Are Plants Conscious?

By JoAnna Klein, originally published in The New York Times.

Plants don’t get enough credit.

They move. You know this. Your houseplant salutes the sun each morning. At night, it returns to center.

You probably don’t think much of it. This is simply what plants do: Get light. Photosynthesize. Make food. Live.

But what about all the signs of plant intelligence that have been observed?

Under poor soil conditions, the pea seems to be able to assess risk. The sensitive plant can make memories and learn to stop recoiling if you mess with it enough. The Venus fly trap appears to count when insects trigger its trap. And plants can communicate with one another and with caterpillars.

Now, a study published recently in Annals of Botany has shown that plants can be frozen in place with a range of anesthetics, including the types that are used when you undergo surgery.

Insights gleaned from the study may help doctors better understand the variety of anesthetics used in surgeries. But the research also highlights that plants are complex organisms, perhaps less different from animals than is often assumed.

“Plants are not just robotic, stimulus-response devices,” said Frantisek Baluska, a plant cell biologist at the University of Bonn in Germany and co-author of the study. “They’re living organisms which have their own problems, maybe something like with humans feeling pain or joy. In order to navigate this complex life, they must have some compass.”

Plants sometimes use that compass to deal with stress, competition or development. They take in information from their environment and produce their own anesthetics like menthol, ethanol, and cocaine, similar to how humans release chemicals that dull pain during trauma. These may act within the plant itself or float off in the air to affect neighboring plants.

Our anesthetics work on plants too, the study confirmed, although what exactly they’re working on is unclear.

This article was originally published in The New York Times, and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.


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