The nature of consciousness remains deeply mysterious and profoundly important, with existential, medical and spiritual implication. We know what it is like to be conscious – to have awareness, a conscious ‘mind’, but who, or what, are ‘we’ who know such things? How is the subjective nature of phenomenal experience – our ‘inner life’ – to be explained in scientific terms? What consciousness actually is, and how it comes about remain unknown. The general assumption in modern science and philosophy – the ‘standard model’ – is that consciousness emerges from complex computation among brain neurons, computation whose currency is seen as neuronal firings (‘spikes’) and synaptic transmissions, equated with binary ‘bits’ in digital computing. Consciousness is presumed to ‘emerge’ from complex neuronal computation and to have arisen during biological evolution as an adaptation of living systems, extrinsic to the makeup of the universe. On the other hand, spiritual and contemplative traditions, and some scientists and philosophers consider consciousness to be intrinsic, ‘woven into the fabric of the universe’. In these views, conscious precursors and Platonic forms preceded biology, existing all along in the fine-scale structure of reality.
Stuart Hameroff’s research involves a theory of consciousness which can bridge these two approaches, a theory developed over the past 20 years with eminent British physicist Sir Roger Penrose. Called ‘orchestrated objective reduction’ (‘Orch OR’), it suggests consciousness arises from quantum vibrations in protein polymers called microtubules inside the brain’s neurons, vibrations which interfere, ‘collapse’ and resonate across scale, control neuronal firings, generate consciousness, and connect ultimately to ‘deeper order’ ripples in spacetime geometry. Consciousness is more like music than computation.
Professor Hameroff and colleagues also study how anaesthetics act in microtubules to erase consciousness, and how transcranial ultrasound (TUS) can be used noninvasively to resonate brain microtubules and treat mental, cognitive and neurological disorders.