from the world's big
Getting serious about plant intelligence
Plant cognitive ecologist Monica Gagliano talks about the challenges facing serious scientific research into plant intelligence.
Monica Gagliano studies learning and memory in plants. She's an “evolutionary ecologist" who performs behavioral experiments on plants that are adapted from studies of animal intelligence. Her work has convinced her that plants learn and have memories. Gagliano's been cited in The New Yorker, and she spoke recently to radiolab. Her peer-reviewed conclusions are at times controversial, though specific criticisms of her methodologies have been sparse. In promoting her upcoming book, Thus Spoke the Plant, she gave a thought-provoking interview to Andréa Morris writing for Forbes in May 2018.
Gagliano admits it's a field of study that not everyone takes seriously, and she's weary of being lumped in with the group of 36 scientists who published a 2006 article announcing the birth of “plant neurobiology," a provocative choice considering that plants don't have neurons, at least in their usual sense. Gagliano says that rather than advance further research, their announcement impeded it, at least in part due to the intense objections it provoked that still resonate. As recently as 2013, cellular and molecular physiologist Clifford Slayman told Michael Pollan in the above-cited The New Yorker piece that plant neurobiology was, “the last serious confrontation between the scientific community and the nuthouse on these issues."
For skeptics, the plant neurobiology article was likely just another bit of ridiculousness after the now-largely discredited 1973 book The Secret Life of Plants credited plants with consciousness — and psychic abilities. Daniel Chamovitz, author of What a Plant Knows says that 1973 book “stymied important research on plant behavior as scientists became wary of any studies that hinted at parallels between animal senses and plant senses."
Gagliano told Morris that another roadblock to “plant cognitive ecology" research is that, “Many plant biologists, especially physiologists, are actually very much into little molecules and little signals and this chemical does this and therefore the plant does this and on and on." To the ecologist, “In a sense, there is no plant and environment. The plant and environment are one unit. For me, a plant isn't an object, it's always a subject that is interacting with other subjects in the environment. I had to learn. I just assumed that everyone would see things like this. But no."
Gagliano believes nonetheless that by being meticulous with her own methodology, and by being rigorously discriminating in her conclusions, she's producing science that will eventually be validated. She finds the usual dismissiveness of the entire field maddeningly unscientific. As she told Morris, “It's counterproductive when a new field needs good, solid, strong, data-driven science. Instead, it dilutes, in a way, the impact that the science could have. It's kind of unacceptable in any field, let alone a new field. So for me, what this field really needs is true vision and data — more experimental work."
Studying plant “behavior"
While “behavior" may seem an odd word to use, the undisputed fact is that plants do respond to stimuli, albeit often very slowly over the course of hours, days, or weeks. This makes it easy to feel like nothing is going on with them. Still, as Pollan points out, “A race of aliens living in a radically sped-up dimension of time arrive on Earth and, unable to detect any movement in humans, come to the logical conclusion that we are “inert material" with which they may do as they please. The aliens proceed ruthlessly to exploit us."
Plants do, however, sometimes move in a time frame we can perceive, as in Gagliano's controversial study of Mimosa pudica — or “touch-me-not" — a plant whose leaves fold when touched or disturbed, the assumption being that it's the plant's response to insects that might pose a threat.
In Gagliano's experiment, she dropped 56 potted mimosas from a height of 15 centimeters, causing their leaves to fold as expected. Looking to find out if they could “habituate" to the disturbance, she repeated the process 60 times, finding that even after four to six drops, the mimosas no longer responded. “By the end, they were completely open," she said in presenting her research to other scientists. “They couldn't care less anymore."
To eliminate fatigue as the explanation, and to see if the plants could remember what they'd learned, Gagliano left the mimosas to recover, retesting them in a week and again 28 days later. She found that their leaves no longer responded to being dropped, suggesting that the plants did, in fact, remember their lessons of nearly a month earlier. Gagliano concluded that brains like ours and animals' may not actually be required for learning, but rather that there's “some unifying mechanism across living systems that can process information and learn." The audience response to her presentation was divided.
A sessile lifestyle
There's an important challenge that plants face which must be recognized and factored in: They're “sessile," rooted to the ground and, as Pollan puts it, a plant “has to find everything it needs, and has to defend itself, while remaining fixed in place." He writes that plants, therefore, require an “extensive and nuanced understanding" of what's around them to have a chance of surviving. “A highly developed sensory apparatus is required to locate food and identify threats."
Pollan also says there are some 15 to 20 unique senses plants have developed to survive. They can, for example, sense moisture, gravity, various minerals, and chemicals, including electrochemical signals from surrounding flora.
Plants also have their own versions of our five senses, if one considers the senses from the perspective of what they do, rather than how they do it. They, of course, lack eyes, for example, but can perceive, or “see," and react to light. They can “smell" and taste" by responding to chemicals present in the air around or on them, their roots “feel" when they hit a solid object they need to get around, and they even “hear," as recent experiments show them reacting to caterpillar and water sounds.
Rooting for more research
Gagliano is looking to continue her work and has applied for funding from the Australian government. When she recently received the anonymous peer reviews of her proposal, she dishearteningly encountered some all-too-familiar closed-mindedness. She told Morris that one rejection began with, “it's very unlikely that plants are aware or conscious. So this entire project is meaningless."
While Gagliano gets that some scientists firmly believe that plant behavior will eventually be explained as biological mechanical processes, she doesn't understand their lack of curiosity. Citing recent surprises regarding slime molds and amoebas, she said to Morris, “when we have looked, the little bit that we have looked suggests that we should look further, we should look deeper." Gagliano added, “These guys, the critters, are amazing. They do stuff that we don't even dream of. And by not dreaming of it, we assume that it does not exist, which is what my colleague said in his comments." Her reviewer's frustrating attitude, she told Morris, is exactly the kind of perspective that hold new discoveries back: “Basically, it seems unlikely, so it's not possible, so there's no point in even looking. But it's not possible because he thinks it's not possible. It's a story that repeats. This is the history of science all over again."
Inquiry into plant intelligence didn't begin with Secret Life of Plants which did at the very least result in one of Stevie Wonder's most ambitious albums. Charles Darwin was fascinated by the subject, and it's been a subject of intermittent inquiry since Alexander von Humboldt found that animals and plants operate on the same bioelectrical principles. It's not silly science, really.
Gagliano looks forward to seeing expanded and thoughtful collaboration between plant physiologists, ecologist, among others, and even philosophers — after all, it's inventible that plant cognitive ecology will arrive back at the thorny questions of what it means to be conscious. It's too significant a biological presence to understand so poorly. As Pollan puts it, “Plants dominate every terrestrial environment, composing ninety-nine percent of the biomass on earth. By comparison, humans and all the other animals are, in the words of one plant neurobiologist, 'just traces.'"
Emotional intelligence is a skill sought by many employers. Here's how to raise yours.
- Daniel Goleman's 1995 book Emotional Intelligence catapulted the term into widespread use in the business world.
- One study found that EQ (emotional intelligence) is the top predictor of performance and accounts for 58% of success across all job types.
- EQ has been found to increase annual pay by around $29,000 and be present in 90% of top performers.
Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.
- An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
- Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
- Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
The plica semilunaris<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMTgyMzg1NX0.ZY8qmhtoZfbRMAqrNnmbgyk7GLabglx_9lBq3PKcy7g/img.png?width=980" id="99882" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="68e8758894b0359c6ef61b2c158832b2" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The human eye in alarming detail. Image source: Henry Gray / Wikimedia commons<p>At the inner corner of our eyes, closest to the nasal ridge, is that little pink thing, which is probably what most of us call it, called the caruncula. Next to it is the plica semilunairs, and it's what's left of a third eyelid that used to — ready for this? — blink horizontally. It's supposed to have offered protection for our eyes, and some birds, reptiles, and fish have such a thing.</p>
Palmaris longus<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzQ1NjUwMn0.dVor41tO_NeLkGY9Tx46SwqhSVaA8HZQmQAp532xLxA/img.jpg?width=980" id="879be" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="970e9c15f3c3d846dde05e2b2c6ebf12" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmaris longus muscle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> We don't have much need these days, at least most of us, to navigate from tree branch to tree branch. Still, about 86 percent of us still have the wrist muscle that used to help us do it. To see if you have it, place the back of you hand on a flat surface and touch your thumb to your pinkie. If you have a muscle that becomes visible in your wrist, that's the palmaris longus. If you don't, consider yourself more evolved (just joking).</p>
Darwin's tubercle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgxMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0ODUyNjA1MX0.8RuU-OSRf92wQpaPPJtvFreOVvicEwn39_jnbegiUOk/img.jpg?width=980" id="687a0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b38a957408940673ccc744f0f6828d18" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Darwin's tubercle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> Yes, maybe the shell of you ear does feel like a dried apricot. Maybe not. But there's a ridge in that swirly structure that's a muscle which allowed us, at one point, to move our ears in the direction of interesting sounds. These days, we just turn our heads, but there it is.</p>
Goosebumps<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNzEyNTc2Nn0.aVMa5fsKgiabW5vkr7BOvm2pmNKbLJF_50bwvd4aRo4/img.jpg?width=980" id="d8420" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f735418322b34382dcd882299c9ccc48" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Goosebumps. Photo credit: Tyler Olson via Shutterstock<p>It's not entirely clear what purpose made goosebumps worth retaining evolutionarily, but there are two circumstances in which they appear: fear and cold. For fear, they may have been a way of making body hair stand up so we'd appear larger to predators, much the way a cat's tail puffs up — numerous creatures exaggerate their size when threatened. In the cold, they may have trapped additional heat for warmth.</p>
Tailbone<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDMzMDc3N30.p9BEtkf3-PV3EtDSQMUGUeopsimiCHUagx97P4f8IBw/img.jpg?width=980" id="e8ab8" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0063ce99bdd22fbebe1279244b87935c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Coccyx. Image source: decade3d-anatomy online via Shutterstock<p>Way back, we had tails that probably helped us balance upright, and was useful moving through trees. We still have the stump of one when we're embryos, from 4–6 weeks, and then the body mostly dissolves it during Weeks 6–8. What's left is the coccyx.</p>
The palmar grasp reflex<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMyMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjY0MDY5NX0.OSwReKLmNZkbAS12-AvRaxgCM7zyukjQUaG4vmhxTtM/img.jpg?width=980" id="8804c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="45469ca5ee5f43433a782f7d4ac0a440" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmar reflex activated! Photo credit: Raul Luna on Flickr<p> You've probably seen how non-human primate babies grab onto their parents' hands to be carried around. We used to do this, too. So still, if you touch your finger to a baby's palm, or if you touch the sole of their foot, the palmar grasp reflex will cause the hand or foot to try and close around your finger.</p>
Other people's suggestions<p>Amir's followers dove right in, offering both cool and questionable additions to her list. </p>
Fangs?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Lower mouth plate behind your teeth. Some have protruding bone under the skin which is a throw back to large fangs. Almost like an upsidedown Sabre Tooth.</p>— neil crud (@neilcrud66) <a href="https://twitter.com/neilcrud66/status/1085606005000601600?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hiccups<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sure: <a href="https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG">https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG</a></p>— Stephen Roughley (@SteBobRoughley) <a href="https://twitter.com/SteBobRoughley/status/1085529239556968448?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hypnic jerk as you fall asleep<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">What about when you “jump” just as you’re drifting off to sleep, I heard that was a reflex to prevent falling from heights.</p>— Bann face (@thebanns) <a href="https://twitter.com/thebanns/status/1085554171879788545?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script> <p> This thing, often called the "alpha jerk" as you drop into alpha sleep, is properly called the hypnic jerk,. It may actually be a carryover from our arboreal days. The <a href="https://www.livescience.com/39225-why-people-twitch-falling-asleep.html" target="_blank" data-vivaldi-spatnav-clickable="1">hypothesis</a> is that you suddenly jerk awake to avoid falling out of your tree.</p>
Nails screeching on a blackboard response?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Everyone hate the sound of fingernails on a blackboard. It's _speculated_ that this is a vestigial wiring in our head, because the sound is similar to the shrill warning call of a chimp. <a href="https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN">https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN</a></p>— Pet Rock (@eclogiter) <a href="https://twitter.com/eclogiter/status/1085587006258888706?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Ear hair<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Ok what is Hair in the ears for? I think cuz as we get older it filters out the BS.</p>— Sarah21 (@mimix3) <a href="https://twitter.com/mimix3/status/1085684393593561088?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Nervous laughter<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">You may be onto something. Tooth-bearing with the jaw clenched is generally recognized as a signal of submission or non-threatening in primates. Involuntary smiling or laughing in tense situations might have signaled that you weren’t a threat.</p>— Jager Tusk (@JagerTusk) <a href="https://twitter.com/JagerTusk/status/1085316201104912384?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 15, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Um, yipes.<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sometimes it feels like my big toe should be on the side of my foot, was that ever a thing?</p>— B033? K@($ (@whimbrel17) <a href="https://twitter.com/whimbrel17/status/1085559016011563009?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
You're always in control of your breath.
- Anxiety is triggered environmentally and emotionally, but a physiological response quickly follows.
- Calming breathing techniques help to tamp down the physiological response of anxiety.
- The following four exercises are known to help calm anxiety and develop focus.
Stressed? Use This Breathing Technique to Improve Your Attention and Memory, with Emma Seppälä<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ac308f8ef7490814bcb4c1841725cf35"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/NrJZu6bGyHg?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><h3>Alternate Nostril Breathing</h3><p>Emma Seppälä, science director at Stanford Center For Compassion And Altruism Research And Education, says American culture values intensity yet undervalues calmness. We never shut off. While intensity has its place, every animal in nature inherently knows the necessity of rest in order to store up energy for when it's actually needed. Americans are careless with our energy reserves, which is why so many of us are chronically tired, overworked, and stressed out. </p><p>Seppälä knows that breathing changes our state of mind. She recommends a popular yogic breathing technique, <em>nadi shodhana</em>, also known as alternate nostril breathing. </p><p>Place the index and middle fingers of your right hand on your forehead. Use your thumb to close your right nostril while inhaling through the left nostril, then close the left nostril with your ring finger and exhale through your right nostril. Repeat this for at least two minutes, then sit quietly for another minute or two, breathing normally. </p><p>There are many variations of this technique. My favorite is a four-cycle breath: inhale for a count of four through one nostril, retain your breath for a count of four, exhale for four, hold your breath out for four. If you're new to this breathing technique, retention might initially create more anxiety than it relieves, so try the basic inhale-exhale pattern until you can last for at least five minutes before moving onto breath retentions.</p>
Mind Hack: Combat Anxiety with This Breathing Technique<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0cd55bb6ac6c7dd5daab3c29b7a82843"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/7xalaT2FwS8?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><h3>Power Breath</h3><p>Game designer and author of "Superbetter," Jane McGonigal, recommends the Power Breath: exhale for twice as long as you inhale. She says this will shift your nervous system from sympathetic to a parasympathetic tone—you'll calm down. Simply sit comfortably, close your eyes, and begin by inhaling for a count of four and exhaling for a count of eight. </p><p>This is also a popular yoga breathing technique. As with <em>nadi shodhana</em>, it can initially kick up rather than diminish anxiety. If you find long exhales challenging, begin by inhaling and exhaling at an even rate: a count of four in both directions. Then try to slowly increase your exhale to a count of five, six, and so on. Longtime practitioners can inhale for a count of four and exhale for a count of 50. As with any muscle, you can train your breathing. The benefits are immense. </p>
Breathing Techniques to Help You Relax<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="56511aaa4d1c06cc65077b8daf7670fb"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/RHpTR2wRc8c?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><h3>Focus Word Breathing</h3><p>Lolly, a Mind-Body Specialist at the University of Maryland Heart Center, offers what she calls Focus Word Breathing. Traditionally, this is known as Mantra meditation. Choose a word that has meaning to you—<em>calm</em>, <em>grace</em>, <em>ease</em>—and repeat it during every inhalation and exhalation. As your mind wanders, the word becomes a sort of flagpole that you've mentally planted to bring you back to this moment. </p><p>As a former sufferer of anxiety disorder, I remember how important my thoughts were when having a panic attack. The power of the physiological symptoms increased when I dwelled on negative thoughts. This spiral felt like being sucked into a vortex. By contrast, when I was able to redirect my thinking, the symptoms lessened. </p><p>Mantra meditation never completely worked during an attack. By that point, my physiology had been hijacked. But as a regular practice, this breathing technique is powerful. Think of it as training for the big game of life. You teach yourself to focus on beneficial words. Your attention goes where thinking leads you, but you also have control of your thoughts. By integrating a mantra with breathing, you're priming your mind to focus at will.</p>
How to do Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall) w/ AnaMargret Sanchez<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6ebcd48808f1ef73d5d35b9b4f58e8e8"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/YHxoiq1YivE?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><h3>Deep Belly Breathing</h3><p>This exercise is commonly used by yoga instructors to bring their students into Corpse Pose (Savasana). Place your hands over your stomach while lying down and focus your attention there. Take deep, even breaths into your hands. As with the last technique, focus your mind there. Relax the muscles at your extremities: your toes, fingers, and forehead. Allow yourself to melt into the floor. </p><p>I love doing this breath while in <em>Viparita Karani</em>, otherwise known as Legs Up the Wall posture. The video above explains how to enter this pose; a blanket or pillow under your lower back makes the posture comfortable. Once there, I practice deep belly breathing. This technique always calms me down. I've recommended it to friends suffering from insomnia; they all responded with positive anecdotal feedback. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
Get 11 hours of proven techniques on candlestick, day trading, and investment.
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