May 9, 2016 Leave a comment
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.
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.