An Anime Made Me Rethink My Entire View On Cognition


Personification is one of the most basic literary devices I know. I can still remember the first time I learnt about it, I was in primary school and we were also given homework to write a story which "personified spoons and forks".

If you're 6 years old and don't know what personification is, it's the "projection of human characteristics onto inanimate objects" mostly used to create imagery. It's mainly used in simple ways like saying that flowers "dance" in the wind, or that rain is "indifferent" to your plans of wanting to commute with your electric skateboard (because apparently you can't ride it in the rain) so now you have to take public transport like some sort of common mule, and during a global pandemic just to top it off!

For my homework, being the dumbass kid I was(1), I took it way to literally and I wrote about spoons and forks being in a world war. There were forks stabbing spoons to death and spoons… not really being able to do anything because I don't know how you'd fight with a spoon, so the spoons most certainly lost. Also I think there was something about microwaves being nukes and dish soap being chemical weapons, but let's ignore the fact that I was a primary schooler writing about forks committing war crimes and move on because I think this intro is getting long enough.

(1) And still am.

What I did wasn't personification though, it was anthropomorphism, which is the "attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities"(2), so I have no idea why my teacher read a child's story about culinary genocide, accepted this even though it wasn't what she asked for, and then gave the child full marks.

(2) The difference is where personification is more on the "abstract", anthropomorphism would be more literal like a dog taking a more human-like form and being an actual character in the story.

Anyway, Cells at Work (2018) is a good anime and I think you should watch it. I mean, just look at this synopsis.

Inside the human body, roughly 37.2 trillion cells work energetically 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. Fresh out of training, the cheerful and somewhat airheaded Red Blood Cell AE3803 is ready to take on the ever-so-important task of transporting oxygen. As usual, White Blood Cell U-1146 is hard at work patrolling and eliminating foreign bacteria seeking to make the body their new lair. Elsewhere, little platelets are lining up for a new construction project.

Dealing with wounds and allergies, getting lost on the way to the lungs, and bickering with similar cell types, the daily lives of cells are always hectic as they work together to keep the body healthy!

So it's an anime about the cells in your body. What the synopsis doesn't say is that all the cells (and bacteria) are anthropomorphised into cute anime boys/girls which makes it a thousand times better.

So well done Japan, with one simple trick you've made me care about biology - the worst branch of science.

After binging all 13 episodes in the 6 hours of the day it took(3), I started to think about things I've never really cared about before. For example, let's look at the aforementioned "White Blood Cell U-1146". He has a sensor that can help detect where the bad bacteria are so he can get rid of them. I've seen videos of white blood cells chasing bacteria under microscopes, so it should be obvious they need some way to detect them.

(3) Don't ask.

But like, how? Are they just complicated state machines? I guess you could get away with saying that.

Let's look at the platelets instead. They're what's responsible for healing any abrasions or cuts to your skin.

But like, how? How do they know when there is an abrasion? And how do they know when to stop?

I think the fact that we've mapped so much of the human body already is remarkable. We know a lot about the cells that make us, the proteins that make them, and the DNA that provides assembly instructions for them. But from what I've seen, we don't know much about how they work.

The great progress has been mainly on drilling down to the molecular level, but the higher levels are actually not that well-off. We are still pretty poor at controlling anatomical structure or knowing how to get it back on track in cancer – this is why we don't have a real regenerative medicine yet. We know how to specify individual cell fates from stem cells, but we’re still far from being able to make complex organs on demand. The few situations where we can make them are those in which we've learned to communicate with the cell swarm – providing a simple trigger, such as the bioelectric pattern that says "build an eye here", and then letting the intelligence of the cell group do the hard work and stop when the organ is done.[1]

The pond-dwelling protozoa "Stentor roeseli" (S. roeseli) lives in ponds and other still or slow-moving bodies of fresh water, is a trumpet-shape, unicellular organism large enough to be visible to the naked eye. It spends its time attached to submerged vegetation, feeding on bacteria and other small organisms and occasionally swimming.

In 1902, zoologist Herbert Jennings published a paper in which he described the changing behavior of S. roeseli in response to an unpleasant stimulus—the pipetting of carmine (a red dye made from powdered insect shells) into the creature’s general vicinity. According to the paper, S. roeseli’s first avoidance strategy is to bend away from the irritant. If that doesn’t work, the creature alters the direction in which its cilia beat to drive away the particles. Failing that, S. roeseli contracts its body to escape the assault. And, as a last resort, the creature detaches from the object to which it was adhered and swims away.

The paper was discredited after another paper in 1967 failed to reproduce the findings, but recently has been replicated once again over 100 years after the original 1902 paper.[2]

Here is an excerpt from the review "Bacterial Microprocessing" from 1990.

To someone trying to understand the brain, the bacterium Escherichia coli must be an awesome beast. Its talents are legion, but its size is miniscule. E. coli is a cylindrical organism less than 1 μm in diameter by 2/μm long--20 would fit end-to-end in a single rod cell of the human retina or some 3000 in that of a frog. Yet, it is adept at counting molecules of specific sugars, amino acids, or dipeptides; at integration of similar or dissimilar sensory inputs over space and time; at comparing counts taken over the recent and the not so recent past; at triggering an all-or-nothing response; at swimming in a viscous medium; and as we shall see, even at pattern formation.

You could argue that cognition can only come from a brain, the electrial networks made of neurons. And I do think there must be a fundamental difference between brained and brainless organisms. But a brain did not come out of nothing and there is little fundamental difference between neurons and other cell types. The brain is the result of selection pressure placed on organisms with the most basic form of information processing.

If you agree that there is some mechanism by which electrically active cells can represent past memories and an anticipated future, there is no reason why non-neural electric networks wouldn't be doing a simplified version of the same thing to accomplish their goals. Neurons evolved from far simpler cell types and some of the brain's tricks were discovered around the time of bacterial biofilms.

It's cognition all the way down.

Earlier in the year, I wrote a post talking about panpsychism. Which to reiterate, is "the idea that all matter (animate or inanimate) is conscious, and we are just a bit more conscious than things like trees."

If you remember, or just read it again, I called this "bullshit" that "goes against our understanding of physics" and talked about how particles don't think. The issue with this is that I was only thinking about a good branch of science when reading about this stuff, instead of the worst branch of science.

The central point about cognitive systems is what they know how to detect, represent as memories, anticipate, decide among and, crucially, attempt to affect. Call this the system's cognitive horizon. One way to categorise and compare cognitive systems, whether artificial or evolved, simple or complex, is by mapping the size and shape of the goals it can support (represent and work toward).

Each agent's mind comprises a kind of shape in a virtual space of possible past and future events. The spatial extent of this shape is determined by how far away the agent can sense and exert actions – does it know, and act to control, events within 1 cm distance, or metres, or miles away? The temporal dimension is set by how far back it can remember, and how far forward it can anticipate – can it work towards things that will happen minutes from now, days from now, or decades from now?

Humans would obviously have a huge cognitive horizon, sometimes working hard for things that will happen long after they are gone, in places far away. It's certainly the biggest of any cognitive system we know of. I mean, can a shitty little virus like SARS-CoV-2 make something as smart as a story about spoon genocide? Yeah, didn't think so.

However, we can visualise the tiny contribution of a single cell to the projects and talents of the billions of humans working to together to create our modern, "functioning society". So, instead of treating human "genius" as a sort of black box made of magical smart-stuff, we can reinterpret it as an expansion of cognition of the cells that make us up.

Cells at Work made this visualistion extremely easy for me because they literally anthropomorphise cells into people with their goals clearly explained, all working together to make sure you don't die(4). Single cell organisims might not be as complicated as us, but when all their goals are combined into more grandiose ones, it becomes a person doesn't it? Where do the cells stop and the person start?

(4) Funnily enough, this is my benchmark for "functioning society".

I still don't think particles have consciousness, but if cognition drills all the way down to cells, I'm more inclined to believe that the distribution of things on the spectrum of "not-conscious" to "conscious" is skewed more towards to the latter than I previously though.

My, isn't learning fun?