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    Some Central Lessons on the Nature of Intelligence – From the Slime Mold to the Octopus

    By Dr. Arthur Lavin

    We all value intelligence, at least nearly everyone says they do.

    And these days, the whole concept takes on special value and power, because it will only be by our wits that we end this plague without losing millions of people to it.

    So when I had three experiences that helped me think about intelligence further, it seemed like a good time to share them and the insights they offered.  The three were a broken shoulder, slime mold, and one octopus.

    Slime Mold’s Lesson on Intelligence.

    PBS recently aired a rather amazing episode of Nova, their science show, and it was all about a form of life I knew hardly anything at all about.  The slang term for this life form is slime mold which seems a pretty nasty way to talk about a form of life that is not slimy, and has nothing to do with mold.   For lack of a , we will refer to this form of life by the name of a group of them, the group most often studied in the lab- Physarum.

    If you look up Physarum, you will see images of a blobby mass with countless tiny threads emanating from the mass.  That whole thing turns out to be one gigantic cell.   If you look at videos of Physarum, you may be as amazed as I was to see it pulsing, as if fluid was being pumped by a heart.  But this large organism has no heart, or brain, or lung, or kidney, or any organ whatsoever.  It is just one cell, big, but only one cell.

    It gets more interesting.  Most forms of life that exist as one cell are in the kingdom that includes bacteria.  But Physarum is not a bacteria.  All bacteria have their genes wandering about their single cell.  But Physarum, like all plants, animals and fungi, have their genes packed very neatly into a structure called the nucleus.   But Physarum also is not a plant or animal- it has not organs.  The closest thing is fungi, but fungi can form masses of multi-cellular structures, and  Physarum is one cell.   So one celled forms of life with no organs are called Protists, and that is what Physarum is.

    Now you might ask, what can a single celled organism that grows in blobs with countless threads, that is not an animal, plant, not even a mold, yeast or fungus, teach us all about intelligence?  That’s where the Nova show comes in- https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/video/secret-mind-of-slime/

    In this program we see that the organism we call Physarum, when it splits, it does not divide its genes or nuclei, so this one big blob and all its threads have thousands and thousands of nuclei, and all sorts of cellular structures, inside its rather enormous single cell, including hollow tubes surrounded by molecules capable of contracting, causing fluids in the entire cell to flow, giving it that throbbing, pulsatile flow through its threads.

    But the intelligence comes through when you ask the blob of Physarum to  find food.  It sends out its threads, but does so demonstrating the ability to learn from its mistakes and remember its mistakes, which allows its threads to solve maze like obstacles efficiently.  Which is to say, it learns and remembers how to solve a new, never before seen, problem.

    By anyone’s definition, that is intelligent.  And so we see intelligence without any semblance of a brain, not even with more than one cell or any organs!

    The same program offers the extra benefit of sharing the nature of intelligence seen in the tip of roots of plants, a similar sort of intelligence to Physarum.

    The Lessons Taught by One Small Octopus to One Lonely Man

    It is quite a leap from Physarum to the octopus.  From one cell to about 25 million cells.

    This look at the octopus is the result of a lonely man, seeking solace in diving off the southern tip of Africa in freezing cold ocean water with nothing more than flippers and a snorkel, no wet suit.

    Thanks to Netflix, his documentary can be easily seen in the one episode show, My Octopus Teacher- https://www.netflix.com/title/81045007

    This show takes on a journey in which only after nearly one year of diving, every day (!), a small adult octopus decides to connect with this man. From that point on, whenever he goes to its domain, it comes to connect, playfully.  Its tentacles touch him, at one point all of them embrace him.  He gets to watch it live its life up close.  A major predator, a very effective shark, finds our octopus, and how it outsmarts the shark, first by one ruse, then another, is astounding.

    Simply put, the octopus is a very, very rapid thinker, highly creative, solves major problems with lightning speed.  Again, one is seeing a very sophisticated intelligence at work.

    But again, we are seeing intelligence without any brain at all, no octopus has any brain!

    What Nerves Healing in My Hand Have Taught Me About Intelligence

    The third experience about intelligence that has had such an impact on me came much harder than by watching interesting TV.

    This has to do with a fall on some gasoline spilled at a gas station and not cleaned up in time for me not to slip on it, fly in the air, and shatter the top of my humerus, and break other bones in my shoulder.  Some of you saw me last winter in my sling.  Fortunately all the fractures healed with no surgery and my shoulder is perfectly fine.

    But when I fell I also dislocated my shoulder and when pulled out of joint a wad of nerves in my shoulder that service my left hand got yanked, and injured.   Again, I have the great good fortune to have fully normal movement in my left hand, I have been using it normally to type for many months, no problem.

    The lingering problem for about 6 months were areas of numbness in my left thumb, index, and middle finger.  That, again very fortunately, has healed.

    But what is left is a problem I didn’t even know fingers could have.  Maybe you did, or know someone who did.  The curious leftover issue is that the tips of these three fingers cannot figure out information as well as they should.  If I hold a few pages in just this thumb and two fingers, I feel the paper fine, but cannot tell if it is one or two or a few more pages.  But the rest of my left hand and all my right hand can tell that immediately.

    This situation has taught me that there is a sort of intelligence literally at our fingertips, that is very much similar, if not the same, as the intelligence discussed above seen in the tentacles of an octopus, the tips of plants’ roots, the thready Physarum, maybe even the tip of the elephant’s trunk.

    Now the elephant, and you and I, have a brain, but so much of life does not, and uses the tips of its organism with astounding intelligence.

    No doubt we use our brains to nearly infinite complexity.  But recent research has proven the gut has intelligence of its own, I now know the fingers do too, and I suspect where there is life, there is very, very high intelligence.

    Putting it Together

    We are used to thinking of intelligence as that which is measured by one’s grades and test scores.  And that is one way to think about it.

    But that wouldn’t be the smartest way to define intelligence.  We know for sure that SAT and ACT scores predict nothing of value for much time after you get into college.   To an almost complete extent, the SAT and ACT scores measure how well you learned to solve the problem of taking the SAT and ACT and not much else.

    But intelligence is really about the ability to solve new problems.  We see this so powerfully throughout life.  Even the tiniest, emptiest form of life, the virus, is wily.  Not sure, just ponder one word- COVID.

    And so it is with us, our mind is clearly created in part by our powerful brain, but that’s not all there is to us, every cell, I am sure, bristles with intelligence, just as the one cell of Physarum does, and the brainless system of 25 million cells we call the octopus does, and as do my fingertips.


    1. Intelligence is the ability to solve a problem.  The more complex the problem, the more novel, the more impressive the intelligence.
    2. The organism called Physarum in the lab, and slime mold everywhere else, is not slimy and is not a mold.  It shows up as a big blob with zillions of threads all of which are one cell, with no brain, but it has amazing powers of solving problems and memory, it is smart.
    3.  The mollusk the octopus shows us many human like qualities of being very smart- playfulness, creativity, getting out of mortal danger- all very rapidly, and again, all without a brain.
    4. As I approach full healing from a fall, my fingers teach me that we figure all sorts of complex things out at the tips of our fingers.
    5. All these observations remind us that intelligence is a core property of all life!  Even the most stripped down version of life, which doesn’t even have any cells, just protein wrapping some genes, the virus, outfoxes its enemies very well.

    Intelligence is not a school item.  It is a life item.  And all our cells are vibrating with it.  It is nice to know as school gets disrupted, that intelligence is humming along very well in us and around us.

    Even so, I hope our wits outfox this coronavirus and soon, to that more can live, and we learn even more in school and in life.

    To your health,
    Dr. Arthur Lavin


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