BBC BLOGS - Today: Tom Feilden
« Previous | Main | Next »

Do cells think...and is this what it sounds like?

Tom Feilden | 08:20 UK time, Monday, 20 October 2008

I am a cell, therefore I think. Apologies to Descartes, but then the famous 17th century French philosopher never heard the sound of neurons "chattering" amongst themselves.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions

That sound, recorded by professor Brian Ford, shows that single-celled organisms are much more than lowly, one-dimensional structures: nature's "nanobots" dumbly performing mundane, repetitive functions to a simple stop/go template.

Professor Ford compares the sound to seabirds wheeling over a cliff-top colony, and claims it demonstrates a problem solving propensity....intelligent behaviour. The manifestation of mental ability, he argues, is not a feature that emerges from the complexity of higher organisms, it is inherent in each individual cell.

NeuronsIt's a radical new take on intelligence. Scientists are well used to the idea of intelligent behaviour being exhibited by colonies or groups of organisms that appear to be capable of a level of ingenuity that is more than the sum of their parts.

This kind of organisational or 'swarm' intelligence has been of particular interest in robotics, and a great deal of time and effort has been spent on developing computer programmes that enable robots to co-operate on tasks that would be beyond each individual.

But many single-celled organisms are also capable of constructing elaborate homes, repairing themselves, and even hunting for food. When we consider the significance of these observations, professor Ford concludes, we must acknowledge that these cells are taking decisions, adapting to situations, and working out what to do when confronted with a problem.

This, rather than group action, is the basis of intelligence. Cells think - and neurons, it seems, like to chat amongst themselves while they do it.


  • Comment number 1.

    Could this concept now be scaled up? We know that atoms make cells, cells make organs and organs make organisms.

    What if we were to take this group of organisms currently residing on the planet and (apologies to proponents of the Gaia Philosophy) imagine that we are cells in a greater organism?

  • Comment number 2.

    2 AudioDuck

    Some people are probably not as strategically smart or as co operative as single cell organisms. Perhaps devolution is the answer. Perhaps it is in progress.

  • Comment number 3.

    No disrespect to the research, but I fail to see how that sound denotes intelligence.
    After all, wind chimes make a varied and complex noise in response to external stimulus but we don't see this as evidence of problem solving behaviour.

    Got any links to Professor Ford's research?

  • Comment number 4.

    Neurons fire in an information-carrying fashion. Um. Hasn't this been known for quite some time now?

  • Comment number 5.

    Bacteria communicate through bacteria, but there has been scientific experimentation that shows that this is communication. Single-celled organisms making noise is NOT proof of communication, just noise.

  • Comment number 6.

    I agree with rasmusfribble and jnietzsche - there was nothing new here. Nor was there any science. Converting a neuron signal into an audible sound tells us nothing about neural activity.

    This was an astonishing piece for the Today programme to air. Was is based on any peer-reviewed research? What are Prof Ford's credentials in this area (as far as I can tell his title derives from a visiting professorship in e-learning at Leicester)?

    Speaking as a professional scientist myself, it is very depressing to see that the program editors and presenters lack the wherewithal to sift real science from this kind of non-science/nonsense.

    I would very much like to know how this item was selected for broadcast.

  • Comment number 7.

    While noise is not necessarily a sign of intelligence, we must also realize that if we heard only human voice, we might think that it's just chatter, noise. However, i would like to know why the professor deduces that this chatter is a sign of intelligence or intelligent communication. Could it just be the noise of vibrations as the neuros fire off necessary information.

  • Comment number 8.

    Please, please can someone explain - to a non-scientist - how sound travels through what I thought were the empty ventricles in the brain? I've been told the brain itself could not produce noise inside itself.

    There are far more important things to investigate inside the brain than recording what we are told are sounds.

  • Comment number 9.

    It's not really noise per say but electrical signals converted into noise. Like the grooves on a record being converted into noise. He is saying that these electrical signals indicate that the neurons that produce them have an intelligence all their own.

    Like they discuss the days events with each other over coffee an such. Really I think professor Ford should lose his position so as to not confuse our young ones any further, and the media should be penalized for even giving him a listening ear and a podium from which to promote his nonsense.

  • Comment number 10.

    Looks like some die-hards are being bitter - Brian Ford is opening a new age for biosciences, this view that cells show intelligence is highly important.

    Many people here feel this will probably get him close to a nobel prize award, and science (bioscience) is going to be so much beter with his theories. His broadcast was brilliant, nobody should doubt the importance of this work.

    Excellent broadcast, it will be a classic, and the silence of James Naughty was classic part of the years broadcasting.

  • Comment number 11.

    I did a quick Google and found this link:

  • Comment number 12.

    I biology to A-Level. The ideas that Professor Ford has are interesting and time will tell whether he is right or not.

  • Comment number 13.

    Heres a better deal, just google one word, microscope. Over twenty million sites, with ford at number four. The other ones are all firms, making his site the top in the world. This man knows his stuff.

  • Comment number 14.

    @ Dusty_Matter Post No. 9

    "Like they discuss the days events with each other over coffee an such."

    He said nothing of the sort, he said the sounds denote intelligence. My dog has intelligence but I assure you I am not speaking about a game of chess we didn't have.

    You are not in a position to decide on intelligence if you do not know what intelligence is.

  • Comment number 15.

    "Professor Ford compares the sound to... and claims it demonstrates a problem solving propensity....intelligent behaviour. The manifestation of mental ability, he argues, is not a feature that emerges from the complexity of higher organisms, it is inherent in each individual cell."

    That cells have a mental ability? Are you kidding me? At least your dog has a brain. Cells do not. They don't make noises either, and it doesn't matter if they did. It's eletrical impulses, and lots of things have electrical impulses. Even our sun does, but would you say that it has intelligence?

    I'm not saying that cells were not designed with intelligence, but they do not posses intelligence. Neither do plants or trees, and it appears that Prof. F has lost his as well.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.