Dr. Jon Lieff is a neuropsychiatrist with a BA in Mathematics from Yale University and an MD from Harvard Medical School. He pioneered the creation of integrated treatment units that focus on complex patients with combined medical, psychiatric, and neurological problems.
For many years, in addition to his clinical work, Dr. Lieff has been researching the question of where mind can be found in nature. At first, his inquiry related to neuroscience. He then expanded his study to include intelligence in a wide range of animals, and eventually individual cells, microbes, and viruses.
This research has resulted in the publication of the 2020 book, The Secret Language of Cells: What Biological Conversations Tell Us About the Brain-Body Connection, the Future of Medicine, and Life Itself. This book concentrates on communication between the body’s cells. He is working on a new book about molecular communication.
Speaking of cellular communication, Lieff is busy on Twitter and welcomes engagement: @jonlieffmd . And he has a website – Searching for the Mind Blog.
The following interview was conducted by Zoom on 8/26/2022. It has been edited.
John Hawkins: In the Introduction to The Secret Language of Cells you write: “The greatest secret of modern biological science, hiding in plain sight, is that all of life’s activity occurs because of conversations among cells.” Why has this secret been kept for so long? Who benefits from the secret? Who benefits from listening in on the conversation?
Jon Lieff: Well, part of the reason it’s a secret is because of the jargon. Things are so complicated in molecular biology. At the hospital, they ask, What language do you speak? I say, well, I speak molecular biology and molecular genetics. It really is a foreign language. And I view myself on my website as translating, as a translator for the top [science] journals. I would translate [and synthesize] the information. But, basically, there are names of receptors, there are names of genes, there are names of signals cells, and there are all kinds of duplicate names from different experiments. It’s just a huge hodgepodge, and it’s almost impossible to decipher unless you sit, like I do, and translate word by word from this gobbledygook. People won’t even be able to read their material [it’s] so specialized and so complicated.
But, the other thing is that, if you looked around, you didn’t find anything written, any book that [told you how] this fundamental part of life works is [by means of] communication — which is true. And this implies intelligence in cells, and no one has any way to explain that.
So, you go to philosophical questions. I’m not much of a philosopher, because I vowed to myself that I would not speculate unless I stated I was doing so. Whereas in philosophy, you speculate, what I do is find facts, things that are actually proven. And then I use that to paint a panorama of the behavior of life at [the cellular]t level. So I view it as sort of a visual description of what’s happening. I didn’t I deliberately didn’t try to explain it, because it’s impossible to explain without getting into questions of what is mind? what is intelligence? what is consciousness? And, the truth is, we have no definitions for any of those at all. We cannot define intelligence in nature. We cannot define mind; we cannot define consciousness; we cannot defined life. Even Carl Zimmer wrote a book about all the so called definitions of life, and they’re all inadequate. Well, [he writes], it’s a cell that replicates. Well, I don’t replicate anymore. Am I dead? I mean, every definition when you go into it is faulty.
John Hawkins: Yeah, well, what a project — to be a synthesis-translator [of scientific jargon]. That seems a little grandiose.
Jon Lieff: Well, I’m a neuropsychiatrist. I’ve spent many, many years treating medical patients who have, mental issues; and, mental patients, who have physical issues. And I was constantly in the border zone of the physical and the mental and always wondering what mind was. So, you know, I became very knowledgeable in neuroscience and became convinced that there’s no center, no module for the subjective experience that we all have, but that isn’t true. Each cell really communicates widely throughout the brain. There are more associative areas [extant] than has been previously thought.
But in any case, I then studied smaller and smaller brains. I wrote some articles, even with Mark Bischoff, one of the great animal scientists, about bees, birds and lizards — how amazingly intelligent they are. And you mentioned the hive. Well, I’m not going to talk about the hive, because that’s a way you sort of
denigrate the intelligence of the individual bee. Actually, the bee and the ant and the termite are extremely intelligent. Ants know 50 different ways to measure where they are. And you can teach them new ones. You can teach them to use magnetism, for example. Bees know symbolic logic. They have a language that uses angles of the sun. They memorize thousands of flowers and rate them, and they’re able to track them. They self-medicate. Extreme intelligence in tiny little brains.
But then as I studied more, I found intelligence in cells and in microbes, in particular, starting with bacteria. This led to all the cells. And then everywhere I looked. Everywhere I looked, I saw intelligent cells signalling. And then it dawned on me: signalling is the way it works, and that’s the way all biology works and all life works.
So I wrote, The Secret Language of Cells. The editors kept putting in jargon and I kept taking it out. They would say, leukocyte. I’d say no white blood cell, because I didn’t want any jargon in the book. And I tried to write it for [non-specialists] who did not need jargon, and who wouldn’t have to look up anything. I was using regular English words to describe the panorama of the life of the cell and how amazingly intelligent these cells are. How does a capillary cell know to communicate halfway around the body to the bone marrow, to ask for certain cells to come, specific cells? How do they know to talk so widely? So anyway, it dawned on me that that was what was happening. And I tried to convey that in the book.
John Hawkins: But who benefits from keeping it all secretive and jargonese?
Jon Lieff: Most of it is not a deliberate attempt to keep it secret. It’s just so complicated that they use jargon [as a kind of shorthand]. But there is a hidden agenda for some materialists who pooh-pooh human intelligence as epiphenomena. It’s a lot easier to pooh-pooh intelligence in a cell. What is intelligence in the cell? And the group of cells — is that how we get bigger intelligence, by combining smaller intelligences. It raises all kinds of questions that we don’t have answers [for yet].
John Hawkins: Last year, I interviewed a British Columbia ecology professor, Suzanne Simard, author of Finding the Mother Tree, in which she writes about forests, and how they communicate by a root system. And that was a fascinating.
Jon Lieff: Communicate through fungal, fungal wires. But we’re part of that. We’re all tied into the fungus as well. The microscopic fungus. Fungi are in some ways the most fundamental, dominant form of life on the earth that we’ve studied very little. They connect everything and they send signals and energy. And anyway, that’s another story.
John Hawkins: Your notion of “conversation” is highly nuanced. We have digital, atomic, human, electrical and chemical signals…these are all instances of conversation, you say. There is something profound about it — if we could only come up with a unified translator. Can you say more about this power of communication?
Jon Lieff: Well, it’s vast. You know, everyone knows neurons talk to each other through axons, sending an electrical signal, and then a chemical across the synapse. But they don’t really realize that that same axon is talking to T cells locally through breaks in the myelin and sending signals. It’s also sending electrical signals to cells next to each other in electrical connections. There’s also an electrical field around it. They’re also probably using photonics. They have nanotubes, they have vesicles. It’s remarkable how much communication is going on. We just scratched the surface of it.
One editor wanted me to reorganize The Secret Language of Cells in terms of communication. But, the fact is, the vast amount that we know is almost all secreted chemicals. But that doesn’t mean it’s the most important or the only communication. When I started writing my second book and was working on that, and I was going even deeper, it became apparent to me that large protein molecules that form these droplets, which is how all the action occurs, are actually creating little niche where they communicate [and] have quantum effects and have photonic communication, electromagnetic communication. So we just don’t know. I mean, we’re just scratching the surface of this subject.
But when you look at all of life — you have the Internet at the highest communicating [level], you have humans communicating, you have humans communicating in a jazz band with their brainwaves synchronize. You have light and sound going between us. You have touch going between us. But, then, all the way down, there’s this communication going on at the deepest level, and my last chapter, “Talking Molecules? The Case for mTOR,” is about a molecule — and I threw that in as a teaser — but that’s really where my next book is heading, because molecules communicate. And I learned a lot more about how that can happen. The information I have now was not even available three years ago. But a lot of it is through forming droplets, forming the large molecules, condensed together, forming a separate containment. It’s like a little organelle, and they communicate rapidly in a way that is impossible. In other words, a lot of the theories of the cell are random diffusion, but it’s impossible to explain it that way. It’s much too accurate. It’s much too rapid. The communication pathways.
John Hawkins: Where do you suppose the impetus for such communication comes from in nature? Is it physical or metaphysical?
Jon Lieff: As I said, I’m not a philosopher, and I avoided speculation. There’s enough just [raw] information coming out of the massive data [stream] that’s going on to draw some inferences that this intelligent communication is occurring at all these levels that we’re describing. But how exactly that works; it’s really much too early to know how it all fits together. We don’t [even] know what information is. But somehow this transfer of information or knowledge is a fundamental aspect of life. Right. That much we can say. I mean, if you look at Eastern religions, they that intelligence is one of the basic substances of nature. We [in the West] don’t assume that. We just have to figure it out, and that whole view of what is information has begun. The questioning [has begun].
To me, it comes down to physics of matter, whatever that is. You have all kinds of levels of energy. Is information some form of this energy, or is it a separate type? Substance is a bad word, I mean, whatever matter, energy and information are.
John Hawkins: Speaking of that divide, I note that you say Brain/Body rather than Mind/Body. This interests me because I majored in philosophy as an undergrad and struggled with mind/body problems; but modern minds seem to think we’re bodies with brains and that minds are electro-chemical abstract we invent, and immaterial minds can be grounded. Philosopher Philip Goff in Galileo’s Error, a book that came out a year before your book was born, asks:
“To be clear, I’m not saying that scientist ought to explain why the fundamental laws of nature obtain The point is if it’s okay for the physicist to postulate basic and unexplained laws governing the causal interactions of matter, why isn’t it also okay for the dualists to postulate basic and unexplained laws governing the causal interactions of mind and brain?
Do your conversations make dualism dead? Is there still a mind or have we finally lost it?
Jon Lieff: To me, many physicists have become arrogant and grandiose, as if they know more than anyone else, and they’re allowed to create multiverses with absolutely zero – zero — proof of any kind. I mean, modern physics has become more of a religion than a science in some aspects. Not everyone is aware of that. But the fact is, sometimes you need to postulate something in order to prove something eventually.
I mean, to me, science is observing something. And then we talk with other humans. And agree to measure it. And that this is what we’re observing together, and we agree on what we’re observing. The main thing we know is this unified, subjective experience that we all have — that’s the one thing we do know. [But] for the materialists say that our subjective experience doesn’t exist; it’s epiphenomena. That is absurd. It’s fundamentally absurd. So Descartes was correct about that. We know that we have subjective experience. The problem is we don’t know what it is. We don’t know how to measure it.
Eastern science assumes subjective experience, and then studies the variations and the modifications and the changes. And what happens when you do this and when you do that, when you meditate, when you go deeper. They have a huge silence, meaning groups of people have observed it and come up with similar things. And starting from that assumption that mind is the fundamental substance and then it gradually coalesces into matter.
Now, in Western Science, We have ‘matter is everything’, and then somehow energy and somehow mind it grows out of matter, which doesn’t make any sense really. So to me, our science is deficient, not having something about information or mind in it, but it will eventually, and these two views will merge. The [Eastern and Western] scientific views will eventually merge. But I’m wedded to Western science and committed to the fact that there’s so much research; that there’s enough for me to take the best of Western science and show, with that, that intelligence exists in these cells in matter, etc..
John Hawkins: So at the same time though, I mean, you talk about like the I Ching — the book of changes — and how it could be sort of developed into a science from an Eastern point of view. But also, even though you’re not a philosopher, you probably believe in panpsychism.
Jon Lieff: Well, panpsychism is probably where I would end up. Yes. But again, you get into all kinds of logical conundrums with panpsychism. I studied math. So I’m aware of Turing and Gödel and all the different proofs of the limits of logic. We don’t know. We don’t know what it is. We don’t have an explanation. But clearly subjective experience, mind, whatever that is, somehow is connected, in my view, to this intelligence and communication at every level..
John Hawkins: But it means to some degree, when we reach out to another subject to communicate and negotiate a shared reality, we have a beam of light between us. That’s logic. Right? It has to have that kind of coherence so that we can understand a common set of data. So, in a sense, you know, it gets into a mathematical thing. That’s probably the fascinating thing about AIs and algorithms.
Jon Lieff: Yeah, it’s a question in math. I think we’re in a no man’s land now in that arena. I must say, I’m very impressed with DeepMind’s protein [work]. It’s about 60 to 80% accuracy on how proteins fold. That’s a huge advantage through AI. I think that is like a Nobel Prize worthy event. It’s changing the ability to study proteins. We know almost nothing about them. And we’re [also] just scratching the surface of lipids, because they have infinite variety. You can make long chains, you can have branches. So the structure is you can have different saturation points, the variations in creating lipids and of course, the brain is more than half lipid. So we’re just getting into lipid biology, and sugar biology, sugar molecules on viruses and on cells. These are all signals as well. These are brain signals. So I’m delighted that we’re getting a handle on protein structure.
John Hawkins: Your list of “signalling devices” is fascinating:
+ secreted chemicals
+ launched sacs filled with genetic instructions
+ electric currents
+ electromagnetic waves
+ physical contact by cells
+ biological nanotubes between cells
The potential for the development (or realization) of a universal language is brain-boggling, especially in the coming quantum computing era. Is such universal language acquisition plausible? (Goff thinks so, referencing the hive mind and a dystopian brain-share scenario.)
Jon Lieff: Well, I don’t know. Chemistry is all quantum. It’s all based upon electron orbitals that combine with other molecules. And then some of the extraordinary quantum stuff like tunneling and entanglement, and all that, does occur. They didn’t think it could possibly occur in biology because it’s so messy. But with our latest understanding, these large protein molecules precipitate into very structured environments inside of droplets, where all the action occurs, and then you have rivulets in between them, and in these rivulets it’s like a semiconductor you phosphorylated at one point, and you open and close different channels of these huge combined multiple multi proteins. Deep inside of those the crevices tunneling occurs and you get rapid, almost instantaneous chemical reactions. And the basis of life is the chemical reactions that occur so rapidly. So quantum is very much part of the picture and we’re just beginning to see how it can work in biology. But we’re nowhere near understanding it enough to talk about this language of communication.
John Hawkins: The Secret Language of Cells is divided up into four parts — Body, Brain, Microbes, and Inside Cells. Can you provide a brief description and example for each?
Jon Lieff: So I divide my book into four parts: Body, Brain, Microbes and Communication within Cells. You really can’t separate the brain and the body because the communication between the immune cells, between the capillary cells, between the brain cells is so constant that there’s no separation. And everyone knows that microbes are important in humans. We hear that on the news every day. This microbe is doing this in the gut and affecting the brain, affecting anxiety, affecting diabetes, but they don’t state why. And the reason why the microbes can be so influential in our lives is because they speak the same language as ourselves. So the microbe is talking in the same language. Now we know about the chemical signals and the receptors. The others, the nanotubes are constant between cells. We’re finding more and more of them everywhere. Cancers are particularly use nanotubes to transfer mitochondria. They transfer material. HIV and COVID use nanotubes to go between cells so they can replicate, in many ways, where they don’t go outside of a cell. We know a lot about the signals and the molecules and the chemicals. So the fact that the microbes manipulate the same molecules as our cells means they can talk to our cells, and that’s why they can be so influential. Then the fourth section is deeper inside of the cells. There are these compartments called organelles, and I show that organelles are communicating just as much as cells, which means that the communication goes much deeper inside the cell.
And then the last chapter — pointing to the future book — is a molecule, this one mTOR. It’s one of the most important molecules. How can a molecule act like it’s an organelle? Well, at the time I was writing the book, I wasn’t so sure how that happened. Now, I know the molecule forms these droplets that attract the proteins to a little factory, a structure, and then they do the work. And then because of the chemistry, they can dissolve the droplet. It’s called a phase separation and the phase separations are the way they operate. Molecules then can trigger major communication like organelles, but, also inside when a molecule and these proteins are working together, they’re communicating. Also probably through photons, probably through electromagnetics. But again, the science is early on that. So we have to wait for the science. But it is proven that they form these little cavities that definitely have quantum environments that allow quantum effects to occur. So all of this is happening between molecules.
John Hawkins: When I think of how such cellular communication could benefit man-and/or-womakind, I naturally think of the monoclonal solutions, and RNA-driven vaccines for Covid-19 and their seemingly miraculous speed of development within a year of the pandemic’s heyday.. Some said (the NYT , for instance), no vaccine had ever been created in less than 4 years and then — voila! an avalanche. There’s CRISPR talk. Cloned baby twins with 200 IQs. I’m reading that sex cells are being created in the lab. On the commuter train there are whispers of artificial cells being created. Stem cells are being sold on the black market underneath raincoats where once were slung knockoff Rolexes.Synthetic biology is all the rage.
Where do you and your conversations fit into this cocktail party?
Jon Lieff: I guess we have to have patents. But I used to think that patenting a gene, like the way they patent that cancer gene. It seems crazy to allow something that is not invented by anyone, but is a natural occurring thing to be patented by some human who can then make money off of it. It just seems wrong to me.
On the one hand, I mean, CRISPR, it’s a wonderful invention. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for it. But it’s one of 50 ways that microbes developed to defend against viruses. It’s a bacterial virus system, antivirus system. And the bacteria thought this up. We didn’t think this up. And we took it from one particular set. There are now 50 of them. And that’s the whole question of the life of the virus and the bacteria and how they work together and they work against each other. But this is a defense system. And then the virus language was discovered and we found that they had ways to attack the CRISPR. So the virus has sent kamikaze suicidal pilots after CRISPR to help the virus community. So I have a lot of skepticism about synthetic biology because we don’t know enough not to have unwanted occurrences.
That’s the problem. There’s a lot of arrogance, a lot of hubris. And we’ve certainly shown that we can take science beyond where we should and be very destructive. And there’s every reason to believe that synthetic biology could easily do that. So, having said that, we learned from it. You know, they do experiments to find out, but even the most advanced scientists making cells are not making cells. They’re taking existing stuff and finding a minimal set.
John Hawkins: In your book’s concluding remarks, you reference viruses and their peculiar nature. Most folks believe they’re neither alive nor dead; just parasitic. In your section on the Origins of Evolution and Intelligence you write:
…many researchers don’t consider viruses to be living entities, yet viruses have very elaborate lifestyles, with the ability to specifically counter actions of large complex cells through signaling and other processes.
I recall an article I read way back now in Live Science on the possibility that consciousness is the result of a virus. It was titled, “An Ancient Virus May Be Responsible for Human Consciousness.” In the piece, they cite: “A review published in Cell in 2016 found that between 40 and 80 percent of the human genome arrived from some archaic viral invasion.”
Fascinating, as Spock would say. Do you want to weigh in?
Jon Lieff: Yeah, so, viruses. I consider viruses the most fundamental life form on earth and as the the filing cabinet of all information. In the form of an infinite variety of DNA strands that they then mix and match and send around and take here and there and are used by cells. You know, people talk about the shiga toxin, but the bacteria doesn’t make that toxin. A virus makes the toxin. Many, many parts of us are from viruses now. So, when the Genome Project found that less than 2% of our DNA were genes, so called genes, we don’t even know what a gene is really. But because we cut them up and manipulate them — but less than 2%.
They then found that 8% are areas that are somewhat active making RNAs. That are from retroviruses. That’s more than four times as much as all of our DNA comes from just a group of retroviruses. The Nobel Prize winners, John Gurdon from the UK and Shinya Yamanaka from Japan — they made stem cells, made a muscle cell into a skin cell and a neuron. And the way they did that is they found molecules that trigger DNA called transcription factors that are from viruses. So we need viral DNA and signals in order to make stem cells. That’s just one of many things.
It turns out that placentas come from a spike protein like the COVID spike. Just a month ago, it was discovered that myelin, which is completely critical to our brain function, comes from a virus.
88% of these retroviruses, another 50%, are what’s called jumping genes. Jumping genes are viroid-like strands of DNA that also can cut themselves out, and sew themselves in, and jump around. But they make products. We try to silence all the jumping genes with CRISPR-like techniques, but many still create products.
It turns out that the human brain developed very rapidly over 30 million years into this vastly more complicated thing. And one of the reasons, maybe the major reason they were able to do that, is because they learn to do alternative splicing — like alternative RNA splicing. When you have a DNA and you make an RNA molecule and you’re about to make a protein in our cells, they edit it, cut out these things that cut out the introns, they put together the exon, and they put it into one molecule that then makes a protein. It turns out, we learned not too long ago, that our cells can manipulate those edits. And, so then, together in up to 500 different ways, they’re wondering how can we have hundreds of thousands of proteins with 20,000 genes? Well, it’s through alternative splicing. Turns out most dramatic alternative splicing is in the brain, in the human brain. That’s the place where most of it occurs.
And those are from virus genes. Those are there deep in the jumping genes. They’re called lines and they’re deep in the jumping gene area. But because these jumping genes can be so influential, there’s a constant battle between our defense systems and the jumping genes to make products or to silence the products. And basically, evolution is a product of that battle. It’s not what people think it is. It’s not. It’s basically strands of DNA, from the infinite varieties that viruses have, trying to express themselves, and our brain deciding to accept it or not accept it. And this battle goes on all the time. And so, we can’t live without viruses. We’re finding viruses in the gut that defend our friendly bacteria. We’re finding viruses that come into the cell. Viruses are more good than bad.
And the reason for that is because our lifestyle is chaotic and we’re destroying ecology and nature. And so we step on an area where a bat virus has been happy there for a long, long time, and then suddenly, oh, here’s a human. The virus says, Wow, this is cool. I can really manipulate. I can really go to town in this in this creature. Not only that, there are billions of them. This is great. And that can multiply.
John Hawkins: Can you say a little bit more about myelin? Because I thought that was an interesting concept. Many people think that the myelin sheath is an insulator of some sort. But you’re saying it’s more.
Jon Lieff: Just think how actions in the brain occur in milliseconds. And so an MRI is work in about a second. So what you see on an MRI is way after the fact. The action occurred a long time ago and they find something about blood flow that occurs way after the action. The action itself is milliseconds all over the brain. But, in order for a number of signals or thousand of signals to converge at one exact millisecond, in one particular spot, the speeds have to vary. And how do they vary? Well, they vary by creating myelin patterns. So what we’re learning is that myelin is not this trivial insulating thing. Myelin creates a huge number of varieties of patterns that have many, many different functions that were barely scratching the surface of in the cortex. They seem to be most prominent in these cortical columns. Myelin creates areas that allows the neuron to signal sideways to the immune cells.
They used to think it’s a simple thing, but actually building myelin is one of the most complicated things in nature. They used to think the spindle that the spindle is the most complicated structure in nature, but I would have to put myelin up there. It’s extremely common. You can read about it, how they lay down a layer, they condense it, they move it, they create channels in between them to maintain them. It goes on and on and on how complicated it is. And then they lay it down with signals from capillary cells to stem cells to make particular myelin in a particular area of the brain. This is all based on signalling, and they discovered that signalling from the neuron to the myelin, they send sacks between them. They’re sending communications between the myelin and the neuron. So all of this is occurring through information, through signalling.
So it’s like a vastly complicated thing that we’re just scratching the surface of.
John Hawkins: It’s great stuff. You have a similar section where you talk about cancer and how it signals from one end of the body to the other.
Jon Lieff: Cancers are much smarter in their community. They’re sending all kinds of signals. They communicate. They’ll redesign a mitochondria to do their special rapid reproduction, and then they’ll multiply that mitochondria and send it through nanotubes to their comrades. They will send genes that defend against cancer drugs like microbes and resistance genes to their colony. Cancer colonies are very smart.
John Hawkins: You are a neuropsychiatrist. So signalling in the brain must be an interesting phenomenon to observe and treat from that perspective. How do you decide, for instance, what psychotropic to prescribe for a particular mental malady?
Jon Lieff: All the biochemical theories of psychiatry are wrong. We just don’t know enough. We’re just scratching the surface. The truth of the matter is, all psychiatric meds were found by accident. And then we studied them and tried to figure out what’s going on. So when you look at the brain. You have dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, histamine. nicotinic. All of these are 2% of the brain. A sprinkling on the vast structure of glutamate and GABA, for which we know virtually nothing. And there are probably thousands of different glutamate types of neurons; we know maybe five. If you look at all the drugs, we have 250 drugs. They’re all based upon the ones I mentioned. Only five have anything to do with glutamate and GABA, which are the fundamental structure of the brain.
John Hawkins: Well, while we’re at it, how does neuropsychiatry justify the jargon and mystification of the DSM conversation?
Jon Lieff: You say it’s the best you can come up with. How do you describe a psychiatric illness when you don’t know the biochemistry? You do it through symptoms and you create symptoms. But when you look at depression, there are eight basic symptoms. If you look at clusters of four. That’s 64 different subsets. Huge amount of subsets. Now, some subset of depression is based upon inflammation and immune. Some subset deals with other things. There are many different subsets of depression, so we have to learn about all of those.