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Plant Sentience: Thinking, Feeling, and Communicating

If you are an avid gardener or even if you only have a few potted flowers around your home, chances are that you have seen your plants go through “feelings.” When you’ve put off watering them for a day too long, you might say that your plant looks “sad.” After adding a good deal of fertile compost, a plant looks “happy” and “vigorous.” We usually use these terms to symbolize the visual aspect of a plant. But what if a plant really could feel certain feelings and communicate those feelings to us?

Since plants don’t have a central nervous system, most scientists have simply come to the foregone conclusion that plants are not sentient beings. New research, however, has begun to question that long held assumption as the secret life of plants is beginning to unfold.

sentient houseplants responding to light

Are Plants Sentient Beings?

In 1973, Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird published a book called “The Secret Life of Plants.” In their book, they argued that plants were essentially sentient beings due to a series of experiments that did on plant stimuli using a polygraph. Though the book and the research was considered to be pseudo-science at the time, more recent research has begun to discover that plants might not be as unresponsive as we once thought.

As far back as 1900, the Bengali biophysicist and botanist Jagdish Chandra Bose posed that plants were sentient beings with the ability to think, feel, and communicate. Bose proposed that plants have an electrical-based central nervous system that allows them to communicate and transmit information within their own bodies and to surrounding plants.

While most people at the time thought that Bose was nothing more than a crazed mystic, in 1992, researchers found that tomato plants, when wounded, produce a certain type of protein that they spread throughout their stems and branches. Time lapse photography of plants show their slow movement almost resembles conscious decision making regarding food sources and the like.

What are we to make of these findings? Do plants truly think and communicate or are they simply dumb, inert creatures?

While plants might not be able to “think” and “remember” the same way that us humans do, they do emit certain electrical signals that in a sense allow plants to communicate certain things within their bodies and to other surrounding plants.

While it is obvious that plants can respond to certain stimuli (such as turning towards the light to receive light, warmth and to be able to photosynthesize), their ability to communicate and react might go much farther than previously thought.

Daniel Chamovitz, who recently wrote the Book “What a Plant Knows,” argues that plants can smell, feel, and even “see.”  He argues that plants can even alert their neighboring plants when a certain danger is perceived in the surrounding environment and have an ability to remember, though their memory is distinct from that of humans.

While plants obviously don’t have a brain, some researchers have found that the root system of plants acts like a million different brains acting together to help plants solve problems and make decisions based on their livelihoods. Signals emitted from the root apex are similar to the neurons in animal brains. While one simple root apex is not able to do much, plants have millions of roots.

Plant “brains”, then, are actually kind of like a mini-internet, with each and every root communicating with each other in a type of network. The benefit of having millions of tiny brains is that even if a human being comes and chops down 80% of a plants biomass, the plant still has the ability to regrow because of its multiple “brains.”

What Implications Does Plant Life Involve?

Most people think of plants as beautiful, but inanimate things. While there is a large segment of society that advocates for not eating animals because of the fact that they are sentient beings, you never hear of anyone advocating for the life and safety of the lettuce and spinach in your salad.

Though many people might not be convinced plants are sentient beings in the same sense as us humans, it is undeniable that plants are extremely complex organisms that lead lives filled with sensory perceptions.

We need to question what plant “life” really involves and how that affects how we interact with the plant world. Recently, many people have been discussing the concept of the rights of plants.  If plants do have some sort of ability to think, feel, and communicate, should they also have certain rights and protections that govern their lives?

The conception of plants as merely property that humans can do whatever they want with has led to a number of environmental and ecological problems. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund argues that plants, trees, and other forms of “green” life are right bearing entities.

While many people may argue that it is in humanity’s best interest to protect certain plants such as tropical rainforests, perhaps our legal framework isn’t progressive enough. Instead of protecting plants for humanity’s sake, perhaps we need to consider that plants themselves have a right to live and evolve.

This concept of the “rights” of plants has long been a central tenet of certain indigenous cultures around the world. The Quechua and Aymara people of the South American Andes have long considered the natural world to be “Pachamama”, which can be roughly translated as “Mother Earth.”

The current Bolivian constitution recognizes the rights of the natural world, including plants. Similarly, Ecuador has passed laws that recognize the rights of nature as well. If plants do have a certain form of sentience, perhaps we need to reconsider their rights.

row of beans in a garden

How Can You Communicate with Plants?

While you might not be able to have an ongoing conversation with plants, it is certainly possible to communicate with your plants. If you want to try and see how plants communicate with one another, you can try and set up an experiment of your own.

Plant several beans in a spare row in your garden. Once your bean crops are large and full of foliage, find some natural pest (such as aphids). Place a couple of aphids on the leaves of one bean plant and patiently watch and observe. Within an hour or two, several wasps (natural predators should arrive and begin to take care of the aphids that are destroying the bean crops.

What does that have to do with plant communication, you might ask? While you might not have heard the plants calling for help, the plant that felt the aphids chewing up its leaves began to emit certain VOCs which are kind of like distress signals. The neighboring plants sense these calls for help and begin to emit certain types of attractants which are like perfumes that call wasps in for a rescue operation.

While it might not seem like complex communication, what you have just witnessed is a type of communication between plants and a conscientious decision making process whereby plants defend themselves from outside attackers.

Furthermore, while you are in your garden tending your rose bushes and tomato plants, it might also be a good idea to talk to your plants. While they might understand what you’re saying, it has been found that plants do respond to sound stimuli. Furthermore, if you spend several hours in your garden each day, the carbon dioxide you emit from exhaling and talking might actually be beneficial for plant growth as well.

The Importance of Plant Sentience

Since plants can’t talk or move it might be hard for us to consider them sentient beings. New research is continually proving, however, that plants have a much richer and more sensual life than we previously thought possible. Increasing our sensibility to the secret lives of plants can help us become more aware of the intricate complexity of the world all around us.

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