What Does It Feel Like for an Electric Fish?

by Jason Tougaw

This is on electric fish, species Brachyhypopomus. You can't see it, but there's an electric field surrounding its body.

An electric fish swimming around the muddy bottom of the Amazon does something remarkable: it feels its world through tiny pulses of electricity, conducted and transmitted by its nervous system. It communicates by sending pulses into the water and navigates by registering electricity in its environment. I’d love to know what it feels like to be electric. Wouldn’t you?

All life is electric, of course, but for these fish (some of them also known as electric eels) electricity is a primary sense–a defining feature of being alive. Neurobiologist Chris Braun is eavesdropping on electric fish in his lab at Hunter College, hoping to understand what the world feels like for his electric friends. Can humans ever know what the electrical worlds of these fish feel like? I would argue that we should try–partly because the fish are fascinating but also because we need to rethink our species arrogance, the anthrocentric view of the universe that dupes us into missing so much about our place in it.

We have a tendency to think our own senses as supreme, that we are the pinnacle of evolution and therefore know more than other species about the world we share with them. This false assumption can easily become an arrogance on which we base our behavior–where we carve the earth up with borders, how we mine it for resources, how we destroy it when we need its resources, and why we fight over our place in it. Species don’t evolve up a single a hierarchy, with one at the top. They evolve as part of dynamic ecosystems, fundamentally related to one other, but with really different ways of feeling the world. A little humility in the face of other species’ knowledge might help us recalibrate the scientific and philosophical mistakes we make without thinking twice.

The Braun Lab. Photo by Ashleigh Ide.

The Braun Lab houses dozens of species of fish with specialized sensory systems, collected on trips to the Amazon and Madagascar. Braun, Associate Professor of Psychology, observes their behavior and dissects their nervous systems. To study the electric fish, he builds devices that translate electricity into sound, a sense we humans can work with. His research demonstrates that these fish use electricity to answer questions like, “Where am I?,” “What will I eat?” “Who’s a threat?” “How can I establish borders to my territory?” “Where do I rank on the social hierarchy?” “Who will I mate with?”

It’s difficult for humans to think of these questions without imposing our own sensory, geographic, social, and philosophical experiences on them. If we suspend our will to impose, though, we may see that what we think of as particularly human questions–philosophical and social ones like those I mention above–are fundamental to life. And that other life forms address them in ways we can only begin to understand through painstaking investigation. The humans at The Braun Lab devote their time this work (some of it profiled in The New York Times).

Chris Braun, getting ready to eavesdrop on one fish's electricity. Photo by Ashleigh Ide.

Composer Rob Mazurek’s “Electric Eel Dreams” is symphonic translation of the electrical worlds of these fish. (I’ve provided a couple of minutes for you to sample. If you’d like to hear the rest, send me an email.) Braun and his colleagues built customized boxes that translate each electrical pulse into a sound. Mazurek’s symphony is a collaboration with the fish, who provide the electricity, and the scientists, who provide the translation. Like so much art, it offers both a bridge and a wall. Researchers like Braun use the sounds to eavesdrop on  electricity, to get a little closer to understanding the electric consciousness of the fish. The symphony, which sounds a lot like an experiment in ambient electronica, is an homage to this work. But it’s also a reminder that we need the translation for access. Mazurek’s piece–he also performs an improvisational version, with a live instruments–makes the dark wet world of the electrified amazon sound like an unsettling place to live. Which it would be, for humans, unless Braun’s research managed to yield enough knowledge to build us electrified wet suits that allowed us an electric-fishified view of the place. It’s nice to contemplate the fantasy. For now, though,  our access to this world depends upon a fundamental distortion–electricity translated into sound–that should remind us just how remote the world of another species can be.

This is why we need Baltic biologist Jakob von Uexküll, who coined the term umwelt a century ago, to describe any given species’ experience of its environment. Put a bat and British thrillseeker Bear Grylls in a cave, and their senses will deliver them entirely different worlds. Each episode of Grylls’s TV show documents his search for a new and challenging umwelt. When he enters the bats’ habitat with his human senses, the bats win. Echolocation gives them an advantage over Grylls, whose sight fails him in the dark and whose anxiety makes the cave unbearable. So, while the term means “environment” in literal terms, it implies that a single environments will differ radically depending on the perceptual apparatus of the organisms who inhabit them. A dank, dark cave is comfortable for a bat, as the amazon floor is for an electric fish. Our senses filter input from our environments and stimulate our cognitive and emotional responses. Through this process, we become who or what we are. In a sense, we become our umwelten (plural for umwelt).

Bucket of electric fish, gathered from Rio Negro, the largest tributary to the Amazon.

The umwelt of an electric fish depends on special uses of cellular electricity. All cells conduct electricity, but the brain of an electric fish uses electrocytes–special cells with large numbers of ion channels in their membranes–to magnify cellular activity into a sense into an electric field extending into the space around its body. In Braun’s words,

These are special proteins that pump (in this case) sodium ions across the membrane. So when the cell is excited, it has a massive flow of ions (which equals electrical current) across the membrane and back. The electric organ is a stack of many hundreds or thousands of these cells that all fire in a synchronized manner. The sum of each cell’s current flow is the electric field.

While cellular elecricity is part of the body’s unconscious innerworkings for most species, Braun believes it’s a source of consciousness for electric fish. If this is true, it’s because the fish are designed to interpret electricity. Braun explains,

The skin is covered with special organs called electroreceptors. They have sensory cells whose neural activity is proportional to the voltage across their membrane. So when the voltage goes up, their activity goes up and vice versa. The brain looks at all these receptors every time there is an electric organ discharge. If the spatial pattern over the body changes, it’s because there is some new object within the electric field. A resistive object will impede the flow of current, so the distribution of voltages at the nearby skin surface will be more spread out than usual. A conductive object will have the opposite effect. The brain registers these skin pattern changes and infers the presence of an object at a specific point in the field.

So what is it like to be an electric fish? We don’t know. We may never know. But Braun’s research gets us closer. For one, he demonstrates how their electric fields extend beyond their own bodies. If he’s right–if the electric fields generated by these fish are a source of consciousness for them–they blur the distinction between inside and outside. Most of us think of consciousness as interior. But interior to what? Inside what? Our bodies? Not exactly. Concsiousness–as philosophers like Alva Nöe and Maurice Merleau-Pointy and neurobiologists like Antonio Damasio and Jaak Panksepp argue–happens through transactions with our environments. Consciousness, they argue, is relational, rather than singular or isolated. We may not be able to feel those electric fields, but they are a vivid illustration of relational consciousness. We are our relationships, these fish remind us. Our senses make our environments, and our relationships with the inhabitants of our umwelten make our selves.

Too often, theoretical research in science is derided if it doesn’t offer obviously useful results–say, if navy seals might wear those wet suits I was fantasizing to navigate the Amazon floor through the conduction of electricity. While there’s sure to be a dystopic novel set in the Amazon, where these wets suits might come in handy, the more immediate implications of Braun’s research are philosophical. Some considered reflection of the umwelten of other species–and other humans–ought to inspire some wonder and maybe a little envy. Mazurek’s symphony offers a dramatic illustration of the gap between the umwelten of humans and electric fish. We can only hear simulations of the electricity they feel. The electric fish feels and knows things we can’t. It’s worth pausing on this before we make decisions based on easy assumptions that our own unwelt is all there is.

What must have the electric fields inside this box been like during travel? What is the umwelt of a fish transported in a box like this? Photo by Ashleigh Ide.



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