Human consciousness researcher Dr. Stuart Hameroff describes how discoveries are revealing more brain complexity than artificial intelligence (AI) experts suspected.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Dr. Stuart Hameroff. Dr. Hameroff is Professor Emeritus in the Departments of Anesthesiology and Psychology at the University of Arizona, where he also serves as the Director of the Center for Consciousness Studies. During the interview Mr. Tsakiris and Dr. Hameroff discuss whether DMT-based psychedelic experiences provide evidence that our consciousness exists outside of the brain:
Alex Tsakiris: Your understanding of the quantum mechanics of the neuron really stirs up a lot of angst among the AI singularity crowd. Tell us a little bit about that controversy.
Dr. Stuart Hameroff: To look at our brain as 100 billion simple switches — to look at a neuron as a switch or gate — it’s an insult to neurons. It’s just not that simple. If you study biology you realize this. But a lot of biologists get bogged down with the details and lose the big picture. They see the information processing in the cell as a minestrone soup of chemicals when they’re ignoring the solid state system in the microtubules.
The bit with the AI and the singularity, there’s actually a couple of points of friction here. As I said, I spent 20 years studying microtubule information processing. The AI approach would be, roughly speaking, that a neuron fires or it doesn’t. It’s roughly comparable to a bit, 1 or 0. It’s more complicated than that but roughly speaking. I was saying no, each neuron has roughly 10-8 tubulins switching at roughly 10-7 per second, getting 10-15 operations per second per neuron. If you multiply that by the number of neurons you get 10 to the 26th operations per second per brain. AI is looking at neurons firing or not firing, 1,000 per second, 1,000 synapses. Something like the 10 to the 15th operations per second per brain… and that’s without even bringing in the quantum business. So that alone was pushing the goalpost way, way downstream into the future.
Today we welcome Dr. Stuart Hameroff to Skeptiko. Dr. Hameroff is Professor Emeritus in the Departments of Anesthesiology and Psychology at the University of Arizona, where he also serves as the Director of the Center for Consciousness Studies.
Dr. Hameroff, thank you so much for joining me today on Skeptiko.
Dr. Stuart Hameroff: You’re welcome, Alex. It’s nice to be here.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, there are so many interesting topics I want to talk to you about, but I thought we might start with your credentials. As I was looking through some of your research in preparation for this interview, I ran across a comment from a blogger along the lines of Isn’t this guy just an anesthesiologist who’s playing around with quantum mechanics and consciousness stuff as a strange sort of hobby? So I just laughed that off because you have a distinguished academic career, a list of publications as long as my arm with some of the world’s leading physicists.
But then I ran across a similar comment again, and it got me thinking about the deeper issue of consciousness studies and the problem that I think a lot of folks have in figuring out who’s really qualified to talk about this stuff. We see philosophers throwing in their opinions, neurologists, physicists, so do you want to talk a little bit about this field in terms of who’s really qualified to venture into this area and say what consciousness is all about?
Dr. Stuart Hameroff: Well, I don’t presume to judge anybody. I think a ditch-digger might figure it out just out of luck or because he or she is motivated, so that’s not the point. I think if you have a good approach you should use it. Now, my approach has been two-fold. I got interested in microtubules inside cells when I was in medical school. I was intrigued by the idea that they were molecular scale information processing devices and followed that for about 20 years, modeling microtubules as classical computers.
Then I ran into the question of how would that explain consciousness and that’s when I got into the quantum stuff. Now at the same time, in parallel, I was studying the mechanism of anesthesia and I am an anesthesiologist but I’m also an academician and my research has to do with anesthetic mechanisms and consciousness. I think understanding how anesthetics actually act is a tremendous tool or lever to get at the problem of consciousness. That’s been my strategy.
It turns out that anesthetics act strictly by quantum level forces, very weak London forces in phases or regions inside proteins which are conducive to quantum processes. So my research has led me into the quantum realm, working with Roger Penrose and also because anesthesia acts strictly by quantum forces.
Alex Tsakiris: I think the other thing that throws people is you do have a way of making this stuff almost understandable. I mean, when we get into quantum mechanics it just gets so confusing so fast. I love, by the way, the fact that you often that Richard Feynman quote in your presentations that “Anyone who claims to understand quantum mechanics is either lying or crazy.”
I think that’s a great, disarming way to start this. You do seem to have a way of simplifying this and making it more accessible. Has that been one of your goals in communicating this?
Dr. Stuart Hameroff: It’s been a necessity because as I said, I was working on the classical information processing microtubules inside neurons for about 20 years and never considered quantum effects. The basic idea of that was that where most people, people in AI for example, consider the brain as 100 billion or so individual switches, neurons firing or not firing, each of which is fairly simple comparable to a bit or an operation in a computer.
But I realized that individual cells are incredibly complicated and if you look at something like a paramecium, a single cell which swims around and finds food, finds a mate, has sex, can learn, it doesn’t have any synapses. It’s just one cell. You have to look at a lower level and microtubules seemed to be perfectly designed computers. I thought they were classical computers until I ran into what’s now known as the “hard problem” and I read Penrose’s book about quantum physics. I was intrigued; I didn’t really understand it all. I’d studied physics but not really quantum physics and so beginning in the early 90s I started studying it.
I tried to put it in a way that made sense to me and then in my writings and talks and what-not, I’d try to explain it the way I understand it. It doesn’t involve a whole lot of math. It’s more conceptual which is actually the Penrose approach. He’s very much more conceptually oriented even though he has all the mathematical tools. He puts in in a way that I think is understandable and then I put my own interpretation on it. So it’s how I can understand it. I just put out there the way I look at it.
Alex Tsakiris: I think it’s great and it does help a lot of people. At the same time, maybe you want to dig into this a little bit more. You just touched on it. Your view of things and your understanding of the quantum mechanics of the neuron really stirs up a lot of angst among the AI singularity crowd. Tell us a little bit about that controversy. What really underlies that is that it doesn’t just chip away at the whole AI singularity thing but it really gets to this whole idea of whether we are just our brain or whether we’re something more.
Dr. Stuart Hameroff: It’s okay to say we are our brain but we’ve got to understand what our brain is. To look at our brain as 100 billion simple switches-and that’s an oversimplification-but a neuron is a fundamental switch or gate-a synapse is a gate-it’s an insult to neurons. It’s just not that simple. If you study biology you realize that. But a lot of biologists get bogged down with the details and lose the big picture. They see the information processing in the cell as a minestrone soup of chemicals when they’re ignoring the solid state system in the microtubules.
The bit with the AI and the singularity, there’s actually a couple of points of friction here. One is, as I said, I spent 20 years-the 70s and 80s-studying microtubule information processing. The AI approach would be, roughly speaking, that a neuron fires or it doesn’t. It’s roughly comparable to a bit, 1 or 0. It’s more complicated than that but roughly speaking.
I was saying no, each neuron has roughly 10-8 tubulins switching at roughly 10-7 per second, getting 10-15 operations per second per neuron. If you multiply that by the number of neurons you get 10-26 or something like that operations per second per brain. AI is more looking at neurons firing or not firing, 1,000 per second, 1,000 synapses. Something like the 15th operation per second per brain. So I was saying, “No, no, no. The information processing capacity is 10-11 more on the squaring, what you guys are saying.”
Strictly looking at the level of microtubule information processing, that’s without even bringing in the quantum business. So that alone was pushing the goalpost way, way downstream into the future. Smaller in terms of hardware, in which case you get into quantum effects anyway.
So in the 80s I was also going to neural network meetings and some AI meetings and saying this. I was pretty unpopular because it’s making their job much more difficult in terms of attaining brain equivalents. But that was strictly on the basis of number-crunching.
Now if you then bring in the quantum effect, I read Penrose’s book, The Emperor’s New Mind, which was obviously a slap in the face at AI for completely different reasons based on Godel’s theory on non-computability saying that consciousness and understanding was not just computation, it was something else. What that “else” was involves something to do with quantum physics.
So when I teamed up with Roger, we had two issues with AI. One was just the capacity, moving it down to the molecular level and the second was the whole quantum business. So we were, and probably remain fairly unpopular with AI. I gave a talk at the Singularity Summit a couple of years ago and I got somewhat of a cold reception. I enjoyed doing it but what we’re saying is in conflict with a major premise of AI and singularity. So there is some friction there. It’s not that I’m being antagonistic; I’m just saying what I believe.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. I want to get back to that mind equals brain thing but I think the way I want to approach it is to talk a little bit about near-death experience science. It’s something that you’ve delved into, written a little bit about, and it’s something that we’ve certainly covered a lot on this show. To me, it seems like we can get some real world data out of that research that seems to get at the heart of some of these questions about consciousness.
But before we dig into that, I want to comment or ask you to comment on a paper I read of yours on near-death experience where it sounded like it was written to anesthesiologists. The idea was maybe we need to take more care in preserving or understanding the near-death experience in that it’s significant to people and we need to do everything we can to understand it and foster it.
Dr. Stuart Hameroff: Yes. You know, the near-death experience stuff has been around for a while. It actually goes back thousands of years, people reporting this phenomenology.
Then about 15 years ago, two studies in Europe, one by Peter Fenwick’s group in England and one by Pim Van Lommel in the Netherlands, looked at hundreds of patients who had cardiac arrests. They interviewed them. They were resuscitated.
Afterwards about 17% reported this near-death experience with very, very similar phenomenology of white light, a tunnel, a sense of calm, visits from dead relatives. In some cases, floating outside of their bodies, the so-called out-of-body experience. This is very, very consistent among all these patients in these two different studies. But again, it was all subjective and people kind of picked it apart.
Anyway, about two years ago now, two studies came out measuring brain activity at the end of life. One was from Dr. Chawla at George Washington University. He’s an anesthesiologist and a critical care guy who also does palliative care. So he takes care of dying patients.
He had a series of patients from whom support was withdrawn. They were on life support; they were terminal; they were pretty much hopeless; and they didn’t appear to be conscious. The families and the doctors decided to withdraw support, which is not uncommon.
So they did, but Chawla put the brain monitor that we use in anesthesia-actually, there are several of them-which measures depth of anesthesia. In just a rough sense it gives you this number 0 to 100 where awake/conscious would be between 80 and 100. An anesthetized patient should be between 40 and 60 and below that is insult to the brain in one way or another. So these patients were all at anesthetic or sub-anesthetic levels to start with.
As they went through the ventilation and the cardiac support, their hearts slowed down and eventually stopped and their blood pressure dropped. The brain activity number dwindled down toward 0 in almost all these cases, or near 0. Then when the heart had stopped or was about to stop, there was a burst of activity in the brain monitor up to conscious levels, at about 80, which lasted anywhere from 90 seconds to 20 minutes in one case. Then the patient died. Then it abruptly stopped again.
Chawla, in his article, suggested that maybe this was the correlate of this so-called near-death experience except obviously these patients did die. Perhaps had they come back they would have said, “Hey, I saw the white light, the near-death experience, and so forth.”
So in one of these instances they analyzed the raw data and how this number was derived and they found that it involved gamma synchrony, EEG 30 to 90 Hz electrical activity that correlates with conscious awareness. So he suggested this was some indicator that this was conscious activity or something like it that could be the near-death or maybe even out-of-body experience.
And then there was another study in the anesthesia literature in a journal called, Anesthesia and Analgesia from a group from Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle. David Auyong was the first author. They reported on three patients for what’s called post-cardiac death organ donation, where hopeless terminal patients are allowed to die just for the same reason that they were hopeless and terminal and not conscious. Then soon after death they take their organs for organ transplantation.
So they monitored these patients and they saw the exact same thing in terms of when the awareness number dwindled to 0. Then there was this sudden burst of activity up to near 80, indicating awareness that lasted minutes and then it went away.
I wrote a letter to the Anesthesia and Analgesia. Now, in this paper they didn’t mention the possibility that it was a near-death experience. They just said, “We saw this activity. We don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the last gasp of neuronal depolarization due to potassium buildup.” An explanation that doesn’t make sense for a lot of reasons, but they didn’t address the possibility that it was a near-death experience.
So I wrote a letter to A and A and said, “Hey, this could be a near-death experience. You look at Chawla’s paper and if this is the case, since we have to take care of these patients and we do, these procedures are done. What do we do? Do we wait until the patient has what could be a near-death experience, until it goes away?” I thought that was a reasonable recommendation.
I also suggested the possibility that since there’s the possibility of suffering when you turn off the ventilator but they’re not allowed to give drugs that might ease that because it would hasten demise and there are laws against that, that an option would be to give the drug ketamine which is an anesthetic and doesn’t hasten demise.
It was a clinical recommendation which I thought was quite reasonable, but the journal was quite obstinate and wouldn’t publish it, which annoyed me but I wasn’t that surprised. They wouldn’t even allow mention of the possibility of a near-death experience. I think I put it on my website and put it out just as a general thing, since that’s how I feel about it. I might have to take care of a patient like that and I wonder what’s the best thing to do?
Alex Tsakiris: I think it’s so interesting because it kind of gets into this next domain of if we really embrace these near-death experiences as something real and meaningful to people–which all the work that’s been done, particularly Bruce Greyson at the University of Virginia has probably focused on that more than anyone else on the psychological and life-changing effects of these-that they’re valuable to people, then we do medically have some responsibility to take care of people with that in mind.
Of course, the larger issue that we just brushed over a couple times is whether these near-death experiences really are suggestive of a consciousness outside of the brain and whether despite the model that you’ve laid out perhaps consciousness is fundamental and the brain is really kind of the secondary player. Any thoughts on that model? I’m sure it comes up frequently with your conferences and folks who study consciousness.
Dr. Stuart Hameroff: Well, I wouldn’t call the brain a secondary player but I have said that it’s possible that these end-of-life brain activities could be consciousness leaving the body, so-to-speak. Certainly in the out-of-body experiences that possibility is raised. Now I know a lot of skeptics and critics say, “Well, if you stimulate a certain area of the angular gyrus-I forget exactly where it is you get this sense of being outside of the body-but that’s not really the same. I’ve heard talks about that and it’s really a distortion of bodily sense. It’s not really the same.
Also the possibility that near-death experience is just hypoxia, lack of oxygen, but that doesn’t hold true either because hypoxia patients don’t have this clarity and calm. They don’t form memory. So I think the phenomenology lacks a good explanation.
I’ve been asked basically if it’s possible that consciousness can exist outside the brain in the case when the brain has stopped being perfused and the heart has stopped and so forth. I think we can’t rule it out. I think it’s possible because in the model that Penrose and I developed-and I should say this is my speculation and Roger wouldn’t go there-but I would say that since consciousness is happening it seems to us at the level of spacetime geometry, the most fundamental level of the universe, or at least down to that level in the brain in and around the microtubules, right now while we’re conscious, while we’re talking.
If that’s the case then when the brain stops functioning some of this quantum information might not be lost or dissipated or destroyed but could persist in some way in this fundamental level of spacetime geometry which it seems is not local and something like holographic repeating in scale and distances and persists perhaps even indefinitely at a finer scale, which would be a higher frequency, smaller scale but also lower energy. And it could exist somewhat indefinitely.
I’ve been interviewed a couple of times recently about cases of reincarnation where the evidence was pretty compelling. There is no way that, for example, a child could know details about a World War II pilot who died 40 years previously across the world but knew things that were shockingly revealing. Of course there are endless accounts of this sort of thing. They’ve been written off in the past because well, there’s no possible way that could occur.
But here’s the way it could possibly occur. Consciousness could occur at the fundamental level of spacetime geometry when the brain stops being perfused. It doesn’t dissipate but remains together by entanglement. So an individual’s personality, consciousness, memory, soul if you will, could be entangled in a quantum sense and persist as fluctuations in the time scale of the universe.
That could happen. I’m not saying it does. I don’t claim any evidence, but it’s a possibility. It’s a scientific possibility. I think it’s logical and I don’t see any-whether it’s testable or not is another question. I think it could be in some sense but I think it’s a logical possibility and it could happen scientifically.
Alex Tsakiris: And/but in that model the brain is still the primary driver of consciousness. You don’t see consciousness, if it does extend beyond time, continue to evolve.
Dr. Stuart Hameroff: Well, maybe. I don’t know. I think the counter to that would be okay, we die and our consciousness is like a snapshot and stays that way without changing, but that would mean it’s not really conscious. I think it’s possible that it could continue to evolve, continue to be conscious and exist in a meaningful way, particularly it could even be at a higher level of awareness.
It could be that the scale-free dynamics that pattern’s repeated at higher frequencies, lower scale than spacetime geometry and so it might even be more experiential, more evolving, more conscious in this other sense. I think that’s possible. Obviously I’m speculating but I think it’s a scientific possibility.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, I understand. So in this speculation we don’t have to speculate as to the means for the mechanism for this consciousness continuing at the higher level or anything like that. You’re just saying conceptually you can see where some of those pieces could fall into place and consciousness could continue and…
Dr. Stuart Hameroff: I don’t think we can rule it out. I know that if you look at the brain and it’s producing consciously strictly by classical computing and emergence, then there’s no way. But that model can’t explain a lot of normal, everyday features about consciousness. For example, why we have experience, the binding problem, global synchrony in the brain which is difficult to explain by normal neuronal firings.
Real-time conscious perception-if you take the classical approach and don’t consider quantum explanations you’re left with that consciousness is an epi-phenomenal illusion that happens after causal action, lacks any causal effect at all. It’s pretty pathetic actually to have a consciousness that way. So near-death and out-of-body and all this other stuff aside, just to have the kind of consciousness we think we have, I think we need quantum effects.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, next I want to take you on one final side note here. Maybe you can pick this up and explain it for me. I saw just a snippet of an interview where you made reference to Richard Davidson’s work at the University of Wisconsin into how time is both perceived and maybe actually physically happening inside the brain. Can you pick up on that and tell me what your thought is on that?
Dr. Stuart Hameroff: Well, first of all, ask the question is consciousness a continuum or is it a sequence of discrete events? I think there’s a lot of evidence that consciousness is a sequence of discrete events. It appears continuous but just like if we see a movie or a video it appears continuous but it’s actually a sequence of discrete frames. I think consciousness is also a sequence of discrete frames. William James talked about this although he vacillated on it.
If you go back to the Buddhist texts–and I’ve documented this in a couple of papers-thousands of years ago meditators were able to count flickerings in the nothingness that they achieved and somehow counted I think 6-1/2 million in a 24 hour period. If you do the math it turns out to be right in the high gamma frequency range, something like 75 Hz or 80Hz, something like that. Anyway, gamma synchrony, let’s just say 40 Hz which is typical, is the best marker of consciousness. That’s correlate of consciousness. And suggested there are 40 frames per second in our consciousness. We don’t notice the gaps but 40 frames.
The Tibetan monks that the Dalai Lama selected and sent to Davidson’s lab, when they meditated they went to like 80 to 100 gamma synchrony or 80 to 100 conscious moments per second. There’s a lot of lore about the fact that when you’re excited-let’s say you’re in a car accident and the car is spinning. The outside world slows down. Michael Jordan, when asked why he’s such a good basketball player says, “When I’m playing the defense is in slow motion.”
That means that under altered states when we’re excited or enlightened even in the monks’ framework, we’re having more conscious moments per time. We go from 40 to 80 for example. The outside world then appears slower to us because we’re actually going faster and having more conscious moments per second. That means the outside world is going at its normal rate but appears slower. This is consistent with a lot of phenomenology about being in the flow and time slows down and this and that. When you meditate that happens. I think when you go to a higher frequency of conscious moments per second the outside world would appear slower.
Alex Tsakiris: Fascinating stuff. Okay, we need to get you out of here so you can go watch the NCAA Tournament there in Tucson.
Dr. Stuart Hameroff: [Laughs] I’m in full-blown March Madness.
Alex Tsakiris: Tell us real quickly what else is going on with you there at the University and any other projects you might have going on.
Dr. Stuart Hameroff: Well, first of the Center for Consciousness Studies is sponsoring the Toward a Science of Consciousness 2011 in Stockholm, Sweden. It’s going to be fantastic. Roger Penrose will be there. Luc Montagnier, Nobel Laureate, talking about some very controversial stuff. The latest and greatest in theories about neuroscience and the brain, particularly with electromagnetic field theories. The electromagnetic field itself may be conscious or it may be the conscious vehicle. These theories have been around for a while. Now there’s evidence.
We’re going to have talks by the people who have been saying this for years, as well as those talking about recent evidence for feedback–the brain’s electromagnetic field feeding back on itself, influencing neurons. David McCormick from Yale will talk about that. Also Raphael Malloc and Dean Marple Nz talking about massively coherent excitations in the brain. And we’re going to have a session along those lines on transcranial therapies which I think is some really interesting stuff. There are a variety of non-invasive modalities applying magnetic fields to the scalp, getting effects on consciousness and neural activity.
Electric fields, Allan Synder from the Center of the Mind in Australia talking about applied electric fields revealing intrinsic savants fields that may be in all of us. Also, Trent cranial ultrasound effects which turn out to have effects on cognition and consciousness.
I’m most interested in this, in the latter, ultrasound. In fact, we have a study going at the University of Arizona on transcranial ultrasound where you take the same sort of ultrasound that you use for fetal imaging and various imaging in medicine. We use them for nerve blocks and vascular access in anesthesia and using that energy as a therapy in the brain. We’re looking at it in chronic pain patients but other people have been looking at it for traumatic pain injury, depression, Autism, for all kinds of stuff.
There was a study just recently on blocking the essential tremor. I think the mechanism of the ultrasound, which is vibrations in the 20,000 up to several megahertz, is actually through vibrations of microtubules. Now a lot of people we’re going to feel don’t have a clue as to what the mechanism is that they’re discussing. It turns out that the microtubules have residences in the kilohertz to megahertz range and I think the ultrasound is stimulating these microtubules and having an effect on consciousness. So that’s a research area that we’ll be working in in the next few years, I’m sure.
Alex Tsakiris: Wow. A lot to chew on there. What’s the date for the conference?
Dr. Stuart Hameroff: May 3-7. I should also mention that Deepak Chopra will be there and will be giving a workshop just before the conference and also participating in a session on consciousness In the universe with Leonard Mlodinow who co-wrote the book with Steven Hawking, The Greater Design, that got a lot of controversy and press, with Deepak and also Paola Zizzi as an astrophysicist talking about consciousness in the early universe.
This is mixed in with several sessions on backward time effects in the brain and microtubules and quantum effects and also things about flow in the brain and other approaches that are more in the mainstream. So it’s going to be a very interesting, interdisciplinary, high level, rigorous conference in a great setting. It’s at the Aula Magna Hall where they give out the Nobel Prizes in a very elegant setting.
Www.consciousness.arizona.edu is the website for our center which has all the information about the conference. We’ve been doing this conference since 1994 and I started doing them and Dave Chalmers joined in and a number of other people and we keep doing it because it’s my way of bringing what I think is the most interesting stuff in this field into one place so I can learn and everybody else can learn.
I have my own agenda, there’s no question about that. But this is not just my stuff; this is really the latest relevant neuroscience and cognitive science and physics related to the problem of consciousness. We will have a session on the end-of-life brain activity with Lakhmir Chawla and Peter Fenwick, who I mentioned earlier.
Alex Tsakiris: Terrific. Let’s wrap it up just by saying thanks again, Dr. Hameroff, for joining us today on Skeptiko.
Dr. Stuart Hameroff: Thank you, Alex, appreciate it.