Who needs a brain?

Who needs a brain?

He drops the plate again, upon seeing which she firmly squeezes her eyes shut, because she’s become accustomed to the imminent sound that always follows…CRASH. Another plate down, and it looks like you’d better start planning another trip to Ikea.

How many times does she have to tell this clumsy husband? But she repeats it all the same.

“Use your brain, won’t you?”

It seems like such a simple command, and Mary is quite right, is she not? Nevertheless, let’s unpack this slightly, because we may indeed have a number of issues at play here.

Firstly, we all realise that this is just a linguistic quirk. No-one really believes that they have direct control over their brain, do they? I think Roger would be well within his rights to reply in the following manner:

“Mary, I would contest that your demand is certainly unreasonable, given the fact that the white and grey matter and I, well, we’ve never even been formally introduced.”

After all, have you ever seen your brain? Of course not. Only if you are very unfortunate do the certified mechanics (AKA the MDs) get to peek and prod around under the hood.

Secondly, what is the brain, and what does it do? Neuroscience and technology have progressed such that we can really tell some amazing things about the brain, down to a single cell level. And as we know well, the brain plays an important role in learning.

But surely then, if a brain is necessary in order to learn, that would rule out any form of intelligence in organisms without a brain. Right? Wrong!

Who needs a brain?


In fact, recent research led by Professor Monica Gagliano at the University of Western Australia shows that pea plants – yes, plants – learn by association (Gagliano et al. 2016). I won’t go into the experimental details, because this video is more fun to watch. For an excellent insight into this developing field, refer to this review paper (Gagliano 2017). The basic thrust is that pea plants are able to associate a wind stimulus with a light stimulus, and when the light stimulus is removed from environmental conditions, significantly more plants than expected by chance alone continue to grow towards the wind stimulus. The explanation is that the plants have learned that if they follow the wind (conditioning stimulus), they’ll get the light (reward).

Now let’s turn our attention to the humble slime mould. Surely this neuron-less critter can’t be a serious contender for learning behaviour? Well, a recent report commented upon in the New Scientist begs to differ (Boisseau, Vogel, and Dussutour 2016). Basically, slime moulds don’t like caffeine. However, when the curious scientist posits a bridge made of this ‘nasty substance’ between the mould and some (assumedly) tasty food, they learn to get over their phobia of crossing ‘the caffeine bridge’ in order to obtain the reward.

Perhaps even more fascinating is that they are able to pass this memory or behaviour onto their peers. The hypothesis is that when the ‘experienced’ slime mould is allowed to fuse for 3 hours with a ‘naive’ peer, something physical is transmitted that permits the ‘naive’ slime mould to also cross the bridge and obtain the food reward. That ‘physical something’ could be an epigenetic factor, and so some believe it holds the secret to memory storage.

What are the implications of all this?

Firstly, based on the above evidence alone, some may claim it irrational to continue arguing that a brain is necessary in order to learning. In the working model that we are developing, we put forward an alternate notion. It starts out something like this – bodies are like machines, and the conscious living entity – known as the atma – is experiencing a version of reality through whatever senses are provided in that body.

In this sense, it is very simple to see that sitting in the backseat of a human body is like speeding around in an F1 racing car, whereas the experience of ‘slime mould-ness’ might be akin to cycling around on a beat-up bicycle. If we start with the notion that consciousness has complete awareness, then, of course, it would make sense that we have restricted experiences based on the body with which we are associated with.

In the case of humans, we have a faster processor (AKA ‘the brain’), but just because slime mould and plants have less nifty hardware, that doesn’t mean that the experiencer of qualia does not exist!

After all, most of us were there in the mid-late 1990’s during the exciting times of dial-up internet. Was it a tad frustrating? Yes! But like the slime mould, it was worth going through the ordeal in order to get ‘the prize’ (usually that would be a downloadable article 2 hours later). And just because we are habituated to super-speed fibre optic cable nowadays, does that mean that no-one using dial-up modem ever existed? 

The assertion here is that the brain is not a producer of consciousness; rather, it is a conductor. Similarly, other organisms have conductors that may be less efficient, or permit experiences that we can’t conceive of, but ultimately, it is the quantum particle of the conscious field – the atma – that is experiencing a version of reality through any particular body. For so many reasons, let alone for our own rational self-interest, it is essential that we explore a model of reality that separates the experiencer from the experienced. 

Finally, therefore, (and I’m sure even Mary and Roger would agree after finishing their perennial argument), give plants and slime moulds some love, won’t you?


Boisseau, Romain P., David Vogel, and Audrey Dussutour. 2016. “Habituation in Non-Neural Organisms: Evidence from Slime Moulds.” Proceedings. Biological Sciences / The Royal Society 283 (1829). doi:10.1098/rspb.2016.0446.

Gagliano, Monica. 2017. “The Mind of Plants: Thinking the Unthinkable.” Communicative & Integrative Biology 10 (2). Taylor & Francis: e1288333.

Gagliano, Monica, Vladyslav V. Vyazovskiy, Alexander A. Borbély, Mavra Grimonprez, and Martial Depczynski. 2016. “Learning by Association in Plants.” Scientific Reports 6 (December): 38427.