Quantum effects underlie brain processes, produce consciousness – brain researcher
Humanity has been searching for the seeds of consciousness for thousands of years. Dr Stuart Hameroff, anesthesiologist and director of the Center for Consciousness Studies, believes we might finally be on the path to finding them.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Dr Stuart Hameroff, anesthesiologist, Director of the Center for Consciousness Studies. It's really great to have you here with us today. Consciousness is like one of my favourite topics, so I can't wait to dig into your brain. So you said that some concepts of consciousness are naive, what concepts and why are they naive?
Stuart Hameroff: Most people would say that the brain is a computer of neurons acting as bits like individual on-off states and that if you get sufficient complexity in computation that consciousness emerges. But really, there's no evidence for that, that consciousness is an emergent property of computation. It's an assumption that the brain is a computer. But there's no evidence for that. And I think it's a poor assumption. For example, it assumes that each neuron is a simple on-off switch, yes or no. But a single cell, neurons are cells, and a single cell, like a paramecium, swims around, finds food, finds a mate, has sex, can learn, it escapes from a capillary tube faster and faster - it's intelligent, it may not be conscious, but it's intelligent. So if a single paramecium or even an amoeba, which can solve problems, can be that intelligent. Why should we think that a neuron is just a one or a zero? So I think we need to go deeper inside the neuron to another level and figure out how the paramecium does it, and that turns out to be using structures called microtubules inside all cells, including brain cells, neurons, that are capable, it seems, of processing information, and may be quantum computers.
SS: We're going to get to microtubules. But before I have just a couple of questions, because since you're studying consciousness, I want to understand from what side you're sort of starting to begin to learn it. Science is a method of learning about the world by measurements, experiment, and consciousness can’t be really measured.
SS: So why do scientists bother? Because I mean, there is no institute that is actively researching the whereabouts of God, for instance, because that's a matter of belief. Why bother with consciousness? Isn't it also a matter of belief?
SH: Well, I'm conscious, I assume you're conscious. It's true, we can't measure it. But one thing we do know, it goes away under anaesthesia and comes back when the patient wakes up from anaesthesia. And my approach has been by looking at how anaesthesia works to selectively and reversibly prevent consciousness. The brain is still active under anaesthesia, we use evoked potentials where we stimulate the leg or the arm and record from the brain, or we stimulate the brain and record motor signals. So the brain is functioning, it's processing information, but consciousness is missing. So that's the approach that I take. If we can figure out how anaesthesia selectively blocks consciousness without affecting other functions of the brain that would tell us what consciousness is. And that's what I've done for most of my career studying how anaesthesia selectively and reversibly prevents consciousness.
SS: So when you say, once again, I want to dig deeper, when we give anaesthetics then the consciousness is erased, what happens when we come out of the anaesthetics, when it dissipates? Is it like we do get a whole new consciousness? Or is it like a switch on and off like you put on a TV? What happens to consciousness?
SH: Well, that depends on how you believe that the anaesthetic works. But however it works, the gases are breathed into the lungs into the blood and go to the whole body, including the brain and go into the brain and act only by very weak quantum forces. They don't form chemical bonds, like other drugs, they form only very weak quantum interactions. And when you turn off the vaporizer and turn off the gas, they float out of the brain and into the lungs and then out and when you remove them, consciousness resumes, and it's the same you because you have memory, and you have yourself and it resumes. So your consciousness has kind of been in suspension or it's inhibited. But your memories and everything that makes up you, yourself, as it's usually called, is still there and then resumes. It's the same question can be asked as why you're the same person from moment to moment. And it's because of memory and the self, which is probably hardwired in the brain. And actually, there's good evidence that memory is encoded in microtubules - the same medium that consciousness occurs.
SS: So what about really complex brain surgeries that use anaesthetic which is not shutting consciousness down, where the patient speaks to doctors during the procedure with only senses being numbed, but not awareness what happens to consciousness then?
SH: Well, if you're talking about neurosurgery, brain surgery while the patient's awake and can respond, which is done if you want to be very careful that you don't disturb something important and just want to take out the tumour or bad tissue, then you do it under local anaesthesia that's not general anaesthesia. You numb up the scalp, you numb up the layers that are going down to the skull, the periosteum around the skull, and then the meninges, the lining of the brain. But then once you get into the brain, the brain actually doesn't sense pain. So in those cases, that's not general anaesthesia. That's what we call local anaesthesia just around the area where the hole is where the surgeon can approach and the patient is still awake. So that's not really anaesthesia. That's what we call local anaesthesia.
SS: So I still don't get what happens to consciousness when it's under anaesthetic. If you're saying we don't really erase consciousness, where does it go while you're under influence? Like in your own words, in like really simple words, what happens to consciousness while you're asleep or out during…
SH: Under anaesthesia? It's kind of like sleep also except that when you're sleeping, you can dream. So dreamless sleep or anaesthesia - consciousness is suspended. It's not happening. It's on vacation. Of course, it depends what causes consciousness, which I think are quantum dipole oscillations and these quantum dipole oscillations stop at a certain frequency, but the membranes and other activities continue so you can have brain function without consciousness.
SS: And also speaking about influence what happens to consciousness when you are drunk and like completely unaware of the fact that you're dancing half-naked on a bar?
SH: I wouldn't know that but it depends on the drug and alcohol at lower concentrations is excitatory, it's disinhibiting, you get happy and giddy and then if you keep drinking, you get sedated and can fall asleep. Other drugs, psychedelics, for example, work the other way, and increase your level of consciousness. And I think this relates to consciousness having a frequency, having actually a number of different frequencies, kind of like music, that are interwoven and resonate together. And when you use alcohol, at first the frequency goes up, and then it goes down and you become lethargic and drunk. But before that, you're all excited, happy and giddy. And anaesthesia slows things down. Also, it goes all the way and much farther than alcohol can and there's no quantum oscillations, no vibrations at all, and you've slowed everything down and consciousness goes away. The opposite would be psychedelic, which increases the frequency and expands consciousness, increases the awareness, increases the depth of phenomenal experience by increasing the frequency.
SS: So I was speaking to Henry Marsh, I'm sure you know who he is. He's the world-renowned brain surgeon. And I asked him, whether he thinks consciousness exists. And he's like, “no, I don't, because I operate people every day, I open their skulls, and I know that there are billions of billions of neurons that are connected to each other in a very unique way, and we can never know too much about them because it's impossible to really know all about those billions of neurons in each person in particular”. He goes that that is consciousness, that is what we call consciousness, “the unknown connection of billions of neurons that each person has in its own way”. What would you say to his explanation?
SH: That's the wrong explanation. Looking at interactions among neurons is saying the brain is a computer, neurons are no different than bits, gates, switches, synapses, switches and gates. And if you get enough computation, enough complexity, then you have consciousness. That's the major assumption in neuroscience, in artificial intelligence and psychology, but after all these decades of studying it, they don't have a clue how that could produce consciousness. And therefore, you get these nihilistic answers like he just said that, well, it must not exist. If I can't explain it, by the way, I look at it, it must not exist. But they're looking at it the wrong way. They have to look at it at a deeper level, where you get the quantum effects, which give you consciousness. I think quantum effects, specifically in microtubules, are necessary for consciousness.
SS: I also spoke to neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky. And his thinking is that quite likely human behaviour is biology, not what we deem our decisions and choices. If that is to be believed, what good is consciousness for? I mean, if it doesn't translate into free will but only serves to make us good at executing our biological programme?
SH: I don't agree with Sapolsky. I like his work on other things, but not on that. And the problem is that if you look at just what you can measure with electrical activity at the level of neurons, and you and I are talking, you say something and I answer you back immediately as fast as I can, if you were to measure the activity in my brain that corresponds with what you said, it happens after I've responded. So people will say as Sapolsky did that I'm responding nonconsciously, and have an illusion after the fact that I was in control. Now in the quantum approach, we get around that, because the quantum collapses can send quantum information backwards in time. So even though the activity is going to happen a fraction of a second afterwards, it goes backwards in time so that when I'm speaking, I'm speaking consciously my consciousness is in control. So what Sapolsky said would make consciousness an epiphenomenon like merely along for the ride and having an illusion of being in control, and that's what most neuroscientists think, because they look at the brain as a computer. But if you look at the brain as a quantum computer, you can have backward information and therefore consciousness can happen in real-time and can have free will. In fact, I have a paper called “How quantum brain biology can rescue conscious free will” by this backward time effect.
SS: Let's talk about the central point of your theory and that is our consciousness is born into so-called microtubules. What are they? Where are they located?
SH: They're in all your cells. They're in all neurons, brain cells, but also all your cells, and in fact, they're found in all living cells in animals and even plants and bacteria and other simple organisms have something very similar. So they're in all living systems basically. And they are part of the cytoskeleton so they supply bone-like support to the cell. And they also do things inside the cell. For example, cell division, they pull the chromosomes apart and create the daughter cells and this has to be done perfectly or else you get the development of cancer. So they do all these highly organised, orchestrated things. And in neurons, they establish the connections, they establish the shape of the cell. And they do things that seem to require intelligence, which is what got me interested in them in the first place back in the 70s. I was studying cancer and looking at cell division, and everybody else got interested in the genes and the chromosomes but I got interested in how these structures actually perform a dance almost and pull the chromosomes apart, they seem to have some intelligence. And at that time it was discovered that they're also found in neurons and are quite plentiful in neurons. And since I was interested in consciousness, I got the idea that might be processing information at that level. And if you look at their structure, they actually look like a computer grid, like a matrix of states of units connected in a lattice which can interact and can process information. And I spent a lot of time looking at how they could process information, doing models and simulations with physicists, showing that they're capable, at least theoretically, of processing information. And they do things that seem to require information. So it's logical that they are not just the bony skeletal support of the cell, but also the nervous system of the cell, kind of like the brain and the nervous system within each cell.
SS: But what makes you think that the processes going on inside the microtubules are actually consciousness and not something else?
SH: Right, a very good question. So I spent about 20 years studying microtubule information processing, going around to neural net and artificial intelligence meetings, telling people that if they want to simulate the brain, they've got to go much deeper than the level of neurons and each neuron has about a billion tubulin subunits of microtubules, which can oscillate and switch at about 10 megahertz. So the standard approach in artificial intelligence and neuroscience is that we have about 100 billion nerve cells with 1000 synapses switching at about 100 hertz, something like that, which gives you 1016 operations per second. So, AI, the singularity neuroscientists, Henry Markram and everybody said, “Well, if you can have a computer, do 1016 operations per second, it will be conscious because that's what the brain does and the brain produces consciousness. Therefore, a computer like that would”. Well, we've already reached that and it doesn't. But I didn't know why. And one day in about 1990 somebody said to me, “Okay, let's say you're right, and there's all this information processing going on. How would that explain consciousness? How would that explain love, joy, feelings, the shade of blue, pinkness, envy, all these feelings and emotions that's now known as the hard problem of consciousness?” And I really didn't know. But fortunately, that person suggested I read a book by Roger Penrose called “The Emperor's New Mind”, which attacked the idea that consciousness is a computation and he used Goedel’s theorem and basically argued that something like understanding, knowing something's right needs something outside the system to prove it, either a mathematical proof or just understanding something. And computers are very good at brute force calculations and playing chess, but they don't really understand anything. So Roger suggested there was something else that was required for understanding other types of feelings and consciousness. And that he said at that time was a type of collapse of the wave function or quantum state reduction, a solution to the measurement problem in quantum mechanics. And when I read that I was kind of blown away by it, because it seems so far afield to go from the brain to... and he said that these collapses were due to fluctuations in the structure of the universe so that seemed pretty strange. But when I read it more and more, it made sense, it was logical, and it was and still is the only actual mechanism proposed for consciousness other than emergence leading to complex computation and somehow consciousness happens. Roger said that when these types of collapses, these types of quantum state reductions due to an objective threshold objective reduction, when that happened, and it's that caused a moment of consciousness, and that would be happening everywhere in the environment at a very low level. But these moments of consciousness would be what he called proto-conscious because they wouldn't have any meaning, they wouldn't have any self, they wouldn't have any memory, they would be random and just come and go. And what he needed was something in the brain that could organise these objective reductions, these simple, primitive moments of consciousness that were, didn't have any meaning and put them together and to give the kind of consciousness we have. A I look at that as kind of like the OR-moments that are happening everywhere in the environment. It’s something like they have qualia, they have experience, something like if you go to the symphony, and the orchestra is warming up, and each musician is tuning his or her instrument. So you hear this and you hear all these sounds and noise but it's a cacophony, it's disorganised. And then the band, the orchestra plays, and you get music. So what the brain does and what the microtubules do is organise or orchestrate these quantum collapses, these objective reductions to give something like music so it's organised, it has resonance, it has meaning and that's our theory - orchestrated objective reduction. So only in the brain or in other systems with microtubules you get an organised or orchestrated consciousness as opposed to consciousness being here, there and everywhere without meaning. I was going to say that it seems weird to say that there's experience in quantum state reductions everywhere in the environment. But a lot of neuroscientists have resorted to panpsychism because they can't explain consciousness by computation or complexity. Famous neuroscientists like Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi, and many others resort to panpsychism because their approach doesn't really work and so they say, well, there must be consciousness in everything. And I would agree with that, except it's not in the material, it's in the collapse that creates the state of that material. It's a dynamic process. So consciousness is actually a sequence of events of specific events that select states of reality and give moments of consciousness.
SS: Is there like any reliable way to actually study what's going on inside those microtubules?
SH: Yes, there is, first of all, by studying how anaesthesia works, that's one way. And we have a proposal in for a grant to study quantum interference in microtubules. So let me digress for a moment. When we proposed quantum stuff in the brain, people thought the brain is too warm, wet and noisy, it can't happen in biology, because if you want to build a quantum computer in the lab, you have to go to absolute zero temperature. But then they discovered that in photosynthesis, which plants use to make food, that the photons from the sun are transferred to the area to make food by a process that involves quantum superposition. So the energy is converted to electron states and one protein goes through seven different pathways at the same time. This is quantum superposition of multiple possibilities. And plants use it, the trees I can see behind you are using it now even in the fading sunlight to make food using this quantum coherence effect at ambient temperature. So if a plant can do it, then we thought our brains can do it. And it turns out, it's probably a very similar mechanism. So we proposed experiments at a very excellent laboratory who's done a lot of this quantum coherence and photosynthesis work to look for the effect of quantum interference in microtubules. And if we get it, then we're going to see if it goes away with anaesthesia.
SS: You're also saying that when the brain stops functioning, the information inside the microtubules doesn't disappear. So where does it go? And also, how do we know that the information inside them does not disappear with the physical body?
SH: Well, when you wake up, you still remember who you are and what you were doing and so forth. And memory doesn't form under anaesthesia. But when you wake up, you remember what you knew before. And we think that memory is hardwired in the microtubules and we've shown how that can happen. But memory is another mystery. Most people would say it's in synapses, but the proteins that make up synapses only last hours to days. And yet memories can last a lifetime. So it has to be hardwired. And we think that it's in the microtubules. So in the system itself, that's having these quantum vibrations, memory is encoded. And when you're under anaesthesia, they're inert or inactive. But when you wake up and the vibrations start again, the memory is still there, it never left it was just inactive while you were unconscious.
SS: So you say that once we figure out once and for all, what is consciousness and where it stems from in the brain, we'll be able to upload consciousness into an alternative medium? What media - like computer chip or like another human?
SH: It could be in a set of microtubules, another set of microtubules, or it could be in a system that operates like microtubules as a quantum computer, which can have objective reduction threshold for self-collapse - fullerenes, for example, the C60 molecules or the nanotubes, graphene, these are all organic molecules that have the same high resonance electron dipole oscillations that happen inside proteins. So, the only hope, I think, for uploading consciousness into an alternative medium would be something like a microtubule which could be in fullerenes or some organic molecule.
SS: Stuart, such a pleasure talking to you and I hope we figure out sooner rather than later where is consciousness, where it stems from and what is consciousness. It's been great talking about your idea of what it represents, and I hope we'll meet soon again.
SH: Okay, Sophie, great talking to you. Thank you so much.
SS: Thanks, Stuart, bye.