Plants have sensibilities, but are they conscious?

They experience reality differently than we do.

Plants have sensibilities, but are they conscious?
  • The field of plant neurobiology studies the complex behavior of plants.
  • Plants were found to have 15–20 senses, including many that humans have as well.
  • 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 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.

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

Credit: Gay Pauley

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, such as light, temperature, water, microbes, and 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 percent 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.

COVID-19 amplified America’s devastating health gap. Can we bridge it?

The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.

Willie Mae Daniels makes melted cheese sandwiches with her granddaughter, Karyah Davis, 6, after being laid off from her job as a food service cashier at the University of Miami on March 17, 2020.

Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
  • Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
  • To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
Keep reading Show less

The "singleton hypothesis" predicts the future of humanity

Philosopher Nick Bostrom's "singleton hypothesis" predicts the future of human societies.

Politics & Current Affairs
  • Nick Bostrom's "singleton hypothesis" says that intelligent life on Earth will eventually form a "singleton".
  • The "singleton" could be a single government or an artificial intelligence that runs everything.
  • Whether the singleton will be positive or negative depends on numerous factors and is not certain.
Keep reading Show less

Bruce Lee: How to live successfully in a world with no rules

Shannon Lee shares lessons from her father in her new book, "Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee."

Bruce Lee: How to live successfully in a world with no rules ...
Videos
  • Bruce Lee would have turned 80 years old on November 27, 2020. The legendary actor and martial artist's daughter, Shannon Lee, shares some of his wisdom and his philosophy on self help in a new book titled "Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee."
  • In this video, Shannon shares a story of the fight that led to her father beginning a deeper philosophical journey, and how that informed his unique expression of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do.
  • One lesson passed down from Bruce Lee was his use and placement of physical symbols as a way to help "cement for yourself this new way of being, or this new lesson you've learned." By working on ourselves (with the right tools), we can develop the skills necessary to rise and conquer new challenges.
Keep reading Show less

3 reasons for information exhaustion – and what to do about it

How to deal with "epistemic exhaustion."

Photo by Filip Mishevski on Unsplash
Mind & Brain
An endless flow of information is coming at us constantly: It might be an article a friend shared on Facebook with a sensational headline or wrong information about the spread of the coronavirus.
Keep reading Show less
Culture & Religion

Top 5 theories on the enigmatic monolith found in Utah desert

A strange object found in Utah desert has prompted worldwide speculation about its origins.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast