Nick Paumgarten

‘It’s not inconceivable that the rest of the body (brain, hands, heart, lungs, digestive tract) is merely an elaborate and sometimes clumsy apparatus for the nourishment of the mitochondria—that it is the mitochondria, and not Homo sapiens, who rule and foul the earth. Our cardiovascular system, that fantastic and vulnerable machine, is essentially a delivery system for the oxygen they require. The mitochondrion is the creature and we are merely its husk, its fleshy chrysalis. A newborn’s first breath? That’s the mitochondria, calling the shots.

“That, anyway, is the mitocentric perspective,” Martin Picard said, on a recent afternoon in his office, in Washington Heights… His specialty is mitochondrial psychobiology. “We try to understand the connection between the mind and mitochondria,” he said. “We think about energy a lot.”…

In a mostly sincere attempt to convey how little we know about the workings of consciousness, he said, “We have yet to disprove that our brains aren’t merely antennas, that all of our ‘thoughts’ and ‘memories’ don’t just come from out there”—he pointed out the window—“and that we’re not just ‘streaming’ everything.” Glancing behind him at the river’s eddying current, I half expected to catch a glitch in the matrix.

“The main distinguishing characteristic between a cadaver and a living, thinking, feeling individual is the flow of energy through the body,” he said. “The cells are the same, but without the energy flow it’s just an inert blob.”

Mitochondria transform chemical energy into electrical energy, Picard explained. “Communication and energy go together,” he said. “The organs and cells can’t communicate without energy. Cells talk to each other. The mitochondria, which used to be bacteria, talk to the gut microbiome. They are like cousins. Cells choose to do one thing or another, based on the energy available. Energy for cells is like emotions for a human. It causes them to make decisions that may not seem rational.”’ (from the New Yorker)

This was one of those classic New Yorker articles that took a few unexpected swerves from its starting point. I always enjoy the rough edge between hard science, and what we may feel and intuit about ourselves, and this had many such interfaces. If you get a chance to read the whole article, I recommend it.

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