Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Model for Quantum Consciousness

I first read Sir Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind back when I was in college working on my psychology degree. In the book Penrose reviewed much of the current research surrounding consciousness and concluded that the most reasonable explanation for the bulk of the data was to envision consciousness as a coherent phenomenon related to quantum interactions within the brain. At the time of publication, 1989, he concluded that these quantum effects were possibly unknowable, which would seriously impede any effort to construct a fully conscious form of artificial intelligence.

However, since 1989 incredible strides have been made in terms of mapping brain activity. More recently Penrose and others who support his ideas believe they may have found the point of interaction between neurons and the quantum realm, in the form of tiny structures called microtubules. With the recent fuss over Eben Alexander's Proof of Heaven, near-death experiences are once more in the news. On a recent television documentary, Penrose colleague Dr. Stuart Hameroff commented on how the quantum microtubule idea could model and explain such experiences.

According to this idea, consciousness is a program for a quantum computer in the brain which can persist in the universe even after death, explaining the perceptions of those who have near-death experiences.

Dr Stuart Hameroff, Professor Emeritus at the Departments of Anesthesiology and Psychology and the Director of the Centre of Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona, has advanced the quasi-religious theory. It is based on a quantum theory of consciousness he and British physicist Sir Roger Penrose have developed which holds that the essence of our soul is contained inside structures called microtubules within brain cells.

They have argued that our experience of consciousness is the result of quantum gravity effects in these microtubules, a theory which they dubbed orchestrated objective reduction (Orch-OR). Thus it is held that our souls are more than the interaction of neurons in the brain. They are in fact constructed from the very fabric of the universe - and may have existed since the beginning of time.

The article comments on this idea's similarity to certain Buddhist concepts, and in fact it's quite Hermetic and Thelemic as well. One of the primary challenges of applying this model to near-death experiences, though, is how it was worked out in the first place. Microtubules were first implicated as a possible model for consciousness because they are small enough to interact with quantum effects, but also because in patients who are under anesthesia they seem to stop functioning. The problem there is that patients under anesthesia generally report nothing while near-death survivors usually report variations on the familiar account - a tunnel, a light, seeing deceased family members, and so forth. Therefore, for any such model to match the data it would have to account for the differences between the two states. Just showing that microtubule activity stops during those experiences is not enough.

In fact, near-death experiences that include no corroborating information - that is, most of them - are extremely difficult to validate. It would seem like a case such as Eben Alexander's, in which brain activity appears stopped for an extended period of time and the patient nonetheless reports lengthy and detailed visions, is pretty much the best evidence available. This is likely what is fueling sales of Alexander's book, but as it turns out the account wasn't written down right away and thus could have easily become mixed up with all sorts of other memories and so forth. Those circumstances profoundly limit the case's usefulness. At the same time, more common experiences that last for only a few minutes is difficult to measure. What are you going to do, slap a brain scanner on a dying patient as doctors rush to save him or her? Doing so simply is not practical, nor is it in the patient's best interest.

Having followed Penrose's work for many years I do think that the microtubule hypothesis has some promise, but a lot more work needs to be done before it can be treated as in any way definitive. It could potentially explain some magical effects in quantum terms, and furthermore a device that scans microtubule potentials might turn out to be the Holy Grail of mind research, the consciousness measure. In fact, that's the direction I would recommend to researchers such as Hameroff - adapt the technology currently in use to measure microtubule activity and see if readings from it can be related to particular states of consciousness, including those of advanced spiritual practitioners. Don't just recruit Buddhists and study meditative states, recruit practical magicians and measure the states that arise during magical operations.

That sort of data is pretty much what we need to take the model much further. We need to know something more than whether the microtubules are on or off, but how they respond to willed actions, contemplation, and practical ritual operations. A strong correlation between microtubule potentials and state of mind is what it would take to support the hypothesis, and if such a relationship can be identified it means we're a lot closer than most of us generally think to unlocking the mechanism behind magick. Once we can measure what consciousness is doing in a reliable fashion, all that really is left is to relate it to practical magical operations performed against known probabilities. The hope would be that once this is done, we can identify on a neuroanatomical level the precise brain states that correspond to successful magical outcomes.

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