Is your brain really a computer, or is it a quantum orchestra tuned to the universe?

Stuart Hameroff’s research involves a theory of consciousness 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.

What is consciousness?

How does the brain, a lump of pinkish-gray meat, produce feelings, emotions, understanding and awareness (a question termed the ‘hard problem’ by philosopher David Chalmers)? The mystery has been pondered since ancient times, and is currently approached from many disciplines, e.g. neuroscience, medicine, philosophy, psychology, physics, biology, cosmology, the arts, meditative and spiritual traditions, etc. All these have something to say, but from different directions, like the proverbial blind men describing an elephant. Moreover consciousness cannot be directly measured, observed nor verified, a problem in my field of anesthesiology where we want our patients to be decidedly unconscious. How do we even study consciousness scientifically?

In 1994 I co-organized the first international, interdisciplinary conference ‘Toward a Science of Consciousness‘ at the University of Arizona in Tucson, bringing together all approaches under one umbrella, or more aptly perhaps, one circus tent. After some confusion, the interdisciplinary concept took hold, thanks largely to a famous talk the opening morning by David Chalmers.

The audience was restless after two boring lectures when Dave took the stage. With waist-length hair, strutting like Mick Jagger, he explained that brain functions including memory, learning, language and behavior were difficult, but still relatively easy compared to the really ‘hard problem’ of subjective experience, feelings, emotions, awareness, thinking, composed of raw components termed ‘qualia’. Moreover he offered his own view that qualia were somehow ‘funda-mental’, akin to basic features of the universe, like electrical charge, magnetic spin, photons or mass, and that there must exist some ‘psycho-physical bridge’ between brain activities and a basic level of the universe. The audience buzzed. At the coffee break I eavesdropped on chatter about the ‘hard problem’.

The conference was a hit. Soon thereafter we started the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona, Dave Chalmers joining our philosophy department to become the Center’s director. The conferences have been held annually since 1994, alternating between Tucson and elsewhere around the globe. In 2014 we celebrated the 20 year anniversary, borrowing from the Beatles’ famous Sgt. Pepper album cover to feature prominent consciousness researchers past and present (Figure 1). The 2015 conference was held last June at the University of Helsinki in Finland, and plans are underway for the 2016 conference (now called just ‘The Science of Consciousness’) back in Tucson next April (Figure 2)

Stuart Hameroff Ad Artwork jpeg final 1350x135096dpi artwork only

Figure 1. ‘It was 20 years ago TODAY! Conference poster art for 20 year anniversary conference ‘Toward a Science of Consciousness 2014′.

Thanks to the Beatles, Abi Behar-Montefiore and Dave Cantrell, Biomedical Communications, The University of Arizona.

Stuart Hameroff fig 2

Figure 2. Conference poster for ‘The Science of Consciousness 2016’. Thanks to Roma Krebs, Biomedical Communications, The University of Arizona.


So….what is consciousness? Where do we stand after all these years?

Scientists and philosophers have historically likened the brain to contemporary information technology, from the ancient Greeks comparing memory to a ‘seal ring in wax,’ to the 19th century brain as a ‘telegraph switching circuit,’ to Freud’s sub-conscious desires ‘boiling over like a steam engine,’ to Karl Pribram’s notion of the mind as a hologram, and finally, with a fairly large scale modern consensus, the computer. The current standard dogma is that consciousness emerges from complex computation among brain neurons and their synaptic connections acting like binary ‘bits’ and logic switches. Within this general view are approaches such as ‘integrated information’, ‘global workspace’, ‘predictive coding’, ‘scale-invariance’, ‘Bayesian probabilities’, ‘pre-frontal feedback’, ‘higher order thought’, ‘coherent volleys’ and ‘synchronous oscillations’. But the core idea is that the brain is a computer, a complex network of simple bit-like neurons.

Accordingly, and because brain disorders like depression, Alzheimer’s disease and traumatic brain injury ravage humanity without effective treatments, scientists, governments and funding agencies have bet big on the brain-as-computer analogy. Billions and billions of dollars and euros are being poured into ‘brain mapping,’ the notion that identifying, and then simulating brain neurons and their synaptic connections can elucidate and reproduce brain function, leading to brain prosthetics and perhaps even ‘mind downloading’, transferring one’s consciousness into a computer when facing bodily death. President Obama’s Brain ‘Initiative’, the European ‘Human Brain Project’ and the Allen Institute’s efforts in Seattle to map the mouse cortex are aimed at such goals. But so far at least, the bet isn’t paying off.

For example, beginning more modestly, a world-wide consortium has precisely simulated the already-known 302 neuron ‘brain’ of a simple round worm called C elegans. The biological worm swims nimbly to forage, eat and mate. But even when prodded, the simulated C elegans just lies there, with no functional behavior. Something is missing. Funding agencies are getting nervous. Bring in the ‘P.R. guys.’

In a New York Times piece ‘Face It, Your Brain is a Computer’ (June 27, 2015), NYU psychologist/neuroscientist Gary Marcus desperately beat the dead horse. Following a series of failures by computers to simulate basic brain functions (much less approach the ‘C-word’, consciousness) Marcus is left to ask, in essence, if the brain isn’t a computer, what else could it possibly be?

Actually, rather than a computer, the brain is looking like a multi-scalar vibrational resonance system – not unlike an orchestra. Rather than a computational output, consciousness seems more like music.

Like many natural systems, dynamical brain information patterns repeat over spatiotemporal scales in fractal-like (‘1/f’) nested hierarchies of neuronal networks, with resonances and interference beats. One example of a multi-scalar spatial mapping is the 2014 Nobel Prize-winning work (O’Keefe, Moser and Moser) on ‘grid cells’, hexagonal representations of spatial location arrayed in layers of entorhinal cortex, each layer encoding a different spatial scale of surrounding environment. Moving from layer to layer in entorhinal cortex is precisely like zooming in and out in a Google map.

Indeed, neuroscientist Karl Pribram’s assessment of the brain as a ‘holographic storage device’ (which Marcus summarily dismissed) seems now on-target. Holograms encode distributed information as multi-scalar interference of coherent vibrations, e.g. from lasers. Pribram lacked a proper coherent source, a laser in the brain, but evidence now points to coherent dynamics in ubiquitous structures called microtubules inside brain neurons as high frequency origins of the brain’s vibrational hierarchy, the drumbeat, or percussion section of the orchestra.

Microtubule madness

Microtubules are cylindrical polymers of the protein ‘tubulin’, major components of the structural cytoskeleton inside cells, and the brain’s most prevalent protein. Their computer-like lattice structure, self-organizing capabilities and vibrational resonances have suggested to various scientists that microtubules might process information. Pondering purposeful behavior of single cell organisms without synaptic connections, the famed neuroscientist Charles Sherrington observed in 1951  ‘of nerve there is no trace, but the cytoskeleton might serve’, calling microtubules ‘the cell’s nervous system’.

I became obsessed with microtubules in a research project on mitosis in medical school in the early 1970s. In mitosis, or cell division, microtubules (‘mitotic spindles’) delicately tease and separate chromosomes into precisely equal ‘daughter cell’ pairs. If the process isn’t perfect, if something goes awry, if the chromosomes are separated unequally, abnormal genotypes, maldevelopment or cancer can ensue. My colleagues in the lab focused on the chromosomes and genes – this was the dawn of gene sequencing and genetic engineering – but I was fascinated with how the spindle microtubules ‘knew’ what to do and where to go. There seemed some form of intelligence, if not consciousness, at that level. As microtubules were also shown at that time to have polymer lattice structure similar to computers (also new to me then) and prevalent in neurons, I got the idea they were molecular scale information processors underlying consciousness.

In the 1980s, my colleagues and I proposed microtubules acted like computers, specifically ‘molecular automata’, processing information, encoding memory, oscillating coherently and regulating functions from within each neuron and other cells. During that time proponents of artificial intelligence (‘AI’) and later ‘The Singularity’ were assuming the brain’s 100 billion (1011) neurons, each with about a thousand (103) synapses switching at about 100 (102) times per second would give a brain computational capacity of about 1016 operations (‘ops’) per second. They asserted (and continue to assert) that when this 1016 ops/sec capacity becomes realized and properly configured (e.g. via brain mapping) in silicon computers, then brain equivalence, including consciousness, would be attained. With lots more money, they implied, conscious computers were around the corner.

But as there were about a billion (109) microtubule subunits (’tubulins’) in every neuron, each tubulin oscillating and switching about 10 million (107) times per second, my colleagues and I calculated about 1016 ops/sec per neuron at the microtubule level, pushing the AI/Singularity goalpost way ‘down the field’, to roughly 1027 ops/sec for the whole brain. Publishing these ideas and presenting at various meetings, I became unpopular and a thorn in the side of AI/Singularity advocates.

Stuart Hameroff fig 3

Figure 3. Vibrational resonances at different frequencies and structural levels inside one neuron. Left to right: Interior of a pyramidal neuron, single microtubule, row of ‘tubulins’ and dipole oscillations (with anesthetic effect). Corresponding dynamics at various frequencies from work of Bandyopadhyay’s group are shown at bottom.

Artwork by Dave Cantrell and Paul Fini, Biomedical Communications, University of Arizona. 

But then, one day in the early 1990’s, I ran smack into the ‘hard problem’ (though the term itself had not yet been coined). Someone said to me, ‘let’s say you’re right and there’s all this processing inside neurons. How would that explain consciousness?’ Essentially he was saying, how could computation, or vibrational resonances of any sort yield ‘qualia’, the taste of chocolate, the smell of lilac, the touch of soft skin or the feeling of love?  I was a bit stunned. He was correct. Even if microtubules were the biological structures most directly related to consciousness, what was their mechanism? What was consciousness?

Fortunately that same anonymous person (to whom I remain grateful) suggested I read a book by the eminent British physicist Sir Roger Penrose called ‘The Emperor’s New Mind’. And so I did.

A quantum leap

The book was many things. First, The Emperor’s New Mind was a putdown of the AI assertion that consciousness would emerge from complex computation per se. A computer could be enormously intelligent, Roger explained, but completely lack understanding, feelings or awareness. Second, the book was an overview of modern physics, and third, amazingly, Penrose explained consciousness by triangulation with two other mysteries, general relativity and the measurement problem in quantum mechanics. In so doing, he connected consciousness to the fine scale structure of the universe.

I was stunned again, but in a good way. It seemed far-fetched, but was indeed an actual proposed mechanism for consciousness, still, to this day, the only actual mechanism ever proposed. The main idea was that the brain contained certain types of quantum computers connected to processes and events in the basic makeup of reality, spacetime geometry. As Chalmers later described it, consciousness was in some way ‘funda-mental’, intrinsic to the universe, and connected to the brain by a ‘psycho-physical bridge’. But how?

I learned that in quantum computers information states (e.g. binary ‘bits’ of 1 or 0) exist in ‘quantum superposition’, wave-like coexistence of multiple possible states, e.g. quantum bits, or ‘qubits’ of both 1 AND 0. After some period of interaction and computation, the qubits reduced, or collapsed to specific states of 1 OR 0 as the solution. But the mechanism by which reduction or collapse occurs is mysterious (the ‘measurement problem’ in quantum mechanics). It seemed to have something to do with consciousness.

In the early days of quantum mechanics, Niels Bohr, John von Neumann, Eugene Wigner and later Henry Stapp suggested that quantum superpositions persisted until observed by a conscious human, the ‘observer effect’, commonly termed the ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ after Bohr’s Danish origin. According to ‘Copenhagen’, conscious observation causes quantum superpositioned possibilities to reduce to definite states—consciousness collapses the wavefunction.

But this approach put consciousness outside science, as an unknown mysterious entity, and avoided addressing the underlying reality. To illustrate the absurdity, Erwin Schrödinger designed his still-famous thought experiment known as ‘Schrödinger’s cat’. Imagine a cat in a box with a vial of poison whose release is coupled to a quantum superposition of possibilities. According to Copenhagen, Schrödinger concluded, the cat would be both dead and alive until a conscious human opened the box and looked inside. Absurd it was, but the problem persists.

Another potential solution is ‘decoherence’ in which interaction between a quantum system and its classical environment disrupts superposition. But how can any quantum system truly be isolated?

Other views include the ‘multiple worlds interpretation’ (‘MWI’) proposed by Hugh Everett and others in which there is no collapse. Every possibility in a superposition survives, continuing to evolve into its own new ‘parallel’ universe, resulting in an infinite number of coexisting overlapping worlds. As crazy as it sounds, MWI is extremely popular among physicists.

Another set of interpretations assumes some sort of objective threshold causes reduction —‘objective reduction’ (‘OR’). Among these is an OR mechanism proposed by Sir Roger Penrose in ‘The Emperor’s New Mind’.

He began by considering how particles could conceivably exist in two or more locations simultaneously, relating it to Einstein’s general relativity in which mass is equivalent to curvature in spacetime geometry. Using simple 2-dimensional spacetime sheets (Figure 4), superposition is then seen as simultaneous alternative curvatures, essentially bubbles or blisters in the fine scale structure of the universe.

Stuart Hameroff fig 4

Figure 4. A ‘spacetime qubit’, with four-dimensional spacetime geometry depicted as a two-dimensional sheet. Left: A particle and its equivalent spacetime curvature oscillate between two positions. Right: quantum superposition of the particle in both locations is equivalent to alternative, separated spacetime curvatures.

Artwork by Dave Cantrell and Paul Fini, Biomedical Communications, University of Arizona.

Stuart Hameroff fig 5Figure 5. Two possible fates of a superposition. Left: According to the multiple worlds interpretation (‘MWI’), superpositioned possibilities each evolve to form their own universe. Right: According to Penrose OR, superpositions evolve only until reaching threshold for objective reduction (‘OR’) at time τ given by EG ≈ ℏ/τ.Self-collapse then occurs accompanied by a moment of conscious experience (‘BING!!’). 

Artwork by Dave Cantrell and Paul Fini, Biomedical Communications, University of Arizona.

If these separations were to evolve, each possibility might then give rise to its own universe, as in MWI (Figure 5a.). But Penrose considered spacetime separations to be unstable, reaching an objective threshold for ‘self-collapse’, or objective reduction/OR at time τ ≈ ℏ/EG, where ℏ is Planck’s constant over 2π, and EG the gravitational self-energy of the separation. Thus each OR event creates reality which then again dissolves into superposition, rippling and rearranging the structure of the universe (Figure 5b). OR avoids the need for multiple worlds.

But then Penrose added two profound features. First, he proposed each OR event is an instant of subjective experience – a moment of conscious awareness, of ‘qualia’ intrinsic to the universe (‘BING!!’ in Figure 4). Thus rather than consciousness causing collapse (as in Copenhagen), collapse causes consciousness, or, is identical to consciousness. This meant that simple, random OR moments of awareness occur ‘here, there and everywhere’ throughout the fine scale structure of the universe (appearing as ‘decoherence’). These would be generally random, non-cognitive and lack meaning or memory, and  accordingly termed ‘proto-conscious’. I later thought of such random OR moments as the spurious sounds, tones and notes of an orchestra warming up. Somehow, the brain ‘orchestrates’ random OR notes into music.

The second feature was that particular spacetime curvatures and material states selected in organized (‘orchestrated’) OR events were not chosen randomly, as is proposed to be the case in Copenhagen and decoherence, but rather were influenced by what Penrose termed ‘non-computable Platonic values’ embedded in fundamental spacetime geometry. Within its very structure, the universe encoded mathematical truth, ethical and aesthetic values and qualia, with which our conscious thoughts and actions could resonate.

I was impressed. Roger Penrose had turned the observer effect upside-down, putting consciousness back into science, precisely on the edge between quantum and classical worlds. And the connection to spacetime geometry, non-locality and Platonic influences (following the ‘way of the Tao’, ‘divine guidance’) seemed to me a source of creativity and spirituality (though Roger has always avoided such terminology). Intuitively it felt right, and was maybe ‘crazy enough’ to be correct.

But Penrose lacked a biological candidate for OR-terminated quantum computing in the brain – a means for orchestration. He had a mechanism for consciousness, but not a biological structure. In microtubules, I had a biological structure, but not a mechanism. We teamed up in the mid 1990’s on a quantum theory of consciousness (‘orchestrated objective reduction’, ‘Orch OR’) linking microtubule quantum processes to fluctuations in the structure of the universe.

Our theory was immediately, harshly and repeatedly criticized and ridiculed, as the brain was thought too ‘warm, wet and noisy’ for seemingly delicate quantum coherence. And we were (and are) a threat to the AI/Singularity/Brain Mapping ‘industrial complex’. But evidence now shows (1) plant photosynthesis routinely uses quantum coherence in warm sunlight (if a potato can do it….?), (2) microtubules have quantum resonances in gigahertz, megahertz and kilohertz frequency ranges (the work of Anirban Bandyopadhyay and colleagues at National Institute of Material Science in Tsukuba, Japan) and (3) anesthetic gases selectively erase consciousness by quantum-level actions on brain microtubules (the work of Rod Eckenhoff and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania). In 1998 we published 20 Orch OR testable predictions, 6 of which have been verified, and none refuted.

Stuart Hameroff fig 6

Figure 6. The ‘psycho-physical bridge’, from biology to the structure of the universe. Left: Dipole qubit in a microtubule governed by pi electron quantum resonance (Figure 3). Right: Corresponding smaller (e.g. Planck) scale spacetime qubit (Figure 4). These are proposed to be self-similar and linked in 1/f fractal-like spacetime geometry.

Artwork by Dave Cantrell and Paul Fini, Biomedical Communications, University of Arizona.

Consciousness in the Universe

 The Orch OR theory portrays consciousness as rippling vibrations in the structure of the universe, self-similar patterns traversing enormous differences in scale – multiple ‘octaves’ – from the infinitesimally tiny levels of spacetime geometry, resonating upward to reach biology by quantum effects in microtubules, a ‘psycho-physical bridge’ (Figure 6). In this view consciousness is akin to music, and the brain more like a quantum orchestra than a computer. Random OR-mediated tones, notes and sounds intrinsic to the structure of the universe – the orchestra warming up – become music as the band begins to play. (There’s no need for a conductor as the music is self-organizing like jazz, jam sessions or Indian raga.)

These ideas are based on logic and evidence, but are admittedly speculative. However mainstream approaches from materialist science, brain mappers, AI/Singularity advocates (the ‘still-naked Emperor’) and militant atheists offer no evidence that consciousness emerges strictly from the brain-as-neuronal-computer. Based on synaptic connectivity they can’t simulate behavior of a simple worm. And the AI/Singularity view necessitates consciousness being an epiphenomenal illusion, with no real role to play. Accordingly, we are merely ‘helpless spectators’, as Thomas Huxley bleakly summarized.

On the contrary, implications of the brain as a quantum orchestra tuned to the universe include (1) causality, each self-collapse choosing a particular state which may lead to behavior. (2) Altered states of consciousness can occur at deeper levels and higher frequencies, both within brain neurons and the structure of the universe (as the Beatles sang, ‘The deeper you go, the higher you fly…’). (3) At sufficiently deep levels of spacetime geometry, consciousness may conceivably exist without biology and remain unified by entanglement, supporting possibilities for telepathy, so-called out-of-body experiences, and even afterlife and reincarnation. (4) If OR-mediated feelings are at large in the universe, they would have been there all along, able to spark the origin of life and drive its evolution. Human and animal psychological behavior are predicated on ‘reward’, or avoiding pain, i.e. on ‘feelings’. Without feelings, the Darwinian view that creatures act to promote survival of their genes is incomplete. Evolution may require an OR-mediated ‘quantum pleasure principle’ as its feedback fitness function. And (5), OR may also drive evolution of the universe itself.

In the year 2000 the journal Nature asked ten prominent physicists about prospects for a ‘Theory of Everything’, or ‘Grand Unified Theory’, reconciling seemingly disparate features in cosmology, quantum physics and relativity. Among them, only Sir Roger Penrose included consciousness as a key component of such a theory, tying together various mysteries.

How might this be so? ‘The anthropic principle’ is the philosophical consideration that the universe is perfectly tuned to accommodate life and consciousness. The 20 or so fundamental constants which govern the universe (e.g. the mass of the proton, the gravitational constant, etc.) are all precisely, exactly what are needed for us to exist – a coincidence of astronomically unlikely probability. We won the cosmic lottery. But how?

There are two types of explanations, the so-called ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ anthropic principles. The weak anthropic principle (e.g. by Brandon Carter) explains the apparent fine tuning as ‘selection bias’. Only in this particular universe (out of an infinite number of possible universes, e.g. as in the multiple worlds interpretation, ‘MWI’) are living beings present and able to ponder this question. The strong anthropic principle, as advocated by John Barrow and Frank Tipler, argues this one-and-only universe is somehow compelled to harbor conscious beings. But why would the universe be so compelled?

A logical answer is that consciousness is intrinsic to the universe, as suggested in Orch OR, and related to the 20 or so fundamental constants which regulate the universe and can evolve, perhaps over cycles of ‘big bangs’ as suggested in Roger’s book ‘Cycles of Time’. The serial universe evolves to optimize, tune and resonate consciousness….to feel good. Consciousness may be driving the universe.


Hameroff S, Penrose R (2014) Consciousness in the Universe – A Review of the Orch OR Theory Physics of Life Reviews 11(1):39-78


Stuart Hameroff MD
Professor, Anesthesiology and Psychology

Director, Center for Consciousness Studies

Banner-University Medical Center, The University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona

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