Cellular Basis of Consciousness

Arthur S. Reber is an interesting character. He is best known in academic circles for theories of implicit learning. He has also written several books on gambling with a view to maximizing gains and minimizing losses. He has written one of the most concise and direct refutations of parapsychology which argues that we don’t even need to look at the studies or the data of parapsychologists to know the field is worthless. He has written a novel. He has also put forward a novel theory of consciousness called the Cellular Basis of Consciousness (CBC). While he has presented this at length in a book (which I currently have on order), I will talk here about a short paper that presents a more abbreviated version of the theory and is also accessible to anyone.

The paper Sentience and Consciousness in Single Cells: How the First Minds Emerged in Unicellular Species argues that the “cellular nature of life is inherently linked with consciousness”. The argument echoes Rodolfo Llinás’s position in I of the Vortex that I wrote about a few months ago. To quote from the paper:

From the CBC perspective, awareness of self and the capacity to detect, interpret, and experience the valenced characteristics of the environment is essential for survival and evolution. Environments are in constant flux. The concentration of the nutrients in the surrounding medium shifts; temperature gradients change; there is an unrelenting assault from viruses, toxins, predators – and, furthermore, these conditions are continuously changing. Without an internal, subjective awareness of these changes, without being able to make decisions about where to move, how to modify gene-expression adaptively for shifts in nutrient levels, how to match the ambient temperature with a memory of what it was in a previous location for adaptive movement, a prokaryote would be a Darwinian dead-end. Moreover, all cellular life, starting with unicellular organisms, is sensitive to anesthetics and, importantly in this respect, plants and several unicellular organisms generate endogenous anesthetics when they are wounded or stressed. In the classic model, a nonsentient agent, one lacking sensations and awareness of its environment should not be responsive to anesthetics.

Reber and his co-author Frantisek Baluska doesn’t leave the argument at that. Instead, they identify the actual biomechanisms that might be responsible for sentience that “operate at the level of prokaryotes” and “will carry on their functions in eukaryotes and multicellular organisms”. Sentience arose as a adaptive function with the first cellular life and has been conserved and elaborated as more complex organisms have evolved.

The mechanisms they identify are excitable membranes; excitable and vibrating microtubules and actin; and biological quasicrystals with the five-fold symmetry. Text below are quotes from paper.

Excitable membranes

These structural characteristics of cells are general and ubiquitous and emerging as the most likely sources of cellular awareness. Their relevance is emphasized by noting that diverse anaesthetics, ones that produce loss of consciousness in humans, also cause loss of responsiveness in all animals and plants.

Vibrating and excitable cytoskeletal polymers

A second possible source of sentience and consciousness at the cellular level is the dynamic cytoskeleton. Microtubules are regarded as important in this respect, and terahertz oscillations in tubulin have also been found to be affected by exposure to anesthetics Besides microtubules, the actin filaments behave as an excitable medium that, in addition to transporting vesicles and organelles, also transports ionic waves. Dynamic actin cytoskeleton also supports lipid rafts, which are highly ordered domains of excitable membranes that are particularly sensitive to diverse anesthetics.

Biological quasicrystals with the five-fold symmetry

Finally, there are indications that special proteins, in particular those having five-fold symmetries and quasicrystal properties, are relevant for the cellular and subcellular levels of sentience. In this respect, it is important to recognize that the three-dimensional structure of proteins is not dictated solely by the sequence of amino acids; proteins dynamically select one of several possible conformations according to physico-chemical conditions. This flexible behaviour of proteins suggests that proteins also contribute to subjectivity within single cells.

A key question would be how these components join together in larger forms to create the more complex consciousness we associate with multicellular organisms. The authors point out that these amalgamation of components actually begins quite far back in evolutionary history. Indeed, the “eukaryotic cell… is, in fact, a consortium of several prokaryotic cells transformed into the cytoplasm, mitochondria, plastids and perhaps also nuclei”. I might add that neurons themselves seem to represent a specialized sort of reactive cell. They are, however, one step removed from direct reaction to the environment. They react, instead, to sensor cells or other neurons. Their structures consist largely of excitable membranes and microtubules. The central nervous system with its brain is mass of cells is a sort of ecosystem of its own that reacts to the cells that react to the environment or its own cells.

Reber’s approach is to view consciousness on a continuum, characterized by ability to react in an adaptive manner to the environment. In a sense, the most straightforward definition of consciousness applies: ability to sense, move, and react. The fact that anesthetics affect organisms from the simplest to the most complex in the same fashion becomes the key indicator of their consciousness. The approach is also a corrective against the Homo sapiens orientation of much research which is described below.

It invited two lines of research that yielded fascinating insights into the cognitive functions of a variety of species but have had little impact on the core issue. One approach attempted to identify the neural correlates in humans responsible for consciousness and examine the evolutionary tree for evidence of those structures or homologues of them. The other sought to identify the cognitive and/or behavioural functions that were deemed diagnostic of consciousness and then look for the point(s) in the evolutionary scheme of things where species with the appropriate behaviours first appeared. We have no problems with either branch of research, but it is unlikely in the extreme that either strategy is going to get at the underlying issues: the co-terminous nature of life endowed with sentience and a theory of the initial emergence of consciousness on this planet. As one of us outlined, the field is awash with squabbles over which species have the right biological structures to support consciousness, which behavioural functions are diagnostic of awareness, where in the great panoply of life an unambiguous sentience emerged – and little progress has been made.

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15 Responses to Cellular Basis of Consciousness

  1. I’m surprised to discover that I actually own the Kindle edition to Reber’s book. I think I bought it last year after Lamme recommended it for understanding this:

    I obviously haven’t read it yet.

    Reber’s conception of consciousness, I think, matches Level 2 in my hierarchy, with the biopsychic stipulation.

    I would just note that if we’re using “the most straightforward definition of consciousness applies: ability to sense, move, and react”, without additional stipulations, then lots of technological systems qualify.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow. I had no idea it would embed that big. Feel free to edit and put a “. ” or something in front of the URL if you want to defeat it.


      • James Cross says:

        It doesn’t look so big in the WordPress Reader. I’ll leave for the moment but I’ve surprised about stuff like that too.

        Liked by 1 person

      • James Cross says:

        Directly on my web site, I can it attached the context of the Tweet so it is bigger. I still don’t have an issue with it and it also provides the Nesting Problem context so will leave.

        Regarding the Nesting Problem, this seems to solve it essentially by declaring all cells and conglomerations of cells have some degree of consciousness; however, I would assume something not directly composed of cells – like an ant colony or a human society – might not be since the cellular nature of the composed entity has been lost even though the pieces are made of cells. But I guess that could be debated.

        The Nesting Problem raises an interesting point. If sentience itself arises at the cellular level than why would it appear as a single or at least largely integrated system in more complex organisms. How does the disparate consciousnesses of the cells bind into a whole? I still think when we talk about that we are considering a more narrow definition of consciousness that requires a brain or perhaps an EM field 🙂 that causes some subset of cells to react in a unified fashion. So the evolutionary origins may be at lower and cellular levels but that might be some integrative structures or functions that arise in more complex organisms.

        Liked by 1 person

    • James Cross says:

      Yes, it does match your number 2, although I still would prefer a different term than reflex. Maybe “reactivity”.

      Keep in the mind the subject is origin of consciousness in one celled life and that was the context of definition even if not included in the sentence. Also the reactivity, and the structures for that matter, are those of life. And I don’t know of any computer program or machine that would react to an anesthetic like life.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My issue with using reaction to anesthetic is it’s very implementation specific. Would an alien from Andromeda be affected by our version of anesthetics? Unlikely. It would need its own versions. Along the same lines, if someone does a denial of service attack on a network, that could be interpreted as an “anesthetic” to that network, something that’s getting into the communication mechanisms and clogging them up, much as anesthesia does in a nervous system.

        On the Nesting Problem, I don’t know if this is so much a solution as simply an acceptance, a declaration that it’s a feature rather than a problem. Of course, the flip side of that problem is the Combination Problem, usually something panpsychists have to grapple with, but I think it becomes relevant, at a smaller scope, for biopsychic theories too.

        Myself, I think the Nesting Problem demonstrates the problem with simple solutions for consciousness. Sabine Hossenfelder made a comment about mathematical approaches to consciousness: “Personally, I think all of these approaches are way too simple to be correct.” That’s my attitude for many theories of consciousness. Too simple to be correct. At best, they capture aspects of it.

        I don’t see that as a failure though. There’s no one theory of life, but a whole galaxy of interacting theories for how biology emerges from carbon chemistry and physics, each theory only capturing aspects of the overall reality. I think we should be prepared for the same for consciousness.

        Liked by 1 person

        • James Cross says:

          “Would an alien from Andromeda be affected by our version of anesthetics?”

          Maybe. If it is carbon-based, cellular life (which is only kind I think is likely to have arisen spontaneously from nature), it might very well be affected in the same way. Of course, we still don’t understand exactly how anesthetics work and why they would affect even single cell organisms in a similar way to complex multi-cellular ones.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. James Cross says:

    I just noticed a study that says that animals needed sleep even before they had brains.

    “The investigation was focused on hydras – tiny freshwater organisms that lack a central nervous system. The researchers discovered that not only do hydras show signs of a sleep-like state despite having no brain, but also respond to molecules associated with sleep in more evolved animals”.


    This suggests that whatever structures or processes used for sentience not only are put offline by anesthetics but also may require periodic downtime for some reason.


  3. A couple of things. First it’s not clear to me that if a substance which eliminates or alters my own phenomenal experience were exposed to a given cell or amoeba, and that this exposure were to shut down its function for a while or something like that, that we’d have good evidence that it had thus displayed an anesthetized subjective experience. The substance might simply be toxic for it in that regard, or even promote adaptive function in certain respects. Just because it has an effect that we might associated with altering and/or removing qualia for us, there needn’t be any qualia at all for such an organism. So hopefully in his book Reber attempts to address this issue. I suppose if plants produce substances that are effective in us for anesthesia, as well as send this to damaged cells under certain circumstances, then that would be something. Establishing “sleep” in plants would certainly be interesting!

    I see from the book’s promo that Reber wouldn’t mind “re-conceiving” consciousness. So that could indeed be like Mike’s level two — except that Reber speaks of things like sentience and mental experience for the system, or the standard conception rather than in terms of Mike’s functional hierarchy. Is there anything it is like to exist as a single celled organism? I guess that’s what Reber is proposing, and if so it seems to me that an associated physics would need to exist.

    Secondly, the nesting and combination problems encompass a range of thought experiments which suggest that many modern consciousness theories are at least too simplistic, if not outright ridiculous. As I understand it Giulio Tononi feared such implications so much that he actively wrote in a way to except IIT (and so Eric Schwitzgebel simply reorganized his thought experiment on that basis to achieve other strange implications for IIT).

    The professor’s nesting post that Mike brought up is where I realized how strong an ally Schwitzgebel could potentially be for McFadden. In the 2016 “Phenomenal Consciousness, Defined and Defended as Innocently as I Can Manage”, Schwitzgebel even includes a “wonderfullness” condition that’s tailor made for a physics based solution such as EM radiation. No sign that Schwitzgebel has yet given McFadden’s theory much thought, though I have tried to entice him. Shouldn’t people look harder at any theory which no modern thought experiments seem able to assail? http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2020/11/the-nesting-problem-for-theories-of.html?showComment=1605473972348&m=0#c3325266582456372014

    Liked by 1 person

    • James Cross says:

      I’m definitely drawing a somewhat speculative link between sleep, anesthetics, and consciousness in the sense they are first two are anticorrelated with consciousness, hence there might be a mechanism that could make sense of all three.

      What’s interesting is that melatonin mentioned in the article is chemically related to serotonin and there is also a large class of serotonin related molecules that are hallucinogenic – the tryptamines – hence known to alter consciousness. Oddly looking around for some of the structures, I ran into an article about melatonin in plants.


      Liked by 1 person

    • James Cross says:

      Regarding people’s resistance to EM field theories in general. I think a lot goes back to crude analogies, sometimes made in the context of discussion of telepathy, about the brain being a sort of receiver/transmitter. Those sort of analogies have cast an pseudoscience aura over the idea.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I guess considering cellular consciousness does reflect a fitting open mindedness since the field remains wide open today. Given my dual computers model it’s difficult for me personally to ponder that sort of thing, though under the circumstances I certainly don’t begrudge people for trying. It wouldn’t hurt for me to portray a bit more openness from time to time.

        I hadn’t thought about people being put off by consciousness as electromagnet radiation in terms of telepathy and receiver / transmitter nonsense. I suppose there have been various silly consciousness proposals regarding neuron firing based EM fields.

        If anyone were to express a curiosity about this to me, I could see leading them down the following path for their assessment:

        First I’d ask if they consider qualia / consciousness to exist? If there is “anything it is like” to be them then I’d expect and answer of, “I have no doubt whatsoever about the existence of qualia since they exist in me right now”. Then I’d ask if they consider the existence of qualia to be related to the logic gating associated with certain sets of neuron firing (such as AND, OR, and NOT)? This is to say, do they suspect that the brain helps instruct the body computationally, and that one ultimate result here is the production of the qualia which they experience? I realize that some people don’t like associating the human brain with our manufactured computers, but I’d continue for those who are at least okay with this analogy.

        Next I’d note that there’s nothing which our computers or our brains are known to do, without animating associated mechanisms. Brains obviously don’t cause the blood to flow through our veins by means of certain types of neuron firing alone, but rather do so to help animate the heart. Similarly our computers don’t create images by means of computation alone, but rather by animating machines dedicated to the production of graphical images. If anyone can think of something which our brains or our computers do without animating associated mechanisms, then I’d love to assess such output function. It seems to me that if a given bit of computer processing does nothing more than produce heat, that even that output will occur by means of associated mechanisms, which is to say the right kind of physics.

        So given the stipulation that qualia cannot exist by means of information processing alone in a natural world, it would seem that the brain will need to animate qualia producing mechanisms of some variety in order for there to be any. Note that even when a given consciousness theory happens to propose the wrong qualia producing mechanism, or remains agnostic about what mechanism their theory might animate, they’d still escape the wraths of John Searle, Eric Schwitzgebel, and yes my own “thumb pain” thought experiment.

        So if naturalism mandates that qualia cannot result from brain function unless there are certain dedicated mechanisms which produce this bit of physics (just as hearts effectively pump blood and picture screens effectively provide us with computer related pictures), what mechanism might the brain animate to produce qualia itself?

        That’s the path I’d lead someone down who’s both curious and willing to take such a journey. I doubt that many consciousness theorists have traveled it given all the funky ideas that are popular in academia. Surely McFadden traveled this path when he realized that just as thrown rocks perturb a lake, information associated with neuron firing would be displayed in associated EM radiation. Furthermore it may be that the right combinations of neuron firing produce the specific physics by which qualia occur. If that’s not the case then I’d have this person consider what other mechanism might the brain’s information animate in order for qualia to exist? Is there even one other sensible mechanism that neuron function is known to animate?

        Liked by 1 person

        • James Cross says:

          “So given the stipulation that qualia cannot exist by means of information processing alone in a natural world, it would seem that the brain will need to animate qualia producing mechanisms of some variety in order for there to be any”.

          I’ve never quite thought of it or expressed it in quite that way but it makes perfect sense to me. Your whole argument about information processing by itself not being capable of producing qualia makes sense.

          As for qualia at the cellular level, I’m open to the idea but also I could see that in some definition of consciousness it might not be required. If we think of minimal consciousness as biological, adaptive reactivity to stimuli, then qualia might not be required.

          Possibly the mechanisms in single cells that provided for reactivity were conserved in an evolutionary sense with the development of many celled organisms and included the development of specialized reactive cells (neurons). When a certain critical mass of neurons is reached, the EM field emerges and the feedback to the neurons themselves starts to provide new adaptive capabilities. That would provide a natural progression from reactivity in single cells to brains and qualia. I’m not sure whether the qualia is actually contained in the EM field (although the information for it must be) or it is the neurons sensing the feedback from the EM field that is critical.

          Liked by 1 person

        • I came up with that argument in discussions with Mike. (So thanks Mike!) I get so little validation that I often wonder if my ideas make sense to others at all. It certainly feels good to hear that this makes sense to you James. Better still would be if people without our natural perspective on the matter would be moved by it, or if it would even provide some uncomfortable second thoughts for those who’ve invested in the contrary.

          Even if this argument does happen to be pretty good, human psychology seems to be such that the person presenting it can matter a great deal. I suspect that for most I don’t have nearly the credentials to develop a good argument on this matter, and so my reasoning needn’t be assessed strongly anyway. Thus I’d love to pass it off to someone like McFadden or Schwitzgebel to see how they would fare. (Of course they’re just standard intellectuals rather than superstars like Dennett or even Tononi.) There is strength in numbers however, so you should at least double the credibility of this argument. Are we both misguided on this matter, and if so, then how?

          I certainly don’t consider qualia required for all consciousness definitions. Cells will be conscious when consciousness is define as “biological, adaptive reactivity to stimuli”. But as I see it this openness also brings up a problem. If we do permit consciousness to remain “in the eye of the beholder”, then how will it be possible for science to effectively explore such a moving idea? Thus science should need a generally useful definition. I support Eric Schwitzgebel’s “innocent” version.

          Reber might be going further with his cell consciousness theory however, since he seems to be getting into actual sentience in single celled organisms. Perhaps you’ll find that he has some postable things to tell us about when you go through his book. Ah, and I see that you’ve just posted on it!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: The First Minds: Caterpillars, Karyotes, and Consciousness | Broad Speculations

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