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From the 1960s up to today, some scientists have made astounding claims about the high level of intelligence and sensory capabilities possessed by plants. Their findings raise questions about what it means to be “sentient” and what defines “consciousness.”
Professor Stefano Mancuso at the International Laboratory for Plant Neurobiology at the University of Florence talked to the BBC this month for a special exploring the intelligence of plants. He said, “We are convinced that plants are cognitive and intelligent, so we use techniques and methods normally used to study cognitive animals.”
He experimented with two climbing bean plants. The plants were set up to compete for a pole. The loser sensed the other plant had reached the pole first and started looking for an alternative.
“It demonstrates the plants were aware of their physical environment and the behavior of the other plant,” Mancuso said. “In animals we call this consciousness.”
A Sense of Community
Suzanne Simard, an ecology professor at the University of British Columbia, told BBC “We haven’t treated [plants] … with respect that they are sentient beings.” She experimented with Douglas fir trees, and found they could recognize their own kin when grown in a neighborhood of “strangers” and kin.
The trees also seemed to be able to sense when they were dying, and they released carbon into neighboring pine trees.
“My interpretation was the Douglas fir knew it was dying and wanted to pass its legacy of carbon on to its neighbor, because that would be beneficial for the associated fungi and the community,” Simard said.
Long-Term Memory, Learning
Last year, Dr. Monica Gagliano at the University of Western Australia published a study in the journal Oecologia examining the long-term memory of plants. She dropped potted Mimosa Pudica plants onto cushioning foam from a height that would shock the plants, but not harm them.
She was able to monitor their reactions and found that the plants eventually learned the fall would not harm them. The plants retained a long-term memory of what they learned.
But do these behaviors constitute “intelligence”?
Professor Daniel Chamovitz, dean of life sciences at Tel Aviv University and the author of “What a Plant Knows,” told BBC, “We could see in the Venus flytrap its ability to close on a leaf. I could then define that as ‘intelligence,’ but that doesn’t help me understand the plant biology at all. We have to be very clear on terminology.”
Emotions and Supersensory Abilities
Plants seemed to register emotional responses when the late Cleve Backster tested them with lie detectors in 1966.
Backster was a former CIA lie-detector specialist who developed polygraph techniques still in general use today by the U.S. military and government agencies. He performed an experiment on dragon pot plants (Dracaena) detailed in the book “The Secret Life of Plants.”
For example, he had two Dracaena plants and connected one of them to a lie detector. He had a person stomp on the other plant. When this action was performed, the polygraph showed the plant that witnessed the stomping registered fear.
Marcel Vogel followed up on Backster’s experiments and showed plants seemed to be affected by thoughts.
Vogel was a senior scientist at IBM for 27 years, during which time he patented over 100 inventions. Part way through his career, he became interested in a more organic application of his scientific knowledge.
He tested the electrical currents emitted by plants. He found plants responded dramatically when he pulsed his breath and held a thought in his mind, compared to when his mind was clear and his breathing slow.
His former research associate Dan Willis explained Vogel’s experiments on his website MarcelVogel.org.
Willis wrote: “The responsiveness of the plants to thought was also the same whether 8 inches away, 8 feet, or 8,000 miles, as he proved from Prague, Czechoslovakia, to his laboratory in San Jose where he was able to affect the plant hooked up to the recorder.”
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