Not Quite Frankenstein

A new research program will study the origins of biological behavior using nonliving things.

James Dixon, Associate Professor of the department of psychology on Oct. 7, 2013. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

James Dixon, Associate Professor of the department of psychology on Oct. 7, 2013. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

James Dixon, associate professor of psychology. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
James Dixon, associate professor of psychology. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Where can you watch a group of inanimate objects come together, form a cohesive structure, and start displaying what looks very much like organic behavior?

You might say this sounds like a modern-day Frankenstein.

But for a real-life example, you could visit the laboratory of psychologist James Dixon in Storrs, Conn.

Dixon and his colleagues at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Center for the Ecological Study of Perception and Action (CESPA) are building a research program around the idea that a lot can be learned about perception and action in living things from observing inanimate objects.

“Our observations suggest that matter that has become life has found some physical principle that we don’t quite understand yet,” says Dixon, associate professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

He calls the concept “radical,” “way out there,” and “potentially transformative.”

And that’s just what the National Science Foundation thought, too, when it awarded Dixon and his colleagues – a team of psychologists, physicists, chemists, and physical therapists – an $800,000 grant under the INSPIRE program: Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education. The federal program supports work that doesn’t fall under traditional scientific disciplines and involves particularly novel, think-outside-the-box research ideas.

Dixon says that the diversity of living things capable of perception and action suggests that these abilities may have arisen through general physical principles that complex biological systems have exploited.

The goal of his work is to understand how these principles that govern the flow of energy in simple nonliving systems can be scaled up to help explain behavior in living things.

Metallic behavior

The idea that physics and chemistry could somehow explain behavior is not new, says Dixon. Scientists as far back as the 1920s have been thinking about the flow of energy and matter through physical systems in ways that relate to the actions of organisms.

Building on these ideas, Dixon and his colleagues have taken an approach that he calls a “new starting point” for understanding perception and action that is based not in the complexities of biology, but in the principles of thermodynamics.

“For more than a century, we have tried to understand action by studying systems that are immensely complex, with billions of years of evolutionary history,” he says. “But what if you start from the ground up?”

With his collaborators at CESPA, Dixon has been using simple systems that he says display surprisingly complex behavior. For example, one experiment uses a handful of ball bearings sitting together in a petri dish filled with oil.

An electrical current applied to the system charges the ball bearings, which become attracted to one another and form a cohesive structure. But even though the energy flow is constant, the metal bits keep moving around and responding to their environment. These unpredictable movements, Dixon says, can be considered a rudimentary form of perception and action.

With the new funding, his team hopes to build and observe increasingly complex nonliving systems that converge on the behaviors of the simplest organisms.

Not quite Frankenstein

Dixon makes very clear that the observations he and his team make can all be accounted for by physical principles.

“Everything we’re doing is explainable at the local level, by the physical laws of nature,” he says. The flow of energy and matter through systems is understandable in terms of physics and chemistry, he emphasizes.

But the interesting things happen when objects, like the ball bearings, create unexpected organized structures.

“There are configurations that the ball bearings will and won’t sit in,” Dixon explains. “The system doesn’t always end up the way we think it will – it doesn’t always behave predictably.”

With his colleagues James Rusling of the Department of Chemistry; Tehran Davis, Bruce Kay, Claudia Carello, and Till Frank of the Department of Psychology; Jeff Kinsella-Shaw in the Neag School of Education’s Department of Kinesiology; and Dilip Kondepudi, a chemist at Wake Forest University, Dixon wants to create a new field of study connecting biological phenomena, self-organizing systems, and the principles of thermodynamics.

“There’s an additional layer here that hasn’t been fully explained,” he says.

Ultimately, the results of the project might inform a new type of engineering, in which a system self-organizes its perception and action to achieve goals.

Moreover, Dixon says that this new line of research could help scientists understand the origin of life: how at some point in the history of the universe, matter that was nonliving organized itself and produced living organisms.

But, he says with a laugh, there is absolutely no danger of a creating a Frankenstein in his laboratory.

“We like to joke sometimes that the system is having ‘a bad day’,” he says. “But at the end of the day we turn it off, and it turns off just fine.”