The mystery of consciousness and how it comes to be is a problem that has been approached in many different ways. One of the more peculiar, yet intriguing attempts is by a reputable, Nobel Prize-winning physicist by the name of Sir Roger Penrose, and an anaesthesiologist by the name of Stuart Hameroff.
Together, the two have been exploring a theory they called Orchestrated Objective Reduction Theory, or OrchOR for short.
The theory involves a quantum property known as quantum coherence, a phenomena that occurs when a large group of something, for example, a group of electrons, act together in one quantum state. In the quantum world, things like electrons can be in multiple states at the same time, called a superposition. It is quantum coherence that gives them a defined state.
A process that is often studied under extremely contained, sub-zero conditions, it is of no wonder that the theory has taken flak. The brain is of course, not in a sub-zero state, and it is certainly not unexposed to outside influences, so how could something as delicate as quantum coherence occur in a brain?
Bring in Stuart Hammeroff. Hammeroff, an anaesthesiologist, believed that the microtubules could provide a structure that may be viable enough for quantum coherence to occur. Contacting Penrose, the two have collaborated on the idea ever since.
But wait, what are microtubules?
Microtubules are protein structures in the brain that serve many functions. Namely, they provide structure to the cell, they act as ‘rails’ of sorts for other proteins to transport necessities around the cell, and they serve as strengtheners of synaptic connections between neuronal cells in the brain. It is their symmetrical shape, and lattice structure that intrigues Penrose, as he thinks that they “reek of something quantum mechanical.”
And it was the work completed by Roderick G. Eckenhoff, MD, at the University of Pennsylvania, that further supplemented this theory. What he found was that anaesthetics had a direct effect on the activity level of microtubules, and since an anaesthetic puts someone ‘under’, or unconscious, then it would be safe to conject that consciousness is somehow connected to the microtubules themselves.
Regardless of the naysayers (and there are many), research conducted by a team in Japan discovered that vibrations of a quantum nature were occurring in the microtubules of neurons. The team, led by Anirban Bandyopadhyay, PhD, at the National Institute of Material Sciences in Tsukuba, Japan, suggest that not only does consciousness share its source in these vibrations, but so too do EEG rhythms, or electroencephalogram rhythms: a measure of electrical activity at the surface of the brain. The level of consciousness of someone can be determined through an analysis of such activity, and, despite its clinical use, the source of EEG’s has yet to be discovered.
So it would appear that Orch OR is not so ridiculous after all. Penrose and Hameroff may certainly be on to something, and with the help of Eckenhoff and Bandyopadhyay’s team, the theory has definitely gained solidarity. However, in spite of this, many still argue that Penrose is out of his league. Even Stephen Hawkings, before his death in 2018, spoke ill of the theory, stating, “I get uneasy when people, especially theoretical physicists, talk about consciousness,” and that he should stick to his field of study. Tough words to hear from one of the best in the business, but Penrose is no Youtube researcher. As one of his colleagues, Physicist Lee Smolin, said, “[Penrose is] one of the very few people I’ve met in my life who, without reservation, I call a genius.”