While we all know that engineers are teaching computers to one day become our merciless dead-eyed overlords, many scientists just can’t get enough of trying to teach other non-human things to learn. Earlier this year, a team of researchers published data claiming that brainless slime molds were capable of learning the safest route through a maze full of harmful chemical trails, while another team taught monkeys to type using only their minds. Your tax dollars hard at work, people. Now, a team of Canadian materials researchers have found that ordinary bread dough is capable of learning. The gluten-free people are going to have a field day with this one.
According to their data published in PLOS One, the researchers made a basic dough consisting of flour, water, lemon juice, table salt, and vegetable oil. Oh, and some food coloring just to make it, I don’t know, festive or something. It’s science, don’t ask questions.
The dough’s “learning” was displayed by changes in the dough’s level of electrical activity across a period of time, called spectral density. To test this phenomenon, researchers shocked the dough balls immediately after shining an LED light on the dough. After several shocks, the dough’s spectral density automatically rise in response to the LED, even when no shock was administered.
Lead researcher Nicolas Rouleau of Ontario’s Laurentian University told Real Clear Science that only those balls of dough which had been shocked displayed the automatic change in spectral density:
Only when the dough had a history of being shocked when presented with the light did it express electrical activity with a spectral profile which overlapped with the shock profile. The fact that the 'conditioned' group displayed a power spectral density that was most similar to the power spectral density elicited by electric current only is consistent with learning.
According to the researchers, that change in electrical activity in response to the LED stimulus is significant enough to claim that the dough is capable of a type “learning,” implying that even simple materials might have a type of memory:
In summary, the data indicate that a conditioned response can be encoded into a simple material, that the conditioned response is associated with structural modifications within the substrate.
Despite being delicious (just needs a pinch of sugar, though), this discovery has the potential to unlock some of the more mysterious aspects of organic matter on Earth including cellular memory or hidden cellular intelligence. Me, I’m hoping for singing, dancing Gingerbread men in time for the holidays. Their screams of agony would pair perfectly with Grandma's "special" egg nog.