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What is Bio-electricity?

Tuft’s University Department of Biology Principle Investigator Dr. Michael Levin answers the question, “What is bio-electricity?” on William (“One day I am going to die. Cassettes is my attempt to have some enjoyable conversations before I do.”) July’s incredible Cassettes Podcast.

Dr. Levin expounds on both mechanism, and meaning of bio-electricity with refreshing alacrity and accessibility to the average curious listener. Bio-electricity. “What’s it for, and why do we care?” Short answer: it’s a metavalent medium within which the magic of life happens; in the sense that any sufficiently advanced technology (organic or otherwise) is indistinguishable therefrom. Enjoy, and if this curation surfaced something novel for you, please feel free to acknowledge our small part. Grateful!

Excerpt:

This is absolutely a hard science. What bio-electricity is … the ability of all cells, not just neurons, from bacteria to all cells that make up your body, to produce and electrical gradient, meaning a voltage difference between the inside and outside of the cell. It’s not an applied electrical field, it’s natural, electrical signaling. It’s not waves, there’s no magnetic component, there’s no electromagnetism. Fundamentally, if I were to say what I think bio-electricity really is, it’s not just another set of forces that you need to keep track of in order to understand what a piece of tissue is doing; rather, bio-electricity is the medium in which collective intelligences of cells and tissues and organs are processing information, storing their memories, and maintaining their goals. It is a computational medium that serves as the binding agent of lots of competent sub-units – cells, tissues, and so on – and allows those sub-units to become more than simply a collection of parts; bio-electricity is what allows them to scale up towards larger types of proto-cognitive types of agents that carry out various goals. If that sounds familiar, it should, that exactly what electricity does in the brain. So, in the brain, you have basically a collection of independent cells, neurons, and by virtue of their remarkable electrical signaling properties, they get together and form something that’s way more than the sum of its parts. They form a [continuous, coherent] centralized intelligence that is able to have goals and memories and preferences and these other things that individual cells don’t have. We already know that bio-electricity is this amazing binding agent; which is not to say it’s the only one in town, but evolution sure likes this one because it has all kinds of useful properties for coordinating and binding individual sub-units into greater and greater wholes.”

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Written on December 14, 2021


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