Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Do Cells Sing to Each other? - Some thoughts on biology, physics and educational theory

This is the abstract from my paper which I'll be presenting at the Biosemiotics gathering in Berkeley in June (see This is a fascinating group of scientists from all fields. The next wave of educational theory will come from renewed focus on the current state of biology and physics.

At the moment in education, we are stuck with what biology thought in the 1920s - not that it was all wrong, of course - but we certainly know more now. Physics is connected to biology, and our understanding of quantum mechanics and its relation to relativity is particularly important, with some significant work going on there (some of it in Liverpool). Of course, the quantum thing is also critically important given that this will underpin the next wave of technology.

I think a renewed scientific focus will help clarify some of the confusion surrounding neuroscience's role in education (neuroscience is biology, after all), and also some of the problems which have crept in with half-baked philosophical speculation (sociomateriality, etc) which has become dogmatic. Speculation should be encouraged. Unfortunately education has a habit of turning speculation into dogma.

Do Cells Sing to Each Other?

Mark William Johnson, University of Liverpool

David Bohm considered that:

“in listening to music, one is directly perceiving an implicate order” (Bohm 2002)

Whilst remaining controversial, the wide-ranging nature of Bohm’s theory of implicate and explicate order presents an imaginative opportunity to connect to other scholarly considerations of music and communication (notably by Langer (Langer  1990)  and  Schutz  (Schu¨tz  1951))  and  consider  that  Bohm’s  insight might extend to cellular communication as well as physics. This paper consid- ers whether a process of “directly perceiving an implicate order” might be a mechanism in cellular communication, and how such a process might be artic- ulated with reference to ways of describing musical communication.

Central to Bohm’s approach is the acknowledgement of multiplicity of de- scription: what we think of as single descriptions like “a chair” or “a message” are, he contends, multiplicities. Fourier analysis of music reveals multiplicities which are both synchronic and diachronic, as shown in the spectral sound image below:

Each synchronic (vertical) level of the sound spectrum can be considered redundant: overtones add to the richness of the sound, but the essential function of a tone is preserved by the context. Diachronically, melody and harmony describe different aspects of the same thing, but both synchronic and diachronic aspects together form a coherence, which in Bohm’s physical theory, he saw as a symmetry.

I suggest a logical characterisation of this drawing using McCulloch’s model of perception (McCulloch 1945). In McCulloch’s work, perception is a coherence between multiple excitations of ‘drome’ circuits which configure each other, producing a syn-drome. McCulloch illustrates his idea with a diagram of the inter-connected circuits where each dromic excitation can either stimulate or attenuate every other level. I argue that this is comparable to the synchronic structure produced in music frequency analysis. In arguing this, I suggest that McCulloch’s dromic diagram can be drawn with different circuits representing basic categories of music (e.g. rhythm, melody, harmony, tonality)

Beyond basic categories like this, in music there are emergent categories as articulations of tonal and thematic structure unfold. In McCulloch’s diagram, this emergence can be represented with new dromic cycles interfering with ex- isting ones.
To explore this logical idea, experiments can be constructed which examine music for the Shannon entropy of its different aspects. Each feature can be treated as an ‘alphabet’ with an emergent entropy, where each aspect’s change in entropy affects every other aspect. The resonances from McCulloch’s loops can be re-represented empirically by plotting the changes in entropy over time from one description/alphabet to another. In doing so, we can investigate at what point (and by what mechanism) new alphabets are introduced, and secondly, by what mechanism do existing recognised aspects disappear. Using evidence of such analysis on a variety of music, I suggest that new categories emerge when the relative entropy between descriptions is coordinated in some way such that the correlation acquires some new label.
Is cellular communication like this? Is there a similar dance between multi- ple redundant descriptions? Musical coordination occurs in a context of aware- ness of multiple descriptions and self-awareness of participation in descriptions. Sometimes multiple descriptions of the environment present ambiguity and un- certainty. If awareness of self and ambiguity is a function of the symmetry between different descriptions of reality then cellular development might be di- rected in ways which address resonant symmetries within and between cells. A mechanism similar to this has been suggested by Torday (John S. Torday 2012). Emergent categories in the development of symmetries may then break apart those symmetries (creating a broken symmetry in a similar way to Deacon’s autocell (Deacon 2012)), just as a musical development will arrive at a cadence for something new to take shape.


Bohm, David (2002). Wholeness and the Implicate Order. English. 1 edition.

London ; New York: Routledge. isbn: 978-0-415-28979-5.

Deacon, Terrence W. (2012). Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Mat- ter. English. 1 edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. isbn: 978-0- 393-04991-6.

John S. Torday (2012). Evolutionary Biology: Cell-Cell Communication and Complex Disease. Wiley-Blackwell.

Langer, Sk (1990). Philosophy in a New Key: Study in the Symbolism of Rea- son, Rite and Art. English. 3rd Revised edition edition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. isbn: 978-0-674-66503-3.

McCulloch, Warren S. (1945). “A heterarchy of values determined by the topol- ogy of nervous nets”. en. In: The bulletin of mathematical biophysics 7.2, pp. 89–93. issn: 0007-4985, 1522-9602. doi: 10 . 1007 / BF02478457. url:

Schu¨tz,  Alfred  (1951).  “MAKING  MUSIC  TOGETHER:  A  Study  in  Social Relationship”. In: Social Research 1, p. 76. issn: 0037783X.

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