Ancient Mayans believed the feathered snakes and jewelled jaguars of the underworld belonged to nine levels of consciousness, while in ancient China the giant Pangu placed himself between heaven and earth and grew 10 feet a day for 18,000 years to increase the distance between them, giving rise to thought. Beliefs in a mythical egg, usually from a mother figure were pretty common across different cultures in the ancient world and we're not so different today as we grope towards our own understanding of the origins of consciousness.
It used to be that the essential mystery at the centre of our understanding of thought was crucial for the emergence of other theories and beliefs. Some would say we still need this space to allow us to come up with new ideas. The fact is we're still nowhere near to a definitive answer.
Stuart Hameroff, Professor of Anesthesiology and Psychology at the University of Arizona has been thinking about this since the 70s. He thinks that a tiny part of brain cells called microtubules, which it must be said do pull off some weird and unexplainable stuff, could contain a form of biological computing power powerful enough to give rise to consciousness. In other words there could be some overlooked brain mechanism busy at work giving us, unique among earth's organisms, conscious thought.
Where the theory got properly mind altering is when Hameroff proposed a different take ie. not a mathematical or physics approach. The study of thought is mostly dominated by the idea of the brain as a kind of large computer carrying out millions of calculations at once that combine somehow to give rise to consciousness. Hameroff took charge of that 'somehow' with the idea that consciousness is a function of biological quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics basically provides a key to the missing holistic aspects of consciousness by allowing thoughts to escape the confines of the brain.
The implications of this are kind of boggling.
Quantum physics has loads of crazy stuff where quantum particles appear to travel through time for example or exist in totally unpredictable places, communicate across metres of space and other wacky effects that the folks at CERN (currently focused on observing antimatter) could no doubt tell you all about. This radical departure from the laws of physics opens up a theory of consciousness that potentially allows us to be instantly connected to eachother at a cellular level or synchronise brain power to solve intractable problems.
It's no accident of course that lots of this echoes recent developments in global communications technology or even the rise of social media. Maybe we're simply fulfilling our biological brain purpose by wanting to be more connected. Maybe hypnosis and pre-cognition, telekinesis and telepathy (also attracting serious study and funding currently) are merely the unusual manifestations of quantum brain power.
Personally I can't wait to find out.
Stuart Hameroff will be at TEDx Brussels on December 6