Plants and brainless thinking

Plant tunnel

Down a rabbit’s hole of research to find clues to plant intelligence.
Photo taken at Reford Gardens/Jardins de Metis in August, 2014.

Who says you need a brain to rally help, change course to avoid an obstacle, or share your food? After reading The Intelligent Plant by Michael Pollan, you’ll think twice about being so “cerebrocentric”.

Published in The New Yorker in 2013, this article is a fascinating overview into the curious, contentious and controversial world of plant intelligence research. Reading up on what plants are capable of can make you wonder but, as Pollan points out, a plant’s sophisticated behaviours appear to animals, and us, as either invisible or really, really slow.

Here are just a few examples:

1. Roots can avoid problems by changing course before coming up against an impenetrable obstacle or toxic substance.

2. Plants share resources with other plants and sometimes do the equivalent of eavesdropping on their plant neighbours.

3. They can be underhanded at times, poisoning enemies and recruiting animals (even drugging them) to do their bidding.

There are some eyebrow-raising projects surveyed including designing a plant-based computer and building a robot based on plant principles called a plantoid. But the more interesting take-away is just how we (and plants) fit into the grand scheme of things. By defining intelligence in the plant world, we learn more about our own distinctive and amazing abilities to think, remember, adapt and sense as well as how we may actually share some attributes with plants. As Pollan writes:

“Most neuroscientists would agree that, while brains considered as a whole function as centralized command centers for most animals, within the brain there doesn’t appear to be any command post; rather, one finds a leaderless network. That sense we get when we think about what might govern a plant—that there is no there there, no wizard behind the curtain pulling the levers—may apply equally well to our brains.”

Reading this article makes you think. And maybe look over your shoulder at that houseplant sitting behind you.



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