The Case for Plant Consciousness

Photo © 2021 Dan Pouliot

Are brains a prerequisite for consciousness?

Holoprosencephaly is a cephalic disorder in which the prosencephalon fails to develop into two hemispheres. In lay terms, there is no brain atop the brain stem. What of a baby with no brain? Could it think? Could it form language? The answer is yes. Baby born without most of his brain says ‘Mummy’.

It’s not just holoprosencephaly in which we see people behaving as if they had more grey matter than they do. In a 2012 issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, M.B. Majorek, in his article “Does the Brain Cause Conscious Experience?”, Marjorek shows massive ventricular enlargements and hemispherectomies that should impair social interaction but haven’t, which strongly suggests “a radical challenge to the currently dominant view of the origin of consciousness.”1

Brains cause consciousness is not supported by the evidence.

We all know what it feels like to be us, to be conscious, to feel, to react. It feels like something. Is the feeling associated with reacting unique to humans? Certainly not. Is it unique to animals?

Creeping slime. Photo by me, on a mushroom walk.

Consider creeping slime. The entire organism is just one cell; no brain, no nervous system. Yet it has the ability to learn, remember, problem-solve, and react.

Although it’s technically a single-celled organism, P. polycephalum is considered a network, exhibiting collective behavior. Each part of the slime mold is operating independently and sharing information with its neighboring sections, with no centralized processing.

“I guess the analogy would be neurons in a brain,” Reid says. “You have this one brain that’s composed of lots of neurons – it’s the same for the slime mold.”

Chris Reid, Macquarie University, Australia2

Might it feel like something to be a creeping slime? For those of us stuck on the notion that consciousness is the result of neuronal activity, might the slime’s neuron-like oscillations afford it consciousness? How might we probe this question?

… any system that processes and integrates information, be it organic or inorganic, experiences the world subjectively to some degree. Plants, smartphones, the Internet—even protons—are all examples of such systems. The result is a cosmos composed of a sentient fabric.

Bobby Azarian, Neuroscience’s New Consciousness Theory Is Spiritual

Plant Influences Electronics?

The 2020 documentary Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind covers an unpublished study Adam Michael Curry participated in at the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) Lab:

You have a room with no windows and you have a house plant that needs light to grow. You have a single light up on the roof. The growing light can turn in one of four quadrants, and which quadrant that light is showing is controlled by a random number generator. So you put the plant in one corner of the room. The light has an equal chance of shining in all four quadrants, but if you give it enough time, what you find is that the light actually shines far more often on the plant than on the other coordinates.

Adam Michael Curry

How is it that a light in a box set to randomly point at one of four corners begins to behave less randomly over time in the plant’s favor? Could the plant be up to something? It seems incredible. If that were the case, I might consider this plant, at least in one regard, smarter than me.

The results of the Plant RNG Experiment were never published. I asked Adam why:

Human Anesthetics Work on Plants Too

“Consider the movements of Mimosa plants, for example. A poke from a human finger usually causes the plants’ leaves to shrink and fold against the stem. This response takes mere seconds—an excellent defense against herbivores. But after a few minutes in a bell jar suffused with anesthetic fumes, Mimosa becomes unresponsive. The same drugs quiet the gyrations of pea tendrils and the clenching of Venus flytraps.”3

Can Plants See?

Plants have a biological need to detect light because they eat photosynthesize light. Plants, “are able to “sense” and physiologically respond specifically to the ratio of red light and far-red light, and blue light,”4 and, “see wavelengths that we cannot, in the far red and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum.”5

Single-celled cyanobacteria use their cell body as a lens to focus light at the cell membrane.6 Lensing, or eyespots, can be found in a more sophisticated form from green algae to plants like cabbage and mustard. So plants have light detectors. Does it feel like something for the plant to detect light? Does it feel like sight? Could a plant tell one shape from another from a distance?

There’s a vine that grows in South America that adapts to the form of the tree or bush it is climbing on. Its leaves look just like the leaves on the host plant. You might think this is chemically controlled. In that case, the vine might be detecting scent compounds from the bush and changing the shape of its leaves in a way that was genetically predetermined. Three different leaf shapes had been observed. Then a researcher came up with the idea of creating an artificial plant with plastic leaves and relocating our botanical chameleon to its new home. What happened next was amazing. The vine imitated the artificial leaves, just as it had imitated the leaves in nature. For Baluška this is clear proof that the vine can see. How else could it get information about a shape it had never encountered before? In this case, the usual suspects—chemical messages released by the host plant or electric signals between both plants—were absent.

Peter Wholleben, Plants Feel Pain and Might Even See
Boquila trifoliolata mimics leaves of an artificial plastic host plant, Jacob White & Felipe Yamashita

Telepathic Plants?

Ingo Swann & Cleve Backster come around on plant telepathy

Ingo Swann is best known as the father of Remote Viewing, a psychic who was instrumental in helping the U.S. government formulate and refine its protocol in the psychic spying program often referred to as Project Stargate. Cleve Backster was an interrogation specialist for the CIA.

(INGO): I protested that I had no idea how to influence plants. But he smiled and said that all I had to do was TO THINK of harming it. “Just think of lighting a match with the intent of burning one of its leaves.Æ

So, I thought as much while staring at the plant. And Behold! The polygraph needle went haywire — so much so that the tracing went off the paper graph sheet.

Backster, typically cool as a cucumber, now seemed to get a little excited. “Can you do that again?”

So I tried again, and bingo by Ingo! He asked me to keep on doing it. But after a few more attempts the polygraph needle started not to react as much and finally didn’t at all.

“What does THAT mean,” I asked.

“You tell me.” Then a very eerie thought occurred to me, so astonishing that it caused goosebumps.

“Do you mean,” I asked, “that it has LEARNED that I’m not serious about really burning its leaf? So that it now knows it need not be alarmed.”

Backster smiled. “YOU said it, I didn’t. Try another kind of harmful thought.”

So I thought of putting acid in the plant’s pot. Bingo! But the same “learning curve” soon repeated itself.

Now I already understood in my own “reality” that plants are sentient and telepathic, as all plant lovers know who talk to their plants.

But that plants could LEARN to recognize between true and artificial human intent came as a thunderbolt!

Among all this astonishment I came across the concept of the “learning curve” which ultimately was to play THE feature role in the development of remote viewing.7

Cleve Backster: The Secret Life of Plants

Plant solves murder?

“In one experiment designed to test plant memory, Backster found that a plant that had witnessed the murder (by stomping) of another plant could pick out the killer from a lineup of six suspects, registering a surge of electrical activity when the murderer was brought before it.”8

Do plants respond to praise and/or bullying?

Student science fair bullying plant experiment. Bullied plant died after just 6 days.
The bullied plant withered while the complimented plant flourished in this study funded by IKEA.
Mythbusters talks on talking to plants.
“Talking and music did better than the controls… it is totally plausible.”
(Praise or criticism made no difference in this study)
Stefano Mancuso on Plant Consciousness.

The mysterious origins of ayahuasca

Ayahuasca is perhaps the world’s largest and most thriving psychedelic religion. It touches the lives of millions of mestizos and Indians in the basin. It is a combinatory drug which makes it especially interesting to pharmacologists because its two principal ingredients are themselves inactive except in the presence of each other. So what we have in the case of ayahuasca is an example of a highly evolved folk pharmacology, and how a discovery like this was ever made in the first place is one of the challenging questions that anthropologists have to deal with. After all, in a square mile of the Amazonian rainforest, it is not unusual to encounter 50,000 distinct species of plants. How then did these so-called primitive or preliterate people make the connection between the combining of the bark of one with the leaves of another, boiled, and put through a number of procedures to produce an intense visionary hallucinogen?

—Terrence McKenna
Terrence McKenna on Ayahuasca

The shaman in The Last Shaman claims the knowledge of how to prepare ayahuasca was taught by the plants themselves to the Amazonians.

First Nations Peoples’ Beliefs in Plant Intelligence

“Tobacco is always offered before picking medicines. When you offer tobacco to a plant and explain why you are there, that plant will let all the plants in the area know why you are coming to pick them.”((Northern College: The Four Sacred Medicines))

When a shaman, for example, goes to take a plant in a forest, he asks the plant, ‘I will take you, I will use you to heal someone,’ because if he just says nothing, the plant has no effect. The plant has an effect when the shaman asks for that: ‘I am going to use you to heal my people.

—Nixiwaka Yawanawa at TEDxHackney.

Scientific Theories Supporting Plant Consciousness

Emergence theory makes a scientific case supporting the ability for plants to be conscious:

Emergence Theory: A Layperson’s Guide

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Further Reading

The radical new experiments that hint at plant consciousness, New Scientist, August 4, 2022

Review: Planta Sapiens: Unmasking Plant Intelligence, Paco Calvo and Natalie Lawrence

What Plants Are Saying About Us, Amanda Gefter, Nautilus, March 7, 2023

Plant senses: Sight, New Scientist

Plants aren’t silent. They make clicking sounds, a study finds, Katie Hunt, CNN, 3/30/23

The Philosopher Who Believes in Living Things, Morgan Meis, 2/28/23, The New Yorker

Veggies with Vision: Do Plants See the World around Them?, Scientific American

The fungal mind: on the evidence for mushroom intelligence

Mushrooms communicate with each other using up to 50 ‘words’, scientist claims, The Guardian

Scientists Discover Fungi Have Their Own Language, and It’s Complex

How Plants Help Each Other Grow By Near-Telepathic

Panpsychism, the idea that inanimate objects have consciousness, gains steam in science communities,

The Plants Respond, An Interview With Cleve Backster, by Derrick Jensen, July, 1997

Plants Feel Pain and Might Even See

Brilliant Green: The Suprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence

Primary Perception: Cleve Backster’s astounding mind/plant communication discovery!9

Thus Spoke the Plant: A Remarkable Journey of Groundbreaking Scientific Discoveries and Personal Encounters with Plants, Monica Gagliano, PhD

This Weirdly Smart, Creeping Slime Is Redefining Our Understanding of Intelligence

Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers

Organic Biofield Sensor, H. Puthoff and R. Fontes, Nove. 1975

  1. Psychophysics of Consciousness: The Hard Problem []
  2. Science Alert: This Weirdly Smart, Creeping Slime Is Redefining Our Understanding of Intelligence []
  3. What Is It Like to Be a Plant?, Scientific American []
  4. Do Plants Have Senses?, Bowery Farming []
  5. Can Plants Hear, Smell, See, Touch Or Taste Stuff?, Harsh Gupta, Science ABC []
  6. Veggies with Vision: Do Plants See the World around Them?, Scientific American []
  7. Superpowers of the Human Biomind, Ingo Swann, Chapter 6 CLEVE BACKSTER – SEPTEMBER, 1971 []
  8. The New Yorker: The Intelligent Plant, December 2013 []
  9. Australian Lateral Thinking Newsletter 1996 []