Do Plants Have Feelings?By Larry Rettig (LarryR) on August 23, 2011
|When I first came upon this issue a number of years ago, I chuckled to myself, deeming it silly to even pursue such a topic. But curiosity eventually got the better of me. I started doing some research.|
Then I hit pay dirt. It came by way of the October 1998 issue of Free Spirit Magazine. Here is the introduction to an article on Cleve Backster in that issue:
Backster, it turns out, perfected the modern polygraph (lie detector) used around the world. His machine reveals human stress levels by measuring, among other things, the flow of electricity through the skin. Subjects hooked to the machine via electrodes on their fingers or palms are asked a series of questions. If the response to a question is a lie, the flow of electricity in the skin increases and is recorded on graph paper (or on a computer screen) as a spike by a needle that fluctuates with the electrical flow.
In his initial experiment with plants, Backster attached polygraph wires to the leaves of a potted dracena cane plant (later to a philodendron and a rubber plant as well). Then he dipped one of the leaves in warm coffee. No response. He pondered about what to try next. As soon as he thought to himself, “I'm going to light a match and burn a stem," the polygraph needle spiked wildly. Next, in the presence of the wired plant, he dropped live shrimp into boiling water. Without fail, whenever he dropped a shrimp into the water, the electrical current in the plant’s leaves spiked.
He was astounded. Can plants really read human thoughts? Can they really empathize with other creatures who are suffering? He ultimately decided they could.
What convinced him were many additional experiments. Here is his description of one, in his own words, during an interview with a reporter from The Sun (July 1997):
Here is another from the same interview:
Backster’s research builds on that done by the Indian scientist, Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose, at the beginning of the 20th Century. Bose found that plants grew more quickly when subjected to pleasant music and more slowly when they experienced harsh sounds. Without conducting the kinds of experiments that Backster did, Bose postulated that plants could feel pain and understand affection. He claimed that the cell membranes of plants had the potential to give out different vibrations, depending on whether their reaction was positive or negative.
Bose, in turn, owes his interest and exploration of plant sentience to Gustav Theodor Fechner, a professor at the University of Leipzig, who is recognized as one of the founders of modern experimental psychology. In his book, Nanna (Verlag von Leopold Voß, 1848), he suggested that plants are capable of emotions and that lavishing attention and affection on them results in vigorous growth. However, he didn’t pursue research on his theory.
In 1975, scientists K.A. Horowitz, D.C. Lewis, and E.L. Gasteiger, repeated Backster’s experiment with shrimp. This time the researchers introduced more control factors, grounding the plants to reduce electrical interference and rinsing them to remove dust particles. Instead of the 13 shrimp that Backster used, they upped the number to 60. The result was pretty unremarkable. They got nowhere near the reactions from the plants that Backster reported. He immediately criticized them for not understanding that the time spent rinsing the plants affected their relationship to the scientists and thus their results.
On September 6, 2006, the cast of the MythBusters TV series attempted to replicate Backster’s polygraph experiments by hooking a polygraph and later a more sensitive and thus more accurate EEG machine to plants. The result was not statistically significant, and the show declared Backster’s claims a myth that they had “busted.” If it's not repeatable, the show declared, it's not science.
The general scientific community sees the experiments done to date as pseudoscience as well. Most scientists feel that there is no concrete, universally verifiable evidence that the theories put forward are valid. Their criticism reflects their belief that plant perception experiments are not conducted in properly controlled conditions and thus the results are not verifiable. Skeptics also point out that, since plants lack nervous systems, they are incapable of having feelings or perceiving the intentions of humans.
Recent Mainstream Research
In his Web-published article, “Prodigious Plants,” Rakesh Mohan Hallen discusses the current state of mainstream science regarding plant traits similar to those of humans:
What does the future hold?
So where does that leave us as far as plants and their ability to perceive and react to their environments? That plants can communicate with each other via chemistry is a recent discovery. It raises a question about what else plants might be able to do that we haven’t yet discovered.
As far as Cleve Backster’s experiments are concerned, they will not gain credence in the scientific community unless they have been replicated many times by mainstream scientists under strictly controlled conditions with consistently positive results. I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
|Cleve Backster, experiments with plants, plant interactions with humans, plants, polygraph, psychobotany|
|"An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and it’s still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Our garden, named Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, is private and is listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s by my ancestors. My latest book, Gardening the Amana Way, is available at Amazon.com.|
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