I’m watching some interviews with the scientist Michael Levin who studies bioelectricity among other topics. He’s a bit of a mad scientist. Much of what he describes seems like a plot point from Star Trek, but he and his team are doing real science and studying how intelligence is distributed throughout our bodies, what he calls a Multi-scale Competency Architecture.
“Each level of organization solves problems in its own space using some of the same tricks, at various levels of sophistication.”
Michael Levin, From Mind to Matter presentation
A “Picasso tadpole” has all of its facial features out of place, and yet, as it transforms all the facial features move into the proper place. How does it do this?
If you look closely, before the eyes, nose, and mouth move into place, a bioelectrical pattern appears on the frog’s face in the spot where the features will eventually arrive. This “electric face” can be tampered with to make the facial features end up in the wrong spot.
His team is learning how to read, decode and rewrite the bioelectric patterns by interacting with ion channels and gap junctures in the cells. In a sense, they are communicating with the cells rather than editing their structure or DNA. Doing this, they can stimulate the pattern of an eyespot and cause an eye to grow anywhere on a tadpole’s body. That eye might end up connecting to the tadpole’s spinal column, but it will still be able to see from the eye.
In other words, just communicating alone with bioelectricity they can make the body rearrange itself, and the body will still manage to work. It’s as if evolution has a built in capacity for dealing with mutations.
In other experiments they can stimulate a frog’s amputated leg to regrow just by stimulating the right pattern with a set of chemical tools.
The planarian flatworm is functionally immortal. It doesn’t get old and if you cut it into two pieces, it will generate two full worms from the pieces. If you cut it’s head and tail off simultaneously, it will produce only one head. But Levin’s team has learned how to stimulate the worm into producing two heads on either end.
And even after cutting off those two heads, the worm will then continue to produce two heads. It’s as if its body plan has been overwritten by Levin’s team.
There is so much more work he’s done, but I’d say the main takeaway is that intelligence is distributed throughout the body. The neurons of the brain evolved from the body’s cells which have many of the same features that neuron’s do. DNA may code the amino acids into proteins, but bioelectric patterns act as the software running on the cell’s hardware. They are working on developing therapies where we can talk to the body’s cells directly and instruct them where to go and what to do.
This is consistent with what I have been learning about the bioelectrics of the body. Fascinating stuff.