caused by the Cosmic Mind. I don’t think that solves the problem. That puts consciousness out there, kind of outside of science, so it’s really a spiritual, religious type of approach. But I think you can get spirituality out of collapse, with non-locality and Platonic values, which is what Penrose brought in.
CYNTHIA: I love the way you bring up protoconsciousness, the Planck scale, and the way consciousness might exist in that sort of decoherent state, but at the same time, you do look to consciousness to bring about collapse.
STUART: Roger Penrose essentially replaced decoherence with self collapse, what he called ‘objective reduction’. Decoherence is kind of an ill-defined thing anyway. Nobody can really say exactly what it is. Plus it doesn’t really get rid of the quantum superposition—just buries it in noise. So Roger came up with the idea that there is this objective threshold for reduction, related to the uncertainty principle, so every superposition will reach this threshold, and have a self collapse. Now normally, that occurs in a very charged, polar environment, like in this table, or in the air, or liquids. So the charge will entangle with another charge, the simple equation is: E = h/t, where E is the amount of superposition, h is Planck’s constant, and t is the time at which self collapse occurs by OR. So the larger the E, the faster the t. Roger then also said that when OR happens, there is a moment of subjective experience.
STUART: Now normally, if that happens in a polar environment, then it’s random, and it’s going to happen very quickly, but randomly, so the moment of conscious experience won’t have any cognition. That’s what we call protoconscious moments, random, non-cognitive and inconsequential—but still experience. There’s consciousness everywhere, but it doesn’t hang together and do anything meaningful.
CYNTHIA: That could explain, perhaps, why plants can photosynthesize using that quantum random walk, because on some level, they’ve got protoconsciousness.
STUART: Yeah, photosynthesis is a really interesting thing. I was talking about this yesterday with these guys down at Stanford. Does that collapse? That’s a good question. The problem is that, by e=h/t, if it’s just electrons, electrons have very little mass, so e is going to be very, very small. So it will take a lot of electrons to reach collapse.
STUART: Everything has proto-conscious moments. But in the brain, and specifically due to structures called microtubules inside neurons, the random entanglements are avoided during quantum isolation phases, and the quantum states are organized, or ‘orchestrated’ by memory, sensory inputs and resonances, and cognitive ‘orchestrated’ OR conscious moments occur. But plants have photosynthesis which uses electron quantum coherence but probably don't have orchestrated OR and meaningful consciousness. The problem is that by E=h/t, electrons comprising E have very little mass, so E is going to be very, very small, and t very, very long. So plants might have meaningful conscious moments but very rarely.
STUART: But the quantum movements of electron excitations in plant proteins which enables highly efficient conversion to food is similar to what happens in microtubule proteins. You have these aromatic rings, kind of like benzene and phenyl rings, which have excitons and dipole states. These are the same molecules that are in psychedelics, dopamine and psychoactive drugs and neurotransmitters. And that type of environment is non-polar, so there’s no charge. There are induced dipoles, but no net charge. So the quantum states there don’t automatically and quickly entangle with the environment and collapse. They can persist and couple with other quantum states to interact cognitively and process information. Or in the case of photosynthesis, transfer energy.
CYNTHIA: This coupling with other quantum states is really interesting, and brings me to the core of something I’ve been looking at, which is levels of consciousness. When we ask this big question, “Who are we?” and “Who is the observer?” we tend to have a human bias, of course, because this is how we see the world. But obviously, people who meditate are able to focus very closely in on one particular system within themselves, such as their breathing, their heart rate, these kind of things. So it’s something that we have the ability—at least yogi masters do—through meditation and awareness of themselves—to change that kind of level of consciousness. This to me is the key.
STUART: Yes, levels of consciousness. If you go back to E=h/t, these protoconscious events are happening in the table, in the air, in the coffee cup all the time. It’s basically the same as decoherence, except there is this little snippet of protoconscious experience that’s happening everywhere. So that seems bizarre and crazy, but on the other hand you have people—panpsychists—now saying that everything’s conscious, without any clue as to what actually that might mean. But then, if you get into a non-polar environment, you avoid the random entanglements, and have cognition and meaningful consciousness. In other words, the quantum states are orchestrated. It’s like the difference between the sounds and tones of an orchestra warming up, and the orchestra playing a symphony.
STUART: So the orchestra warming up with the various isolated tones and notes is like protoconscious moments here and there. And then they start playing Beethoven, because it’s all orchestrated, and that’s music. It’s a very good analogy, the musical analogy, except with music you need a listener, whereas here, the vibrations are self-aware. So when you start to orchestrate the objective reduction events, you get cognition and consciousness. And then it’s a matter of the intensity of the levels. So for example, assuming it’s orchestrated, and you have meaningful consciousness, then as “E” becomes larger, “t” becomes shorter, and you get more intense conscious experience, like music changing to a higher octave. As E is larger, you use more of the brain. Did you see that movie, “Lucy”?
STUART: It’s about how we use some percentage of the brain, and Lucy was using more and more percentage of her brain. And how they were saying she was doing it wasn’t right.
CYNTHIA: It was fanciful.
STUART: Nobody really knows. Based on available technology they tell us we only use a small fraction of our brain. Well, bullshit! How do you know how much of our brain we use? We may use a lot of it for stuff that’s not conscious, or that is conscious and cant be measured, like quantum effects in microtubules. But just for consciousness, I think if you’re meditating or if you’re in an altered state or something like that, that means you’re using more and more of your brain that is involved. Therefore, “E” becomes greater and “t” is faster, so you get faster, more frequent, conscious events. You go to a deeper level which is a higher plane. It’s been shown that meditators have higher frequency gamma synchrony, for example, but it could go even faster, like to megahertz, for example. So we could be having ten million of these events per second. But then you’d say, “Wait a second. For EEG, our cognition is much, much slower.” What Roger and I proposed in our last paper is that these faster events interfere and give beats, just like in music, when you have beat frequencies. And the beat frequencies are what we see—the EEG. The beat frequency that we see is cognitive windows in the range of milliseconds. But they are actually deriving from faster vibrations, like in megahertz, which is where the microtubules are vibrating. So there’s a spectrum of terahertz, gigahertz, megahertz, kilohertz, and then hertz. And the EEG is basically hertz. So what we see as EEG I think of as beat frequencies of faster vibrations at a deeper level. EEG is the slower, large scale tip of an iceberg of deeper, faster vibrations. So if you’re meditating, or you go in an altered state, you’re going into that faster, more intense domain. So it will include more conscious moments per second, and they are more intense. So that’s what I think an altered state is, a deeper level, higher frequency level of consciousness—it’s the frequency at which you're having orchestrated conscious events, more deeply into spacetime geometry. Very intense experiences may be entirely in spacetime geometry, and could exist independent of the brain, at least temporarily, remaining entangled. So this could explain out-of-body experiences. As the Beatles said – ‘The deeper you go, the higher you fly….”
Dr. Stuart Hameroff
Center for Consciousness Studies
Consciousness in the Universe: A Review of the 'Orch OR' Theory
by Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose
Cynthia Sue Larson is the best-selling author of six books, including Quantum Jumps. Cynthia has a degree in Physics from UC Berkeley, and discusses consciousness and quantum physics on numerous shows including the History Channel, Coast to Coast AM, and BBC. You can subscribe to Cynthia’s free monthly ezine at: http://www.RealityShifters.com