MPI Philosophy | Nature

Consciousness In Nature

We will discuss consciousness as it relates to humans in more detail in the chapter called “Humans”. For the purposes of this chapter about nature we will discuss the possibility that some form of consciousness may exist in some surprising parts of nature. 

Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “The Botany of Desire,” says that new research in the field of plant neurobiology indicates that “They have ways of taking all the sensory data they gather in their everyday lives … integrate it and then behave in an appropriate way in response. And they do this without brains, which, in a way, is what’s incredible about it, because we automatically assume you need a brain to process information.”

Pollan says that his research indicates that plants have all the same senses as humans in addition to others. They have the ability to hear, taste, can sense some gravity, sence the presence of water, feel that an obstruction is in the way of its roots “before coming into contact with it”.

Interestingly they also respond to anesthetics. He says that “you can put a plant out with a human anesthetic. … And not only that, plants produce their own compounds that are anesthetic to us.” 

They also seem to have some form of humanlike memory. Pollan says that an experiment done by animal biologist Monica Gagliano presented research suggesting that the mimosa pudica plant can learn from experience. Mimosa is a plant that looks something like a fern. It temporarily collapses its leaves when it is disturbed. So Gagliano set up a contraption that would drop the mimosa plant without hurting it. When the plant was dropped, as expected, its leaves collapsed. She continued dropping the plants every five to six seconds. “After five or six drops, the plants would stop responding, as if they’d learned to tune out the stimulus as irrelevent,” Pollan says. “This is a very important part of learning — to learn what you can safely ignore in your environment.” This seems interestingly similar to the results produced by Pavlov’s famous extinction experiment where he showed that certain instinctive or reflexive behavior was learned by animals and could be eliminated (or mitigated) through repetition.

Pollan says that “They had made the distinction that [dropping] was a signal they could safely ignore. And what was more incredible is that [Gagliano] would retest them every week for four weeks and, for a month, they continued to remember their lesson.”

Pollan says that not everyone accepts that what Gagliano describes is really learning. In fact, there are many critics with many alternative theories for explaining the response of the plants. 

However, Pollan says that “Plants can do incredible things. They do seem to remember stresses and events, like that experiment. They do have the ability to respond to 15 to 20 environmental variables”. The question is, is appropriate to call this learning or intelligence? Is it some form of consciousness? Some plant neurobiologists believe that plants are conscious — not self-conscious, but conscious in the sense they know where they are in space … and react appropriately to their position in space.”

Next article in this series: “Reality”

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