Are Plants Conscious?

Depending on whom you ask, the human species has come a long way in understanding the rights and experiences of other organisms or made very little progress at all. Switzerland recently banned the practice of boiling lobsters alive, and conversations about factory farming and humane treatment of livestock are moving from the fringe and entering the public consciousness. So we’re in the odd position where a growing majority of individuals recognize animals should be spared from feeling pain even if most of us haven’t taken the next step of sparing these animals from being killed for food.

But we have a new monkey wrench to contend with: a recent study reported by the New York Times suggests we may have been disregarding our more distant relatives in the plant kingdom. Apparently, plants can be sedated under anesthesia. The reason this is so amazing is that anesthesiologists, neuroscientists, and physicists have been studying the nature of consciousness for more than a decade, with the very distinct change in brain functioning under general anesthesia providing some clues as to what being conscious actually means, both biologically and physically. Anesthesia appears to turn off consciousness in a way that simple sleep does not.

That plants are apparently capable of being affected the same way suggests they too have something like the consciousness complex animals are known for. If true, what does this mean for human beings, ethically? It may depend on exactly what the experience of being a plant is like–an equally intriguing question.

Human beings have consistently underestimated other animals throughout the history of philosophical, ethical, and religious thought. We have seen ourselves as standing apart, and many still believe that to be true, despite decades of neuroscience and animal cognition research revealing that nearly every uniquely human thing exists to a greater or lesser extent in other species. The Great Ape Projectnotwithstanding, a majority of people are still willing to see our closest relatives in zoos, and octopuses and their relatives, despite being highly intelligent, are routinely caught, prepared, and eaten as if they have the brains of tofu.

The life of a plant is even more alien. It appears to exist on a different timescale from our own. When I teach high school biology, I routinely usetime lapse photography to illustrate the slow-motion struggle for survival between competing plants and the equally slow response to stimuli, such as a plant unfolding its leaves or tracking the sun over the course of hours, too slow to be seen with the naked eye.

We’ve also known these stimulus-response behaviors exist in plants. The rough equivalent of a nerve net, if not an analogue for an actual animal brain, combined with the incredible anesthesia experiments, opens up the possibility that it may be more than that.

Might a slow motion process of decision-making, emotional experience, even introspection be occurring on this stretched-out timescale as well? What does it feel like to be chopped down? I would hope that it would feel like having one’s spinal cord suddenly severed: that is, too quick to feel fear or pain.

But we don’t know that. And there are other things we do that are not so quick. If this research bears out, one hopes we will not be so slow to adjust our behavior as we have been with other suffering relatives whose inner lives we were too ready to dismiss.

Photo credit: Erin Guinther

105 comments

Marie W
Marie W4 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Paulo R
Paulo R9 months ago

ty

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Paulo R
Paulo R9 months ago

ty

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Paulo R
Paulo R9 months ago

ty

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Fiona O
Fiona Ogilvie9 months ago

All living beings and many other dimensional entities are concious.

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KimJ M
KimJ ManyIssues10 months ago

Tfs

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KimJ M
KimJ ManyIssues10 months ago

Tfs

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John B
John B10 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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KimJ M
KimJ ManyIssues10 months ago

Tfs

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KimJ M
KimJ ManyIssues10 months ago

Yfs

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