“Plants have electrical and chemical signaling systems, may possess memory, and exhibit brainy behavior in the absence of brains.”
-CONSTRUCTION by Stephen Doyle
The idea that plants possess intelligence worthy of in depth exploration is an idea still largely scoffed at, despite the emergence of research suggesting otherwise. In large part, this is due to the widespread belief that “intelligence” and “brains” are inextricably connected, that the two must coexist to exist at all. The problem with this is our perception of what a “brain” is.
When defining the brain, we fixate too much on the physicals, like that it exists within a skull, and not enough on the invisibles, such as how it functions. Due to this, we believe brains can only exist in lifeforms that have skulls, like humans and animals, to rest in. However, when looking deeper into the characteristics of plants, we begin to find they have impressively elegant mechanisms, ones typically reserved only for those with brains. This, of course, brings us to the regrettably too often overlooked intelligence of plants.
Plants communicate chemically, in a manner which we cannot directly decipher. For example, an insect attack is stimulated and the release of volatile chemicals is instigated when sagebrush leaves are clipped in the spring, resulting in a significant reduction of the extent to which both the clipped plant and the unclipped plants around it suffer. Chemical communication amongst plants may also be of benefit to farmers, as research by Jack Shultz, a chemical ecologist at the University of Missouri, found that plant-distress chemicals may be used to prime plant defenses, thus eliminating the need for pesticides. Plants also display excellent hearing capabilities, a fact well demonstrated in a study showing how in reaction to the sound of a caterpillar munching on a leaf, plants secrete defensive chemicals as a response to a perceived potential threat from a foreign sound.
Although plants do not have “brains,” in the sense which us humans define them as, -meaning they consist within the boundaries of a skull- they possess intricate neuronal networks with more neurons than the human brain. One might say their roots are their brains, and since they are not confined by a skull like the human brain, they are able to expand infinitely, with no existing limit on the knowledge which they obtain. Plants sense, learn, remember and react in ways similar to humans. The sensory abilities of plants are so distinguished and immaculate that they are able to gather all sensory data from one day, and integrate it to formulate an appropriate response.
Plants not only produce anesthetics, they respond to them as well. This does not, however, directly prove that plants feel pain -a topic still up for debate among scientists. What is clear is that plants possess all of the same senses attributed to humans, a fact surprising to some; as well as ones which do not follow under the category of the human senses, a fact surprising to most. Aside from their abilities to feel, hear, and taste, plants sense obstacles able to impede the growth of their roots before coming into contact with them, and shift their direction of growth accordingly. They are also able to sense gravity and the presence of water. Exactly how plants have the same senses as humans, not to mention in some ways more distinguished ones, all while void of what we envision a brain to be, remains a mystery, its answers lying in the still vastly unnavigated terrain of plant consciousness and intelligence. What we know for sure is that, like us, plants produce neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and other chemicals to send and receive electrical signals. Concrete details beyond this remain a mystery -one that some scientists are working to unveil. Other, less humble ones, of course, label the very idea of plant consciousness and intelligence as quackery, still unaware that true science often lies in the beauty of not knowing.
- Buffie, E. (Director). (2013). What Plants Talk About. United States: Merit Motion Pictures.
- Science Friday. (2014, January 10). New research on plant intelligence may forever change how you think about plants. Retrieved October 30, 2014, from http://www.pri.org/stories/2014-01-09/new-research-plant-intelligence-may-forever-change-how-you-think-about-plants
- Nature (Season 31) – What Plants Talk About | Pressroom | THIRTEEN. (2013, April 3). Retrieved October 30, 2014, from http://www.thirteen.org/13pressroom/press-release/nature-season-31-what-plants-talk-about/
- Pollan, M. (2013, December 23). The Intelligent Plant – The New Yorker. Retrieved October 30, 2014, from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/12/23/the-intelligent-plant
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