In 1966, Cleve Backster, an FBI agent focusing on interrogation and the use of polygraphs had quite a surprise when he placed PGR (psychogalvanic-reflex electrodes) at the leaf of a plant in his office. His discovery paved the way for further inquiry into the possibility of plant consciousness and how they react and perceive the outside world. His discovery soon turned into an obsession and urge to conduct further research on the topic, after which he looked and behaved differently toward the plant world. What Backster found is that plants are much more aware of the environment than we previously believed, to the extent that plants even react to human thoughts alone. This concept of intelligent or conscious plants is not new to human thinking, in fact, shamanism has been dealing with this concept since the early days of humanity.
This article is about plant consciousness. Before delving into modern science on the subject, we need to have a look at shamanistic concepts of plants from around the world. Shamanism in itself is a very broad term, encompassing the religious or spiritual practice of thousands of cultures. The word ‘shaman’ is believed to be derived from the cultures of North Asia, and was introduced into the west by anthropologists studying the spiritual practices of the Turks, Mongols and surrounding cultures. Since then, the term has been applied to cultures all around the world. By looking at plants from a shamanic point of view, we gain greater insight into the hidden world of their intelligence.
In South America, the use of Ayahuasca has been on the rise, spreading to all corners of the planet. This brew has become immensely popular in alternative medicine and psychotherapy of the western world in the last couple of decades. It is even referred to as the ‘red pill’ in reference to The Matrix, which allows the protagonist to break free of the illusionary world of the ‘Matrix’. The primary chemical in the Ayahuasca brew is DMT (Dimethyltryptamine), which is derived in most cases from the Ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi), however, alternative plants containing the same chemical is sometimes used. A second primary ingredient is required for the body to be able to process and elongate the DMT experience. These are any plants containing a MOAI (Monoamine oxidase inhibitor) and at times other plant species are added for variation. DMT is highly psychoactive, and like any such substance, it should be used for spiritual and mental progress, and not for entertainment. Shamans of Peru state that these plants are either healers, teachers of both. Some plants do not have psychoactive properties and in order to communicate with the spirit, the plants are simply added to an Ayahuasca brew or alternative psychoactive plants. Other plants are used as a dream enhancer (onierogenic), where the spirits present themselves in the dream state. In Africa, these onierogenic plants are called ‘ubulawu’. It is interesting to note that DMT is produced naturally by the pineal gland in the human brain in near death experiences, birth, dreaming and in meditation or prayer.
In the psychoactive state of mind, the spirits of the plants present themselves to the user in a variety of forms. These forms are dependent on the experience of the users themselves, rationalising it in different ways. According to Luis Eduardo Luna in ‘The Concept of Plants as Teachers among four Mesitzo Shamans of Inquitos, Northern Peru’ published in The Journal of Ethnopharmacology, similarities can be seen in some of the shapes and figures that the spirits take on. In most cases, the spirits take on humanoid or animal form and differ according to the experience, however, some spirits do have a defined shape or identity. For example, the spirit of the Ayahuma plant, when added to the Ayahuasca brew, presents itself as a headless humanoid. Also, in a large number of Ayahuasca experiences, people claim to meet the great spirit of Lady Ayahuasca herself, ready to teach and point the user in the right direction. One of the Shamans interviewed for the paper stated that he has had no prior training from a shamanic teacher, but instead learnt all he knew from the plants themselves. The other shamans did have shamanic training, however, declared that the plants are the real teachers and messengers of inner wisdom. The spirits, they claim, teach them which plants can be used for specific healing practices and how to utilise the plant. The claims of plant consciousness are not unique to shamanic third world practices. The late Terrance McKenna and many other westerners of today claim that under the influence of ‘magic mushrooms’ (containing either psilocybin or DMT in the case of Aminata Muscaria), a conscious connection is made with the plants.
Moving away from shamanic practice and psychoactive compounds, modern science provides some insight into the possibility of conscious plants. Today we know that plants are capable of very strange behaviour, for example, the Touch-me-not plant (Mimosa pudica) folds its leaves when touched or pinched. The Japanese Dancing plant (Desmodium gyrans) does not respond to physical stimulus, but instead the plant will start moving when exposed to sound, hence the name. Most plants, if not all, have been found to release specific pheromones designed for a specific task. The chemical package that the plant produces is designed to attract specific insects to help in its pollination, warn neighbouring plants about dangers and even attract insects to its defence. When a plant is under attack by a caterpillar, for example, it will produce a pheromone designed to attract the appropriate parasitic wasp to rid the plant of the intruder. If it were under attack by a different insect, a different appropriate pheromone will be released. This happens due to the plant being able to identify the saliva content unique to the species of insect attacking it. The genus of African trees formerly known as Acacias (now Vachellia) is known to release pheromones when being browsed on by animals such as giraffe, kudu and other large mammals. This pheromone alerts the surrounding plants of the animal’s presence, causing them to increase tannin levels in the plant and make the leaves less palatable. Some Vachellia species are even in a mutualistic relationship with certain ant species that will attack the animal browsing on the plant when the correct pheromone is released. Some research has suggested that giraffe and other mammals are aware of this defence and know to feed and walk against the wind, in order to reach the plants that did not pick up on the warning of its neighbouring plants.
As stated before, Cleve Backster had very interesting finds when he started measuring the electromagnetic field of plants under certain conditions, giving rise to what we now call ‘the Backster effect’. The biologist, Dr Lyall Watson explains in ‘Supernature’ how Backster made his first impressive discovery. Backster attempted to get a reading on a polygraph, using a PGR, of the water rising in the plant after it was freshly watered. This did not produce a reading. He then decided to see if the plant would react to a leaf being put in freshly boiled water. Unsatisfied by receiving no reading on the polygraph, Backster thought of burning one of the leaves of the plant. At the very moment that he thought this, something remarkable happened. In Backsters own words, “At the instant of this decision, at 13 minutes and 55 seconds of chart time, there was a dramatic change in the PGR tracing pattern in the form of an abrupt and prolonged upward sweep of the tracing pen. I had not moved, or touched the plant, so timing of the PGR pen activity suggested to me that the tracing might have been triggered by the mere thought of harm I intended to inflict on the plant”. Backster continued his research in multiple laboratories with the same results, even if the plants were encased in a lead box or in a faraday cage.
Backster also found that plants respond to brine shrimp being boiled alive next to them, seeming to not enjoy the experience. He also found that if a person injures a plant or plays aggressive music, the plants would react negatively when the same person returns to the room, even after weeks of not being near the plant. The plants were found to calm down when Backster came near, or even simply spoke in the adjacent room. This suggested that plants have their own memory. Backster attempted to convince his colleagues that plants could be used as ‘witnesses’ during a trial. This is because plants react negatively to violence in its vicinity and would react similarly when the violent offender returns to the plant. Needless to say, Backster was laughed at when he proposed this idea, even though he had acquired enough evidence to support it. Even more, than forty years later, people are still struggling to accept Backsters findings. Much more has been learnt in recent years about plant senses and consciousness, for example, we understand that the root system of plants are able to send electrical impulses throughout the system, acting in a similar way as a neural network does in an animal brain. This is also true about underground mycelial networks of fungus, which connect large underground areas with one another, sending information to and fro.
Whether the knowledge is shamanic or scientific, it is clear that plants are generally underrated when it comes to their conscious experience. We know that plants respond to outside stimulus and act in an appropriate manner to the best of its ability, whether it may be insects or mammals attacking it or, having shrimp killed next to it. Plants remember specific people and respond appropriately to their presence according to past experiences. There may even be specific spiritual entities attributed to specific plants, ready to heal and teach us all that they know. It will be fascinating to see where modern science and spiritual thought will take this concept in the future, including the ethical ramifications concerning their consciousness. Will it be debated like modern animal intelligence, or will the argument be something completely different?
Luna, L.E. (1984) ‘The concept of plants as teachers among four mestizo shamans of iquitos, northeastern Peru’, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 11(2), pp. 135–156. doi: 10.1016/0378-8741(84)90036-9.
Watson, L. (1995) Supernature: A natural history of the supernatural. London, United Kingdom: Sceptre Books.