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Can Plants Think and Feel?

Convinced that plants could feel, think and respond like human beings, the professor tried a weird experiment. He injected some with alcohol. They swayed like drunkards. Others appeared to show symptoms of ‘the morning after’. If plants can hit the bottle and suffer a hangover, could it mean that they possessed subtle and even psychic powers that defied explanation? Another researcher decided to stage a ‘murder’ to attempt to find an answer.

Do Plants Have Feelings?

Amid the test tubes of the laboratory at Franklin Pierce College, New Hampshire, a group of undergraduates in white coats stared into a box of earth planted with radish seeds. A ‘Keep Out’ notice hung on the door and no sound could be hear from inside. For half an hour, then students and a lecturer kept gazing in profound silence.

This extraordinary activity in an American university reflected a growing belief that plants possess powers and ‘sensitivities’ which mankind has only just begun to grasp.

In the case of Franklin Pierce, the experiment– part of a degree course in psychic power– was to establish whether radish seeds exposed to ‘positive thinking’ grew faster than those which were not. A few years ago, such an experiment would have been regarded as pointless, if not downright farcical.

Of course, a great many people who like to think they have an affinity with nature talk to plants the way others talk to pet dogs or cats. All these good people are neither in institutions for the mentally deranged no possessed of uncanny powers.

They believe, in a comfortable middle of the road way, that a few kind words cost nothing; and if by some strange chance a humble houseplant should allow itself to be influenced by pleasant chitchat all they’re doing is making its life more agreeable.

It would, of course, be foolish, even sinister, to suggest the existence of a chlorophyll cloud-cuckoo land where plants respond not only to polite conversation but also feel, read thoughts, show sensitivity to pain in others and are, in general, gifted with qualities superior to the intelligence which merely wields the watering can on their behalf.

Hooked Up Plant

Fantasy? Science fiction? Nightmare, perhaps? Astonishingly there are scientists, psychic researchers and botanists who claim that plants in some respects are superhuman; that within those stalks and leaves lurks the ability to register both pleasure and alarm and, most chilling of all, to read our very minds even in the instant before thought has been converted into the intended action.

These suggestions can be challenged; but they cannot be entirely dismissed since a number of elaborate experiments, conducted in laboratory-controlled conditions, have tended to support the view that plants are more complex than tradition would have it.

Once of the leading researchers in this field has been an ex-CIA operative and electronics expert called Cleve Backster. Backster is versed in lie detector techniques and the use of the polygraph, a machine which when connected to the subject, shows changes in breathing, blood pressure, the pulse and in the electrical properties of the skin.

These changes are recorded in a trace on a reel of paper, and one day, for no particular reason other than that he was a little bored, Backster hooked up the polygraph to the leaves of a plant. His intention was to see whether he could record the rate at which water rose through the plant to the leaves. In theory, as the water reached the leaves it would decrease their electrical resistance which the electrodes attached to them would measure.

As Backster watered the plant in his office nothing very remarkable seemed to happen other than the ink tracing moving steadily downward during the experiment. It struck Backster that the pattern on the paper was remarkably similar to that of a human subject experiencing mild pleasurable feelings.

Pursuing this line of thought Backster decided to see what would happen if he ‘hurt’ the plant by dipping one of its leaves in hot coffee. There was no reaction but Backster’s scientific curiosity was thoroughly aroused by the familiar curve traced by the plant while he had watered it and he persisted in his attempt to evoke a different kind of response. What if he burned the leaf attached to the electrodes?

As he picked up the matches he noticed the polygraph tracing jump upward in a quite sudden and unmistakable response. Backster then went ahead and burned the leaf as he had intended, but there was no further reaction. It was almost as if the plant had anticipated the threat as soon as Backster had thought of it!

Just what was going on?  Further similar experiments also produced the same kind of results. Did the plant possess extrasensory perception? Was there some primitive communication system at work at basic cellular level which picked up the danger signals?

If not, what was the explanation for this strange phenomenon? Other scientists in Europe and the Soviet Union took up the challenge. In Russia Professor V. N. Pushkin connected plants to an electroencephalograph, a machine used for measuring electrical activity within the brain to assist in diagnosis.

His results, too, suggested that there existed a series of responses in plants which varied according to the nature of the emotion to which they were exposed. The idea that a plant could somehow tune itself in to emotion wavebands seemed extraordinary.

Yet this is what appeared to be happening when a human subject, under hypnosis, was commanded to ‘radiate’ feelings ranging from pleasure to discomfort and fear to a plant hooked up to the electroencephalograph.

Maybe all those folk who talked to their plants were more intuitive than they knew; maybe that old song was wrong and the trees did listen to the words of romantic lovers?

Backster was determined to pursue the line of his experiments, although there were many who reserved only ridicule for the work of the ex-CIA man. But Backster devised a series of laboratory tests aimed at discovering whether plants would react to the death of other living creatures.

Telepathic Signals

This extraordinary notion had grown in Backster’s mind since another experiment from which he had concluded that plants did react to living creatures in their environment. Backster kept a Doberman pinscher in his office, and it slept in a room where there was an electrically operated timer which actuated an alarm. The dog didn’t like the strident note of the alarm, which was preceded by an almost inaudible click from the timer which set it off.

The click of the timer went off about five seconds before the alarm itself and the dog became used to this, and left the room when heard the click. Backster, who was monitoring the ‘reactions’ of a plant in another room, noticed that it registered an emotional flicker as, according to Backster, the plant “picked up the dog’s anxiety,” as soon as the dog got up to leave.

However, if the ability of plants to pick up emotions from creatures not even in the same room seems remarkable it is difficult to find an appropriate adjective with which to describe the further suggestion that a plant’s telepathic powers reach over great distances.

Nevertheless this was yet another area in which experiments had been carried out and which encouraged Backster to stage his own most extraordinary test.

When he toured the Untied States giving lectures about his work he would leave a plant hooked up to a polygraph back in his office. During the tour he noted the exact times that he talked about the plant and showed slides of it to his audiences. When he returned he checked off these times against the graph which had been recording in his absence. The peaks of emotional activity on the charts coincided with the moments that he had mentioned the plant and showed the slides of it.

To Backster this seemed too great a coincidence, and he felt that there was a strong possibility that the plant had picked up telepathic signals from hundreds of miles away.

Another experiment was conducted by Dr. Robert N. Miller, who persuaded psychic healers Olga and Ambrose Worall to pray for a rye plant. Dr Miller chose this particular plant since its growth rate could be easily monitored on his sophisticated laboratory apparatus. At a prearranged time the Worralls, who were 600 miles away, said their prayers for the plant.

At that precise moment, in Dr. Miller’s laboratory, his instruments recorded unusually rapid growth in the plant, and by the next morning he recorded that the plant had surpassed its normal growth rate by 840 percent.

Was this the power of prayer combined with the plant’s favorable reaction to forces directed benevolently in its direction? Dr Miller certainly thought that this was the case.

All this work had led Backster toward his own strange experiment; carefully he made his arrangements which, he hoped, would establish beyond doubt that the sensitivity of a plant not only existed, but also that it could respond to the suffering of other living creatures.

In three separate rooms, each identically lit and with identical temperatures, he hooked up a philodendron to a polygraph by attaching electrodes to its leaves. In yet another room Backster constructed a machine which would dump live brine shrimps into boiling water. In a fifth room he set up another piece of mechanism which would start dumping on an entirely random basis. Of course the brine shrimps would die as soon as they hit the boiling water.

Just in case the plants should react to the dumping process itself, it was also arranged for the machine to dump water without shrimps. Backster went to great lengths to ensure that no human agency should interfere with experiment. Each stage of it was fully automated, and the machinery itself thoroughly checked and run beforehand.

A fourth polygraph machine, not attached to any plant, was also installed in the experimental area to ensure that any reading on the polygraphs attached to the plants were not also picking up localized ‘disturbances’ or that they were simply reflecting variations in the power supply.

Having thus taken all the steps he considered necessary to ensure the validity of his experiment, Backster and his assistants set the machinery in motion and then withdrew entirely from the area. When they returned to the building and examined the charts of the plants in the separate rooms they found that each plant had ‘reacted’ at the moment the shrimps were dumped into the water.

The graphs showed the same kind of acute stress curves that are characteristic of human beings under great pressure– either mental or physical. Backster had little doubt that the plants had, indeed, responded to the deaths of the little shrimps since these patterns on the charts coincided so extensively with the moment of dumping.

Distressed Cell

But how had the plants picked up the tragedy being played out in a different place? Backster took the view that the shrimps had sent out what he called ‘death signals’ and that these had been received by the plants.

Although this might sound far-fetched to some less committed to the notion that communication does exist– perhaps in the form of extrasensory perception– between all manner of living creatures, Backster could call upon his somewhat strange experience with an egg to further back up his suggestions along such lines.

When he broke an egg in order to give the yolk to his dog a plant attached to a polygraph in the same room showed a violent reaction. This happened on a number of occasions and Backster came to the conclusion that whenever any cell was destroyed it emitted some kind of distress signal and this was picked up by the plants.

If one can accept that a houseplant, for example, is a sensitive creature which may react adversely if its owner should destroy a cell or two in its neighborhood– by cutting a finger, perhaps– anything may be possible.

Cabbages may yet become kings, and carrots may ramble insanely. Yes, in the vegetable world there is, it appears, as much stress and suffering and eventual breakdown as we know in our own.

Dr. Paul Blondel, who carried out an extensive study of the emotional life of plants while a professor at Blake College, San Diego, concluded that tomatoes, cabbages and potatoes respond well to flattery while orchids and gladioli have a somewhat nervous disposition.

Such ideas are not entirely new. The concept that plants may have emotions and feelings is found in ancient Hindu scriptures, and the eminent Indian physicist Sir Jagadis Bose became convinced, after a lifetime of study, that plants could feel and react.

Once of the plants he worked with was Mimosa pudica, which he described a ‘highly excitable’. Its leaves would fold when exposed to heat and it showed signs of what the experimenters termed ‘discomfort’. Bose concluded that plants possess a nervous system. When he injected some with alcohol he observed that they swayed like drunkards while others, led into temptation by being soaked in spirits, grew excited but then followed the inevitable depression of the hangover.

Bose sought to substantiate these views through tracing the nervous system of the plant with an electric needle and recording how the plant reacted. An experiment upon a turnip enabled him to show that while it was pricked on one side it shuddered on the other, thus indicating the transmission of the unpleasant sensation.

Needless to say much of Bose’s work has not been taken too seriously by scientists, for whom the vision of screaming and not to say cringing vegetables is not one to which they can easily subscribe.

Bach In — Zep Out

On the other hand it may be argued that scientists are notoriously cautious and reluctant to accept what may seem to be extraordinary and astonishing data. Those less indoctrinated with the world of science but more at home in the world of plants continue to express views that are closer to the notions of Backster and Blondel.

Like Dorothy Retallack, who mixed a love of music with a little biology in a desire to find out whether plant growth might be affected by different musical tones. On a self-winding tape she recorded five minutes of tones B and D played on a piano and alternated it with five minutes of silence. For 12 hours a day over two weeks this tape was played to an assortment of plants with what transpired to be an assortment of results.

After two weeks the score was: one dead geranium, one flourishing African violet, one ailing cornstalk and a radish leaning away from the sound as if trying to escape from it.

While this proved very little, it did arouse more interest and further, more sophisticated experiments were conducted. One of these involved playing rock and ‘semi-pop’ music to the same set of plants in two different control chambers. After nine days most plants in the semi-pop chamber which was playing quite soothing music were leaning toward the speaker. The plants in the rock chamber were distorted and stunted, and had grown into random and bizarre shapes.

Led Zeppelin and Vanilla Fudge were not good for plants. A touch of Bach, and particularly Ravi Shankar’s Sounds of India appeared to work wonders. Mrs Retallack found the plants ‘liked’ jazz, leaning at angles of up to 15º toward the speakers but that they didn’t seem to react at all to country and western music.

After further work the researchers were led to the conclusion that, in a way which they were unable to determine, music did affect plant growth. This was not so surprising, since it is also a fact that music can improve the milk yield of cows and the productivity of hens.

On the other hand cows and hens can hear. Perhaps, it has been suggested, plants can ‘feel’ music in the form of energy? Nobody knows, but it is another factor that has to be added to the whole improbable catalog of plant research.

If a plant is intelligent enough to ‘hear’, no review of its secret attributes, its almost frightening potential, would be complete without asking: can a plant also see, then? That question may, in a way, be answered by further questions: how does a climber plant know where the pole is? How does a carnivorous plant detect the presence of a fly and begin to close its leaves although the fly has not touched the plant? How does a root, growing downward into the soil, divide a foot above a stone and grow around it?

Can these cells that guide movement and growth be said to see? It would be a bold scientist who made any such claim, and yet it might take an even bolder one to discount entirely the possibility of an intelligence and a painful sensitivity hitherto not even dreamed of in the biology textbooks. What is one to make of Backster’s experiments and the patterns on the polygraph charts, or the seedling that grew at eight times its normal rate when it became the subject of prayer?

Plant Sleuth

What, finally is one to make of another of Backster’s astonishing experiments in which he enlisted the aid of six students to show that plants had a memory? One student, elected by lot, was told to sneak into a room where there were two plants and destroy one of them. Neither Backster nor any of the other five students would know the identity of the ‘murderer’.

Once the foul deed had been done Backster asked each of the students to come into the room where the surviving plant remained, one at a time. The survivor was attached to a polygraph so that its reactions could be monitored.

When each of the innocent students entered the room there was no response; as soon as the guilty student stepped in, the polygraph tracing jumped about wildly, as if the plant was in a state of great emotion turmoil.

Well, was it? Had it ‘seen’ the destruction of its neighboring plant? More remarkably, had it seen the murderer and committed his image to memory?

Absurd? The hypotheses of cranks? Can one be sure? Can one be absolutely certain that plants experience no pain; that they sense no pain in others; that they do not respond to soft words or soft music?

If some bizarre and unexplained intelligence does lurk within that lattice of primitive cells it may well pay us to take a little extra care of plants and have a little extra sympathy for them… for in this strange world one can never be entirely certain of anything.


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