by Paul Ratner
Credit: Alex Grey
Human consciousness is one of the grand mysteries of our time on
How do you know that you are "you"?
Does your sense of being
aware of yourself come from your mind or is it your body that is
What really happens when you enter an "altered" state
of consciousness with the help of some chemical or plant?
While you would think this basic enigma of our
self-awareness would be at the forefront of scientific inquiry,
science does not yet have strong answers to these questions.
One way to think of consciousness is to conceive of it as a
byproduct of numerous computations that are happening in
The integrated information theory, created by neuroscientist
Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, proposes that
conscious experience is an integration of a great of amount of
information that comes into our brain, and that this experience is
Your brain interweaves a sophisticated information web
from sensory and cognitive inputs.
The global workspace theory of consciousness, developed by Bernard Baars, a neuroscientist at the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla,
California, says that maybe consciousness is simply the act of
broadcasting information around the brain from a memory bank.
But there are some who think our attempts at understanding the
nature of consciousness through neuroscience are doomed to fail
unless quantum mechanics is involved.
University mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose, for one, thinks
that consciousness has quantum origins.
Together with noted anesthesiologist Stuart Hammeroff, who teaches
at the University of Arizona, Penrose came up with the Orchestrated
Objective Reduction theory of the mind.
The theory is somewhat
outlandish, but cannot be easily dismissed considering that Roger
Penrose is regarded by many as one of the world's most brilliant
people for his contributions in cosmology and general relativity.
is known also for his prize-winning work with Stephen Hawking on
Physicist Lee Smolin once remarked that Penrose is,
of the very few people I've met in my life who, without reservation,
I call a genius."
Sir Roger Penrose
Penrose believes that consciousness is not computational.
awareness is not simply a mechanistic byproduct, like something you
can make a machine do. And to understand consciousness, you need to
revolutionize our understanding of the physical world.
particular, Penrose thinks the answer to consciousness may lie in a
deeper knowledge of quantum mechanics.
an interview with Nautilus's
Paulson, Penrose uses an example from quantum computing to explain
qubits of information remain in multiple states until coming
together into an instantaneous calculation, called "quantum
coherence," making a large number of things act together in one
Here's where Penrose's theory draws upon the work of Hameroff by
saying that this quantum coherence takes place in protein structures
microtubules reside inside the neurons
in our brains and can store and process information and memory.
Penrose and Hameroff think that microtubules are quantum devices
that are orchestrating our conscious awareness.
This theory is not appreciated by everyone in the scientific
community, with many critics saying the brain is too "warm, wet, and
noisy" and cannot sustain a quantum process.
Another physicist, Max Tegmark, even calculated that the brain cannot possibly think as
fast as this idea requires. Hawking is also not on board, suggesting
Penrose should stick with his field of expertise.
Yet, a 2013 study by Japanese scientists added some proof to the
theory by Penrose and Hameroff as researchers
detected vibrations in the microtubules.
Penrose and Hameroff then
proposed that by focusing brain stimulation on these vibrations one
"benefit a host of mental, neurological, and
Still, this theory of consciousness
in the Universe - A review of the 'Orch OR' Theory) is rather on the outs in a field
that hasn't had much advancement in a while.
In 2017, Sir Roger Penrose
launched the Penrose Institute to
study human consciousness through physics and to differentiate it
from any potential artificial intelligence (AI).
Watch Sir Roger Penrose explain how he came to conceive of quantum
structures in the brain: