Do Plants Have Feelings? Science’s Overdue Paradigm Shift

March 29, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

Do plants have feelings? The simple answer is yes. As Michael Pollan writes in The New Yorker in December, a group of six scientists has been able to demonstrate this:

Plants are able to sense and optimally respond to so many environmental variables—light, water, gravity, temperature, soil structure, nutrients, toxins, microbes, herbivores, chemical signals from other plants—that there may exist some brainlike information-processing system to integrate the data and coordinate a plant’s behavioral response. The authors pointed out that electrical and chemical signaling systems have been identified in plants which are homologous to those found in the nervous systems of animals. They also noted that neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate have been found in plants, though their role remains unclear.

The scientists’ “yes” is not quite unequivocal, but it should be. This points to an overdue paradigm shift in the scientific community. I’ll explain.

With presumably much less work, more common sense (or what might be termed elegance in reasoning), and a far more open mind than most scientists today, one scientist in the 1960s already proved that plants have feelings by connecting a house plant to a lie detector machine. Cleve Backster was a specialist in the use of lie detector, or polygraph, machines and was often called upon by the CIA. Among many other experiments, Backster simply imagined burning a plant’s leaf and the machine registered a reading that was similar to a human experiencing extreme fright. The plant apparently read his mind.

“Plants have feelings!” Backster said.

The mainstream scientific community was shocked by Backster’s findings and tried to replicate his results with no success. As Pollan writes: “In the ensuing years, several legitimate plant scientists tried to reproduce the ‘Backster effect’ without success. Much of the science in [Backster’s book] has been discredited.”

It is significant that Pollan is both complicit with the disparaging of Backster, but praises the six contemporary scientists whose results only seem to confirm the findings of Backster. Pollan has inadvertently gotten to the very root of the problem with the modern scientific paradigm. The “legitimate plant scientists” who Pollan thinks discredited Backster were doing what they thought scientists should do to any major new finding: they used rigorous testing and analysis to see if it was true. Thus, we cannot blame Pollan for just doing his job as a reporter or the scientists who “discredited” Backster; the problem is in the scientific process itself.

Any good scientist or student implicitly knows that science requires three things: (1) Negativity: the scientists testing the theory must play devil’s advocates and, at least partially, assume the results they are testing are incorrect and can be proven wrong. This may be described as dispassion, but contains negativity as its overriding component. It is like trying to push over a post just planted in the ground to see if it will fall over or stay sturdy. A scientist may want to see it stand, but the action itself is directed at toppling it. (2) Controlled experimentation: This means that the factors in an experiment remain the same. For example, if the first experiment involved one human being thinking about burning a certain type of plant’s leaves, then the experiment to disprove or prove that should repeat those circumstances by involving one person thinking about burning the same type of plant’s leaves. (3) Repeatability: if the plant experiment works for Scientist A, but not for B, C, or D, yet all the factors involved appear to be the same, then the findings of Scientist A are thrown out. This way, we know that Scientist A isn’t simply lying.

This scientific philosophy has had great results in the last 100 to 200 years. There is no denying that. Advances have been made in medicine, communication, transportation, and organization. Yet, we can also summarize all of these advances as advances that are focused on the physical benefits and welfare of some human beings or humankind in general. Generally speaking, it is unclear, and often seems unlikely, whether any life beyond humankind has actually benefited; this applies even if we take the definition of life provided by science itself. The destruction of the environment and wildlife are obvious examples of how science physically benefits mankind but not other forms of life.

Then, what happens when people searching for truth, are focusing their research on matters that are outside the realms of physical human benefits (such as medical data or grant money). At first, we get into the soft sciences like psychology and sociology, but the results are focused on shallower phenomena like how people’s thoughts affect people themselves or those close to them. We don’t get help with the “Do plants have feelings?” question, since they defer back to the hard sciences like biology. Basically, once we get to the realm of thoughts (for example plant feelings and for human beings, telepathy and clairvoyance); the idea of intangible sentience beyond what we understand to be physical humankind (for example, souls, ghosts, spirits, or Gods); and the idea of laws and order put in place by some intangible sentience, then it is entirely reasonable and justified to ask if points 1, 2, and 3 are actually appropriate and effective in that different context. The conclusion inadvertently reached by Pollan suggests that they are not. Using firsthand experience, diligent documentation, and video recording, Backster got to the conclusion plants have feelings by breaking from these philosophical foundations. He concluded, as have other scientists doing similar plant research, that spontaneity is the key component for proving plants have feelings. Spontaneity means controlled experimentation (2) may not work and repeatability (3) cannot be guaranteed. The experiment has to be made up in the moment; otherwise it may not work. It is also probably true that after his initial experiment, Backster was quite excited and wanted to prove that plants have feelings as have other scientists following in his “spontaneity” footsteps. In terms of the modern scientific paradigm, this is considered a grievous error in terms of negativity or dispassion (1). He saw what he wanted to see, the modern scientist might say. Thus, Backster discovered a profound truth that scientists today are only beginning to understand and he did so by ignoring the philosophical underpinnings of the modern scientific paradigm.

Just think about it. If the plant is alive, then trying to impose points 1, 2, and 3 is ridiculous. It is like using math or science to predict a teenager’s mood on a random day, to predict stock prices, or to predict who is going to win the NCAA tournament. Here is an anecdote to illustrate that point. You have a good friend who is always nice to you. But, one day, the good friend walks over to you and tells you he wants to burn off your arm. You are naturally frightened and upset because you would never expect something like that to happen. That will show up in a polygraph machine as a frightened emotion.

Now, someone you don’t know telephones you and tells you that in a week he is going to come and burn your arm off. The frightened and upset feelings come on strong at first but give way to complacency. You are helpless since this person is far more powerful. When the person shows up to burn your arm, he hooks you up to a polygraph and tells you he is going to burn your arm.

You say, “I know that already, even my good friend wants to do that. Just get it over with.” In the same way, the plant will have no reaction when the second, third, or fourth scientist tries to replicate Backster’s initial experiment. Thus, scientists after Backster found that the plant did not produce a fear reading on the polygraph machine when they thought about burning one of the plant’s leaves. The scientific method employed did not match the super-human or super-physical scope of the experiment. It is useless to use negativity, controlled experimentation, and repeatability to test the feelings and thoughts of the plant. If the plant has feelings just like any human being, those feelings are highly changeable, difficult to predict, and less stable the more that they are hostilely manipulated.

Pollan begins with jabs at Backster and also jabs at regular people, rolling his literary eyes at people who talk to their plants and play classical music for their plants. The plain reality is that people have a natural intuition aligned with the truth of the universe. When dealing with lives interacting with lives on a super-physical level, this intuition comes closer to understanding truth than modern science.

Plants have feelings! It is time for a paradigm shift.