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Scientific American: Brains Not Required for Cognition

·390 words·2 mins
Quotes Science Biology Consciousness Memory
Daniel Andrlik
Daniel Andrlik
Daniel Andrlik lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia. By day he manages product teams. The rest of the time he is a podcast host and producer, writer of speculative fiction, a rabid reader, and a programmer.

Rowan Jacobson, in this month’s issue of Scientific American, has written an article that is chock-full of mind-blowing implications for how we understand cognition, memory, and cellular development. I highly encourage you to read the whole thing, but here are just a few examples.

It turns out that regular cells—not just highly specialized brain cells such as neurons—have the ability to store information and act on it. Now Levin has shown that the cells do so by using subtle changes in electric fields as a type of memory. These revelations have put the biologist at the vanguard of a new field called basal cognition. Researchers in this burgeoning area have spotted hallmarks of intelligence—learning, memory, problem-solving—outside brains as well as within them.

In recent years interest in basal cognition has exploded as researchers have recognized example after example of surprisingly sophisticated intelligence at work across life’s kingdoms, no brain required. For artificial-intelligence scientists such as Bongard, basal cognition offers an escape from the trap of assuming that future intelligences must mimic the brain-centric human model. For medical specialists, there are tantalizing hints of ways to awaken cells’ innate powers of healing and regeneration.

Importantly, this is not only present in animal life.

The bigger challenge comes from evidence of surprisingly sophisticated behavior in our brainless relatives. “The neuron is not a miracle cell,” says Stefano Mancuso, a University of Florence botanist who has written several books on plant intelligence. “It’s a normal cell that is able to produce an electric signal. In plants almost every cell is able to do that.”

In fact, the article goes on to cite laboratory research detailing evidence of basal cognition not only in plants, but even in single-celled creatures such as slime molds! And from there, the implications of these bioelectric discoveries get even more bizarre.

For more confirmation that bioelectricity could control body shape and growth, Levin turned to African clawed frogs, common lab animals that quickly metamorphose from egg to tadpole to adult. He found that he could trigger the creation of a working eye anywhere on a tadpole by inducing a particular voltage in that spot. By simply applying the right bioelectric signature to a wound for 24 hours, he could induce regeneration of a functional leg. The cells took it from there.

Honestly, a jaw-dropping article in every way.


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