Slime Mold for President

In a year when many of us are losing faith in the intelligence of humanity, it’s refreshing to see an example of unexpected cognitive abilities in another species. But seriously, slime molds?

A slime mold is a bizarre single-celled organism which has the propensity to aggregate with others of its species to act like a large multicellular organism. Slime molds can be found on your lawn, in your gutters, or on decomposing logs, and might reach a size of a square meter or more. In both its unicellular state and in its aggregate slime state, the organism has neither a brain nor a nervous system.

So imagine scientists’ surprise to discover that one such representative species, Physarum polycephalum, has shown the ability to learn. Researchers from Toulouse University, placed the mold in a petri dish along with a food source, separated by a distasteful (to the mold) barrier consisting of caffeine or quinine. In the initial run of the experiment, the yucky tasting barrier stopped the mold from getting to its dinner. However, over a few hours, Physarum polycephalum learned to cross over the barrier to get to the food, after which each run of the experiment resulted in faster times and less hesitancy to get to its goal.

This rudimentary learning process requires “a behavioral response to whatever the trigger is, memory of that moment, and future changed behavior based on the memory,” which combination would appear to be impossible without a brain or nervous system.

Even more remarkable is Physarum polycephalum’s ability to solve complex mazes and emulate ancient Rome’s road building logic.

As science puzzles over this conundrum and develops theories based on cellular memory and binary genetic codes, I offer a simpler explanation:

Learning does require a sufficiently complex adaptive system, but that system does not necessarily need to be embodied in a central nervous system of the organism. Quantum Mechanics experiments have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that consciousness plays a central role in the creation of reality. This implies that consciousness is not an artifact of the system that it is creating – it is rather, a separate aspect of reality. Evidence abounds that we live in a consciousness-centric reality, and that consciousness is therefore “out there” elsewhere. The informational substrate in which consciousness resides is either “the true physical reality” or a “truer reality” than the virtual one in which we think we reside. It is that substrate that may contain the complexity for memory and learning on the part of the consciousness of the organism.

For my Masters project in college, I had to develop a system that would take rich complex information from weather balloon sensors and crunch the data to match the low bit rate telemetry limitations of the transmission system. In an analogous manner, perhaps, the consciousness that got stuck with the poor slime mold template has very little to work with in terms of interacting with its virtual world. But all the mold really needs is a small subset of the three elements described above: the ability to sense and deliver information to its conscious host and the ability to respond to instructions from that host and interact with its environment. The consciousness does the rest.

In a similar way, a perfectly respectable individuated consciousness may be stuck with a cognitively challenged human template running as a presidential candidate.

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Rewriting the Past

“I don’t believe in yesterday, by the way.”
-John Lennon

The past is set in stone, right?  Everything we have learned tells us that you can not change the past, 88-MPH DeLoreans notwithstanding.

However, it would probably surprise you to learn that many highly respected scientists, as well as a few out on the fringe, are questioning that assumption, based on real evidence.

For example, leading stem cell scientist, Dr. Robert Lanza, posits that the past does not really exist until properly observed.  His theory of Biocentrism says that the past is just as malleable as the future.

Specific experiments in Quantum Mechanics appear to prove this conjecture.  In the “Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser” experiment, “scientists in France shot photons into an apparatus, and showed that what they did could retroactively change something that had already happened.” (Science 315, 966, 2007)

Paul Davies, renowned physicist from the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at Macquarie University in Sydney, suggests that conscious observers (us) can effectively reach back in history to “exert influence” on early events in the universe, including even the first moments of time.  As a result, the universe would be able to “fine-tune” itself to be suitable for life.

Prefer the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of Quantum Mechanics over the Copenhagen one?  If that theory is correct, physicist Saibal Mitra from the University of Amsterdam has shown how we can change the past by forgetting.  Effectively if the collective observers memory is reset prior to some event, the state of the universe becomes “undetermined” and can follow a different path from before.  Check out my previous post on that one.

Alternatively, you can disregard the complexities of quantum mechanics entirely.  The results of some macro-level experiments twist our perceptions of reality even more.  Studies by Helmut Schmidt, Elmar Gruber, Brenda Dunne, Robert Jahn, and others have shown, for example, that humans are actually able to influence past events (aka retropsychokinesis, or RPK), such as pre-recorded (and previously unobserved) random number sequences

Benjamin Libet, pioneering scientist in the field of human consciousness at  the University of California, San Francisco is well known for his controversial experiments that seem to show reverse causality, or that the brain demonstrates awareness of actions that will occur in the near future.  To put it another way, actions that occur now create electrical brain activity in the past.

And then, of course, there is time travel.  Time travel into the future is a fact, just ask any astronaut, all of whom have traveled nanoseconds into the future as a side effect of high speed travel.  Stephen Hawking predicts much more significant time travel into the future.  In the future.  But what about the past?  Turns out there is nothing in the laws of physics that prevents it.  Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne designed a workable time machine that could send you into the past.  And traveling to the past of course provides an easy mechanism for changing it.  Unfortunately this requires exotic matter and a solution to the Grandfather paradox (MWI to the rescue again here).

None of this is a huge surprise to me, since I question everything about our conventional views of reality.  Consider the following scenario in a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) or simulation.  The first time someone plays the game, or participates in the simulation, there is an assumed “past” to the construct of the game.  Components of that past may be found in artifacts (books, buried evidence, etc.) scattered throughout the game.  Let’s say that evidence reports that the Kalimdors and Northrendians were at war during year 1999.  But the evidence has yet to be found by a player.  A game patch could easily change the date to 2000, thereby changing the past and no one would be the wiser.  But, what if someone had found the artifact, thereby setting the past in stone.  That patch could still be applied, but it would only be effective if all players who had knowledge of the artifact were forced to forget.  Science fiction, right?  No longer, thanks to an emerging field of cognitive research.  Two years ago, scientists were able to erase selected memories in mice.  Insertion of false memories is not far behind.  This will eventually perfected, and applied to humans.

At some point in our future (this century), we will be able to snort up a few nanobots, which will archive our memories, download a new batch of memories to the starting state of a simulation, and run the simulation.  When it ends, the nanobots will restore our old memories.

Or maybe this happened at some point in our past and we are really living the simulation.  There is really no way to tell.

No wonder the past seems so flexible.

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