Finding Spirit in the Fabric of Space and Time

An Exploration of Quantum Consciousness with Stuart Hameroff, MD


(Originally published in EnlightenNext, Issue 46, Spring/Summer 2010)


Introduction

Over the past thirty-five years, the mysterious connection between quantum physics and human consciousness has steadily become a central tenet of East-meets-West spirituality. Somehow, people have managed to find an irresistibly compelling relationship between the intangible world of subatomic particles and the immaterial realms of consciousness and 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 relationship between mind and matter through the lens of quantum physics: The Self-Aware Universe by Amit Goswami, The Spiritual Universe by Fred Alan Wolf, and Issue 11 of this magazine, whose cover posed the question “Can Science Enlighten Us?”

I eagerly bought the first two, but after skimming through the magazine, I decided to leave it on the rack. Already a firm believer in the physics-equals-mysticism idea, I found EnlightenNext’s special brand of playful skepticism off-putting. Why did they doubt, when the evidence was so clear? It was obvious that the deeper dimensions of consciousness and the deeper dimensions of matter converged in the mysterious realm of quantum physics. Right?

Not necessarily. I soon realized that just because the nature of consciousness is mysterious and the nature of quantum physics is also mysterious, it doesn’t mean that both mysteries are ultimately the same thing. By the time the enormously popular film What the Bleep Do We Know!? hit the scene in 2004, launching the physics-and-consciousness idea into a whole new quantum orbital, I was working as an editor for EnlightenNext and took it upon myself to review the movie with a newfound appreciation of the many subtleties involved. As it turned out, as far as I and my fellow editors were concerned, the supposedly perfect marriage between quantum physics and consciousness was probably little more than wishful New Age thinking. And when it came to the more serious scientific suggestions that physics had something to say about consciousness, we generally found the arguments less than persuasive.

But that was before we met Stuart Hameroff.

Although he holds the title of Professor Emeritus of Anesthesiology and Psychology at the University of Arizona and spends much of his time in surgery at the University of Arizona Medical Center, Hameroff is best known for his work in the arena of consciousness studies. In 1994, he founded the Toward a Science of Consciousness conference series, bringing together the world’s leading experts on consciousness every two years in Tucson, Arizona, to explore various shades of something called the “hard problem”—how and why subjective mind appears to arise from objective matter. And for nearly twenty years, Hameroff has collaborated with Oxford mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose to develop (and defend) a quantum-physics-based theory of consciousness that is impressive, original, and ambitious, to say the least. The theory is a fusion of Hameroff’s and Penrose’s distinctly different areas of expertise: Hameroff’s studies of tiny structures called “microtubules” within human brain cells and Penrose’s work on the relationship between quantum physics, gravity, and the geometry of space and time. In some sense, their work could be considered a “grand unified theory” of quantum physics and consciousness—a theory somewhat more sophisticated than anything you’re likely to find in the spiritual section of your local bookstore. After interviewing Hameroff, I found myself questioning my previous dismissal of what I’ve come to call “quantum mysticism.” And I’m sure others will find his arguments equally illuminating.

That said, consider yourself warned: The interview that follows is not an easy read. In fact, it may require more than one careful reading before the different threads that Hameroff lays out begin to stitch themselves together in your mind. But the payoff is worth the effort. I’m not sure if I agree with all of Hameroff’s conclusions—and he himself insists that his theory has yet to be proven—but I do know that his arguments for a relationship between quantum physics and consciousness are among the most persuasive I’ve ever heard.

—TH


MYSTERY OF THE MICROTUBULES

TOM HUSTON: You’re best known as one of the world’s leading proponents of a quantum-physics-based theory of the mind. How did you first become interested in the mystery of consciousness?

STUART HAMEROFF: I first got interested in consciousness while taking a philosophy course in college in the late 1960s. Studying mostly science and math, I took a course called “Philosophy of Mind” and was intrigued by the problem of explaining how conscious experience arises from the pinkish-gray meat we call the brain. And I remained interested through medical school, being drawn toward fields having to do with consciousness—psychiatry, neurology, neurosurgery. But one day, while doing research in a cancer lab in the early 1970s, I was looking at cells dividing under a microscope, observing how the DNA-containing chromosomes were separated and pulled apart into perfectly equal mirror images of each other. These tiny strands called microtubules and these little machines called centrioles, which were composed of microtubules, would pull the chromosomes apart in an elegant dance that had to be perfect, because if they divided unequally, abnormal cancer cells could result.

For some reason, I became fixated on how these little molecular machines knew exactly what to do. I wondered how they were organized and guided, and whether there might be some intelligence, if not consciousness, at that level. Around the same time, it was discovered that these microtubules existed in all cells—especially neurons. Brain neurons are just full of them. So it occurred to me that microtubules, which seemed to display some kind of intelligence or consciousness in cell division, might have something to do with consciousness in the brain.

I was in medical school in Philadelphia then, and after I graduated I decided to take a clinical internship in Tucson, Arizona, to figure out what I wanted to do next. I was leaning toward neurology, but then I met the chairman of anesthesiology at the new University of Arizona medical school hospital. He told me that if I really wanted to understand consciousness, I should figure out how anesthesia works, because anesthesia selectively erases consciousness while sparing other brain 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 fall apart. So there was a theory that anesthesia worked by deconstructing brain microtubules. It turns out, fortunately, that that’s not true. You need about five times the amount of anesthesia for microtubule depolymerization than you need to cause somebody to lose consciousness. But it showed that anesthetics do affect microtubules, which further suggested that these things might have something to do with consciousness.

TH: What, exactly, is a microtubule?

SH: Microtubules are molecular assemblies; they’re cylindrical polymers composed of repeating patterns of a single, peanut-shaped protein called tubulin that can flex “open” and “closed.” The tubulin proteins self-assemble into these beautifully elegant hollow cylinders with walls arranged in hexagonal lattices. And these cylinders form the cytoskeleton, the bone-like structural support or scaffolding, inside all animal cells. But they’re continually moving and rearranging. The rearrangements account for all cell growth, development, movement, and synaptic regulation—pretty important stuff. Now, the more asymmetrical a cell is, the more it needs the structural support. So neurons, with their long axons and dendrites, need a lot of microtubules. If you look inside a single neuron, you see hundreds of microtubules composed of something like one hundred million tubulin protein subunits. You could say that neurons are actually made of microtubules.

TH: Interesting! Most people think that consciousness arises from activity between brain cells, or neurons, but you’re saying, well, no, it may actually be these extraordinarily tiny structures within neurons that provide the real physical basis for consciousness.

SH: Yes, exactly. Although I should add that a couple of other things helped lead me in this direction. The first was that I looked at single-celled organisms like paramecia. A paramecium is one cell and therefore has no neurons, because those are also single cells. But it swims around, finds food, avoids obstacles and predators, finds a mate, has sex, and can learn. It seems to have some intelligence. Not necessarily consciousness, but it has cognitive functions—“cognition” meaning sensory processing, control of behavior, and so forth. It has some intelligence and yet it has no neurons. It does, however, have microtubules, which suggested to me that the paramecium might use its microtubules to organize its behavior and cognition.

The second thing was that around the time I learned about microtubules, I also began to discover computers, and I started reading about how computer switching matrices, lattices, and networks worked. As I looked more closely at the structure of microtubules, consisting of a complex lattice of tubulin proteins that can switch rapidly between being open or closed—oscillating in the nanosecond range—it occurred to me that microtubules might be acting as molecular-scale computers, the intelligence system inside cells. As an analogy, if you think of a building, you have the girders and the structural supports and you also have the wiring and the communication systems. So the idea was that microtubules are both of these, acting not only as structural supports and the machinery involved in cell division but also as computers related to intelligence and consciousness.

TH: So you basically started to realize that there’s actually a lot more activity—and maybe even conscious activity—going on inside the brain than most people imagine?

SH: That’s right. I realized that to understand the human brain, rather than looking at it as one hundred billion dumb neurons interacting together to produce something intelligent and conscious, we needed to recognize the fact that each neuron was itself incredibly complicated and had, if not some degree of consciousness of its own, at least some internal intelligence or processing related to consciousness.

So I started working with some engineers and physicists doing modeling and simulations of microtubules, and we showed that microtubules could indeed be very efficient computational devices. Instead of each neuron registering as a single bit in the computer of the brain—a one or a zero, firing or not firing—the combined microtubule activity within a single neuron equaled potentially one thousand trillion operations per second in computing power. And that model raised the complexity of the brain tremendously.

This was mostly in the 1980s, and I was going to a lot of artificial intelligence conferences where they were trying to model and simulate the brain as a network of simple neuronal switches, and I was saying, “No. Each of your simple switches is incredibly complicated. You have to take into account this added computational complexity.” And they didn’t like that very much because it pushed their goal of simulating a human brain way, way down the road. So I became kind of unpopular among that crowd.

But then one day someone said to me, “Okay, let’s say you’re right. Let’s say each neuron has all this enormous added computation going on. How would that explain conscious experience? How would that explain why we have feelings, why we see red, why we feel pain? How does that explain consciousness?” And I realized I didn’t have an answer to that, which brings us to what the Australian philosopher David Chalmers famously dubbed the “hard problem” of consciousness research.

TH: The question of how we get mind out of matter.

SH: Exactly.


ROGER PENROSE & SCHRÖDINGER’S CAT

SH: Fortunately, someone suggested that I read a book by the English mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose called The Emperor’s New Mind. So I did, and it was really amazing. The book’s title was intended as a slap in the face to artificial intelligence theorists, because they maintained that if you had sufficiently complex computation in a computer, it would be conscious. But Roger argued—in a somewhat obscure mathematical direction, something called Gödel’s theorem—that consciousness involves something noncomputable, that understanding, or awareness, is not a computation. But after ruling out the idea that consciousness was strictly a computation, he then offered a mechanism for consciousness that involved something so far out of left field that most people considered it—and still consider it—rather bizarre. And that has to do with quantum physics.

Reading The Emperor’s New Mind, I was floored with the breadth and subtlety of Penrose’s knowledge, much of which I didn’t understand. I did know that anesthetic gases exert their effects by quantum forces, so consciousness having something to do with quantum physics made sense to me. And I had this gut feeling that he was onto something; he had a mechanism for consciousness based on neurons in the brain being in a state of what physicists call “quantum superposition,” which I’ll explain in a minute. I read that and thought there was something to it, but his model didn’t seem to have the right biological structure. I said to myself, well, maybe microtubules are the quantum computers that Penrose is looking for. So I wrote to him and we eventually arranged a meeting in his office at Oxford.

Roger is a gentle, unassuming man, despite being incredibly brilliant and well regarded. And he had me do almost all the talking. So I just started talking about microtubules and showed him the 1987 book I’d written on the subject. He listened intently, asking questions, and was particularly taken by the Fibonacci geometry of the microtubule lattice, because he’s basically a geometry expert at heart. After several hours, he finally said, “Well, that’s very interesting.” I said goodbye and didn’t think anything was going to come of it. But about two weeks later, I was having dinner with some friends in London and they said, “Guess what? We were at this conference at Cambridge and Roger Penrose was talking about you and your microtubule stuff.” Soon after that, I received an invitation to a conference in Sweden that Roger was attending, and we struck up a friendship and decided to start developing a formal model of consciousness based on his theory of quantum gravity and the possibility of quantum superposition among microtubules in the brain.

TH: Pretend I don’t know anything about quantum physics. Could you explain what a quantum superposition is? And how it relates to consciousness or microtubules?

SH: Quantum means, literally, the smallest fundamental unit of energy, like a photon—an indivisible unit of light. But behavior at the quantum level is bizarre. It’s so bizarre, 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 which Newton’s laws of motion, electromagnetism, and other basic physics describe pretty much everything very well. If you throw a ball, its trajectory, speed, location, and so forth can be easily predicted. But as we go to smaller scales—let’s say, for argument’s sake, atoms and smaller—we enter a world where completely different physical laws apply, and predictions become a lot more difficult. For example, particles can be in two places or states at the same time. They can be not just here or there, but here and there, simultaneously. That’s 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. And some quantum physicists say that until a quantum system is consciously observed or measured, it remains in a superposition of multiple possibilities, multiple coexisting states. But once measured, the quantum probability wave instantly collapses or reduces to just one state.

TH: This means that a human observer is required to collapse a state of superposition?

SH: In one interpretation of quantum physics, yes. The Danish physicist Niels Bohr popularized this model, which became known as the Copenhagen interpretation. And if you take this to its extreme, you might suppose that if you’re sitting in a room and there’s a picture hanging behind you, then the picture might be smeared out in multiple places at once until you turn around and look at it. In other words, anything unobserved would be in a wave-like state of quantum superposition. That idea is pretty bizarre, however, and Erwin Schrödinger, another early quantum physics pioneer, thought it was downright silly. So he came up with his famous thought experiment, called Schrödinger’s Cat, to try to demonstrate how nonsensical it was.

Now, the question raised by Schrödinger’s thought experiment is, how big can a quantum superposition get? It’s been shown repeatedly in experiments that small particles can be in a superposition of multiple coexisting possibilities until you make a measurement, but could something as large as a cat be in two states simultaneously? There’s still no answer to that, but the question has led physicists to come up with alternatives to the Copenhagen interpretation—different models of wave function collapse that don’t necessarily require a conscious observer.


A QUANTUM OF CONSCIOUSNESS

TH: And you prefer one of these alternatives to the Copenhagen interpretation?

SH: Well, Roger’s theory was one of these alternatives. He said that a quantum superposition may indeed be collapsed into a single, definite state through conscious observation, but what about a system that’s never observable from the outside? What about quantum activity inside a human brain?

Roger proposed that in such cases, once the wave function proceeds to a certain point, it self-collapses due to an intrinsic, objective threshold in the fabric of spacetime itself. And when the collapse of that superposition happens, it results in a moment of consciousness. In other words, he argued that consciousness doesn’t cause the quantum wave-function collapse, as the Copenhagen interpretation says. Rather, he suggested that consciousness is the wave function collapse, or at least one particular kind of collapse. It’s a quantum collapse that gives off fundamental units of conscious awareness, just like an electron orbital shift gives off a photon of light. And like photons, quanta of consciousness come in a spectrum of different intensities, frequencies, and qualities.

TH: Wow! In this interpretation of quantum physics, superpositions naturally collapse themselves? And those collapses somehow produce consciousness?

SH: Yes. In Roger’s model, which he calls orchestrated objective reduction, you don’t always need an outside observer. If a quantum system evolves to a critical threshold—which involves gravitational warping on the quantum scale—it will self-collapse. There’s an objective, natural reduction of the quantum wave function that results in a single moment of consciousness, or a single “quantum” of consciousness, if you will. And when these collapses happen again and again in your brain, you get a series of conscious moments that give rise to your experience of a stream of consciousness. So consciousness, in this model, consists of a series of discrete events, yet is experienced as continuous. You can think of it kind of as frames in a movie, only with a movie you have an outside observer. In this case, the frame itself has the observer built into it. The conscious moment and the quantum wave-function collapse are one and the same event.

It’s a pretty profound idea. Roger starts off with Einstein’s general relativity, which shows that a large mass, such as the sun, would cause a large gravitational curvature in the fabric of spacetime itself. And Roger said, well, there’s no reason that general relativity wouldn’t also hold true at very small scales. He said it’s possible that if you have a quantum particle in two places at the same time—in a state of superposition—then the particle on the left and the particle on the right could each be creating a tiny amount of curvature, resulting in a bifurcation in spacetime geometry. According to something in quantum physics called the Many Worlds Hypothesis, each of those curvatures might then branch off and form a whole new universe. But Roger said no, these quantum curvatures and separations are unstable, and after a given time they will self-collapse to either one curvature or the other. And when that type of gravitational self-collapse occurs, it results in a moment of consciousness.

He came to this through several lines of reasoning that are pretty breathtaking in terms of his audacity and insight—and, some would say, craziness. But this was both Roger’s solution to the problem of what collapses the quantum wave function and also to the hard problem of consciousness. Amazingly, he also tied general relativity, quantum gravity, and so forth into this single theory, killing about four or five birds with one stone.

TH: So according to Penrose, gravitational effects at the quantum level are causing wave functions to collapse automatically, emitting little bursts of consciousness that somehow result in our own continuous, moment-to-moment experience of being conscious, aware, and alive?

SH: That’s right. I don’t know how familiar you are with the English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, but his thinking was very much along these lines as well. He said that consciousness and matter were inextricably linked, emerging in a sequence that he called “occasions of experience.” In his view, the universe isn’t made of things or particles. It’s a process. It’s made up of events. And in the early nineties, a physicist named Abner Shimony pointed out that Whitehead’s occasions of experience are very much like quantum wave-function collapses, so our view seems pretty consistent with Whitehead’s.

Whitehead’s perspective also helps to explain the hard problem, or why we have conscious experience in the first place. When Roger and I first came out with our theory, we didn’t address the hard problem per se, but once the Journal of Consciousness Studies did a special issue devoted to nothing but the hard problem, we took a stab at it. And we basically took a sort of Whiteheadian, “proto-panpsychist” approach. Ordinary panpsychism would say that everything has consciousness—every atom, every molecule, every this, every that. But that idea just never really made sense to me. So we used a variation on panpsychism that I think does make sense, and this was a proto-panpsychism saying that at least the precursors for consciousness are fundamental and built into the universe at what’s known as the Planck scale, which is the tiniest, most primordial level of quantum spacetime.

If you imagine the Planck scale as basically a complex geometric pattern that is fractal in nature, capable of repeating itself at higher scales and sizes, then embedded in that geometric quantum pattern are the presumably irreducible components of reality, the basic building blocks of existence. Physics says that fundamental properties of matter such as spin, mass, and charge are irreducible components of the universe that are somehow embedded in this Planck-scale geometry. So Roger and I proposed that maybe the qualia—the primary components of consciousness, of awareness, or at least their precursors—are also fundamental, irreducible, and built into the basic fabric of the universe. This could include Platonic information as well, such as the qualities of goodness, truth, and beauty. After all, why should the precursors to matter be present at that level but not the precursors to mind?

TH: Good question. You’re saying it’s possible that at least some basic level of consciousness may be as fundamental to the universe as the laws of physics?

SH: Yes. Whitehead had the idea that these occasions of experience, or discrete moments of conscious awareness, arise like ripples within a wider ocean of protoconscious experience. And in the model I’ve developed with Roger, those discrete moments of human consciousness are actually quantum wave-function collapses, which occur within the wider, universal field of protoconscious experience that is Planck-scale spacetime geometry.

I wouldn’t say the universe is conscious, just like I wouldn’t say the universe is entirely yellow, or purple, or wet, or whatever. But under the right conditions, any of these can be true for small regions of the universe. The un-collapsed, still-superpositioned precursors of consciousness are somewhat like dreams. When objective reduction occurs, the universe—at least a tiny portion of it—wakes up.


GAMMA FREQUENCY & ALTERED STATES

TH: We began by talking about microtubules, so please tie these together for me. How do these quantum wave-function collapses relate to what is happening with the microtubules in the brain?

SH: Well, if we look at what’s happening among the microtubules, we know that consciousness in the brain happens about forty times per second. It’s called gamma synchrony, and this comes from something a guy in Germany named Wolf Singer discovered in the 1980s while experimenting with highly sensitive EEG machines. Typically with an EEG you get squiggly lines on the display showing you delta, theta, alpha, and beta waves. These indicate electrical impulses in the brain ranging from zero up to about thirty hertz, or waves per second. But Singer discovered a higher, perfectly coherent frequency that came to be known as gamma synchrony, which ranged from thirty to ninety hertz, or even higher, though forty hertz is typical. This perfect electrical synchrony is the best marker we have for a neural correlate of consciousness in the brain. And in the model that Roger and I have developed, we’ve proposed that Singer’s gamma synchrony is actually evidence of quantum-state collapses happening forty times per second—or more—among coherent, organized networks of the brain’s microtubules.

TH: You’re saying that by monitoring someone’s brain with an EEG, researchers have been able to isolate a certain frequency of activity that only correlates with conscious experiences?

SH: There has to be a critical amount of gamma synchrony, but yes. And it can occur in different parts of the brain, kind of moving around. For example, if somebody is smelling a rose, they’re going to have this gamma synchrony in the olfactory cortex, the part of the brain dealing with smell. If you’re having visual consciousness, you’re going to have gamma synchrony in the visual and frontal cortices. For sexual pleasure, there is gamma synchrony in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. And so on. The gamma synchrony can be anywhere in the brain at any time, and it does correlate with consciousness. So the idea, again, is that our consciousness is actually a sequence of discrete events, a sequence of quantum frames occurring at roughly forty times per second. And just like frames in a movie, our consciousness appears continuous because the frames are happening in rapid succession.

Now, I should note that the frequency of conscious events can vary. And it could be that in heightened or altered states, we’re having more conscious moments per second, which would mean that our perception of the outside world would be slower. For example, when there’s a car accident and the car is spinning, people often report that time seems to slow down and the outside world appears to be moving half as fast as it usually does. This could be because their rate of gamma synchrony is changing from around forty hertz to eighty hertz. And similarly, someone once asked Michael Jordan, when he was in his prime, how he was able to outperform the other team so well. And he said when he’s playing well, it’s like the other team is in slow motion. So maybe Michael Jordan was experiencing sixty, seventy, or eighty conscious moments per second and the defense was only experiencing something like forty.

We also see it in meditating monks. Buddhist texts describe flickerings of pure awareness that have actually been counted—something like six and a half million conscious moments in a day, which turns out to be in the gamma synchrony range. And a few years ago, the Dalai Lama sent some of his best meditators to a lab up in Wisconsin. They found that while meditating, the monks had the highest gamma synchrony ever recorded. They were actually operating at about eighty to one-hundred hertz, whereas the experimental control subjects were at forty. And even at baseline, before they would sit down to meditate, the monks showed an unusually high rate of gamma synchrony. Years of meditating had changed their brains so that they were just normally in this higher-frequency gamma range. That suggests they’re having a richer and more intense conscious experience more frequently than the average person.


THE SPIRITUALITY OF SPACETIME GEOMETRY

TH: Okay, I have a question about this. If consciousness is arising as a certain frequency of quantum collapses in the brain, then your model could still be considered materialistic, right? Consciousness is still ultimately a byproduct of brain activity, just pushed down to the level of what you’re calling quantum spacetime?

SH: Hang on a second! Material means “matter.” Matter derives from something more fundamental, which is quantum spacetime geometry. So this goes way below the scale of matter. The basis of matter is . . . immaterial.

TH: Can you elaborate?

SH: Basically, if you think of mind and matter and the relation between them, there are a number of different philosophies to choose from. First you have dualism, where mind and matter don’t relate; there’s a brick wall between them. Next, you have ordinary materialism, the conventional view that says that matter creates mind. Then you have idealism and various mystical approaches, which say that mind creates matter. But in my opinion, none of these work. They all have problems. So the final choice, I think, is what’s called neutral monism, which has been put forth by such figures as Bertrand Russell, William James, and Baruch Spinoza in Western philosophy, and various nondual positions in Eastern philosophy. Neutral monism says that there’s one common underlying entity that gives rise to, on the one hand, matter, and on the other hand, mind. In our model, that underlying entity that gives rise to both matter and mind is quantum spacetime geometry. In the Vedic traditions, you could call it Brahman, the underlying ground of being. So it’s not materialistic—it goes below matter. We’re talking twenty-five levels of magnitude smaller than an atom. There’s no matter there! There’s something else. I call it spacetime geometry; the Hindus call it Brahman. You can call it whatever you like—spirit, the cosmos, quantum gravity—whatever it is that gives rise to both mind and matter and underlies all of reality.

TH: So you’re saying that based on your model, reality could be seen as being fundamentally spiritual?

SH: First of all, let me say that Roger doesn’t relate his work to spirituality. But I personally have nothing to lose, so I figure why not? I recently wrote a blog about this topic after attending a conference on atheism, which I called “Being the Skunk at an Atheist Convention,” because I made quite a stink about spirituality there that didn’t go over well. Basically what I said was that I don’t follow any organized religion—and Richard Dawkins, Patricia Churchland, and other atheists were there bashing religion pretty hard—but I said that based on what we know of quantum physics and consciousness, we have to take seriously the scientific possibility of spirituality. And in defining what I meant by spirituality, I mentioned three things. The first was an interconnection between living beings and the universe as a whole, and I said that this could be possible through the phenomenon of quantum entanglement, which refers to the ability of two particles to be intimately connected beyond the normal limitations of space and time. The second was some kind of divine guidance or cosmic wisdom influencing our choices, which could be due to Platonic values embedded in fundamental spacetime geometry. And finally, there was the possibility of consciousness persisting outside of the body or after death.

About ten years ago, there were these two studies about near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences that came out of Europe. Both involved several hundred patients who had cardiac arrests, and I think they found that around seventeen percent of the patients had these near-death or out-of-body experiences. Then the BBC did a show called “The Day I Died,” in which they asked the researchers who did the studies if they could explain these experiences scientifically. And they replied, “We have no idea. Why don’t you ask Penrose and Hameroff, because they have this weird quantum thing?” Anyway, Roger wouldn’t comment, but I said, well, under normal conditions, consciousness is happening at the level of spacetime geometry in and around the microtubules in the brain. However, when the blood and oxygen stop flowing, and quantum coherence in brain microtubules stops, then the quantum information that was there isn’t destroyed. It continues to exist at the Planck scale, and it can leak out or dissipate but remain entangled as a certain pattern, at least temporarily. So if the patient is revived, the quantum pattern gets drawn back into the microtubules inside the brain, and the patient reports having had a near-death or out-of-body experience. If the patient actually dies, then it’s conceivable that the quantum information can remain entangled in some sort of afterlife state. And perhaps the information can get pulled back into a new creature, a zygote or embryo, in which case you’d have something like reincarnation happening.

Now, I’m not offering any proof that this happens. I’m just providing a plausibility argument. I’m saying that if it does happen, here’s how it could happen based on our model. It’s scientifically plausible that if consciousness is a quantum effect occurring in spacetime geometry, then any particular pattern of consciousness doesn’t go away, because quantum information doesn’t go away. It just reorganizes itself within spacetime geometry.

TH: Let’s see if I’ve got the gist of your theory straight. Essentially, you’re saying that at least some basic degree of consciousness is woven into the fabric of spacetime itself, and it’s the coherent quantum activity among the microtubules in our brain that allows us to amplify or strengthen the basic universal consciousness that’s already there?

SH: Yes. Or simply to gain access to it, connect to it, become one with it. In our model, consciousness is a natural process occurring in spacetime geometry at the Planck-scale level. And the microtubules in the human brain have evolved into a specific configuration that allows this process to happen in a way that also involves cognition, computation, and intelligence.

You know, most people think that consciousness emerged over eons as a byproduct of random mutations and the inherent complexity of natural selection, but I look at it the other way around. I think a fundamental field of protoconscious experience has been embedded all along—since the Big Bang—in the Planck scale, and that biology evolved and adapted in order to access it and to maximize the qualities and potentials implicit within it.

Of course, putting consciousness at the most fundamental level of the universe also has big implications for enlightenment and spirituality. And I would say, to speculate a bit, that when anyone meditates or becomes enlightened, they’re moving more deeply into that quantum realm. I think that when you meditate and attain nothingness, or what people call nothingness in their meditation, it isn’t quite nothingness. I think it’s actually spacetime geometry, and you’re accessing the source of enlightened wisdom by tapping into that fundamental field. You move more deeply into the basic fabric of the universe and actually become more consciously a part of it.

In fact, the Kabbalah says that we have this world of wisdom and light and then we have the world of aggravation and strife, and that consciousness dances on the edge between the two worlds. I think that’s very close to what’s happening—that consciousness is dancing on the edge, or is a process on the edge, between the quantum and classical worlds. So spiritual practices such as meditation allow you to dive deep and become immersed in that quantum Platonic world of wisdom and light, which is the foundation of all things, both mental and material. You could even call it God if you wanted to.

And that’s why I believe that if the quantum consciousness hypothesis is proven, it will give credence to the spiritual dimension of life. It will undermine the materialists. I think it will give people a lot of hope.


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