A theory that was postulated by the American physician Dr. Stuart Hameroff and British physicist Sir Roger Penrose hypothesizes the existence of the soul. It proclaims that the soul does not die, but rather, it returns and exists within an interconnected relationship with the universe. The science behind the theory points to the interaction between the neurons in our brain as the source. It establishes that the brain, with its 100 billion neurons, can be compared to a biological computer. The synaptic connections between these neurons function like information networks, passing data.
Dr. Hameroff, an anesthesiologist and professor at the University of Arizona, is known for his studies of consciousness, while Sir Roger Penrose is an English mathematical physicist, mathematician, and philosopher of science. Penrose is the Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the Mathematical Institute of the University of Oxford, as well as an Emeritus Fellow of Wadham College. The two have been working on the theory since 1996. In an episode of the documentary series Through the Wormhole, narrated by Morgan Freeman, Dr. Hameroff explains this theory extensively.
In the first place, it is important to note that inside our brain cells there are tiny structures called microtubules. These structural components resemble the bones in our bodies. The microtubules develop like forests inside each cell, which determine the architecture and structure of the cell. Hameroff and Penrose posit that the microtubules are perfectly designed to be the cell’s onboard computer, thereby processing information at the molecular level. Their theory argues that microtubules allow neurons and the brain in its entirety to function as a quantum computer, which performs operations and functions in an entirely different way from normal computers.
We can imagine this by picturing a brain with two hemispheres. Most perspectives of the brain show a collection of individual neurons. Hameroff explains that when one neuron fires, it sends a signal to the next neuron at a synapse, which in turn causes that neuron to fire, that causes another neuron to fire – much like dominos. If you think of these neurons as you would a domino chain reaction, it’s the same effect. When one neuron fires it’ll cause the neurons in its vicinity to also fire. In a conventional computer, this is the same way that signals move. The signals follow in a chain-like network and move from place to place along traceable paths. This differs greatly from our more complex quantum computer. The microscopic components of a quantum computer are connected via a mysterious process called “entanglement.”
According to Hameroff, many physicists believe that quantum processes play an important role in the brain. So for example, if there is neuronal activity in one part of the brain, it may be coupled through quantum nonlocality to processes in a completely different part of the brain. Unlike the conventional computer that requires neurons to be within close distance in order for them to be set off, these neurons are connected through the process of entanglement, even while they are spatially separated. What this means for Hameroff and Penrose is that a change in the microtubules in one brain cell can affect microtubules in another.
But that’s not all. Quantum theory claims that every single point in space, even empty space, can contain information. Hameroff explains that in the very fine structure of the universe, there is information everywhere; quantum information. They exist not unlike the dominos. There is information existing in one part and information that exists in a completely different area, but they are all connected. Again, it’s entanglement. So something that happens in one area will influence something that happens in another area. All of this means that information in the microtubules of our brains can connect and become entangled with the universe outside of the brain.
The same way that neurons can become entangled, it is also possible that the information of consciousness of the entire brain can become entangled and exist in the universe at large. Hameroff and Penrose theorize that our souls are built from something much more fundamental than neurons. They believe that they are created from the very fabrics and interconnection of the universe.
So what can this theory tell us about what happens to this idea of the soul after we die? Well, Hameroff and Penrose understand our conscious experience to be the result of the effects of quantum gravity on the microtubules, a process they call objective orchestrated reduction (Orch-OR). In the event of a near-death experience, microtubules lose their quantum state. However, the information that is stored within them is not destroyed. This is the information (or the soul) that was at one point entangled with the information that existed in the universe. This essentially means that the soul doesn’t die but it returns to the universe.
Dr. Hameroff explains, “Let’s say the heart stops beating, the blood stops flowing, the microtubules lose their quantum state. The quantum information within the microtubules is not destroyed, it can’t be destroyed, it just distributes and dissipates to the universe at large.” The theory maintains that if the patient is resuscitated, the quantum information goes back inside the microtubules and the patient says, ‘I had a near death experience.’ However, if they are not revived, then according to the theory, it is possible for the information to exist outside the body, indefinitely, as a soul.
This idea has received some criticism, notably by the physicist Max Tegmark. Tegmark calculated the quantum states in microtubules and found that they could only survive for approximately 10-13 seconds, which is too brief a time for any significant neural processes to occur. However, Hameroff and the physicists Scott Hagan and Jack Tuszynski responded to his criticism, arguing that microtubules could be shielded against the environment of the brain. They also explain that Tegmark’s argument is flawed given that he had used his own criteria for the reduction of the wavefunction, and did not use Penrose’s OR, which is the basic assumption behind the entire theory.
Recently, there has been more and more experimental confirmation of this shielding, for example, the quantum coherence in microtubules, founded by Anirban Bandyopadhyay in 2014. According to Dr. Hameroff, the new ideas about the role of quantum physics in biological processes, like bird navigation, have been useful in confirming this theory. If this theory is true, it could mean that the human ‘soul’, is much more than localized neuronal interactions of the brain. It could instead have been present since the beginning of time, both within and outside of us.
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