Basal cognition

To follow up Electroceuticals, a 2021 article by Dr. Michael Levin:

“A key philosophical idea, borrowed from computer science, is substrate independence. Components of a living system can carry out appropriate, clearly specified cognitive functions.

Cognitive processes in embryogenesis and regeneration:


    • (a) An egg will reliably give rise to a species-specific anatomical outcome.
    • (b) This process is usually described as a feed-forward system where activity of gene-regulatory networks (GRNs) within cells results in expression of effector proteins that, via structural properties of proteins and physical forces, will result in the emergence of complex shape. This class of models (bottom-up process driven by self-organization and parallel activity of large numbers of local agents) is difficult to apply to several biological phenomena. Regulative development can alter subsequent steps to reach the correct anatomical goal state despite drastic deviations of the starting state.
    • (c) For example, mammalian embryos can be divided in half, giving rise to perfectly normal monozygotic twins, each of which has regenerated the missing cell mass.
    • (d) Mammalian embryos can also be combined, giving rise to a normal embryo in which no parts are duplicated.
    • (e) Such capabilities suggest that pattern control is fundamentally a homeostatic process—a closed-loop system using feedback to minimize error (distance) between a current shape and a target morphology. Although these kinds of decision-making models are commonplace in engineering, they are only recently beginning to be employed in biology. This kind of pattern-homeostatic process must store a setpoint that serves as a stop condition; however, as with most types of memory, it can be specifically modified by experience.
    • (f) In the phenomenon of trophic memory, damage created at a specific point on the branched structure of deer antlers is recalled as ectopic branch points in subsequent years’ antler regeneration. This reveals ability of cells at the scalp to remember spatial location of specific damage events and alter cell behaviour to adjust the resulting pattern appropriately—a pattern memory that stretches across months of time and considerable spatial distance and is able to modify low-level (cellular) growth rules to construct a pre-determined stored pattern that differs from genome-default for this species.
    • (g) A similar capability was recently shown in a molecularly tractable model system, in which genetically normal planarian flatworms were bioelectrically reprogrammed to regenerate two-headed animals when cut in subsequent rounds of asexual reproduction in plain water.
    • (h) The decision making revealed by cells, tissues and organs in these examples of dynamic remodelling toward specific target states could be implemented by cybernetic processes at various positions along a scale of proto-cognitive complexity.

A challenge for the field of basal cognition is to reveal gradualism of cellular properties underwriting this critical biological function to leverage an understanding of clear phase transitions observed in cognitive capacities. The origin and development of nervous systems is so far the most dramatic example.” “Uncovering cognitive similarities and differences, conservation and innovation”

Why aren’t more resources being directed toward these research efforts? Glad to see that at least one co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen, posthumously used his billions to sponsor science for human good.

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