Reframing cognition: Getting down to biological basics

Pamela Lyon*, Fred Keijzer, Detlev Arendt, Michael Levin*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

37 Citations (Scopus)
52 Downloads (Pure)


The premise of this two-part theme issue is simple: the cognitive sciences should join the rest of the life sciences in how they approach the quarry within their research domain. Specifically, understanding how organisms on the lower branches of the phylogenetic tree become familiar with, value and exploit elements of an ecological niche while avoiding harm can be expected to aid understanding of how organisms that evolved later (including Homo sapiens) do the same or similar things. We call this approach basal cognition. In this introductory essay, we explain what the approach involves. Because no definition of cognition exists that reflects its biological basis, we advance a working definition that can be operationalized; introduce a behaviour-generating toolkit of capacities that comprise the function (e.g. sensing/perception, memory, valence, learning, decision making, communication), each element of which can be studied relatively independently; and identify a (necessarily incomplete) suite of common biophysical mechanisms found throughout the domains of life involved in implementing the toolkit. The articles in this collection illuminate different aspects of basal cognition across different forms of biological organization, from prokaryotes and single-celled eukaryotes—the focus of Part 1—to plants and finally to animals, without and with nervous systems, the focus of Part 2. By showcasing work in diverse, currently disconnected fields, we hope to sketch the outline of a new multidisciplinary approach for comprehending cognition, arguably the most fascinating and hard-to-fathom evolved function on this planet. Doing so has the potential to shed light on problems in a wide variety of research domains, including microbiology, immunology, zoology, biophysics, botany, developmental biology, neurobiology/science, regenerative medicine, computational biology, artificial life and synthetic bioengineering.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages11
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1820
Early online date25-Jan-2021
Publication statusPublished - 15-Mar-2021

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