In the early hours of February 2nd, 1966 in New York City former CIA polygraph expert Cleve Backster was working late. On his way back to his office after grabbing a coffee Backster noticed a houseplant that his secretary had purchased to brighten the office, a Dracaena fragrans. Whilst waiting for his coffee to kick in Backster decided to hook up the houseplant to his lie-detection machine.
Hooking his plant up to a galvanometer Backster decided to test if the plant could elicit an anxious response, like a human being. While it couldn't produce a heightened breathing or pulse rate, like most human beings, Backster assumed that it could demonstrate a skin response. Backster decided that he would burn one of the plant's leaves. Just as Backster imagined setting the plant on fire the polygraph measured an extreme reaction. To his amazement, this electrical surge not only demonstrated that the plant felt an emotion, probably fear, but more interestingly... the plant read his mind.
Further research using multiple fruits and vegetables connected to polygraph machines showed that they were aware of the good and bad thoughts of the people familiar to them, irrespective of the distance. The plants demonstrated an aversion to violence, even if it was just the cracking of an egg, but more impressively they could spot a murderer. Backster and his colleagues destroyed a plant in front of others and noted that when given the choice of six suspects, they were able to correctly identify the right one. While it is not suggested that plants have brains, there is an emerging belief that consciousness is not a product of the brain itself.
Beckster documented his findings in his 1973 book The Secret Life of Plants and deduced that there was a fundamental attunement between all things. Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose conducted research that shows that even the plant is more closely related to humans that we think. Bose proved that they had the ability to respond to external stimuli and paved the way for further research in the field of plant sentience.
Monica Gagliano from the University of Western Australia showed that plants could communicate with one another and learn. Communicating with one another by releasing compounds into the air, plants have been shown to alert one another to dangers, like a skunk. If that fact wasn’t mind-blowing enough - plants also have the ability to produce sounds of their own at a low level. Gagliano believed that each plant had their own voice and can respond to noises of the environment such as bees.
Venus fly traps have shown us that plants can feel, but theres even suggestions that they can also smell. Gagliano suggests that the understanding of our similarity with plants could be subject to change very soon, as investigations into plant consciousness, memory, cognitive capabilities and perception are underway. Most alarming is research conducted by University of Wisconsin-Madison showing that plants can experience measurable pain.
Nearly a century ago psychologist William James stated that he believed that while the brain had very obvious biological and psychical functions that could be demonstrated when one had an injury, it was not enough to prove function. Around this time too, philosopher Ferdinand Schiller stated that he didn’t believe that consciousness was produced by the brain, but indeed limited by it. James is a believer in interactional dualism. This is the belief that the brain and the mind interact with one other, but are fundamentally different.
Stefano Mancuso from the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology at the University of Florence, suggests that having a brain would not be beneficial for the plant. This outdated idea that links the brain with intelligence could be forcing us to overlook the inherent capabilities of the plant. Mancuso states that the plants’ fixed location means that they lend themselves to be eaten easily. With this in mind, it is advantageous for the plant to have no irreplaceable components such as organs, so that they could regenerate. Intelligence in the animal world has been displayed in creatures that can’t necessarily be attributed to a brain per se. Take swarming for example. This is something that is seen in a flock of birds and represents a collective intelligence that alters the behaviour of the animal in question. Mancuso suggests that is could be the collective intelligence of plants that influences the behaviour of a group to act for the common good.
Research on speaking to plants has deduced that plants respond to being spoken nicely to. However, when plants are yelled at, they die. Nasa and the Smithsonian suggest that this could be due to the vibrational frequencies of our voices and less to do with our wording. Similarly to how plants can speak to each other through their chemical emissions. University of California researcher Rick Karban studied the plant communication in a natural setting. By simulating an insect attack, Kaban believed that the damage by insects is lessened due to the alert that plants send out to one another. Jack Schultz from the University of Missouri suggests that learning about plant consciousness may benefit farmers in the long run. By harnessing the power of the plant defences Schultz suggests that the need for pesticides could be lessoned. They developed a nose that could attach to the front of the tractor, identifying areas of the fields that didn’t have plants signalling distress, which need to be sprayed.
Researchers in the field are vocal about the difficulty they had with advancing their work in the early days. Karban suggests that this could be due to the conservative attitude that is endemic amongst plant scientists. It has been suggested that attributing animal characteristics to plants is the main area of difficulty in terms of acceptance.
Without a brain it’s a mystery how plants have evolved and developed all of these gnarly skills if they don’t have a brain. Animal don’t rely exclusively on the brain to function either. Epigenetics suggest that memories stored in our genes can be passed down to our offspring. Research, first conducted on animals, highlighted why we may develop certain irrational fears. Brian Dias from Emory University reported that mice inherit specific smell memories from their fathers, even if they had never met. It has been suggested that plants rely on the same qualities to aid them to adapt to their different environments. This information based memory sharing shows a quality of interest and care in the wellbeing of future generations that one wouldn’t usually expect from plants. One could suggest that this is a natural requirement when it comes to evolution. However, it is something common across all living creatures and could be looked at as a unifying connection.
Science is showing us that plants have an awareness and and understanding of their environment that many do not consider. Fungi, for example are expert problem solvers. One of their specialist skills is finding the best route between two points. Lynne Boddy, a mycologist, put this to the test by crafting a scale model of Great Britain out of soil. At all of the major cities Boddy placed proportionate blocks of fungus-colonised wood. The really spooky and unexplainable aspect of this, is that between the blocks, patterns in the form of motorways began to appear. These fungus super-highways resembled the M1, M4, M5 and M6, with eery accuracy. This is not a once off - fungus has also modelled the transport systems of many of the major cities.
Plants have a deep connection with us and vice versa. Plant medicine is remarkably common. Indeed, a lot of modern day medicine is formulated to replicate the healing properties found in plants. Apart from that, you can pick up plant medicine almost anywhere to help with just about anything. Anyone who has been knocking around an airport, chewing their fingernails down to the bone waiting for a flight, has probably reached for Rescue Remedy to help them chill out. Dr Bach who designed Bach Remedies was a medical doctor who specialised in vaccines and realised that illness was a condition associated with personality rather than physicality. Even more radical than that revelation is that his flower remedies were channelled, although very few people are aware of that.
More remarkably, Homeopathy, which is the process of diluting the active ingredient in water until it is no longer scientifically present, proved that water possessed memory. Jaques Benveniste published research in the 1988 edition of Nature magazine showing that if solutions of antibodies were diluted until they no longer contained a single cell of that antibody, they could still produce an immune response form the desired cells. Thirteen scientists agreed that water must act as a template, that was able to hold information within its electromagnetic field, in an unexplainable way. The vibrational nature of this treatment has ruined the careers of those who tried to prove it by science. Never the less, Homeopathy and flower essence are still a popular and effective treatment for many illnesses. Research into an expanding field called Psychoneuroimmunology has shown that the patient’s belief is essential to successful medical treatment. Studies showed that cancer patients in support groups live longer than those that do not have a support group. I would suggest an air of caution when it comes to this rule as I believe that the quality of the support group has an effect on well-being, as identification can be a double edged sword and can also cause the patient’s medical conditions to dis-improve.
Researchers at Tel Aviv University demonstrated that plants emit a high frequency noise, like a scream, when they are in a high stress environment. Like when they are cut. This begs the question. As we move towards the undeniable conclusion that we share a consciousness with plants what does this mean for our future relationship with them. One day will we be discussing plant sentience and rights, like we now do with animals.