Complex Systems Summer School
Dr. Hiroshi Ashikaga is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and an Attending Cardiac Electrophysiologist at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. He leads the Laborotary of Unconventional Electrophysiology where he studies the heart using interdisciplinary approaches from mathematics, physics, and computer science. Dr. Ashikaga received his M.D. and Ph.D. from the University of Tokyo. He attended Complex Systems Summer School (CSSS) in 2014.
Briefly describe your primary research/academic work or other professional work.
I lead a double life. By day, as a cardiac electrophysiologist, I perform invasive therapies such as catheter ablation and electronic cardiac device implantation to correct heart rhythm disorders, including atrial fibrillation and sudden cardiac arrest. By night, as a scientist, I am passionate about understanding the fundamental mechanisms underlying social and natural phenomena. I love playing with mathematical toys from different disciplines to answer scientific questions. My most recent work was to develop a deep learning algorithm that provides personalized prediction of sudden death to help patients to make an informed decision about a potentially lifesaving device therapy.
In what ways does the study of complexity science influence your thinking about your current work?
I became interested in the brain as the ultimate complex system. Until a few years ago, I subscribed to the mainstream view that consciousness is an emergent behavior of the complex network of neurons in the brain. However, I found that this classical view cannot explain many features of consciousness, such as its unobservable nature and free will. Most importantly, the classical view cannot account for the downward causation, where macro-scale dynamics (e.g. consciousness) causes micro-scale dynamics (e.g. neuronal firing). In addition, as a physician, I am personally and scientifically familiar with phenomena that are clinically verifiable but cannot fully be explained by the classical view, such as near-death experience, mediumship, and children who remember previous lives. Now I believe in a model where consciousness is an essential fabric of reality that is made up of quantum information. In this model, each conscious mind is a manifestation of what Carl Jung described as the collective unconscious that exists independent of physical bodies, and that’s what connects all of us. In a simplified view, consciousness is to the brain as the internet is to your smartphone.
How did your experience at CSSS impact your professional (or personal) perspective?
CSSS provided a perfect immersive environment with minimum distraction to get out of my comfort zone. The best thing that happened to me was to learn about Claude Shannon’s classical information theory. Up to that point, the main toy in my math toolbox was a variety of tensor field manipulations, as in continuum mechanics and reaction-diffusion equations. Learning how to approach complex systems with classical information theory was completely esoteric to me, and I loved it. This initial exposure to classical information theory led me to learning about Giulio Tononi’s integrated information theory, then eventually about the quantum information theory of consciousness, which is my current interest.
What advice would you give your teenage self?
When I was a teenager, I always wanted to be an astronaut. I loved adventures into the unknown world, and outer space exploration was the ultimate adventure to me at the time. I was so sad when I had to give up that dream due to my poor vision. Decades later, I learned that the truly important and exciting adventure is inner world exploration into your own mind, and that’s exactly what my teenage self would have loved. Now I know T.S. Eliot is absolutely right. The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.
This interview was conducted in August of 2021