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    Thread: The secrets of intelligence lie within a single cell

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      The secrets of intelligence lie within a single cell

      * 26 April 2010 by Brian J. Ford
      http://www.newscientist.com/article/...ll.html?page=1

      LATE at night on a sultry evening, I watch intently as the predator senses its prey, gathers itself, and strikes. It could be a polecat, or even a mantis - but in fact it's a microbe. The microscopic world of the single, living cell mirrors our own in so many ways: cells are essentially autonomous, sentient and ingenious. In the lives of single cells we can perceive the roots of our own intelligence.

      Molecular biology and genetics have driven the biosciences, but have not given us the miraculous new insights we were led to expect. From professional biologists to schoolchildren, people are concentrating on the minutiae of what goes on in the deepest recesses of the cell. For me, however, this misses out on life in the round: it is only when we look at the living cell as a whole organism that wonderful realities emerge that will alter our perception not only of how single cells enact their intricate lives but what we humans truly are.

      The problem is that whole-cell biology is not popular. Microscopy is hell-bent on increased resolution and ever higher magnification, as though we could learn more about animal behaviour by putting a bacon sandwich under lenses of increasing power. We know much about what goes on within parts of a cell, but so much less about how whole cells conduct their lives.

      Currently, cell biology deals largely with the components within cells, and systems biology with how the components interact. There is nothing to counterbalance this reductionism with a focus on how whole cells behave. Molecular biology and genetics are the wrong sciences to tackle the task.

      Let's take a look at some of the evidence for ingenuity and intelligence in cells that is missing from the curriculum. Take the red algae Rhodophyta, in which many species carry out remarkable repairs to damaged cells. Cut a filament of Antithamnion cells so the cell is cut across and the cytoplasm escapes into the surrounding aquatic medium. All that remains are two fragments of empty, disrupted cell wall lying adjacent to, but separate from, each other. Within 24 hours, however, the adjacent cells have made good the damage, the empty cell space has been restored to full activity, and the cell walls meticulously realigned and seamlessly repaired.

      The only place where this can happen is in the lab. In nature, the broken ends of the severed cell would nearly always end up remote from each other, so selection in favour of an automatic repair mechanism through Darwinian evolution would be impossible. Yet something amazing is happening here: because the damage to the Antithamnion filament is unforeseeable, the organism faces a situation for which it has not been able to adapt, and is therefore unable to call upon inbuilt responses. It has to use some sort of problem-solving ingenuity instead.

      We regard amoebas as simple and crude. Yet many types of amoeba construct glassy shells by picking up sand grains from the mud in which they live. The typical Difflugia shell, for example, is shaped like a vase, and has a remarkable symmetry.

      Compare this with the better known behaviour of a caddis fly larva. This maggot hunts around the bottom of the pond for suitable scraps of detritus with which to construct a home. Waterlogged wood is cemented together with pondweed until the larva has formed a protective covering for its nakedness. You might think this comparable to the home built by the testate amoeba, yet the amoeba lacks the jaws, eyes, muscles, limbs, cement glands and brain the caddis fly larva relies on for its skills. We just don't know how this single-celled organism builds its shell, and molecular biology can never tell us why. While the home of the caddis fly larva is crude and roughly assembled, that of the testate amoeba is meticulously crafted - and it's all made by a single cell.

      The products of the caddis fly larva and the amoeba, and the powers of red algae, are about more than ingenuity: they pose important questions about cell intelligence. After all, whole living cells are primarily autonomous, and carry out their daily tasks with little external mediation. They are not subservient nanobots, they create and regulate activity, respond to current conditions and, crucially, take decisions to deal with unforeseen difficulties.
      Whole living cells are not subservient nanobots, they respond and take decisions

      Just how far this conceptual revolution about cells could take us becomes clearer with more complex animals, such as humans. Here, conventional wisdom is that everything is ultimately controlled by the brain. But cells in the liver, for example, reproduce at just the right rate to replace cells lost through attrition; follicular cells create new hair; bone marrow cells produce new circulating blood cells at a rate of millions per minute. And so on and on. In fact, around 90 per cent of this kind of cell activity is invisible to the brain, and the cells are indifferent to its actions. The brain is an irrelevance to most somatic cells.

      So where does that leave the neuron, the most highly evolved cell we know? It ought to be in an interesting and privileged place. After all, neurons are so specialised that they have virtually abandoned division and reproduction. Yet we model this cell as little more than an organic transistor, an on/off switch. But if a red alga can "work out" how to solve problems, or an amoeba construct a stone home with all the "ingenuity" of a master builder, how can the human neuron be so lowly?

      Unravelling brain structure and function has come to mean understanding the interrelationship between neurons, rather than understanding the neurons themselves. My hunch is that the brain's power will turn out to derive from data processing within the neuron rather than activity between neurons.

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      Looking at how cells work will be crucial for nano technoligy. It is prity amazing that a single microscopic organisim can act smarter than many organisims a million times larger. Hopefully more scientists will look into it.
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      "My hunch is that the brain's power will turn out to derive from data processing within the neuron rather than activity between neurons."

      I've finished my Biochemistry, Biophysics, Molecular Biology and Cellular Biology courses, and based on what I've learned that happens and what I've learned to expect that happens, I couldn't agree more.
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      What have you learned?

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      That article contradicts itself.
      First it accuses molecular biology of being reductionist (which it is) and then it looks for clues of systematic behavior in single cells instead of looking at systems and networks those cells are involved in.
      If neurons are so good at problem solving, why is it strange that neural networks are even better at it?

      And also a factual error: systems biology is anything but reductionist.

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      The rest of the article:

      And networks of neurons enhance the effect of those neurons "thinking" between themselves. I think the neuron's action potentials are rather like a language neurons use to transmit processed data from one to the next.

      Back in 2004, we set out to record these potentials, from neurons cultured in the lab. They emit electrical signals of around 40 hertz, which sound like a buzzing, irritating noise played back as audio files. I used some specialist software to distinguish the signal within the noise - and to produce sound from within each peak that is closer to the frequency of a human voice and therefore more revealing to the ear.

      Listening to the results reprocessed at around 300 Hz, the audio files have the hypnotic quality of sea birds calling. There is a sense that each spike is modulated subtly within itself, and it sounds as if there are discrete signals in which one neuron in some sense "addresses" another. Could we be eavesdropping on the language of the brain?

      For me, the brain is not a supercomputer in which the neurons are transistors; rather it is as if each individual neuron is itself a computer, and the brain a vast community of microscopic computers. But even this model is probably too simplistic since the neuron processes data flexibly and on disparate levels, and is therefore far superior to any digital system. If I am right, the human brain may be a trillion times more capable than we imagine, and "artificial intelligence" a grandiose misnomer.

      I think it is time to acknowledge fully that living cells make us what we are, and to abandon reductionist thinking in favour of the study of whole cells. Reductionism has us peering ever closer at the fibres in the paper of a musical score, and analysing the printer's ink. I want us to experience the symphony.



      Pretty phenomenal. I get giddy thinking about it. How does our individual personality arise from the vast network of communicating cells? It seems more or less like we are Legion, speaking on behalf of 100 billion neurons. I wonder then how this is going to effect research into A.I. also.

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      Yes, someone posted an article that refered to his exercise of altering the signals to be close to audible speech awhile ago, and everyone called it bunk. It is a little more effective when taken in context.

      I think about stuff like this when I think about extraterrestrial life. I wouldn't be surprised if there was an extraterrestrial intelligence out there that believes the Earth itself is an organism and each individual person can't possibly be intelligent on its own, especially given the incredibly predictable way we live our lives.

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      This is all very nonsensical. Even though New Scientist isn't exactly a journal I'm still surprised rubbish like this is published in it. I can just imagine serious molecular and cell biologists reading this and feeling insulted. It's an interesting idea but completely unfounded - and seemingly 'intelligent' behaviours in cells can all be explained as part of complex molecular processes in which no sentient life is involved. This guy just sounds like a fairly incompetent scientist who has come up with a crazy idea and has chosen to run with it. Really, it has no basis in science and will lead nowhere.

      And I'd like to add that I'm a neuroscientist, and neurons interacting with eachother provides more than enough complexity to explain all the facets of human consciousness.

      As an interesting note; there are neurons in the brain which act as 'timing' cells - they help us keep track of time. If you take one of these cells and put it in a petri dish, completely by itself, it will produce action potentials in a cyclical manner, with each cycle lasting 24 hours. Although this seems to show individual intelligence in cells (using the same logic as the guy writing this article), this process has been shown to be a molecular one, and no intelligence is needed. I'm sure we can find similar molecular explanations for other apparantly sentient behaviours in cells.
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      I forgot to mention, after reading this again:

      "Yet we model this cell as little more than an organic transistor, an on/off switch.
      My hunch is that the brain's power will turn out to derive from data processing within the neuron rather than activity between neurons. "

      Neuroscientists most certainly don't see neurons as on/off switches, and it is well known that data processing occurs within neurons as well as between. We understand that neurons receive thousands of inputs, and it has already been shown that processing of these inputs occurs within the cell.

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      Quote Originally Posted by Pensive Patrick View Post
      It's an interesting idea but completely unfounded - and seemingly 'intelligent' behaviours in cells can all be explained as part of complex molecular processes in which no sentient life is involved.
      I thought the same thing. He says that molecular biology is unable to explain "intelligent" cellular behavior, but all of cellular behavior is a consequence of molecular networks. Those networks are used to compute the optimal output based on inputs coming from the environment.

      Quote Originally Posted by Pensive Patrick View Post
      I forgot to mention, after reading this again:

      "Yet we model this cell as little more than an organic transistor, an on/off switch.
      My hunch is that the brain's power will turn out to derive from data processing within the neuron rather than activity between neurons. "

      Neuroscientists most certainly don't see neurons as on/off switches, and it is well known that data processing occurs within neurons as well as between. We understand that neurons receive thousands of inputs, and it has already been shown that processing of these inputs occurs within the cell.
      I agree. That's just a problem of modelling things that happen on very different scales. You can either model things happening in one cell with high detail, or you can model networks of cells by considering individual cells as (more or less) black boxes. I don't think we have enough computational power right now to do both at the same time and we certainly don't have experimental methods that can do both. This doesn't mean that we generally think of neurons as transistors, it just means you get good enough predictions from the model by reducing the complexity and the number of parameters.
      Last edited by SnakeCharmer; 05-10-2010 at 11:11 AM.

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      I think what you two are saying is a bit misleading. If the study of cells does not show intelligent behavior, then it shows that there is no such thing as intelligent behavior. The behavior of a whole human being can be almost as easily explained away by casual chemical and electrical processes.

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      Quote Originally Posted by Xaqaria View Post
      If the study of cells does not show intelligent behavior, then it shows that there is no such thing as intelligent behavior.
      Are you saying that if a single neuron is not intelligent, it's not possible for a network of a billion neurons to show intelligent behavior?
      This is pure reductionist thinking on your behalf.

      Parts of the system needn't have any of the characteristics of the whole system. Rather, characteristics of the system emerge from interactions between the parts.

      I also think you are stretching the meaning of intelligence. Responding to environmental stimulus in an optimal manner does not equal intelligence.

      Quote Originally Posted by Xaqaria View Post
      The behavior of a whole human being can be almost as easily explained away by casual chemical and electrical processes.
      Yes, I think the behavior of a whole human being can be explained by chemical and electrical processes. But explained away? How does explaining something in mechanistic terms make it less impressive or interesting?

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      Quote Originally Posted by Xaqaria View Post
      I think what you two are saying is a bit misleading. If the study of cells does not show intelligent behavior, then it shows that there is no such thing as intelligent behavior. The behavior of a whole human being can be almost as easily explained away by casual chemical and electrical processes.
      I completely understand what you're saying; and you're right. But what the author seems to be arguing is that cells are capable of making decisions in a similar way to humans - and he is not providing any evidence for this. Cells react to the environment due to pre-programmed molecular pathways. As do humans react to their environment in a similar manner, although arguably with slightly more complexity. If this is your definition of intelligence then fine, cells have 'intelligence'. But their actions cannot be compared to the actions of humans, who are multicellular organisms, as this author is trying to do.

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      I have read about three different cell biologists that refer to cells as intelligent. One of those cell biologists further explains the usage of the word "intelligence". Intelligence in this case is not in any way being compared to human intelligence (though we do need to honor that our intelligence is a because our cells cooperate as a community). Rather, intelligence is being used in its most purest definition - that these cells make decisions. Even if that decision is binary, left or right, it's still a decision. It's still intelligence in it's most fundamental level. You can argue all you want, but it's my understanding that these biologists are using the term intelligence in a very fundamental way.


      Anyways! Cells always blow my mind away!

      Years ago I saw a video of living single cells in action, going about their business. It blew my mind away! Sure the cells still seemed dumb to me, but they were DOING things. And even at this most basic level you could see the interactions between plant and animal. The plant cells were drifting slowly, while the animal cells were zipping about, sometimes even stopping completely, to just swim back where it came from.

      Years later my mind was blown ago thanks to TED.com when I learned that all bacteria speak, and that each species has it's own unique language. Why does bacteria need a language? What kind of messages are they saying? "Food this way"?? Suddenly the single celled bacterium looked more and more like a miniature animal.

      Then I discovered the works of Elizabet Sahtouris, thanks to this forum. The materialist isn't going to like her work, but she offered such a fresh look on cellular life that its' never left my mind.

      Elizabet Sahtouris suggests that the evolution of cellular life, is a microcosm of evolution in its entirety. That we only need to look at the history of cellular life to understand our own evolutionary future! And that cellular life is a lot more remarkable then we conventionally allow. I'm really terrible of paraphrasing. But basically cellular life reaches a critical point, akin to the world being nearly destroyed. Cellular life has to make a choice, continue the same old dog eats dog strategy and die, or take evolution on it's daring new step, cooperate. And organisms, complex cellular communities, are created.

      Now evolution is no longer about the individual cell, but evolving the community!

      After reading Elizabet, I was forever convinced that the key to evolution is cooperation, NOT the Darwinian of a dog eats dog world. When we take into consideration cellular evolution, COOPERATION actually by large is the most common type of ecosystem. And the testimony to the greatness of cooperation IS US! HUMAN KIND! Our body is akin to a world, a world with one common goal. The survival of this world, AKA the human body, is dependent on this massive cooperation AND uniqueness. We have so many different kinds of cells. Cooperation does not require conformity. Survival needs uniqueness.

      I learned about fractals, and how nature is fractal, how space is fractal which would make time fractal. Elizabet and other biologists are now suggesting that because nature is fractal, so is evolution.

      We can even look to our history and see this evolution being paralleled. We started out as primitive apes. Everyone had the same job - forage - survive. We formed small communities, different jobs were created, not unlike cellular specialization. Our communities merge and form more complex communities requiring some sort of system to keep our large community together. We needed to develop ways for one end of the community to communicate with the other end. That's what a central nervous system does. It tells cells in one part of the body what's happening in another part of the body. Traditionally we have given this role to government, right? We at least hope the government is going to tell us if a city else where is under attack.

      No individual cell has the intelligence or the consciousness of the human mind.

      But some how, something magical takes place when their efforts are pulled together and they multiply their talents. A thinking wonderful brain. Something that no cell alone could ever understand, fathom, or imagine.

      Just like we humans have no idea what we will become when we pull our collective heads out of our asses and cooperate as a single human race. The evolution of the organism comes to a closing, and a new chapter of evolution begins. The more we learn about cells, the more we learn about past, present and future.

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      Quote Originally Posted by juroara View Post
      Rather, intelligence is being used in its most purest definition - that these cells make decisions. Even if that decision is binary, left or right, it's still a decision. It's still intelligence in it's most fundamental level. You can argue all you want, but it's my understanding that these biologists are using the term intelligence in a very fundamental way.
      If you want to define intelligence in this way, then thermostats are also intelligent.


      Quote Originally Posted by juroara View Post
      Years later my mind was blown ago thanks to TED.com when I learned that all bacteria speak, and that each species has it's own unique language. Why does bacteria need a language? What kind of messages are they saying? "Food this way"?? Suddenly the single celled bacterium looked more and more like a miniature animal.
      All (as far as I know) microbial species live in communities and are considered to be social. You can't have a "society" without communication. They communicate in the same way different cells in your body communicate, with chemical signals.
      For example, certain pathogenic bacteria use a phenomena called quorum sensing to determine what their population density is. They secrete a chemical and the concentration of that chemical is a measure of how many individuals are there in their neighborhood. If there is enough of them, they start the infection process. It's not magic, molecular networks responsible for this behavior have been identified, cloned into other bacterial species and also engineered to behave differently. It's just like a computer program, it does what it's programmed to do. It is amazing, but I wouldn't call it intelligent.

      Quote Originally Posted by juroara View Post
      After reading Elizabet, I was forever convinced that the key to evolution is cooperation, NOT the Darwinian of a dog eats dog world.
      I would say that's a false dichotomy. Cooperation is a result of competition. Cooperative communities are more successful than uncooperative communities. Uncooperative individuals are more successful than cooperative individuals (Successful being what matters in evolution - reproduction and competition for limited resources). Cooperative and uncooperative behavior co-exist in all communities

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      Quote Originally Posted by Pensive Patrick View Post
      I completely understand what you're saying; and you're right. But what the author seems to be arguing is that cells are capable of making decisions in a similar way to humans - and he is not providing any evidence for this. Cells react to the environment due to pre-programmed molecular pathways. As do humans react to their environment in a similar manner, although arguably with slightly more complexity. If this is your definition of intelligence then fine, cells have 'intelligence'. But their actions cannot be compared to the actions of humans, who are multicellular organisms, as this author is trying to do.
      They can be compared, they just can't be equated. It would be similar to comparing the actions of a community to those of an individual. We do this on a regular basis; and in fact there are communities that legally are individuals (corporations).

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      Quote Originally Posted by SnakeCharmer View Post
      If you want to define intelligence in this way, then thermostats are also intelligent.

      That's like saying my calculator decides to add or subtract

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      If you climb a mountain and look out over the city, you see people doing everything according to preprogrammed pathways and functions in order to keep the whole city alive. You see the arteries flowing with traffic, traffic lights change automatically, keeping the flow as smooth as possible. You see people going to work, coming home, having families, consuming products, creating an economy. You see the trucks coming in and delivering necessary products and trucks leaving with other products. The whole thing looks like an organism, and the people look as if they are all acting according to automatic preprogrammed pathways with no awareness or intelligence of their own, not even aware that you are outside of the city, on top of the mountain, observing them from an outside perspective.

      It all depends on a higher, outside perspective that makes it seem as if there is no intelligence "down there."

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      I wonder if the internet is sentient...

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      Quote Originally Posted by juroara View Post
      That's like saying my calculator decides to add or subtract
      No, it's not.
      Thermostat "decides" on its own when to turn the heating on and when to turn it off. It does so in the same way cells "decide" to do something.
      You're the one claiming this is an example of intelligent behavior.
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      Quote Originally Posted by SnakeCharmer View Post
      If you want to define intelligence in this way, then thermostats are also intelligent.
      Yes, they are. Something is said to be intelligent when it displays good judgment. Even the behavior of human beings is broken down this way when examined by science. You can't ask someone if they are intelligent, you just observe their behavior as well as the circumstances that it is exhibited under. Every time the temperature in a room drops below a certain point, the thermostat displays an appropriate response; it clicks on the heater to warm the room up. If the room temp goes above a certain point, the thermostat clicks the heater off so it doesn't get too warm. How is this different from a monkey pressing a button to get a treat, or an infant pulling its hand away from a hot burner; except that the thermostat, like the cell, is built or 'born' to function in this way and the monkey or the infant must first learn the behavior?

      Quote Originally Posted by Black_Eagle View Post
      I wonder if the internet is sentient...
      Sentience is different from intelligence. I'm not saying that the internet is both or neither sentient or intelligent, though; I think that is a topic for another thread.
      Last edited by Xaqaria; 05-12-2010 at 05:19 PM.

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      Quote Originally Posted by SnakeCharmer View Post
      No, it's not.
      Thermostat "decides" on its own when to turn the heating on and when to turn it off. It does so in the same way cells "decide" to do something.
      You're the one claiming this is an example of intelligent behavior.
      Exactly, spot on. A cell may seem to 'decide' to move somewhere, but in the same way that a thermostat 'decides' that it is too hot and needs to turn the heating off.

      It's like why hydrogen bonds form in DNA or why electrons repel eachother: it's just the way the world works. And I strongly believe that this applies to humans too; but that does not mean that people can say that cells are intelligent in the same way that humans are. There are considerable differences; a cell cannot, for example, do maths.

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      Quote Originally Posted by Xaqaria View Post
      Yes, they are. Something is said to be intelligent when it displays good judgment.
      The point here is that, as far as thermostat or cells are concerned, there is no other choice available. They make decisions like that because they are hard-wired to do so. There is no creativity involved, no solution to problems that are outside of what the original response was meant to solve.

      Quote Originally Posted by Xaqaria View Post
      How is this different from a monkey pressing a button to get a treat, or an infant pulling its hand away from a hot burner; except that the thermostat, like the cell, is built or 'born' to function in this way and the monkey or the infant must first learn the behavior?
      I'm not saying it's different. I'm saying it's not intelligent in a way humans are intelligent. Since you already defined intelligence to include such behavior, any further discussion would just be about what "intelligence" really means.

      In a sense, you are right. When people talk about artifical intelligence, they often talk about algorithms inspired by biological systems: neural networks, swarms, ant colony optimization and so on. But human intelligence is much more than just optimization of response to external stimuli. That's what I mean when I say that you really have to stretch the definition of intelligence if you want to cover both molecular, cellular and human behavior.

    24. #24
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      Human intelligence is most certainly just optimization of response to external stimuli. The only reason why this might appear to not be so is because the shear amount of stimuli that we are capable of receiving and processing is beyond our current understanding. We can clearly understand what stimuli affects a cell, and so it looks like it acts in a programmed way. We don't know all of the stimuli that affects the judgment of a human being and so we erroneously believe that there is some special element to our decision making.

      I am not saying that a cell is as intelligent as a human, or even that it has the same kind of intelligence; and I don't think the articles/research is trying to make that claim either. I am merely saying that one cannot call a human being intelligent while saying that a cell is just a machine carrying out its programming. A cell is no more or less programmed than a human. If one is intelligent to some degree, then so is the other. If a cell is not intelligent because it must operate within the confines of its capabilities then a human being is not really intelligent either.

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      Quote Originally Posted by Xaqaria View Post
      Human intelligence is most certainly just optimization of response to external stimuli.
      That's true for >99% of all human activity. But would you reduce doing, for example, abstract math to the same thing?

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