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Plants have sensibilities, but are they conscious?
They experience reality differently than we do.
- 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.
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Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
A new episode of "Your Brain on Money" illuminates the strange world of consumer behavior and explores how brands can wreak havoc on our ability to make rational decisions.
- Effective branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Our new series "Your Brain on Money," created in partnership with Million Stories, recently explored the surprising ways brands can affect our behavior.
- Brands aren't going away. But you can make smarter decisions by slowing down and asking yourself why you're making a particular purchase.
How Apple and Nike have branded your brain | Your Brain on Money | Big Think youtu.be
Brands can manipulate our brains in surprisingly profound ways. They can change how we conceptualize ourselves and how we broadcast our identities out to the social world. They can make us feel emotions that have nothing to do with the functions of their products. And they can even sort us into tribes.
To grasp the power of brands, look to Apple. In the 1990s, the company was struggling to compete with Microsoft over the personal computer market. Despite flirting with bankruptcy in the mid-1990s, Apple turned itself around to eventually become the most valuable company in the world.
That early-stage success wasn't due to superior products.
"People talk about technology, but Apple was a marketing company," John Sculley, a former Apple marketing executive, told The Guardian in 1997. "It was the marketing company of the decade."
So, how exactly does branding make people willing to wait hours in line to buy a $1,000 smartphone, or pay exorbitant prices for a pair of sneakers?
Branding and the brain
For more than a century, brands have capitalized on the fact that effective marketing is much more than simply touting the merits of a product. Some ads have nothing to do with the product at all. In 1871, for example, Pearl Tobacco started advertising their cigarettes through branded posters and trading cards that featured exposed women, a trend that continues to this day.
It's crude, sure. But research shows that it's also remarkably effective, even on monkeys. Why? The answer seems to center on how our brains pay special attention to information from the social world.
"In theory, ads that associate sex or status with specific brands or products activate the brain mechanisms that prioritize social information, and turning on this switch may bias us toward the product," wrote neuroscience professor Michael Platt for Scientific American.
Brands can burrow themselves deep into our subconscious. Through ad campaigns, brands can form a web of associations and memories in our brains. When these connections are robust and positive, it can change our behavior, nudging us to make "no-brainer" purchases when we encounter the brand at the store.
It's a marketing principle that's related to the work of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and economist who won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. In his book "Thinking Fast and Slow", Kahneman separates thinking into two broad categories, or systems:
- System 1 is fast and automatic, requiring little effort or voluntary control.
- System 2 is slow and requires subjective deliberation and logic.
Brands that tap into "system 1" are likely to dominate the competition. After all, it's far easier for us as consumers to automatically reach for a familiar brand than it is to analyze all of the available information and make an informed choice. Still, the most successful brands can have an even deeper impact on our psychology, one that causes us to conceptualize them as something like a family member.
A peculiar relationship with brands
Apple has one of the most loyal customer bases in the world, with its brand loyalty hitting an all-time high earlier this year, according to a SellCell survey of more than 5,000 U.S.-based smartphone users.
Qualitatively, how does that loyalty compare to Samsung users? To find out, Platt and his team conducted a study in which functional magnetic resonance imaging scanned the brains of Samsung and Apple users as they viewed positive, negative, and neutral news about each company. The results revealed stark differences between the two groups, as Platt wrote in "The Leader's Brain":
"Apple users showed empathy for their own brand: The reward-related areas of the brain were activated by good news about Apple, and the pain and negative feeling parts of the brain were activated by bad news. They were neutral about any kind of Samsung news. This is exactly what we see when people empathize with other people—particularly their family and friends—but don't feel the joy and pain of people they don't know."
Meanwhile, Samsung users didn't show any significant pain- or pleasure-related brain activity when they saw good or bad news about the company.
"Interestingly, though, the pain areas were activated by good news about Apple, and the reward areas were activated by bad news about the rival company—some serious schadenfreude, or "reverse empathy," Platt wrote.
The results suggest a fundamental difference between the brands: Apple has formed strong emotional and social connections with consumers, Samsung has not.
Brands and the self
Does having a strong connection with a brand justify paying higher prices for their products? Maybe. You could have a strong connection with Apple or Nike and simultaneously think the quality of their products justifies the price.
But beyond product quality lies identity. People have long used objects and clothing to express themselves and signal their affiliation with groups. From prehistoric seashell jewelry to Air Jordans, the things people wear and associate with signal a lot of information about how they conceptualize themselves.
Since the 1950s, researchers have examined the relationship between self-image and brand preferences. This body of research has generally found that consumers tend to prefer brands whose products fit well with their self-image, a concept known as self-image congruity.
By choosing brands that don't disrupt their self-image, consumers are able not only to express themselves personally, but also broadcast a specific version of themselves into the social world. That might sound self-involved. But on the other hand, humans are social creatures who use information from the social world to make decisions, so it's virtually impossible for us not to make inferences about people based on how they present themselves.
Americus Reed II, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told Big Think:
"When I make choices about different brands, I'm choosing to create an identity. When I put that shirt on, when I put that shirt on — those jeans, that hat — someone is going to form an impression about what I'm about. So, if I'm choosing Nike over Under Armour, I'm choosing a kind of different way to express affiliation with sport. The Nike thing is about performance. The Under Armour thing is about the underdog. I have to choose which of these different conceptual pathways is most consistent with where I am in my life."
Making smarter decisions
Brands may have some power over us when we're facing a purchasing decision. So, considering brands aren't going away, what can we do to make better choices? The best strategy might be to slow down and try to avoid making "automatic" purchasing decisions that are characteristic of Kahneman's fast "system 1" mode of thinking.
"I think it's important to always pause and think a little bit about, "Okay, why am I buying this product?" Platt said.
As for getting out of the brand game altogether? Good luck.
"I've heard lots of people push back and say, "I'm not into brands,"" Reed II said. "I take a very different view. In some senses, they're not doing anything different than what someone who affiliates with a brand is doing. They have a brand. It's just an anti-brand brand."
Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- "We love to think of ourselves as rational. That's not how it works," says UPenn professor Americus Reed II about our habits (both conscious and subconscious) of paying more for items based primarily on the brand name. Effective marketing causes the consumer to link brands like Apple and Nike with their own identity, and that strong attachment goes deeper than receipts.
- Using MRI, professor and neuroscientist Michael Platt and his team were able to see this at play. When reacting to good or bad news about the brand, Samsung users didn't have positive or negative brain responses, yet they did have "reverse empathy" for bad news about Apple. Meanwhile, Apple users showed a "brain empathy response for Apple that was exactly what you'd see in the way you would respond to somebody in your family."