A Recent Talk: “philosophy and biophysics”

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Bioelectricity (natural electrical signaling among cells) is an extremely interesting field, in that it spans the gulf between very fundamental issues in philosophy (computation, cognition, downward causation, holism, mind-matter interaction) to specific aspects of biophysics at the heart of practical applications like regenerative medicine and cancer. Bioelectricity is the cognitive glue that binds individual neurons in your nervous system toward a coherent, emergent Self that has preferences, goals, memories, and problem-solving capacities in spaces that no individual neuron can fathom. Bioelectrical signaling scales control across levels of organization in our bodies, allowing high-level executive intent in our minds (“I want to get up and go to the lab”) to be transduced to depolarizing your muscle cells so that your body can actually perform that function. This amazing example of mind-matter interaction (control of cell biochemistry by mental intent) is not some rare example of yogic practices or biofeedback, it is the everyday magic of voluntary muscle motion made possible by a control architecture that enables causality across scales. The evolutionary origin of this remarkable system is the much more ancient somatic bioelectric signaling that bound the (non-neural) cells in your embryonic body toward large-scale anatomical goals, and enabled them to solve problems in navigating from a single cell (egg) state to that of a complex being. These electrical networks are at the heart of scaling the modest cognitive light cone of single cells into much larger one of self-assembling complex form and function.

Here is a talk I gave on this topic at the University of Bristol (October, 2023):

At this event:

Audio Q&A afterward:

18 responses to “A Recent Talk: “philosophy and biophysics””

  1. Helen Asetofchara Avatar

    How do you account for the gaps of the unknown in the modern electrical theory (as filled in by e.g. https://www.am-innovations.com/) in using the biophysics of bioelectricity?

    1. Mike Levin Avatar
      Mike Levin

      What are the gaps? I am not aware of any situation in neural or developmental bioelectricity where the conventional model fails (in fact, it seems to work very well, which is why optogenetics and such control techniques are effectively used exactly as the model predicts). Of course we now have the hard problem of cracking the bioelectric code (understanding the interpretation of the electrophysiological states by the cellular collective) but as far as I know, the standard view of electrophysiological theory has no gaps with explaining the mechanics.

      1. Helen Asetofchara Avatar

        Such gaps as explaining the value of fine structure constant and the nature of electricity in the complete spectrum of empirical contexts, one of them being that electricity is not transfered through a conductor but rather in the space around it [1]. Conventional model fails at whatever exceeding Planck limits (10^-33 cm and 10^-43 sec, per Donald Hoffman).

        >>the standard view of electrophysiological theory has no gaps with explaining the mechanics
        How can you measure the velocity of an ion passing through an ion channel? Can you measure the velocity of small molecules and ions passing through a gap junction with enough ecological validity to not destroy the main object of mesurement?

        [1] https://www.am-innovations.com/high-efficiency-transference-of-electric-power/

  2. Mike Levin Avatar
    Mike Levin

    So far, as far as I know, none of those issues have impacted the ability of standard electrophysiology theory to make predictions, drive desired outcomes, etc. in neural and non-neural contexts. I’m not sure it matters, for making optogenetics and voltage prepattern rewriting work, what the velocity of ions through a channel is. Movement though gap junctions can be estimated by watching (non-invasively) fluorescent small tracer molecules move from cell to cell, but again I’m not sure the precise velocity is important for using them or understanding their roles.

    1. Helen Asetofchara Avatar

      It is a bit strange that in conducting such an innovative research medieval representations of ions being miniaturized cannon balls fetched from one miniaturized monkey zoo to another are inferred. Per wave-particle duality principle established in double-slit experiment, any particle when not observed can function as a wave-like pattern, which has been also shown for multi-atomic macroscopic C60 particles [1]. Representing an ion channel as an opened slit, in a so-called “real life” obviously the majority of ion channels are not observed by conventional tools, so an ion can function as a wave ?
      You can say that an ion channel functions as an “effective observer” for an ion to collapse it to a particle-like form, but nothing fundamentally prevents an ion channel itself to have a wave-like representation rather than a conveniently established particle-like structure.

      [1] https://www.nature.com/articles/44348

    2. Helen Asetofchara Avatar

      What are the main obstacles/unkowns in the current research on mice limb regeneration (slowing down its progress into primates)? Would you consider tapping into the mammalian thermoregulation system to make mice temporarily cold-blooded or use the natural periods of suspension of active thermoregulation?

  3. Matt Avatar

    Where do you think bioelectric patterns come from in a single individual? Surely they must be inherited, since individuals of the same species all know how to make the same morphologies. Is it encoded in the genome or passed by the parent during embryo development? Do you have evidence that modifying the bioelectric pattern of a frog for example in your lab is passed to its offspring?

    Great talk.

    1. Mike Levin Avatar
      Mike Levin

      It’s a subtle question, which I address (as much as possible right now) in some of my recent talks. We know it’s not “encoded in the genome” any more than spider web patterns or the shape of termite mounds are in their respective genomes because genes encode proteins – not anatomies of bioelectric patterns. To get started on a new way of thinking about “where are patterns encoded”, look at this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EvHiee7gs9Y – where is the beautiful bell curve pattern encoded? It’s not in the description of how to make the Galton board, or how to make the plastic or the pegs etc. Where is that shape encoded? It’s so reliable. It has to be somewhere? Where is the encoding of a truth table of a logic function encoded, when it’s implemented by a few transistors? It’s nowhere in the description of how to make transistors. The answer is going to be, in part, “it comes from the same place the truths of mathematics come from”. Evolution is great at making physical embodiments that index into a lot of “free lunches” from the space of physics, mathematics, and computational laws.

      1. Matt Avatar

        So, bioelectric patterns are just emergent properties of the biochemical system? Given the same building blocks (genome + other biochemical components), will we always see the same bioelectric patterns emerge, in the same way that the Galton board has no ‘choice’ but to make this pattern given its original state? In that case, I expect artificial modification to the bioelectric patterns NOT to be passed down to the offspring..?

        Since these patterns are visible very early in the development of the organism, you don’t really need much for these patterns to emerge, I suppose, which is kind of wild.

        1. Mike Levin Avatar
          Mike Levin

          Every pattern is an emergent property of whatever is underneath (some sort of quantum foam eventually?). The question is, what causal power does each pattern have. The bioelectric ones have the ability to reprogram the layers above and below, in the same way that a computer algorithm makes the electrons dance underneath so that you don’t need to manage each one directly. Can you say that a computer is just an emergent property of the equations governing particle motions? that it has no choice but to do what the laws of electricity dictate? yes; will that help you program the next great capability? no. You have to find the right layer and the communication tools appropriate to each layer and you have to exploit its causal power. We see the patterns emerge from the 1-cell (fertilized egg) stage; they are partly due to the properties of the hardware (i.e., genetic info), partly due to initial conditions (what mom puts into the egg cytoplasm), and partly to the laws of physics and computation (which provide a ton of instructive competencies). As for passing it to the offspring, we haven’t published anything on this yet, stay tuned. The one thing we do know is that in planaria, which reproduce by ripping themselves in half and regenerating as 2 new offspring, our bioelectric (not genetic) 2-head phenotype does propagate to its offspring.

          1. Matt Avatar

            Is it possible that artificial modification of bioelectric patterns could somehow lead to genetic modification (“ability to reprogram the layers above and below”) ?

            Anyway that is super interesting, I will certainly continue watching all these super cool presentations. Thanks

  4. Mike Levin Avatar
    Mike Levin

    yes, it’s possible. We haven’t made those claims yet, still investigating, but it’s possible. Denis Noble and James Shapiro do think this happens in other contexts (not specifically bioelectric).

  5. David Hughes Avatar
    David Hughes

    Extremely interesting as always. Have recently been wondering how relative external and internal systems interact throughout multiple domains in terms of epigenesis for certain parameters and functions. Conditionally we can test for some of them given certain constraints both known and theoretical, seems we need to develop some new approaches to parameterization and constraints. Focusing on wave functions I assume that radiation, solar or otherwise, may conditionally alter certain expression thereby influencing the way an organism evolves given certain environmental and spacial parameters. I feel that time plays an important role in all of these measurements, and possibly we may need to approach domains of time with a different approach relative to highly compact and complex systems, however this can be extrapolated from the micro to the macro and vice versa. Thanks for continuing to provide us all this information!

  6. livia Avatar

    Do you accept volunteers in your laboratory? I found you less than a month ago and honestly, the work is incredible!

    1. Mike Levin Avatar
      Mike Levin

      Thank you; no, unfortunately we are totally full. But if you email a CV with list of relevant skills to michael.levin@tufts.edu, we will keep it on file and may reach out when vacancies appear. Much appreciate the offer!

  7. Stephen Smith Avatar
    Stephen Smith

    I know I asked this question in a private email before, but I did not have the better words to ask it properly then. This has to do with the voltage-sensitive florescent dyes (see minute 32:38 in the video), where a scientist can receive signals from a developing embryo (cell collective) as the embryo communicates with itself. The embryo is also communicating with the scientist by way of fluorescence (i.e., photons). While the developing embryo has no need of the dye to communicate with itself, does it make sense to describe the cognitive-glue communication between cells without communicating photons if these same cells are found communicating with scientist using photons? Cheers!

    1. Mike Levin Avatar
      Mike Levin

      It’s an interesting question. We have no evidence that the embryo can detect the presence of the dye – that is, that the cellular collective knows that it’s sending out photon data (but that is ok, lots of communication is by “leaked” signals which the sender did not intend). However, we do work on embryos communicating with each other (https://osf.io/ps987) and there is a lot of work on ultraweak photon emission as a biological communication modality (see work of Gurwitsch, Popp, and modern workers on this). I don’t know if anyone can make a useful (i.e., facilitative of new research) model in which reading from an embryo is a communication event, but maybe someone will! In order to make sense to describe it that way, we would have to be able to use that framing to improve the next experiments. Maybe it can be done, I’m not sure.

  8. Anthony Rockel Avatar
    Anthony Rockel

    Could this be the basis of form memory?

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