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  • The field of plant neurobiology studies the complex behavior of plants.
  • Plants were found to have 15-20 senses, including many like humans.
  • Some argue that plants may have awareness and intelligence, while detractors persist.


Do plants have feelings? Not in a poetic, metaphorical sort of way but real feelings? Can they hate, love, or be bored? If you go around plucking flowers or mowing grass down with your lawnmower, are you causing these organisms real pain? A rising field of plant neurobiology may answer these provocative questions.

This area of study was perhaps jolted into existence by the series of experiments carried out in 1966 by a former C.I.A. polygraph expert named Cleve Backster. He was, in turn, inspired by the work physicist Jagadish Chandra Bose, who found that playing different kinds of music near plants made them grow faster

Backster hooked up a galvanometer to a houseplant and found that the plant's varying electrical activity seemed to correspond to the thoughts from Backster and his colleagues. The experiment appeared to show that the plants reacted to whether the thoughts were positive or negative.

In one such trial, written up in the International Journal of Parapsychology in 1968, Backster's team connected plants to polygraph machines and found that a plant that saw someone stomping on another plant, essentially killing it, could pick out this "killer" out of a lineup. It registered a surge of electrical activity then this person appeared before it.

Credit: Gay Pauley

Cleve Backster using a lie detector on a household philodendron. 1969.

While Backster's findings were not duplicated by others, especially as he went on to find plants communicating telepathically, the area of study got a further boost in a 2006 paper published in Trends in Plant Science, where a team of biologists argued that the behavior you can see in a plant are not just a product of genetic and biochemical processes.

The authors, who included Eric D. Brenner, an American plant molecular biologist, Stefano Mancuso, an Italian plant physiologist, František Baluška, a Slovak cell biologist, and Elizabeth Van Volkenburgh, an American plant biologist, declared that a new field of plant neurobiology must be born to further understand plants. This area of biology research "aims to understand how plants process the information they obtain from their environment to develop, prosper and reproduce optimally," wrote the scientists.

They explained their observations that plants show behaviors that are coordinated by some type of "integrated signaling, communication and response system" within each plant. As profiled by Michael Pollan in the The New Yorker, these behaviors include responding to numerous environmental variables, like light, temperature, water, microbes, soil components like nutrients and toxins, and even gravity.

What's more, the plants utilize electrical signal and produce chemicals similar to neurons in animals, allowing them to respond to other plants. This led the authors to propose that plants exhibit intelligence, allowing them to react to their environment for both present and future actions.

In fact, studies showed that plants evolved to have between 15 and 20 separate senses including the human-like abilities to smell, taste, sight, touch and hear.

Does that mean plants, which compose 80% of the biomass on Earth, have complex nervous systems or even brains?

Maybe not brains like we understand them but intelligence. While brains are useful for problem solving and complex tasks, they are not the only way for organisms to interact with their environments. Humans tends to overestimate the relative greatness of their brains and faculties.

Stefano Mancuso, who was involved in the 2006 paper and runs the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology near Florence, Italy, contends that plants think, just differently, utilizing distributed intelligence. They gather information from their environments and respond in ways that are good for the whole organism. They also communicate, having 3,000 chemicals in their "chemical vocabulary".

Check out this TEDx talk with Stefano Mancuso

Many plant scientists over the years have pushed back against the field. One of its most ardent critics has been Lincoln Taiz, a now-retired professor of plant physiology at U.C. Santa Cruz. He believes that plant neurobiology ultimately leads down a slippery slope implying that plants can feel emotions like happiness or pain, can make decisions with purpose and perhaps even have consciousness. Chances of that being true are "effectively nil," writes Taiz in the recent paper "Plants Neither Possess nor Require Consciousness," published in the August 2019 issue of Trends in Plant Science.

While plants may exhibit sophisticated behaviors, their nervous systems are not comparable in complexity to those of animals and they have no similar brains, asserts the biologist. In fact, they have no need for consciousness, as it would require expending too much energy for their sun-oriented lifestyles.

He uses the case of a forest fire to point out the horror of what it would mean for plants to have sentience —

"It's unbearable to even consider the idea that plants would be sentient, conscious beings aware of the fact that they're being burned to ashes, watching their saplings die in front of them," writes Taiz.

Indeed, the idea of plants having self-awareness might seem too daunting and not yet supported by enough credible research, but the overall project of the field of plant neurobiology has already challenged the overly human-centric understanding of nature.

  • Realists believe that there is an exactly understandable way the world is — one that describes processes independent of our intervention. Anti-realists, however, believe realism is too ambitious — too hard. They believe we pragmatically describe our interactions with nature — not truths that are independent of us.
  • In nature, properties of Particle B may depend on what we choose to measure or manipulate with Particle A, even at great distances.
  • In quantum mechanics, there is no explanation for this. "It just comes out that way," says Smolin. Realists struggle with this because it would imply certain things can travel faster than light, which still seems improbable.

  • Russia launched a spacecraft carrying FEDOR, a humanoid robot.
  • Its mission is to help astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
  • Such androids can eventually help with dangerous missions likes spacewalks.


In a sign that the future you always imagined gets ever closer, Russia launched a humanoid robot into space on a 10-day mission to assist astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

The robot named FEDOR, a much friendlier acronym for its full name of "Final Experimental Demonstration Object Research," was sent up on August 23rd in a Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

It was set to dock with the space station on Saturday, August 24th, but failed in its first attempt. The mission is slated to last till September 7th.

There are no humans aboard the spacecraft, just the robot (also designated as Skybot F850), since a new emergency rescue system is being tested.

"Let's go. Let's go," the robot said at the launch, echoing the famous phrase uttered by Russia's (and the world's) first man in space – Yuri Gagarin.

Flying up alone doesn't seem to affect Fedor much, as it tweets out enthusiastic reports on its progress in space, including this photo from the approach to the ISS:

The humanoid robot is 5 foot 11 inches (1.80 m) tall and weighs 353 pounds (160 kg).

Besides a Twitter account, the media-savvy Fedor also has an Instagram feed and has already been a social media sensation in the past, due to a video of its gun-toting skills.

The robot has many other skills as well, like opening bottles, connecting cables and the general ability to copy humans. That's what makes it great at a variety of manual tasks, which will be tested aboard the space station.

It will also wear an exoskeleton and try working with augmented reality glasses.

The eventual goal for such robots would be to help humans in dangerous situations like spacewalks, said the Russian space agency's director for prospective programs and science, Alexander Bloshenko, in televised comments.

They can also be useful in high radiation environments.

Other countries are also developing robots to assist in spaceflight. NASA's Robonaut 2 has already been to space on a similar mission.

Watch: Russian robot takes solitary trip to final frontier in new rocket

  • "Prior to nervous systems: no mind, no consciousness, no intention in the full sense of the term. After nervous systems, gradually we ascend to this possibility of having to this possibility of having minds, having consciousness, and having reasoning that allows us to arrive at some of these very interesting decisions."
  • "We are fragile culturally and socially…but life is fragile to begin with. All that it takes is a little bit of bad luck in the management of those supports, and you're cooked…you can actually be cooked—with global warming!"




Quick question. Answer without thinking too hard. Ready? Where is your mind? What is your mind?

Ok, Raise your hand if you thought of your brain.

If you did, you're in good company. For centuries, Western science, culture, and language has been obsessed with the head as the center of thought and the body as the center of feeling. This split can get hierarchical, attaching ideas like "sin" and to the body and the emotions while putting the brain, along with rationality, up on a pedestal. Picture your brain on a pedestal: not doing much good up there, is it?

I'm very happy to be speaking again today with neuroscientist and philosopher Antonio Damasio, who has done more than anyone one else I know to get that brain down off its high horse and reattach it to the body. We last talked a year ago, about his book THE STRANGE ORDER OF THINGS - Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures, which has now come out in paperback. It turns everything upside down, not only re-anchoring mind in body, but finding in primitive bacteria and social insects patterns that help explain human culture. Maybe there's more going on in the Mona Lisa than in a bacterial colony, but they also have quite a lot in common.

Surprise conversation starters in this episode:

Frans De Waal on animal consciousness

  • Companies often jump right into workshopping solutions to a problem before they truly understand the underlying source and "pain points" of the issue.
  • Deliberate Innovation CEO, Dan Seewald, advises companies to visualize and map out those unmet needs in order to discover a new path to a fresh solution. Only then should you move onto brainstorming and ideation techniques.
  • These important steps allow for more meaningful experimentation, as well as greater opportunity for learning and breakthroughs.