Interest in Consciousness Research & Personal Statement
I divide my professional time at the University of Arizona between:
- Practicing and teaching clinical anesthesiology in the surgical operating rooms at University Medical Center
- Research into the mechanism of consciousness.
My interests in the nature of mind began during my undergraduate days at the University of Pittsburgh in the late 60's, where I studied mostly chemistry, physics and mathematics. Later, during medical school at Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia I spent a summer research elective in the laboratory of hematologist/oncologist Dr Ben Kahn. While studying mitosis (cell division) in white blood cells under the microscope I became fascinated by the mechanical movements of tiny organelles (centrioles) and delicate threads (mitotic spindles) which teased apart chromosomes, pulling them to establish shape and architecture of the daughter cells. Both centrioles and mitotic spindles were called microtubules, cylindrical protein assemblies. I began to wonder how these microtubules were guided and organized - could there be some kind of intelligence, computation or even consciousness at that level? The microtubules were actually lattices of individual proteins called tubulin, and the crystal-like arrangement of tubulins to make up microtubules reminded me of a computer switching circuit. Could microtubules be processing information like a computer?
At just about that time (early 1970's) the fine structure of living cells was being appreciated fully for the first time. It seems that the fixative agent for electron microscopy (osmium tetroxide) had for 30 years been destroying much of the internal structure, suggesting cells were merely membrane-bound bags of minestrone soup. However a new fixative (glutaraldehyde) began to reveal that cell interiors were complex scaffoldings of interconnected proteins collectively called the cytoskeleton, whose main components were the seemingly intelligent microtubules. Neurons, it turned out, were loaded with microtubules which were cross connected by linking proteins to form complex networks. I began to wonder if the abundance of microtubules in neurons was relevant to the problem of consciousness.
After medical school and internship in Tucson, Arizona I considered specializing in neurology or psychiatry to research the brain/mind problem. But the chairman of the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of Arizona, Professor Burnell Brown convinced me that understanding the precise molecular mechanism of general anesthetic gases was the most direct path toward unlocking the enigma of consciousness. He also gave me a paper showing that the anesthetics caused microtubules to disassemble. I became an anesthesiologist and joined Burnell's faculty in 1977 after my residency training. I researched a number of areas in anesthesiology but eventually focused on my primary interests: consciousness, anesthetic mechanisms and cytoskeletal microtubules. Sadly, Burnell died several years ago. I miss him, and am grateful to him for my career.
During the 1980's I published a number of papers and one book (Ultimate Computing-Biomolecular Consciousness and Nanotechnology, Elsevier-North Holland, Amsterdam, 1987) on models of information processing in microtubules, collaborating with Rich Watt, Steve Smith, Alwyn Scott, Steen Rasmussen, Jack Tuszynski, Djuro Koruga, Conrad Schneiker, Judy Dayhoff, Rafael Lahoz-Beltra, Alexi Samsonovich, Dyan Louria and others. We showed that the information processing capacity of individual cells at the level of tubulin and microtubules was enormous. But even if microtubules were actually computers, critics said, how would that explain the problem of consciousness?
In the early 1990's the study of consciousness became increasingly popular and I was strongly influenced by Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind (and later Shadows of the Mind, Oxford Press, 1989 and 1994). Quite famous for his work in relativity, black holes, geometry, gravity and quantum mechanics, Roger had turned to the problem of consciousness and concluded the mind was more than complex computation. Something else was necessary, and that something, he suggested, was a particular type of quantum computation he was proposing ('objective reduction' - a self-collapse of the quantum wave function due to quantum gravity). He was linking consciousness to a basic process in underlying spacetime geometry - reality itself! It seemed fascinating and plausible to me, but Roger didn't have a good candidate biological site for his proposed process. I thought, could microtubules be quantum computers? I wrote to him, and we soon met in his office in Oxford in September 1992. Roger was struck by the mathematical symmetry and beauty of the microtubule lattice and thought it might indeed be the optimal candidate for his proposed mechanism. Over the next few years through discussions at conferences in Sweden, Tucson, Copenhagen and elsewhere, and a memorable hike through the Grand Canyon in 1994, we began to develop a model for consciousness involving Roger's objective reduction occurring in microtubules within the brain's neurons. Because the proposed microtubule quantum states were 'tuned' or ‘orchestrated’ by linking proteins, we called the process 'orchestrated objective reduction' - 'Orch OR' which has engendered a lot of interest and severe criticism.
In addition to my own research in consciousness studies, I helped to organize (with Alwyn Scott, Alfred Kaszniak, Jim Laukes and David Chalmers) The Center for Consciousness Studies at The University of Arizona. Beginning in 1994 we have held every two years an international, multidisciplinary conference "Toward a Science of Consciousness", and published several proceedings books through MIT Press.