Do plants possess a consciousness? – A philosophy of science professor at the University of Murcia, in Spain, is trying to devise new ways to answer this seemingly unanswerable question. Although they lack something like the brain and nervous system that animals possess, many plant species physically react to their environment, and can communicate, not only with one-another, but also with other species.
Is this behavior an involuntary mechanical response borne from millennia of evolution, or do some plants act with some degree of autonomous agency?
Professor Paco Calvo is head of the University of Murcia’s Minimal Intelligence Laboratory (MINT Lab) where he and his colleagues conduct experiments designed to figure out whether or not plants are capable of some degree of consciousness; some of these experiments involve exposing plants capable of reactive mobility such as Mimosa pudica (commonly known as the touch-me-not) to an anesthetic, resulting in the plant failing to fold its leaves in reaction to being touched. But critics argue that responses like these could simply be the product of a pre-programmed mechanical reaction, and not the result of a conscious act.
“We know plants are aware of their environment and of themselves and each other,” explains Elizabeth Van Volkenburgh, a professor of plant science at the University of Washington. “We don’t know if they are conscious.”
Calvo’s team considers bean plants to be their star performer in their experiments: using time-lapse photography, they document the movements of the vines of a bean plant that is searching for a surface to use for support. As the plant’s vine grows it sweeps through the immediate environment to try to find something to latch on to, at least until there is something within reach; when near a potential target, like a vertical pole, some plants will make a sudden lunge toward their target, a “rapid, directed change in behaviour,” according to New Scientist, suggesting that the beanstalk somehow remotely sensed its target and took a sudden shot at reaching it.
“It might even indicate that the bean ‘knows’ the pole is there,” Calvo explains. This lunging effect varies between individual plants, but the team has one subject on hand that reacts so fast they have nicknamed it Usain Bolt. Calvo’s team has also found that this sudden movement is accompanied by a sudden burst of electrical activity in the plant, suggesting that there is more going on under the surface than we might assume.
However, there is the problem that science has so far been unable to properly quantify consciousness—about all that can be agreed upon is that the phenomenon does indeed exist—so trying to determine such a quality in a life from as comparatively alien as plants would appear to be even more difficult than trying to define it for many non-human animals. To that end, Calvo believes that MRI or PET scanners specifically built to monitor the internal workings of plants in real time could help shed some light on this subject, a subject that almost seems to rely on philosophy as much as it does on biological science.
Any answers that this field of study might provide could very well change our attitudes toward how we treat plants, as similar efforts with animal consciousness might be shifting attitudes toward livestock and other animals.
“If plants have some degree of sentience, can we justify our treatment of them in agriculture, logging and all the other ways we exploit them?” asks Calvo.
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I find it rather interesting that so much that is old…is new again. Maybe if you live long enough it becomes commonplace.
Back in the 60’s, one researcher got curious about plant consciousness and found a way to monitor plants through using a polygraph. The results were nothing short of amazing. For instance, I remember one experiment where he dumped brine shrimp into a vat of boiling water, getting a strong reaction from one of his plants hooked up to the polygraph. In other words, a living plant showed a response to the deaths of other living organisms. I was about 13 when I read about this, and I never forgot it. I knew it was of significance, even though it disappeared off the radar for years.
We are starting to realize the connectedness of all things. Let’s cease the collective amnesia and go forward.
That would be Cleve Backster, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleve_Backster.
Darwin watched bean plants grow. It’s so infuriating when scientists and their institutional publicists champion interesting work without regard to their predecessors who were disregarded or even vilified for doing just as much or more.
The link I posted leads to examples of denialism. Mythbusters reran Backster experiments and found that plant responded up to 35% of the time to Tory’s stimuli. But, then they go on to say, “Although they had interesting results with the first couple of experiments, they felt that it was probably interference.” Then they found that when the plant was isolated, there was no effect, myth busted. Really, the notion of a conscious connection between people and plants was debunked when you isolated the plant? Nice work, myth builders.
Plants communicate with each other through chemical releases.
Spoken as a true materialist an attitude which I think is changing in scientific research just much too slowly. We live in an infinitely creative conscious universe where the seen arises from the unseen always expressing and interacting with itself.
Of course plants have consciousness, and so do computers and everything else. of course, it can’t be acknowledged without debating the definition of consciousness. This plant biologist who watched bean roots grow says it’s manifested by the ability to sense and respond to changes in the environment.
Whatever it is, we are not producers of consciousness. Everything filters and interprets consciousness to it’s own abilities.
The magic of existence is using consciousness as we can to build marvelous harmonious melodies, networks and structures in the face of limited time and eternally expanding entropy. To exist means to contribute to chaos. The question is how constructive we can be while here. Acknowledging and appreciating that plants build up some of the most magnificent systems on Earth only enriches my efforts.
A Dreamland guest (Alan Steinfeld?) so eloquently stated how tech quests for immortality fly in the face of the temporal and ever evolving nature of genetic existence in world of reduced carbon consumers. We are not the pinnacle of sparse isolated consciousness. Enjoy the ride as you can while we’re here and go to whatever it is we do with consciousness when we leave.
I wonder if the professor’s plants ask the same question about him or no because it’s such an obvious answer even a plant could reach it.
There is polarity here. Some seem outright angry at the idea of even asking the question: “Are plants conscious?” Meanwhile, the theory of evolution suggests that literally everything that exists, regardless of how sophisticated, is merely an accident of genetic mutation. Okay, for argument’s sake, we can pretend that it’s all just one big, happy accident; at least it keeps religious myth and superstition from interfering in our thought processes.
However, shouldn’t a plant’s growth then also be accidental? I mean, if nothing is purposeful in this world then why would one see a plant purposefully reaching for a source of water? Shouldn’t it just sit there, dumb, totally inept, unable to think, decide or choose, and just hope for the best? And if it’s lucky, then perhaps some genetic mutation in one of its roots will cause it to reach water. (Study concluded; print textbook; distribute to schools!)
But of course, that’s not what we’re seeing. Plants are making a decision, at some level, whether to go this way or that. We may not know the mechanism, but for people to get mad that we are open to asking all such questions, well, that’s just unscientific.
It’s also a good time to remember that some of our most useful scientific discoveries were made by accident, with little or no thinking ahead required. 🙂
Stay curious. 🙂
Roland Kriewaldt, Toronto.