Can Slime Molds Think?

Now, researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University have discovered another thing Physarum can do: detect objects at a distance without physically coming into contact with them. The sightless slime mold uses its body to sense objects (in a process called mechanosensation) and then decides whether to grow toward them based on their mass and mass distribution.

Understanding how slime molds “think” puts human intelligence into perspective, as well. Many people conceive of cognition as a “chemical process driven by neurotransmitters in the brain,” says Levin, but slime mold “gives us some insight into different forms of intelligence.” He says Physarum has a “completely alien type of body with a very different way of living in the world, and yet we share something with it, which is the ability to map out the world [we] live in, make decisions, and try to do what [we] like.”

Twang Ching-Shih might have cursed slime molds as nothing more than “demon droppings,” but this research on slime mold highlights how previous understandings of cognition may have been too in-the-box, constrained to familiar forms. “Cognition is all around you. It really is everywhere,” says Levin. “And really, it’s not just for furry, brainy things.”


I haven’t read the article, and not sure I ever would when the author anthropormorphizes slime mold as having ‘likes’

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Is there a reason you don’t like that word? It seems common to say things like “plants like the sun” or “salmonella likes 90 degrees F”.

Here’s an interesting video about them.

I suppose it’s the combination of a supposed reputable source and anthropomorphizing. I expect more from a reputable source.

The extractions from the text use words such as ‘cognition’, and ‘like’, etc., which, when applied in different settings still carry with them the human bias associated with those words for many readers.

There are vacuum cleaners which can learn your floor layout and so vacuum the floor on their own. I haven’t heard the word cognition applied to those. Or whether they ‘like’ going back to their charging station to be recharged.

I recall, there was a kid’s thing where you could ‘program’ matchboxes containing colored beads to play tic-tac-toe. I wouldn’t apply cognition, or any form of liking to that situation either. And yet, it presumably can play tic-tac-toe, an ‘intelligent’ behavior. (I didn’t bother seeing if it would actually work).

I don’t think the fact that plants turning toward the sun implies intelligence, purposeful behavior, likes, or desires, as those words are normally used and understood by the majority of readers. If ‘researchers’ are using terms like these so loosely, I can’t see why I would want to read their articles.

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Perhaps the article is encouraging a re-evaluation of the bias you are pointing towards. I agree that our human experience anchors what we purport to mean when we talk about preference or intelligence, and examining the “behaviors”, whether conscious or not, of other biological or natural systems can help better frame our understanding of agency. See also, for example, Defining Lyfe in the Universe.


Fair point, but you should also consider…

[…] a working definition of intelligence cannot be too anthropocentric to the extent that non-human intelligence becomes impossible by definition. It follows that the definition cannot depend on human-specific properties, which can be biological, historical, social, etc. An intelligent being does not have to be human-like in all aspects, otherwise “intelligence” and “human intelligence” would be the same concept.


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Interesting article. The author is contrasting slime mold capabilities with human abilities, not equating them.