When 17th Century René Descartes first penned: “I think therefore I am,” he voiced a now-accepted belief, which distinguishes animals from other life forms. His philosophy underscored the connection between the brain and the body. But is ‘thought’ the only trait that determines this distinction? What about the senses? Isn’t our sentient nature to ‘feel things’ also what what separates us from, say . . . the plant world?
The Sensitive Plant
The nervous system of animals is how we acquire, memorize and collect data. But similar to man and beast, can plants also retrieve information from their environment?
Up till now, the answer to that question by scientists has been a resounding:”NO!”
However, scientific inquiry says that assumption is being challenged. In 2014, a team of biologists filed a study that countered these previous assumptions. Team leader Monica Gagliano, associate professor of biology at the University of Western Australia uncovered a plant called Mimosa podica, which not only ‘remembers’ what happens to it, but can store that memory for almost a month.
Her observations are documented in this video. You don’t have to play it all the way through because it does become somewhat repetitive. You’ll get the general idea after the first 30 seconds or so.
Also dubbed, “the sensitive plant,” this defensive leaf-folding behavior in response to environmental interaction suggests some elementary form of learning.
According to findings of Gagliano’s team, Mimosa’s “relatively long-lasting learned behavioral change as a result of previous experience matches the persistence of habituation effects in many animals.”
But what about Learning?
OK, so we’re dealing with a very sensitive plant that reacts when touched. But can it learn that no harm will come to it, and cease recoiling from it over time? To test this scientific theory, Gagliano put a bunch of Mimosa pudicas in pots and dropped them multiple times.
Each potted plant was dropped approximately six inches. This was done not once, but 60 times in a row at five-second intervals. The drop was sufficiently speedy to alarm the plant and cause its tender leaves to fold into that defensive curl.
However by the 60th drop, the plants seemed to figure out that falling wasn’t harmful to their well-being, so they stopped protecting themselves. As Gagliano put it: “By the end, they [remained] completely open . . . they couldn’t care less anymore.” They didn’t curl up defensively because they ‘learned’ there was no need." In other words, they remembered.
If I only had a brain
Similar to the scarecrow in the “Wizard of Oz,” and his desperate quest for a brain, can you imagine if this plant’s internal signaling network was ever to evolve into an animal-like brain?
Based on our current pecking order, plants have always been the ‘bronze’ medalists, one step down from ‘silver,’ or the animals, and two steps down from us, the 'golden' children of the planet.
But what if evolution allowed plants like Mimosa to take a leap? Presently we can only make assumptions or devise creative fictionalize imaginings of that process. Who remembers ‘Audrey’ from the Little Shop of Horrors who grew from a mutated Venus flytrap plant into a flesh-eating menace that threatened mankind as she continued to mature unchecked.
Well, let’s hope Mimosa’s evolutionary journey to a brain is in consort with mankind. Let's hope that when and if plants make this leap, they take a much more compassionate route than Audrey.
After all, if Mimosa is the first, as a very sensitive creature in her current form — she would make a great example for others to follow, don't you think?