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Wednesday, March 8, 2023

"We Are Electric"

My newest read.
Most afternoons, my wife and I ("Meee-mo & Pop") drive down to Fells Point in Baltimore to pick up Calvin, our 3-yr old grandson, at his pre-school. (Below, Calvin singing "Happy Birthday" to me on his dad's computer last month.)
We typically have BBC World Service on via our NPR station. Today, on the way back to the house, I switched over to "Fresh Air, with Terry Gross."
Terry's guest interviewee was Sally Adee, discussing her new book We Are Electric.
Writer Sally Adee says scientists are looking into ways to manipulate the body's natural electrical fields to try and treat wounds, depression, paralysis, and cancer.
Bought & downloaded it straight away. Will start reading after NIck comes to pick Calvin up after he gets off work.
Click cover image
Amazon blurb:
Science journalist Sally Adee breaks open the field of bioelectricity—the electric currents that run through our bodies and every living thing—its misunderstood history, and why new discoveries will lead to new ways around antibiotic resistance, cleared arteries, and new ways to combat cancer.

You may be familiar with the idea of our body's biome: the bacterial fauna that populate our gut and can so profoundly affect our health. In 
We Are Electric we cross into new scientific understanding: discovering your body's electrome.

Every cell in our bodies—bones, skin, nerves, muscle—has a voltage, like a tiny battery. It is the reason our brain can send signals to the rest of our body, how we develop in the womb, and why our body knows to heal itself from injury. When bioelectricity goes awry, illness, deformity, and cancer can result. But if we can control or correct this bioelectricity, the implications for our health are remarkable: an undo switch for cancer that could flip malignant cells back into healthy ones; the ability to regenerate cells, organs, even limbs; to slow aging and so much more. The next scientific frontier might be decrypting the bioelectric code, much the way we did the genetic code.

Yet the field is still emerging from two centuries of skepticism and entanglement with medical quackery, all stemming from an 18th-century scientific war about the nature of electricity between Luigi Galvani (father of bioelectricity, famous for shocking frogs) and Alessandro Volta (inventor of the battery).

We Are Electric, award-winning science writer Sally Adee takes readers through the thrilling history of bioelectricity and into the future: from the Victorian medical charlatans claiming to use electricity to cure everything from paralysis to diarrhea, to the advances helped along by the giant axons of squids, and finally to the brain implants and electric drugs that await us—and the moral implications therein. 

The bioelectric revolution starts here.
Stay tuned. All sounds fascinating.

Interview transcript at the Fresh Air page.

I'm well into the book. Lovely writing style. NY Times book review here. to wit:
"The electrome is an entity — with its ion-driven microvoltages all now measurable — that is, quite literally, immaterial. The divinely-minded will be tempted to conceptualize the electrome as the human soul. But Adee has no truck with such fancies. Soul or not, though bioelectricity weighs nothing it can do fantastic things. Adee knows; she has read for our benefit what seems like the entire history of bodily battery power — especially the delicious 18th-century tussle between the SignoriVolta and Galvani, in the matter of the twitching of frogs’ legs. She has also slogged through all the later research papers on electricity-related cellular biology. And all of this eventually led her into the long grass of some mightily weird modern research."
Yep. Pass the cognitive popcorn.


This in particular caught my eye in the above NY Times review (his opening paragraph):

My late mother was seriously clinically bipolar across her entire life (it ran in her family). Prone to recurrent incapacitating "nervous breakdowns," she was ECT'd repeatedly. Those tx just made her angrier and angrier and angrier.


Finished the book. I found it riveting. The author concludes:
...The dream is that all these tools and the insights they unlock will usher in a future of interfaces that work with—and possibly improve—biology on its own terms.

For the past half century, that honor has gone to machines and engineers who promise a future of all-knowing artificial intelligence, cyborg upgrades to what some have taken to dismissing as our inferior “meat bodies,” and a transhumanist deep future in which all biological matter has upgraded to silicon. But recently, the shine has begun to come off AI as we realize just how limited silicon intelligence really is. Existing materials can’t even manage hip implants that last longer than ten years—so how are we meant to have a permanent telepathic neural device attached to our brain? The research now underway in bioelectricity suggests that, rather than grasping for silicon and electron replacements to biology, the answers to an upgraded future might lie in biology itself.

Many of the early pioneers of bioelectricity have been redeemed after being initially ignored or derided. This is true not only of Galvani but also of Harold Saxton Burr, whose predictions about cancer and development have been validated with time, just as Galvani was right about the spark of life. Burr’s individual ideas seem to have been broadly right—but in his book published in 1974, he also tied these experiments into a bigger hypothesis. He posited that the day biology investigates forces instead of only studying particles, it will undergo a conceptual leap to rival the importance of splitting the atom for physics.

But there’s a final question. What then?

When we learned about the microbiome, we learned that we could improve it by eating kimchi and lots of greens. Learning about the electrome isn’t going to yield similar self-help just yet.

Hacking our memories or overclocking ourselves into infinite productivity is still quite a way off, and I hope my book has explained sufficiently why that’s the case. And I hope I’ve convinced you that it’s actually not the right approach anyway…

A lot of ink has been spilled asking where you draw the line between medical intervention and cosmetic enhancement. People raise this question all the time about all kinds of cognitive (and other cosmetic) enhancement, but no one ever seems to come up with a good answer. That’s probably because it’s actually a question that gets more unsettling the closer you peer at it. Because of course the more people adopt any particular enhancement, the more pressure they will exert on the people around them—and on themselves!—to keep up lest they get left behind, and the more unaugmented normalcy is transformed, by process of inertia, into a deficiency. The blame isn’t on any one individual—this is a classic tragedy of the commons.

Particularly in sport, this conversation has been very germane. Discussing tDCS in sport with Outside magazine, Thomas Murray, president emeritus of the Hastings Centre bioethics research institute, told the reporter Alex Hutchinson that “once an effective technology gets adopted in a sport, it becomes tyrannical. You have to use it.” Hutchinson made the dire and completely correct observation that “if the pros start brain-zapping, don’t kid yourself that it won’t trickle down to college, high school, and even the weekend warriors.” Once you start this game, you can never stop.

So my final exhortation for you, the person who has made it all the way to the end of my book, is this: when you see someone trying to sell you this stuff, ask who will benefit. Why is someone trying to sell it to you? Is it really for you? Beyond the basic “were the trials any good?” skepticism, ask what will happen next. Is this something that will alleviate your suffering? Or will it just kick the can down the road because eventually your new normal will become the new substandard, making way for the next piece of enhancing kit? The answer to that question is very different if the intervention is a treatment for cancer versus a way to be a better hustle goblin at your workplace.

In fact, I would love to take this whole idea of the body as an inferior meat puppet to be augmented with metal and absolutely launch it into the sun. Cybernetics keeps dangling the seductive illusion that we can ascend beyond the grubby world of human biology in our cyborg future—cajoled into correct action and good health (and maximum productivity, of course) by the electrical takeover of a couple of relevant nerve terminals.

The study of the electrome shouldn’t serve these masters. Doing the research that led to this book turned my head exactly 180 degrees from this view. Rather than being a collection of inferior meat bodies, biology becomes more astounding the more you learn about it—and fractally complicated too, as the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t understand. We are electrical machines whose full dimensions we have not even yet dreamed of.

But as is evident from the MIT program, academia is waking up to the interconnectedness, and different fields are starting to talk to each other more to explore this electric future. That is where we will start to see the next great steps in bioelectricity.

The real excitement of the field hews closer to the excitement around cosmology—a better understanding of our place in the universe and in nature. Already, some of the findings are upending some conventional wisdom. I honestly can’t wait to see what else we find in the next decade.
[We Are Electric, pp. 292-296]
One helluva writer and science historian.

Interesting callout from the above.

My niece April’s husband, Jeff Nyquist (Neuropsychology PhD, Vanderbilt) is the founder and chief science officer of

I have alerted him to Sally’s book, and would really like to talk over some of this stuff with him.

Below: Cool Radiolab interview with Sally.

From my current read. Below, apropos of some quick "electrome science" Google digging:

In addition to their 3 dimensions in space (x, y, z axes) and their time dimension, living systems also have a self-generated “electrical dimension” and an “immaterial” one that is inherent to their ability to handle (immaterial) information. When dealing with this immaterial dimension of “Life” the term “soul” is widely used, in particular with respect to the transition from “still alive” to “just dead” in humans, and when facing the intriguing question whether or not “the soul” persists one way or another after death. With respect to “consciousness,” a most intriguing key aspect of Life’s immaterial dimension, the consensus seems to be growing that it is a ubiquitous property of all living systems, from bacteria to animals, plants and fungi. But consensus is missing on whether the immaterial dimension of Life ultimately has a biophysical basis or not.

Today, the “material sciences” and the “non-material ones” as they are sometimes referred to, hold very different opinions on these challenging questions. Some protagonists of the latter even claim that “Biology is beyond physical sciences.” Such a statement meets with great skepticism and even blunt rejection among experimentalists. Caetano-Anolles states that such opinions should not be published in scientific journals. But rejection of confrontation does not advance insight and rapprochement.

For both the exact sciences and the humanities the key problem is: “Can something that is commonly thought to be truly immaterial (incorporeal and immaterial in the definition of “Soul” in the Encyclopedia Britannica), thus that has no mass in the meaning of classical physics, exist?” In a first reaction students of the exact sciences may be inclined to say: “No, impossible.” This is reflected in the scientific literature: one will not encounter “soul” with the cited meaning in textbooks of western biology or medicine unless when figuratively speaking. In psychology which, in origin, was the study of the “psyche” or “soul,” not “soul” but attitude and behavior represent its essence

If one searches the vast literature on e.g. consciousness, soul, thoughts etc. it soon becomes apparent that many authors give the impression to be either unaware of, or at least do not attribute any importance to the well documented fact that all cells have an immaterial self-generated electrical dimension, and that it is exactly this electrical activity that disappears at death along with thoughts and consciousness. Concurrently, one also gets confronted with the fact that the exact sciences seem to be reluctant to forward possible ideas for a biophysical underpinning of Life’s immaterial dimension. Is there no common ground between the exact sciences and the humanities, or could it be that we have all overlooked the possibility that what we call “soul” is simply an aspect of this largely undervalued self-generated cellular electrical activity?

The analysis of what exactly changes at the very moment a living system passes from “still alive” to “just not alive anymore” may help to (partially) define the immaterial dimension of Life with a vocabulary from the exact sciences. It may also help to answer the question whether or not only humans but all living systems/communicating compartments, bacteria inclusive have “a similar immaterial dimension, electrical in nature.”

In this paper I will try to demystify the idea that understanding the immaterial dimension of Life is beyond the capacity of the human brain, and that therefore one should not even spend efforts in lifting the veil. Some of its aspects are normal properties of information handling in sender-receiver systems that need self- generated electric/ionic currents for their functioning. Yet, I fully agree that the full picture, namely the full understanding of what thoughts and consciousness etc. are will not be possible earlier than the biophysical and biochemical principles governing the cognitive memory system will have been uncovered. In all honesty, I do not expect this to happen in the near future.

An unambiguous definition of “Life” as the conceptual framework for “body and mind”
Living versus non-living or inanimate matter: Widely used but scientifically wrong terminology

This dichotomous wording dates from long before the chemical nature of “matter” became known. It is so deeply rooted in all languages, and it sounds so logical that everybody assumes that nothing is wrong with it. But at the present time we know that classical matter D atoms, and that the atoms present in living matter are not different from their counterparts in non-living matter. In other words, the atoms in living matter do not have a special feature as to make them “animated.” The difference living – non-living is not situated in the atoms themselves but in the way the entities in which they end up “behave.” When combined into entities organized as sender-receiver compartments, the combinations of atoms can engage, under proper conditions, in communication and problem-solving activities. Combinations of atoms that do not form sender-receiver entities cannot by themselves engage in communication activities (see later). In short: what is classically called “living matter” can communicate, while “non-living matter” never can on its own. Atoms alone do not make the difference, but the activities to which they are instrumental do. For pragmatic reasons, I accept that the living - non-living wording continues to be used for some time…
19 pg. Open Access paper (pdf).
Lots to ponder. Hmmm... David Eagleman, anyone?

For the moment, I’m having a bit of semantic whiplash difficulty with the foregoing title phrase “the biophysical essence of the immaterial dimension of Life.”

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