An article by our partners Anima Mundi Herbals
Can plants think? Scientific findings over the course of the last decades now confirm the ancient knowing that plants can actually see, feel, smell and even argue! Plants can mount a defense when under siege, warn its neighbors of trouble on the way, and apparently even retain memory. Does this mean we can now dive deep on the neuroscience of a flower?
The deep intelligence possessed by plants has been explored and discussed by many people of note over the past several centuries, including Goethe, Luther Burbank, George Washington Carver, Masanobu Fukuoka, Jagadis Bose, and the Nobel Prize-winner Barbara McClintock. Plants, it turns out, really are highly conscious, intelligent and yes, they do have a brain. It’s just that no one ever looked in the right place.
Depth analysis of plant consciousness since the turn of the (new) millennium is finding that their brain capacity is much larger than previously supposed, that their neural systems are highly developed—in many instances as much as that of humans, and that they make and utilize neurotransmitters identical to our own. It is beginning to seem that plants are highly intelligent, feeling beings—perhaps as much or even more so than humans in some instances. (They can even perform sophisticated mathematical computations and make future plans based on extrapolations of current conditions. The mayapple, for instance, plans its growth two years in advance based on weather patterns.)
Increasing numbers of researchers, in a multiplicity of fields, are beginning to acknowledge that intelligence is an inevitable aspect of all self-organized systems—that sophisticated neural networks are a hallmark of life. Some researchers are becoming quite vocal in attacking what they call the “brain chauvinism.” Kevin Warwick, a cyberneticist, observes succinctly that, “Comparisons (in intelligence) are usually made between characteristics that humans consider important; such a stance is of course biased and subjective in terms of the groups for whom it is being used.” In other words, rationalists, who have long attacked the concept of plant intelligence and consciousness and awareness in nature as antirational romantic projection, have themselves been merely looking at and for their own reflection in the world around them—and, of course, finding the world wanting. But what especially activates their antirational subjectivity is whenever the organism in question appears to not have a brain, such as with bacteria, viruses, and most especially plants.
The old paradigm about plants, which is very common and (unfortunately) still believed by most people, is that plants are unconscious, “passive entities subject to environmental forces and organisms that are designed solely for accumulation of photosynthetic products.” But as Baluska et al. note:
The new view, by contrast, is that plants are dynamic and highly sensitive organisms, actively and competitively foraging for limited resources both above and below ground, and that they are also organisms which accurately compute their circumstances, use sophisticated cost-benefit analysis, and that take defined actions to mitigate and control diffuse environmental conditions. Moreover, plants are also capable of a refined recognition of self and non-self and this leads to territorial behavior. This new view considers plants as conscious, information-processing organisms with complex communication throughout the individual plant, including feelings and perception of pain, among other things. Plants are as intelligent and sophisticated in behavior as animals but their potential has been masked because it operates on time scales many orders of magnitude longer than that operation in animals… Owing to this lifestyle, the only long-term response to rapidly changing environments is an equally rapid adaptation; therefore, plants have developed a very robust communication, signaling and information-processing apparatus… Besides abundant interactions with the environment, plants communicate and interact with other living systems such as other plants, fungi, nematodes, bacteria, viruses, insects, and predatory animals.
As with all self-organized systems, plants continually sense, feel and monitor their internal and external worlds for informational/functional shifts in the relevant fields. If they are focusing externally, once they note a shift, they work to identify its nature and meaning and its likely impact on their functioning. Then they craft a response.
As Trewavas amplifies, these conscious plant responses are highly intelligent. “A plant actually chooses the optimum response from a plethora of alternatives.” As he says, potential “responses can be rejected; the numbers of different environments that any wild plant experiences must be almost infinite in number. Only complex computation can fashion the optimal fitness response.”
Some plants, such as sundew, are so sensitive to touch, for example, that they can detect a strand of hair weighing less than one microgram (one millionth of a gram) to which they then respond. But what is more revealing is that they can determine with great specificity what is touching them—that is the plants can feel their environment. Raindrops, a common experience in the wild, produce no response. This kind of mechanosensitivity, which is, in plants, similar to what we call our felt sense of touch, is used much as we use our own: The plants consciously analyze what is touching them, determine its meaning, and craft a response. And that response many times involves rapid changes in their genetics, phenotype, and subsequent physical form. As McCormack et al. comment, “Plants intelligently perceive much more of their environment than is often apparent to the casual observer. Touch can induce profound rapid responses… in Arabidopsis changes in gene expression can be seen within minutes after the plant feels touch, and over 700 genes have altered transcript levels within 30 minutes.”
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More about the writer: Stephen Harrod Buhner is the author of Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm: Beyond the Doors of Perception into the Dreaming of Earth, Herbal Antivirals, Herbal Antibiotics, and 17 other works. He speaks internationally on herbal medicine, emerging diseases, complex interrelationships in ecosystems, Gaian dynamics, and musical/sound patterns in plant and ecosystem functioning.
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