“Till the present, an enormous number of facts concerning the brain have been collected, while advancement of our understanding of the mechanisms of its activity remains insignificant.” Uziel Sandler – “Neural Cell Behaviour and Fuzzy Logic”
The first step in discovering something new in science is to establish clearly what is not known about a subject. This is especially true in studying consciousness, and it is tempting to suggest that science knows more about outer space than the inner space of the mind. As reviewed in the previous blog, surprisingly little progress has been made in the twenty one years since neurophysiologist Christof Koch and philosopher David Chalmers wagered a case of fine wine that, within twenty-five years, the neurons which generate consciousness due to their unique cell structure, neurotransmitters and patterns of firing would be discovered in the brain(Blog 1: The Ripple Tanks of the Mind). The case of wine remains unclaimed. The ‘hard problem’, as Koch described the quest to understand consciousness and memory, is unsolved. Recently, areas in the frontal and lateral regions of the forebrain (the cerebral cortex) have been identified that seem to be responsible for generating consciousness (Blogs ” Out of the Body 1- 2”), but these discoveries do not explain how consciousness is generated in these centres.
Even more surprisingly perhaps is that, although general anaesthetics have been used for over one hundred and seventy years in surgery, how anaesthetics render a patient unconscious is largely unknown. The older anaesthetics, for example, diethyl ether and chloroform, and the modern gases used by anaesthesiologists such as the hydrofluorocarbons, sevoflurane and desflurane, have the unique property of inducing reversible coma and depressing the conscious processes of the mind without interfering with involuntary nervous activity that controls the rates of breathing and heart beat.
One recent discovery has, perhaps even deepened the memory mystery. By recording the electrical activity of individual brain neurons in the hypothalamus (the long-term memory centre of the brain) when a subject was shown photographs of different objects, it emerged that a specific, single neuron responded to seven different photographs of the actor Jennifer Aniston, whilst practically ignoring 80 photographs of other famous people, animals and buildings.
In another experiment, a single neuron in the brain of another subject responded to not only different photographs of Halle Berry, but also to her printed name, and the image of her as Catwomen. As the experimenters reported, “the neuron is responding to the abstract concept of Halle Berry rather than any particular visual feature.” The neuron was able to recognize photographs of the star taken with different hairstyles and from different angles as well as memorializing other personal details such as her name and different film roles. Photographs of famous buildings such as the Sydney Opera House and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, triggered the firing of other single neurons. It is easy to state the one-face, one-neuron theory (Lettvin’s “grandmother cell theory”), but extremely difficult to internalize the amazing fact that a single microscopic neuron with a deceptively simple cellular structure could store such an impressive array of facts about one person. The conventional view of consciousness and memory is that these phenomena are a result of nervous electrical interactions between neurons (inter-neural activity) in a complex network. The one-cell, one-face theory and single-neuron learning suggests these human capabilities may well be the result of processes within a single cell (intra-neural site). In his book “Neural Cell Behavior and Fuzzy Logic”, Uziel Sandler presents evidence that a skill or fact can be learned by a single neuron.
A final point worthy of note in this introductory section is the brain’s unbelievably fast and accurate search-engine capabilities. If you catch a fleeting glimpse a photograph of an actor or actress you know, it takes you a fraction of a second to remember the person’s names and films in which they starred. In that split second, your brain has searched through the 21 to 26 billion neurons in your cerebral cortex to find the single neuron which stored this information. Even more amazingly, you turn the page of a magazine and recognize that the flower in a photograph is a rose.
If you are a florist or keen gardener, you might well know the name of the rose’s variety and its retail price. The features of the flower image you see, for example the flower’s name, its shape, its colour and its smell, are all stored in different parts of the cerebral cortex. You might also remember the pain you experienced picking a rose recently when you carelessly stabbed you finger on a throne. All these memory elements from different parts of the brain are assembled in a split second to create your conscious impression of the rose in the photograph. Your laptop employs a similar assembly technique in producing the image of a web page such as BBC World News homepage you see on the screen. The webpage logo headings might be imported from the UK, some graphics from an animation studio in Abu Dhabi, news items and advertisements from different worldwide sources. The final composite image only appears on your laptop screen.
2. The Conventional Theories of Consciousness and Anaesthetic Action.
Conventional neurophysiological wisdom suggests that the origins of consciousness and memory will be found in one, or both, of the following locations within neuronal brain networks:
- A) In the gate-like protein molecules embedded in the neuron membrane which open and close to allow charged ions (mostly Na+ and Cl–) to enter and leave the cell changing the net charge of the membrane and neuron interior as a nerve impulse travels along the neuron and/or
- B) The secretion of neurotransmitter chemical from the end of one neuron and chemical’s movement (diffusion) across the minute gap (the synapse) to receptors on the next neuron in a neuron chain that forms the pathway for a nervous impulse.
It is generally assumed that it is the interaction of nerve impulses between numerous neurons in a network that is responsible for consciousness, memory and the effect of anaesthetics. The one-cell, one-neuron theory, and the experimental evidence for the mode of action of anaesthetics, have cast serious doubt on these orthodox theories. As mentioned early, it seems an explanation for these phenomena is to be found inside single neurons and not in the external electrical interactions between neurons.
I have spent many happy hours watching the fascinating behaviour of protozoa – the single-celled forms of life that teem in unimaginable numbers in every drop of pond water.
The ciliates such as the Paramecium, covered in a carpets of locomotory hairs (cilia) gyrate along a spiral path until they hit an obstacle such as chain of unicellular algae. The organism then switches into reverse, and tries a new angle of forward movement. If this new path produces another collision, it repeats the tactic until it finds the trajectory that allows it to pass the obstacle. Complex ciliary currents bring food into the oral groove to the cell mouth (cytosome) where it is ingested as a food vacuole. Once the food is digested, any waste material is ejected through the anal pore (cytostome). A water pump (the contractile vacuole) periodically expels excess water that has entered the cell by osmosis.
How does the supposedly simple, single-celled organism coordinate these, and many other routine activities, without a nervous system? This is a very under-researched topic which surprisingly provides insights into neuron activities. General anaesthetics used on human patients such as diethyl ether and chloroform, paralyzes Paramecium cilia and stops an Amoeba crawling forward using its pseudopodia. Once the anaesthetic agent has evaporated away, these protozoa resume their normal activities. It is amazing that chemical agents that induce a loss of consciousness in human also seem to induce a temporary ‘coma’ in simple, single-celled organisms that lack a nervous system. This is another clue that the action of anaesthetics is inside the cell rather than on the outside connections between neighbouring human neurons.
3. Microtubule theory of Memory and Consciousness.
If, as the one-face, one-neuron theory, protozoa behaviour and anaesthesia experiments suggest, consciousness and behavioural control are generated within cells, which cell organelles are involved? There is growing evidence that this crucial organelle is the microtubule.
Microtubules were always a prominent feature in the monochrome micrograph landscapes of sectioned invertebrate tissues which I scrolled across the fluorescent screen of my department’s electron microscope. The straw-like microtubules appear as long strands of straight hair in longitudinal section (Micrograph A) but transverse sections (Micrograph B) show they are hollow, drinking-straw-like structures.
The microtubules are also unimaginably small having a diameter of 25nm – A straight row of 40 million microtubules touching each other would measure just one millimetre! In our section on quantum physics, we will highlight why this miniscule size may be of great importance.
The highest available electron microscope powers suggest the walls of the microtubule are not uniformly solid, but are composed of spherical, bead-like protein molecules. At the time, I paid little attention to this cellular background of microtubules since they were assumed to part of the cell’s cytoskeleton and play a purely structural skeletal role rather like the hollow aluminium poles supporting a frame tent.
The starting point for microtubule construction is for one alph-tubulin globular protein unit to combine with a beta-tubulin unit to form a two-unit dimer.
Each tubulin protein molecule contains eight tyrosine amino acids while each of these amino acid molecules contain five double bonds which are associated with electrons which may, as detailed later, play an important role in both the action of anaesthetics and the generation of consciousness.
These dimer units then arrange themselves in a spiral (helical) pattern to build up a tubule with a total of 13 tubulin molecules forming its circumference.
4. The Orch Or Microtubule Theory of Brain Consciousness,
The orchestrated objective reduction (Orch OR) theory of consciousness originally proposed by Sir Roger Penrose of Oxford University, and Dr Stuart Hameroff, an anaesthesiologist at the University of Arizona, in 1996 suggests that quantum computations in brain microtubules generate consciousness and store memories. Penrose and Hameroff proposed that microtubules act as quantum channels along which quantum units of information (qubits) flow. Quantum mechanics is one of the most tested and verified theories in science, and there is now an overwhelming body of proof that the quantum processes that occur at extremely low temperatures in the sub-microscopic realm, although bizarre and seemingly nonsensical, underpin our familiar physical world. When the Orch OR theory was first proposed, it was meet with a largely hostile reaction since physicists were then convinced that the delicate quantum processes detected at the subatomic world at near absolute zero (-273 degrees Celsius ) would be ‘drowned out’ (“decohere”) in the “warm, wet and noisy” chaos of the neuron’s interior.
The Orch OR theory brings together three unlikely branches of science: neurophysiology, the strange world of quantum mechanics in modern physics and photosynthesis – the key process in plant physiology.
Subsequently, it was shown that the tubulin molecule and the amino acid tryptophan residues this protein contains have ‘dry’ (hydrophobic – water-free regions) which may indeed contain delocalized electrons (pi- electrons) that could take part in quantum reactions. A research group led by Anirban Banduopadhya, then at the National Institute of Material Sciences in Tsukuba, Japan but now at MIT, have detected warm-temperature quantum vibrations in the microtubules inside brain neurons. Banduopadhyay also suggests that “EEG rhythms also derive from deeper level microtubule vibrations.”. His team’s findings are also backed up by the findings of Roderick Echenhoff (University of Pennsylvani) that anaesthesia agents selectively erase consciousness while sparing non-conscious brain activities by acting on the microtubules of brain neurons. It has long been known that the common denominator for the varied chemical compounds used in anaesthesia is their solubility in non-polar (non-aqueous) solvents such as olive oil and the non-polar regions of certain proteins such as tubulin. The first step in the action of an anaesthetic is when it dissolves in the protein tubule molecules of the microtubule where it may disrupt the quantum processes needed to generate consciousness.
Returning to the rose garden analogy for a moment reminds us that the bizarre processes of quantum mechanics are responsible for a wide range of everyday experiences: for the production in the sun’s core by fission of the light that floods the garden: the smell of the rose that the breeze carries to our nose: the migration of the birds that are summer visitors to the garden: and for the process of photosynthesis that allowed the rose plant to grow and produce its summer leaves and flowers. The new science of quantum biology has been born.
Photosynthesis is a process that has long puzzled both plant physiologists and physicists for decades. The process is over 95% percent efficient – an efficiency rating virtually unknown in chemistry. To understand the role of quantum mechanics in biological processes such as photosynthesis and the generation of consciousness, it is necessary to dive down into the ‘rabbit hole’ that leads to a quantum ‘wonder land’ far stranger than Lewis Carol could ever have imagined.
Let’s assume our imaginary garden features a maze whose centre can be reached by more than route – some long and some short.
Further imagine that a courier needs to deliver a package of energy to the centre of the maize as quickly as possible and selects a route through the maze at random. The courier would be very lucky to select the shortest route at the first attempt, and is just as likely to take the longest and slowest route to the maze centre. Imagine though it is possible to clone the courier and the package to form ten copies of the original. Each of the ten couriers now tries a different route through the maze. When the first package-carrying courier arrives at the centre of the maze, the other nine less successful clones recombine with the winner to form a single courier. Another way to speed up the journey through the maze would be if the courier could take a straight line to the centre tunnelling through the maze hedges as if they were not there.
It turns out that the amazing efficiency of photosynthesis and other natural processes depends on the cloning and tunnelling quantum capabilities of particles.
5. The Strange Wonderland of Quantum Mechanics.
“Curiouser and curiouser! cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).” – Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass.
“I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics (physics).” Noble-prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman.
When an electron in a chlorophyll molecule is energized by an incoming light photon, it can be ejected from its parent molecule. The bundle of energy carried by the ejected ‘hot free electron’ must now navigate its way over the surface of the chloroplast thylakoid jumping to a unique pair of chlorophyll-a molecules in a reaction centre.
The proven phenomenon of quantum coherence allows the single ejected electron to replicate itself and the cloned electron copies to migrate to the active centre by different routes. Just as in our garden maze analogy, once the ‘winning’ electrons arrives at the reaction centre, all the ‘entangled’ copies combine with it to reform a single electron. (Quantum decoherence and superposition – different quantum states can be added together (superposed) to form another, single quantum state to form a single energy-carrying electron at the centre of the chlorophyll maize).
It takes energy to form the cloned electrons, but Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle allows this apparent violation of the conservation of energy law: the original electron can borrow energy to create copies of itself providing it ‘gives back’ that energy quickly. The more energy borrowed, the faster this energy loan must be repaid. During the time they are following their different paths, the electrons remain linked by quantum entanglement and influence each other. Einstein strongly disliked this feature of the quantum theory calling it “spooky action at a distance”. Over a century of scientific research, however, has proved that we live in a ‘spooky’ universe that often defies our earth-bound common sense.
As Elisabet Romero (Free University of Amsterdam, 2018) notes “until quantum coherence entered the picture, energy transfers in photosynthesis were pictured as a random hopping process, guided by an overall energy gradient, like a drunken sailor staggering downhill.” Quantum physics allows the “transfer of energy and electrons on an ultrafast time scale in the right direction with high quantum efficiency.”
It is suggested that ‘hopping electrons/energy packages’ are involved in the microtubule generation of the consciousness. Linked pairs of electrons (pi-electrons) are known to become quantum entangled in the microtubules involved in these quantum processes. It is thought that the non-localized electrons associated with the double bonds in the tubulin tyrosine molecules might play a similar role in generating consciousness as the electrons involved in photosynthesis..
As Hameroff and Penrose note in a recent paper note, “after twenty years of sceptical criticism” there is evidence that their Orch OR theory that quantum bits (qubits) are helical pathways in microtubules along which quantum events move. “Anaesthetic molecules can impair π-resonance energy transfer and exciton hopping along tubulin quantum channels, and thus account for selective action of anaesthetics on consciousness and memory.
The researchers also argue that quantum tunnelling is also highly relevant for the passage of nervous impulses from neuron to neuron across the synaptic gap. Quantum tunnelling is a phenomenon that allows subatomic particles to pass through a potential barrier and depends on the fact that photons, electrons, protons and other sub-atomic entities can exist as both particles and waves. The sun could not shine without quantum physics and life on earth could then never have evolved. The basic process by which the sun and other stars shine is fission – the conversion of hydrogen into helium in their extremely hot and dense cores. Two positive protons must collide to combine with each other and neutrons to form the nucleus of a helium atom. The problem is that two like charges repel and the two protons cannot approach each other close enough for the strong nuclear force which only operates over extremely minute distances, to attract the nuclear particles to each other. This nuclear force acts irrespective of a particle’s charge to ‘take over’ and overcome the electrostatic repulsion. Particles cannot overlap but particles can. The wave forms of two protons can overlap allowing them to get close enough for the nuclear force to operate and form a helium nucleus liberating vast quantities of energy In the process.
Hameroff proposed that the gap (the synapse) between the cells is sufficiently small that quantum objects can tunnel across it, allowing them to extend across a large area of the brain and speed up nervous conduction. He further postulated that the action of this large-scale quantum activity is the source of 40 Hz gamma brain waves, building upon the much less controversial theory that gap junctions are related to the gamma oscillation.
A wealth of experimental confirmations confirms that quantum tunnelling is a reality and in practice it has been found that microprocessors must be above a minimum critical size or electrons will ‘ignore them’ and quantum tunnel through them as if they did not exist.
6. Pushing the Envelope Up into the Stratosphere
The revolutionary theory that it is quantum events in microtubules that creates consciousness is gaining more general acceptance, but what are the philosophical consequences of this shift in the neurophysiologists’ paradigm shift? Quantum physics is certainly an effective antidote for the simplistic, materialist views of nineteenth century science. Let’s abandon caution and conclude this blog with some wild speculation.
If the convincing, well documented cases of reincarnation and the paranormal described in the series of blogs on this website are true, consciousness and memories cannot be generated by the electrical nervous interactions between living neurons in neural networks. electrical activity would ‘evaporate’ quickly a few minutes after brain death. How then would a genuine incarnate remember memories from a previous life?
We suggested earlier in this blog series that consciousness might possibly be an unrecognized force of nature akin to electromagnetic radiation. As confirmed by both conventional physics and quantum mechanics, light the photon behave like both a wave and a particle. What if consciousness generated in microtubules is both a wave and particle phenomenon, and the brain can act as both a transmitter and receiver for consciousness. Might our life memories be cloned by a process akin to particle entanglement with information, unbeknown to us, being continually upload to some form of ‘cloud storage’ in one of the many dimensions that physicists are confident exist? Perhaps that is what happens when a person’s life flashes before their eyes as a timeless movie in the moments before what appears to be an unavoidable death. Is it possible that quantum entanglement, memories and consciousness can exist in two or more different places at once?
If ‘cosmic cloud storage’ is possible, past-life memories could be downloaded at some stage between conception, foetal development, at birth or during the first few years of life.
As with orthodox neurophysiology, Penrose and Hameroff have not explained how quantum fluctuations in microtubules can both create consciousness and store memories. The choice of the first word in their theory title “orchestrated” is interesting since more than one neurophysiologist has compared the brain not to a computer, but to an orchestra playing the symphony of consciousness. It is certainly no longer viable to describe the brain as a single biological computer: each neuron behaves as quantum computer linked in a ‘biological internet’ to 100 billion other neural quantum computers. When we form a conscious thought, the melody of one neural set of microtubules storing a memory of mind skill might to blend with the tune played by other neurons to send a symphony of waves surging across the ripple tanks of the mind. Perhaps consciousness is not the “music of the spheres” but the music of vast numbers of quantum-powered microtubules.
One thing is for sure: the true nature of consciousness, the ‘hard problem’, remains one of the biggest mysteries of nature that science has yet to solve.