The Creativity of Cells: Aneural Irrational Cognition

Victoria Alexander

Baluška and Levin’s (2016) review of the literature on aneural cognition in single-celled organisms, plants, and animal tissues is focused on what might be called rational biological processes, using inherited or habituated signal pathways. The authors do not touch upon the extent to which simple organisms and cells are capable of irrational cognition. Human memory is not always the result of conditioning that locks in the most statistically relevant information about the environment.

Techniques for memorization available to humans use rhyme, rhythm, tone and other poetic devices, such as metaphor, metonymy, and symbolism. The mind-palace technique forms memories via arbitrary association and does not require multiple repetitions as straight rote learning does. People with synesthesia are better able to recall arbitrary facts because numbers or letters may have for them a unique color, texture or shape. Synesthesia studies have contributed to an understanding of how the subconscious works in a cross-modal manner. These types of memory formation do not conform to what we may think of as typical logical operations.

I will argue that certain conscious mnemonic devices may have evolved from aneural semiosic mechanisms. The physical properties of sign-vehicles in signal pathways—insofar as they may be coincidentally similar to or coincidentally proximate to, or arbitrarily connected to a component of the pathway—may lead to radical change in the function of the pathway. The self-organized emergent patterns that result from such lower-level “poetic” flexibility may be more robust and more efficient than patterns that require precisely determined categorically-correct local interactions. Such processes would flow easily to the lowest energy state. These aesthetic processes may underlie the most significant evolutionary adaptations, as well as what might be called learning by insight or having an epiphany.

The code duality model of Emmeche and Hoffmeyer (1991) can account for the apparently paradoxical situation wherein the physicality that grounds sign relations can also provide the physical qualities by which new (sometimes irrational) relationships can begin to form. As the effects of local sign-readings interact in the process of self-organization, these qualities provide the constraints that engender semiotic freedom, as well as the forgiving imprecision that leads to regularity.

I will illustrate local sign “misreadings” with examples of laboratory manipulations of pea plants that cause them to pursue wind as an index sign of light, virus conformations that “trick” the body with molecular mimicry, and the use of a conjugate to encrypt self with non-self leading to an autoimmune reaction. In these cases, the normal pathway is not simply broken or blocked, it is co-opted. Thus, it becomes possible to see how novel evolutionary adaptations might use similar aesthetic mechanisms to repurpose existing pathways.




Baluška, F., & Levin, M. (2016). On Having No Head: Cognition throughout Biological Systems. Frontiers in Psychology, 7.

Emmeche, C., & Hoffmeyer, J. (1991). Code-duality and the semiotics of nature. In M. Anderson & F. Merrell (Eds.), On semiotic modeling (pp. 117–166). New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

[Slides from the presentation]