Scientists have reacted with skepticism to the intriguing results of the Korean study. Among other things, they point out that on an actual farm, windy conditions could cancel out the effects of the sound. Such criticisms miss the bigger question: Can plants hear? Plants have a variety of other senses. They respond to light. They have “taste” — they grow better when they receive more nutritious food. Plants also react to wind by becoming more rigid. So the idea that sound could influence plants isn’t as strange as it might appear. Ultimately, sound — like light — is just another part of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Back in 1994, the French physicist and musician Joel Sternheimer created a stir when he filed a patent application for this approach. Sternheimer claimed he could influence certain plant amino acids and proteins with particular “compositions.” His trial produced tomatoes that were two-and-a-half times larger — and sweeter — than normal. Since then, not much has been heard about Sternheimer’s work, which is now mostly referenced in holistic circles as proof that everything is connected.
The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, published in 1973, has a similar message. The book’s cover blurb — “a fascinating account of the physical, emotional and spiritual relations between plants and man” — speaks for itself. Tompkins and Bird describe various experiments. The American lie-detector expert Cleve Backster plays a prominent role in the book. In the 1960s, Backster conducted experiments on plants using his lie detector. He was curious to see whether plants — like the humans he interrogated every day — would also respond to physical threats. As part of his experiment, he decided to set one of his plants’ leaves on fire. He was appalled to see the pen on the graph paper surge upward, even before he got out the matches! Did the plant read his thoughts?
When Backster returned with the matches, he saw another sharp peak on the graph paper. In a subsequent experiment, Backster had five students walk through a room past the same two plants. One of the students was instructed to destroy one of the two plants. Backster didn’t know himself which of the five students had done the deed, but when the students separately re-entered the room, he could clearly tell who had demolished the plant by the intense reaction on the lie detector hooked up to the other plant.
Backster, the director of the Backster School of Lie Detection in San Diego, California, published the results of his study in the International Journal of Parapsychology. More recently, he has presented his findings during conferences at the Institute of Noetic Sciences and the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology in California. His work remains controversial. That is not surprising. The concept that plants can hear, and even observe, doesn’t fit very well into the conventional mechanistic image of the world.