What does it mean to be conscious? Do you need a brain and neurons? Do you have to be able to move? These are questions we asked, debated and discussed with Professor Paco Calvo, of the MINT Lab in Spain. These discussions all centered upon plants and plant neurobiology. Are you thinking, “What?” Please read on.
Recently I spent a weekend at the Blue Deer Center in Margaretville, NY with people from diverse backgrounds (Doctor, Retired Agriculturalist, Herbalists, Writers, College Admin., etc.) to learn about the on-going and fascinating scientific research on plant neurobiology. It was an amazing weekend of discussion about prejudice, vocabulary, discovery, coupling (Dr. Calvo’s word for connection) and the future of human/plant society. While you had to be there to really feel the full impact of the weekend, I will try to give snippets of what we learned. Please see the resources at the end of this blog for further reading.
The prejudice is that humans are at the top of the chain of intelligence because we have a brain. Our brains are pretty cool. We humans have done some amazing things with them, as well as destructive. However, we are happier to assign intelligence to a microscopic organism than we are to a plant. Plants are also at the top of the intelligence chain but they have evolved differently. Plants have a root brain at the tip of each root, of which there are many. These root brains decide where cells will go in the plant based on information sent from the top of the plant and from the information (in the form of energy) shared from the other root tips (they send information back and forth and work together). These root brains work like a collective intelligence. Animals use direct perception to get a full accounting of information. They use all of their senses and movement to do this. Plants, also, use their senses (and they have more than humans) as well as movement of the various plant parts to perceive information.
Coupling in plants is “not a game of chess but rather a game of pool,” said Prof. Calvo. Unlike humans who use “if this than that” statements to work things out, as in a chess game, plants gather information from a wider spread of information, much like the spreading of cue balls when playing pool. To gather information, movement must occur and plants have been observed movin for centuries. Darwin spent a great deal of his life studying, recording, and writing about plant movement.
Our attempts that weekend at disproving plant intelligence led us to see that plants perceive, anticipate, have photo receptors for “seeing”, can communicate, can detect gravity, nutrients, and can even change their own environment. Plants can change their chemistry on a single leaf when being eaten by a caterpillar. They will also change the chemistry of surrounding leaves to deter the caterpillar from hopping to another leaf. This takes a lot of energy resources from the plant, and yet, if this change doesn’t work the plant will release its biggest weapon against the caterpillar. It will create a new cocktail that the caterpillar ingests; which in turn changes the caterpillar into a cannibal; who eats its nearby compatriots! In addition, plants don’t put all their eggs in one basket, i.e. they don’t have single organs because they can’t run away from predators. They have multiple back-ups that allow up to eighty percent of the plant to be taken before the plant is compromised. So when I harvest basil leaves, the plant can recover, continue to grow and send information throughout the plant despite its missing leaves. Humans cannot regrow limbs or a new head!
So what is the future of human/plant interaction? First, it is vocabulary. Plants are living beings and should not be referred to as “it.” Each basil plant is an individual just as each human is an individual. Once we start using more inclusive vocabulary, and we look at plants with fresh eyes, we change our personal vibration. Plants speak in wavelength. We can tune our wavelengths to each other in order to understand one another just as we can work to understand a person who speaks a language different from our own. Does all this mean we shouldn’t eat plants? We know animals are intelligent and yet we eat them. Many plants have evolved to be food. Their lives are continued and propagated by humans. We may influence what a plant looks like, but the plant also has a say in how it will continue to thrive as it evolves. We need to nourish ourselves to survive. Expressing gratitude to our food (be it plant or animal) is to express ourselves as thoughtful, giving human beings. Humans and Plants are inexorably intertwined, and we humans would do well to pay attention to this. As someone said, plants can survive without humans, but humans cannot survive without plants.
-Plant Pioneers www.plantpioneers.org
-MINT Lab http://www.um.es/web/minimal-intelligence-lab
-Stephano Mancuso https://www.ted.com/talks/stefano_mancuso_the_roots_of_plant_intelligence
-Brilliant Green The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence by Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola
-Plant Spirit Healing: A Guide to Working with Plant Consciousness by Pam Montgomery
-Thinking Like a Plant by Craig Holdrege
-“The Intelligent Plant” by Michael Pollan https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/12/23/the-intelligent-plant