Do Plants Dream of Lice and Ladybugs?

Novel research projects are opening up new paradigms and understandings of plant consciousness.

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Ever since the Enlightenment, it has been generally believed that plants do not have
any form of consciousness. It was only in the realm of the fictitious that plants with a
mind of their own, capable of making decisions, existed. Tolkiens’ Ents, Wyndham’s
Triffids; they’re all reflections of what a plant with a humanlike consciousness could
look or act like. They were plants embodied with human will, by human imagination.
Although indigenous cultures around the world have had relationships with plants that
were based on a more intuitive and symbiotic understanding [1], in modern science the
scientific paradigm was one of utilitarianism and extraction; plants were used for their
economic value as material, food or medicine, without much thought for their place in
the world as living beings. In recent years, however, signals are emerging that
non-fictional plants could have more awareness of their surroundings than we
previously could imagine. Although still a far stretch from the emotional consciousness
observed in animals, including ourselves, it could be the start of a new way of thinking
of and caring for our photosynthetic cohabitants of this planet.
One of the protagonists in this story of newfound plant science is Monica Gagliano, an
Australian ecologist and Adjunct Associate Professor at the Southern Cross University
of Lismore [2] who, in her own words, has “pioneered the brand-new research field of
plant bioacoustics and extended the concept of cognition to plants, re-igniting the
discourse on plant subjectivity, sentience and ethical standing.”
In her 2018 book Thus Spoke the Plant Gagliano writes about her experiences of
working together with plants to come up with experimental setups to research the
ability of plants to have sophisticated decision-making capabilities, long term memory
and communication skills previously unheard of in vegetal lifeforms. In her book she
strikingly writes of plants not as experimental subjects, but as colleagues; living and
sentient creatures that in one way or another communicate to her what steps to take
when she finds herself stuck in a thought process or experiment setup.
She writes, for example, about the instructions she received from the Ayahuma tree,
after bathing in the fermented pulp of her fruits. “As instructed by Ayahuma, I designed
the experiments with the peas in the maze to test how roots choose the direction that
correctly leads them to water, depending on the cues available.” The pea plants (Pisum
sativum) and the maze she refers to was an experimental setup where the plants were
put in the centre of a maze of tunnels. Acoustic cues and moisture gradients were
used in order to investigate the responsiveness of the plants’ roots.
The outcome of the experiment was clear; roots could use acoustic cues to broadly
detect a water source at a distance, and use a moisture gradient to then more
accurately locate the source. In other words, the roots were hearing and sensing the
world with their root systems. An important step in uncovering the ecological and
behavioural life of plants. “These findings highlight the urgent need to better
understand the ecological role of sound and the consequences of acoustic
pollution for plant as well as animal populations.”
In another one of her experiments, in which the Mimosa plant (Mimosa pudica) plays a
key role, it was the act of remembering that was being tested. Mimosa pudica is well
known for her tendency to fold her leaves when touched or disturbed. This makes
Mimosa one of the few plants that is capable of moving noticeably in a timeframe
similar to humans. The setup of the experiment was simple: Gagliano would drop a
number of Mimosa plants a set amount of times with a specially designed plant
dropping device. At first the plants all reacted as expected; the drop would alarm them
sufficiently for them to fold their leaves. But after some time, some of the plants would
stop closing their leaves when dropped. To Gagliano it seemed that the plants were
learning that the dropping was not an immediate threat, and as such, they wouldn’t
have to expend energy by closing their leaves. “By the end, they were completely
open, they couldn’t care less anymore.” [3]
Twenty eight days later, she found the plants to still be unresponsive to the drops, yet
responsive to other stimuli, indicating they had a form of long-term memory. She
concluded that “the process of remembering may not require the conventional neural
networks and pathways of animals; brains and neurons are just one possible,
undeniably sophisticated, solution, but they may not be a necessary requirement for
While Gaglianos’ papers and book on the sensory world of plants are finding a broad
audience, both in popular media and in the scientific community, there are still many
who are somewhat dismissive of her conclusions on plant consciousness. The criticism
usually isn’t based on her data or her scientific methods, but on her usage of
language. In a paper called Debunking a myth: plant consciousness [4], some of her
colleagues argue that using terms like consciousness and learning are misleading
when used for plants, seeing as plants lack a brain or a nervous system, both of which
are attributed to the presence of consciousness in animals. A lot of the criticism seems
to be rooted in the application or misapplication of a terminology generally used in
animal consciousness. But Gagliano remains steadfast in her use of language, saying
“unless we use the same language to describe the same behaviour, we can’t compare

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