The New Yorker’s last issue in 2013 included an article by Michael Pollan called “The Intelligent Plant” in which Pollan explores some of the latest research revealing the ability of plants to sense their environment in ways that are analogous to seeing, hearing, and smelling. In the article Pollan dialogs back and forth between plant scientists who call this line of research “plant neurobiology” and plant scientists who seem to abhor that term. As the article progresses, you learn that the arguments between the two groups are not necessarily about the science itself but about vocabulary. Can plants learn the way we understand the term, to learn? Can we really say that plants are intelligent or conscious? Aren’t those traits reserved for organisms with brains? And regarding brains, plants don’t have them, so why plant neurobiology? Neuroscience is the study of nervous systems, so plant neurobiology must be a misnomer, right?
Well, despite the arguments over language, the research is pretty compelling. Plants are proving to be more aware of their surroundings and their actions seem to be more calculated than we originally assumed. They are not simply sessile organisms being acted upon, but they are doing some acting – lots of it, in fact. It is a remarkable field of study (whether you choose to refer to it as plant neurobiology or something else), and it will be exciting to see where it takes us.
Pollan’s article is worth a read if you can find the time (be warned, it’s lengthy), and it’s getting some coverage. Pollan recently appeared on Science Friday with Ira Flatow where he talked about his experience researching the article. And Pollan, of course, isn’t the only one talking about this stuff, Wired featured an article about it last month as well.
Check out this video associated with Pollan’s article (narrated by Pollan) of bean plants that appear to be deliberately reaching out to grab onto a pole.
sensitive plant – Mimosa pudica
photo credit: Wikimedia Commons