Stuart Hameroff and the Science of Consciousness [ videos ]

This blog post will not help your practice. Please feel free to skip it. I know I will regret posting it, because some will take it and only add to the fires of their conceptual thinking.

While I do not really believe it necessary (or even helpful) for us to have materialistic-based understandings of “mind” — of what might be or not be “mind” — it does satisfy some sensual-intellectual desires to have the possibilities discussed by a mind and elegant as this. And so I share this because it resonates so powerfully with views on the nature of consciousness as set forth by the Buddha and in the vast textual tradition of the Abhidharma.

I had never really heard of Stuart Hameroff before, since I don’t read much on the subject and will hopefully never pretend to have any expertise or standing to speak of all these scientific matters. But it might be this enduring effect of having been raised in a science-based family — and having a Mother who I adored being a PhD in biochemistry — and having been forced, by said family, to endure so many years of watching science documentaries on PBS, instead of game shows, that I notice inside some really really strong residual affinity and even passion for this way of thinking.

This talk is, far and away, the clearest and most plausible science-based insight into the true nature of “consciousness” that I have ever heard, anywhere, outside of Buddhism: “The ineffability of the conscious experience” (William James) brought into the realm of material.

I came across Dr. Hameroff while watching a talk by Sr. Richard Penrose, the recently-laureated Nobel Prize in Physics, on the nature of quantum physics and the search for the scientific proofs of consciousness and its emergence. Hameroff calls Penrose “the world’s leading expert on the structure of the universe, at the very nitty-gritty level, basically the Planck scale”.

I really think that consciousness is more like music, than it is like computation. And the brain is more like a quantum orchestra, than it is a computer.

From his website:

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. 

My 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.

These two videos are engaging conversations over his views. Very interesting stuff, that part of the “emptiness is form” part of the Heart Sutra teachings about the nature of “it.”