Consciousness, the brain, and spacetime geometry

Stuart Hameroff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


What is consciousness? Conventional approaches see it as an emergent property of complex interactions among individual neurons; however these approaches fail to address enigmatic features of consciousness. Accordingly, some philosophers have contended that "qualia," or an experiential medium from which consciousness is derived, exists as a fundamental component of reality. Whitehead, for example, described the universe as being composed of "occasions of experience." To examine this possibility scientifically, the very nature of physical reality must be re-examined. We must come to terms with the physics of spacetime - as described by Einstein's general theory of relativity, and its relation to the fundamental theory of matter - as described by quantum theory. Roger Penrose has proposed a new physics of objective reduction: "OR," which appeals to a form of quantum gravity to provide a useful description of fundamental processes at the quantum/classical borderline. Within the OR scheme, we consider that consciousness occurs if an appropriately organized system is able to develop and maintain quantum coherent superposition until a specific "objective" criterion (a threshold related to quantum gravity) is reached; the coherent system then self-reduces (objective reduction: OR). We contend that this type of objective self-collapse introduces non-computability, an essential feature of consciousness which distinguishes our minds from classical computers. Each OR is taken as an instantaneous event - the climax of a self-organizing process in fundamental spacetime - and a candidate for a conscious Whitehead "occasion of experience." How could an OR process occur in the brain, be coupled to neural activities, and account for other features of consciousness? We nominate a quantum computational OR process with the requisite characteristics to be occurring in cytoskeletal microtubules within the brain's neurons. In this model, quantum-superposed states develop in microtubule subunit proteins ("tubulins") within certain brain neurons, remain coherent, and recruit more superposed tubulins until a mass-time-energy threshold (related to quantum gravity) is reached. At that point, self-collapse, or objective reduction (OR), abruptly occurs. We equate the pre-reduction, coherent superposition ("quantum computing") phase with pre-conscious processes, and each instantaneous (and non-computable) OR, or self-collapse, with a discrete conscious event. Sequences of OR events give rise to a "stream" of consciousness. Microtubule-associated proteins can "tune" the quantum oscillations of the coherent superposed states; the OR is thus self-organized, or "orchestrated" ("Orch OR"). Each Orch OR event selects (non-computably) microtubule subunit states which regulate synaptic/neural functions using classical signaling. The quantum gravity threshold for self-collapse is relevant to consciousness, according to our arguments, because macroscopic superposed quantum states each have their own spacetime geometries. These geometries are also superposed, and in some way "separated," but when sufficiently separated, the superposition of spacetime geometries becomes significantly unstable and reduces to a single universe state. Quantum gravity determines the limits of the instability; we contend that the actual choice of state made by Nature is noncomputable. Thus each Orch OR event is a self-selection of spacetime geometry, coupled to the brain through microtubules and other biomolecules. If conscious experience is intimately connected with the very physics underlying spacetime structure, then Orch OR in microtubules indeed provides us with a completely new and uniquely promising perspective on the difficult problems of consciousness.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)74-104
Number of pages31
JournalAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences
StatePublished - 2001


  • Brain
  • Cajal
  • Consciousness
  • Cytoskeleton
  • Decoherence
  • Dendrites
  • Gap junctions
  • General relativity
  • London forces
  • Microtubule-associated proteins (MAPs)
  • Microtubules
  • Objective reduction
  • Orch OR
  • Protein conformation
  • Quantum computation
  • Quantum theory
  • Spacetime geometry
  • Tubulin
  • Van der Waals forces

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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