Basal Cognition in Living Cells

Basal Cognition in Living Cells

Flatworms called planaria live in the muck of lakes and ponds worldwide. Scientists are intrigued by the fact that if you tear the worm in half, its head will grow a new tail, and its tail will grow a new head, giving you two worms. A new field of science involves the study of basal cognition in living cells outside of the brain.

Many years ago, I was involved with a project that attempted to fight the presence of invasive lampreys in the Great Lakes. Lampreys are eel-like fish that swim up tributary rivers to spawn. We placed barriers on streams to catch and kill the lampreys. The problem was that those who worked the lamprey traps were told to cut the eels in half and throw them back in the river to avoid the stink and mess of dead eels on land. They didn’t understand that returning the eels to water doubled their population because both halves survived.

In the case of the planarian, researchers at Tuft University found that the worm not only survived, but the tail contained previous memory. Both the head and tail of the worm remembered the location of a food source learned before the worm was cut in half. Michael Levin at Tufts has shown that cells can use subtle changes in electric fields as a kind of memory. This basal cognition in living cells works using electrical signals in animals and plants.

Scientists have found basal cognition in the Venus flytrap and the touch-me-not plant. The touch-me-not leaves will fold and wilt if touched to prevent being eaten. Scientists found that if the plant is jostled throughout the day without being hurt, it will learn to ignore jostling. The Venus flytrap can count, snapping shut only if two of the sensory hairs on its trap are tripped in rapid succession. It pours digestive juices into the closed trap only if sensory hairs are tripped three more times.

RNA seems to be a medium of memory storage for cells. Taking RNA from a slug that had experienced an electric shock and injecting it into a new slug causes the new slug to recoil from the touch that preceded the shock in the old slug.

This research shows that intelligence does not always require a brain but is wired into all living things and is vital to all life. The practical use of these discoveries of bioelectricity may help treat cancer where cells are not cooperating with the rest of the body. God’s design of life is far more highly engineered than anyone suspected. We have a lot to learn about basal cognition in living cells.

— John N. Clayton © 2024

Reference: “Minds Everywhere” in Scientific American for February 2024, pages 44-51.