Stuart Hameroff, an anesthesiologist and director of the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona, argues that the highest function of life—consciousness—is likely a quantum phenomenon too. This is illustrated, he says, through anesthetics. The brain of a patient under anesthesia continues to operate actively, but without a conscious mind at work. What enables anesthetics such as xenon or isoflurane gas to switch off the conscious mind?
Hameroff speculates that anesthetics “interrupt a delicate quantum process” within the neurons of the brain. Each neuron contains hundreds of long, cylindrical protein structures, called microtubules, that serve as scaffolding. Anesthetics, Hameroff says, dissolve inside tiny oily regions of the microtubules, affecting how some electrons inside these regions behave.
He speculates that the action unfolds like this: When certain key electrons are in one “place,” call it to the “left,” part of the microtubule is squashed; when the electrons fall to the “right,” the section is elongated. But the laws of quantum mechanics allow for electrons to be both “left” and “right” at the same time, and thus for the microtubules to be both elongated and squashed at once. Each section of the constantly shifting system has an impact on other sections, potentially via quantum entanglement, leading to a dynamic quantum-mechanical dance.
It is in this faster-than-light subatomic communication, Hameroff says, that consciousness is born. Anesthetics get in the way of the dancing electrons and stop the gyration at its quantum-mechanical core; that is how they are able to switch consciousness off.
It is still a long way from Hameroff’s hypothetical (and experimentally unproven) quantum neurons to a sentient, conscious human brain. But many human experiences, Hameroff says, from dreams to subconscious emotions to fuzzy memory, seem closer to the Alice in Wonderland rules governing the quantum world than to the cut-and-dried reality that classical physics suggests. Discovering a quantum portal within every neuron in your head might be the ultimate trip through the looking glass.
For a key paper, go here.