From a materialist perspective, it makes sense that plants show physical reactions, such as curling up when being touched. But could they have conscious reactions and make decisions beyond these primary responses?
In the 1960s, Cleve Backster founded the theory of Primary Perception – that plants feel pain and have extrasensory perception (ESP).
Backster was a polygraph instructor and interrogation specialist for the CIA. He founded the Backster School of Lie Detection, which is still in operation today.
In this article, we’ll look at some of Backster’s findings, together with what research and traditions think about the mysterious and fascinating world of plants.
Plant souls – History
Aristotle postulated that plants have souls. However, this “vegetal” soul is different from human souls.
Religions like Catholic Christianism also consider plants to have a soul, but in a similar way as Aristotle: the soul is inferior to human souls, and the plant’s purpose is to nourish and give life to other living beings. Hinduism, on the other hand, believes that all living organisms have a soul since everything is consciousness.
Indigenous cultures, like the Mayans and people in the Amazonas, believe that plants have a spirit that can be turned to for guidance and healing. Some well-known plant spirits are the Cacao Spirit and the spirit of ayahuasca. Anecdotally, participants in plant ceremonies have felt the presence of what’s perceived as the spirit of the plant. It is possible to communicate with this non-physical being to get guidance and support in personal matters.
Research on the consciousness of plants
Through experiments in the 1960s, Backster discovered that plants that were harmed showed a change in electrical response. What’s mindblowing is that plants there were merely threatened with harm, that is, receiving the intention of harm, showed a similar change!
The experiment setup consisted of connecting plants to a galvanometer. The plants seemed to pick up on the thoughts of the people present in the room – their electrical response varied depending on whether the thoughts were positive or negative.
An example: in a famous 1966 experiment, Backster connected a dracaena, a common house plant, to a polygraph. He then imagined the plant being set on fire.
The polygraph showed a surge in electrical activity, suggesting a stress response in the plant!
His research was inspired by physicist Jagadish Chandra Bose who showed that playing music for plants impacts their growth. More recently, in 2015, Chowdhury and Gupta summarized a number of experiments on the impact of audio frequencies on plants. Harmonious music facilitated the germination and growth of plants. Conversely, non-rhythmic and inharmonious sounds (such as heavy metal) harmed plant growth.
A disclaimer is in place: scientists have tried to replicate the Backster experiments with little success. His research got a boost in 2006, when an article published in Trends in Plant Science said that plants seem to show conscious behavior, that’s not simply a result of biochemical processes and genetics.
In the experiments, plants did not only show reactions to immediate events – but also to past ones, suggesting some form of memory. He let a plant witness another plant being “murdered” by having a person stomping on it.
Later, six people passed by the surviving plant, one of them being the “killer”. The plant showed a stress response when facing the killer.
In another experiment reported in the International Journal of Parapsychology (1968), Backster suggested that plants also showed strong adverse reactions to interspecies violence. The plants showed an electrical surge when live shrimp were dropped in boiling water, and an egg was cracked in their vicinity. Could this imply some sort of empathy?
According to a 2007 study on plant kinship, plants react differently to their kins and strangers of the same species. They grew bigger root networks when in a pot with strangers as a way to compete.
Whether or not plants have souls remains a mystery. Plant consciousness and noetic phenomena in the plant realm are considered more controversial than its human counterparts. Even the idea that plants can be sentient, which could be explained within materialism and biology, is viewed with skepticism.
Experiments suggesting that plants may have consciousness make the non-material reality and interconnectedness of all things hard to dismiss. Why? Because plants don’t have a central nervous system like humans, there’s no way of explaining noetic phenomena in the plant kingdom through brain activity and the subconscious mind.
Disturbing for materialists – delightful for explorers of consciousness.