We now know that plants are intelligent – not in the same way people or animals are intelligent, perhaps, but they are able to learn and communicate, share nutrients with fellow plants, and even move in their own way. In short, they’re not as different from us as we like to believe.
This is all relatively new science, but I find it fascinating. I long suspected that there was more to plants than people believed, but I never pursued that inclination. Fortunately, others have. And here are some of the discoveries they’ve found.
Plants, and particularly trees, communicate by underground mycorrhizal networks, which seem to be sort of the plant version of a neural network, allowing one plant to signal the existence of a threat (like an invasive caterpillar) to another plant, or even to transport nutrients to another plant.
These networks might even enable an entire forest to communicate back and forth, warning of potential dangers and sharing benefits in a cooperative manner.
Also, plants are capable of learning. A research team from Western Australia University taught pea plants to move. The researchers turned on a fan at the same time they turned on the lights, and after only four days, the plants turned toward the fan when it came on even without the lights coming on because they had been conditioned to expect that the lights would come on at the same time as the fans.
Another experiment at WAU with the mimosa pudica plant (or “sensitive plant”) showed that the plant could remember. The experiment involved dropping a plant using an elevator-like system that activated the plant’s defense mechanism. After dropping the plant 60 times, the plant stopped activating its defense mechanism because it had learned that the drop wasn’t harming it, and it remembered that it needn’t continue wasting energy on that activity.
How do plants do this without brains?
Well, despite not having a central brain, plants transmit electrical signals to different parts of their bodies in response to environmental stimuli, just like animals. They even use some of the same chemical messengers that animals use. They have a nervous system of sorts, even though it’s different than ours.
That “nervous system” allows plants to react to changes in the environment.
So even though plants don’t have brains like we have brains, they have the ability to learn, to empathize, to nurture, to communicate, and perhaps even to feel pain (although the “pain” they feel must be different than the pain we feel because they don’t have pain receptors like animals do). In short, plants can do and think many of the things we once assumed only animals could do and think.
Why does this matter?
Because knowing that plants aren’t that different from us incentivizes us to study them further, to treat them better, and even to treat animals better, since animals are much closer to us than plants. If even a plant can feel pain of a sort, imagine what an animal can feel. How can we claim to be a superior species if we treat lesser species so poorly?
Is this a subtle screed against veganism? No. It’s simply a reminder that we still have a lot to learn about the world around us, and we need to be cognizant of our impact on the planet every single day.