How snails and plants showed me that brains are an op­tional ex­tra

The Jakarta Post - JPlus - - BETWEEN THE LINES - — Nury Vit­tachi

SCI­EN­TISTS DIS­COV­ERED A SNAIL that can make de­ci­sions us­ing only two brain cells, a re­port from the UK’s Univer­sity of Sus­sex says.

Yeah yeah, so what? Male hu­mans can make de­ci­sions af­ter per­form­ing com­plete tem­po­rary lobotomies on them­selves us­ing cans of cold beer. Mind you, the de­ci­sions are uni­formly bad ones, such as the or­der­ing of ad­di­tional cans of cold beer.

That UK science re­port re­minded me of the fa­mous 2012 ex­per­i­ment in which sci­en­tists tried to teach a splodge of slime mold to nav­i­gate a maze. The slime suc­cess­fully com­pleted the task de­spite hav­ing no brain, no eyes, no legs and no WiFi ac­cess to Google Maps.

That also left me unim­pressed: I had a look at the maze and reck­oned I could do it my­self, prob­a­bly, if I had a de­cent map and got one of my kids to do it for me.

But what sci­en­tists are ba­si­cally say­ing is that mount­ing ev­i­dence shows that brain pro­ces­sors are not needed for most ac­tiv­i­ties.

Wel­come to real life, boffins. Any adult who has tried to get a child (or let’s be hon­est, a hus­band) dressed and break­fasted and loaded onto a 7:15 a.m. bus knows that the ab­sence of con­scious aware­ness is not a fac­tor one way or the other.

But all this is a blow to the “you are your brain” school of thought and a bonus for the “an­nouncer is not in the ra­dio” school of thought, whose sci­en­tists say con­scious­ness is a quan­tum phe­nom­e­non.

The piece of ev­i­dence that raised my eye­brows the high­est was the re­cent dis­cov­ery that plants have mem­o­ries and can even count, de­spite hav­ing no brain of any kind. A re­searcher no­ticed that a Venus fly­trap knows the dif­fer­ence be­tween bits of taste­less dust and yummy vis­it­ing bugs by count­ing three foot­steps be­fore they snap shut and con­sume them.

Con­sid­er­ing the as­ton­ish­ing in­abil­ity to count that staff at my lo­cal fruit and veg shop reg­u­larly demon­strate, I am tempted to sug­gest to the man­ager that he re­place the som­nam­bu­lant cashiers with a se­lec­tion of plants. The plants’ math will be bet­ter and the gen­eral level of small talk will im­prove too.

The find­ings also lend weight to sci­en­tists who say high IQs are an anti-evo­lu­tion­ary trait. One of my evan­gel­i­cal athe­ist friends last week showed his spir­i­tual sis­ter a study “prov­ing” that his type had higher IQs than her type. She re­sponded with a much big­ger study show­ing that his type was more likely to be child­less and die ear­lier.

Given his predilec­tion for self-loboto-my-by-ap­pli­ca­tion-of-Carls­berg, that’s prob­a­bly true.

A re­cent book by sci­en­tist Bob Nease ex­plains why. Hu­mans process 10 mil­lion bits of in­for­ma­tion a sec­ond, but only 50 bits, which is 0.0005 per­cent, are de­voted to log­i­cal thought. In other words, hearts rule heads, and peo­ple who let this hap­pen are more likely to sur­vive and re­pro­duce.

Con­scious­ness is over-rated, any­way. Con­sider the fol­low­ing scene, which hap­pens at my house ev­ery Satur­day lunch time. Me to teenage daugh­ter: “You slept 14 hours!” Her: “I’m up, I’m up, see?” She moves from bed­room door­way to sofa — where she lies down.

Now that’s liv­ing.

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