Do plants feel?

Do plants feel…? Do vegetables feel…? Do they have thoughts? Do they communicate, feel pain, detect danger, experience fear? What about… love?

It’s far easier to accept that animals have feelings. We know when they’re excited, we know when they experience pain, and anybody who has ever had pets can easily recognise their love. But plants don’t wag tails, don’t lick our faces when we’re feeling sad, don’t run, don’t cry… And yet, how can we be totally sure that they don’t feel? Well, we can’t, and furthermore, we could have already proven that they do indeed have feelings and react to their environment and to other living beings, including us.

There’s still an intense debate within the scientific community with regards to this area of research, being the main point of discussion that plants don’t have a nervous system or sensory organs. They react to physical and chemical stimuli, but could not be aware of these reactions and that’s why they aren’t considered by a large part of the community as ‘conscious beings’. However there is a debate, because like in any other field of research, there are those who, throughout time, have carried experiments and studies which do point to the contrary. The debate itself began in 1966 when a lie detector expert, Cleve Backster, connected a plant to a polygraph. But before Backster carried out his experiments with the polypgrah, a quintessetial polymath (physicist, biologist, botanist, archaeologist), Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, had already made a number of pioneering discoveries in plant physiology that had left him astounded.

Considered as one of the fathers of radio science, alongside Tesla, Popov and Marconi, Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, was the first person from the Indian subcontinent to receive a U.S. patent and he used his own invention, the crescograph, to measure plant reaction to various stimuli, in order to prove parallelism between animal and plant tissues. Which he did.

When Bose attached his device to vegetables, he discovered that they, too, became excited when vexed. And he realised that plants communicate, even if we don’t notice it.

He wrote that they grew more quickly when exposed to nice music and gentle whispers, and poorly when exposed to harsh music and loud speech. In fact, he wrote that plants were reactive to all types of stimuli: light, changes in temperature, plucking, pricking, screaming… Even they became numbed by drugs and drunk from alcohol.

Needless to say that his findings sparked great controversy, but they also opened a path of interest for later researchers, and others, like Backster, amplified the scope of stimuli to a… thought.A threatening thought, such as the idea of lighting a match to set a plant’s leaf in fire.

Following Backster’s footsteps, the authors of the famous bookThe Secret Life of Plants (1973), Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, also used the polygraph to carry out their experiments,writing that plants may be sentient despite their lack of a nervous system and a brain. However, the book is still being considered as pseudoscientific, same as Backter’s findings.

But, what about recent scientific research?

According to the peer-reviewed monthly journal Plant Physiology, which covers research on physiology, biochemistry, cellular & molecular biology, genetics, biophysics, and environmental biology of plants, and which has been published since 1926 by the American Society of Plant Biologists, plants are capable of identifying danger, signaling that danger to other plants and assemble defenses against perceived threats. Botanist Bill Williams of the Helvetica Institute concludes:’plants not only seem to be aware and to feel pain, they can even communicate.’

In fact, this research prompted the Swiss government to pass the first-ever Plant Bill of Rights in 2008, which concludes that plants have moral and legal protections. Swiss vegans… watch out.

Professor Stefano Mancuso, who runs the world’s only laboratory dedicated to plant intelligence, the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology (LINV), and which combines research on physiology, ecology and molecular biology, said:

‘If you define intelligence as the capacity to solve problems, plants have a lot to teach us. Not only are they ‘smart’ in how they grow, adapt and thrive, they do it without neuroses. Intelligence isn’t only about having a brain.’

In 2010, Professor Stanislaw Karpinski from the Warsaw University of Life Sciences in Poland, led a research that discovered the ‘nervous systems’ of Arabidopsis plants, using fluoroscence lights to record their electro-chemical signals. His findings were covered by BBC News in an article titled: Plants ‘can think and remember’

‘When we shone the light for on the plant for one hour and then infected it [with a virus or with bacteria] 24 hours after that light exposure, it resisted the infection, but when we infected the plant before shining the light, it could not build up resistance. So, it has a specific memory for the light which builds its immunity against pathogens, and it can adjust to varying light conditions.’

Professor Christine Foyer, a plant scientist from the University of Leeds, said the study “took our thinking one step forward”.

‘Plants have to survive stresses, such as drought or cold, and live through it and keep growing; this requires an appraisal of the situation and an appropriate response – that’s a form of intelligence.’ she told BBC News, for the aforementioned article.

The truth is, even Darwin was fascinated by the reactions of plants to external stimuli — especially with carnivorous plants such as the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula). He believed its almost instantaneous response snapping its trap shut around an insect indicatedthe presence of a central nervous system – such as that of an animal.

All this leads us to the inevitable question: If plants feel, communicate, perceive and enjoy music, and old and new research claim that they could even have a particular ‘nervous system’ or ‘intelligence’… is it ‘immoral’ that we eat them, such as it is the debate between vegetarians and non-vegetarians throughout the world?

Bose believed in the fundamental unity of all life; ‘Existence and awareness are deeply connected, and dismissing the fundamental unity of matter is dismissing a fundamental truth about life.’

Well, so far we know that both plants and animals seem to live intuitively within the intelligence of this notion and still feed, without worrying about any moral dilemmas.

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