Brief heat shocks delivered to cells by pulsed laser light can evoke action potentials in neurons and contraction in cardiomyocytes, but the primary biophysical mechanism has been elusive. In this report we show in the neuromuscular junction of Caenorhabditis elegans that application of a 500°C/s heat shock for 500 ?s evoked ~35 pA of excitatory current and injected ~23 fC(femtocoulomb) of charge into the cell while raising the temperature only 0.25°C. The key variable driving the current was the rate of change of temperature (dT/dt heat shock), not temperature itself. The photothermal heat shock current was voltage-dependent and was from thermally driven displacement of ions near the plasma membrane. The charge movement was rapid during the heat shock and slow during thermal relaxation, thus leading to an asymmetrical capacitive current that briefly depolarized the cell. A simple quantitative model is introduced to describe modulation of the membrane potential and facilitate practical application of optical heat shock stimuli.