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The "Intelligence" of Plants
June 11, 2009 6:23 AM   Subscribe

New botanical research is shedding light on plant behavior and "intelligence".

Additional reading:

"Some experiments have shown that if a plant's roots grow near to those of another unrelated plant, the two will try to compete for nutrients and water. But if a root grows close to another from the same parent plant, the two do not try to compete with one another. Karban says he was 'pretty surprised' at the results. 'It implies that plants are capable of more sophisticated behaviour than we imagined.'"

"To commence use of the term intelligence with regard to plant behaviour will lead to a better understanding of the complexity of plant signal transduction and the discrimination and sensitivity with which plants construct images of their environment, and raises critical questions concerning how plants compute responses at the whole-plant level."
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing (37 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fascinating stuff. I have always felt that we were being pretty close-minded in limiting "intelligence" to the category of "things with faces," and it's great to see some research being done in this area.
posted by marginaliana at 6:53 AM on June 11, 2009


A nice feel for this, without too much effort, can be had by watching the Private Life of Plants, by David Attenborough (sample YT: a, b, c, and especially d). Time lapse photography helps in pulling events on plant time scales into the phenomenal realm of a human.

I love this stuff. I saw the paper you linked to on Mind Hacks, where Vaughan Bell, who I have nothing but the highest regard for, made the odd argument that viewing plants as cognitive somehow fell out of an information processing, cognitive psychological take on minds and brains. I think the opposite is true, and a continuity in cognition and experience extending through all forms of life is a central pillar of the enactive approach most associated with Humberto Maturana (wi) and Francisco Varela (wi). One of several who have argued for taking the cognitive abilities of bacteria and plants seriously is Fred Keijzer. (also, small self link: pdf)
posted by fcummins at 7:22 AM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Call me when they have a plant that can say "Feed me, Seymour".
posted by spicynuts at 7:34 AM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


This will be a fun link to throw towards those in the vegetarian/vegan spectrum.
posted by Evilspork at 7:43 AM on June 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


I've begun to wonder about the relation between intelligence and time - it seems integral. Perhaps intelligence is some sort of natural, emergent property of integrated/self-regulating systems. Plants don't seem intelligent because their intelligence is too slow for us to notice. Intelligence moving too slow or too fast seems mechanical - a property of nature

Hence the surprise watching plants with time-lapse photography. Perhaps looking at other, faster phenomena, slowed down to the speed of our comprehension, would result in more surprises

I have no idea what this would imply about consciousness
posted by crayz at 7:48 AM on June 11, 2009 [8 favorites]


hello i would like to order one kilo of what crayz is smoking please
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 7:49 AM on June 11, 2009 [7 favorites]


Turn it around: integrated/self-regulating systems are an emergent property of intelligence/consciousness. This implies that intelligence/consciousness is the universal property of nature. Omnia animata, as Spinoza puts it: everything thinks.
posted by No Robots at 7:53 AM on June 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Before I'm willing to say 'thinks', I'd need to see a lot more research done that shows real cognition -- it's one thing to react to stimuli, but another thing to be able to learn from a situation. Priming is different from learned behaviour. When plants can be trained to, say, release those volatiles on a cue that doesn't involve harm to the plants themselves, then I'll hop on the plant neurobiology bandwagon.
posted by Concolora at 8:31 AM on June 11, 2009


Slime molds learn.
posted by No Robots at 8:45 AM on June 11, 2009


No Robots: I dislike this phrasing, though I think depending on definitions it's equivalent to the former, because it encourages us to anthropomorphize. We think of thinking (ha!) as what we do, and I see no reason to believe that everything does (is? feels?) that. It's an alluring vision because we can strike up some fellow-feeling with the entirety of the universe, but I doubt the feeling is mutual!

Perhaps intelligence is some sort of natural, emergent property of integrated/self-regulating systems - crayz

What does "integrated" or "self-regulating" mean here? I think we use those terms as we use "intelligence" - in amorphously defined ways. What does it mean for order to emerge from another order - isn't that just a reflection of a hierarchy we've imposed on the phenomena?

Hence the surprise watching plants with time-lapse photography. Perhaps looking at other, faster phenomena, slowed down to the speed of our comprehension, would result in more surprises

Totally. Could self-awareness arise in corners of nature like lightning bolts, which look a lot like L-systems? My gut feeling is no in that specific case, because there don't seem to be any evolutionary pressures on discharge arcs, a feature of all known systems with these characteristics. On the other end of the scale, why not huge and slow moving things like nebular clusters? Those seem to disordered (so far...) but I don't think it's time-scale that would be preventative.

If the functionalist view of mind is correct (I think it is), time-scale should be irrelevant, or secondary. It seems reasonable to say a self-aware thing couldn't be smaller than an electron, likewise, there may be time-scale bounds to where certain types of mind are workable. What really seems to matter is "order", a discussion of which is beyond this post(er).

I have no idea what this would imply about consciousness.

It's uncontroversial today that our perception of the world as three dimensional (and really, why three?) is a model based on a stereo pair of two dimensional luminance/hue maps. It's a system that can occasionally get fouled up in interesting ways that illuminate (heh) the way they function. Even when it's (we're?) functioning as usual it's easily toyed with. Most people think of our perception of time as somehow inviolate - things happen to us at the when they happen "out there" in the "real world" noumenally. We might get confused about where we are, but surely not when we are, right? But these questions you ask, and others, make me think that our appraisal of "when" is just a model (which is not, in and of itself, a slight against it's accuracy) as "where".

Chapter 6 of Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained is an excellent exposition of how the brain's representation of time may not be in "real time".
posted by phrontist at 9:04 AM on June 11, 2009 [5 favorites]


I'm less inclined to think this is communication so much as a hormonal or chemical response between plants of dissimilar genetic origin.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:09 AM on June 11, 2009


Before I'm willing to say 'thinks', I'd need to see a lot more research done that shows real cognition -- it's one thing to react to stimuli, but another thing to be able to learn from a situation. Priming is different from learned behavior. When plants can be trained to, say, release those volatiles on a cue that doesn't involve harm to the plants themselves, then I'll hop on the plant neurobiology bandwagon.

Same here, if you mean "thinks like us". The real question is whether we should think of plants as thinking like animals. It remains to be seen, empirically, whether that's justified, but I'd say we should rethink our notion of "think" to include them. I think the larger points to take away here though is that we use the term "think" in very haphazard and misleading ways and that consciousness/thought/mind exists as a continuum, not in discrete steps. This has important moral implications [self-link] as well.

made the odd argument that viewing plants as cognitive somehow fell out of an information processing, cognitive psychological take on minds and brains. I think the opposite is true, and a continuity in cognition and experience extending through all forms of life is a central pillar of the enactive approach

I've never heard of the "enactive approach". How is it different from the information processing view?
posted by phrontist at 9:11 AM on June 11, 2009


I'm less inclined to think this is communication so much as a hormonal or chemical response

Well, that's the crux of the matter isn't it - when is "response" communication?
posted by phrontist at 9:12 AM on June 11, 2009


Gah, important typo in first post: is just a model - just as much a model
posted by phrontist at 9:14 AM on June 11, 2009


Everything thinks, each in its own way. To deny that other things think is really to assert that only our human thinking is real thinking. This anthropocentric exclusivism leads to a false understanding of nature. To quote Spinoza again, the object of science is "the knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature."
posted by No Robots at 9:16 AM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


There was a paper in Animal Behaviour recently which was a survey of the definitions that biologists used to define behaviour, and there seems to be a lot of confusion. Everybody knows what behaviour is, but there's a surprising lack of uniformity. We will probably see more and more plant behaviour research done with traditionally animal behaviour techniques as time goes by.

on an unrelated note: Plants terraformed the planet first. They get humans to go around dispersing (farming) and spending millions for their protection (Pesticides, etc).
posted by dhruva at 9:16 AM on June 11, 2009


# the brain's representation of time may not be in "real time"

Offtopic, that reminds me of an article I heard on NPR a couple weeks back that talked of research into the temporal nature of our brains' perceptions. Apparently, if you are given stimuli simultaneously both on your nose and on toe, your conscious mind detects the two sensations simultaneously, even though the neural signals coming from your toe take a small fraction of a second to travel up your leg and spine, while the signal from your nose arrives almost instantly in your brain. They stated that the lag time from the toe signal should be long enough to be perceptible, e.g. something like 1/3 second. They went on to say that even very tall people will still perceive the two sensations at the same "time."

Their theory for explaining this phenomena was that our brains maintain a small buffer of incoming information, and is able to realign and dispatch the signals so that events which we "know" should be simultaneous are perceived as such. In other words, all of our perceptions have a small delay in order to correct for the latency of our extremities.

(I'm sure I am simplifying this even more than the already-watered-down NPR article, so if anyone can point to more detailed information, please do.)
posted by ijoshua at 9:22 AM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm not calling this intelligence until they evolve brains.
posted by kldickson at 9:31 AM on June 11, 2009


I'm not calling this intelligence until they evolve brains.

Who's to say their brain functions aren't distributed throughout their entire bodies? Among cockroaches, for example, there's evidence that the extremities play a role in memory (roaches with broken legs suffer irreversible short-term memory problems).
posted by saulgoodman at 9:33 AM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


ijoshua: Here is the article, I can't find the thread. I hate to keep plugging Dennett, but that whole story betrays a conception of the mind with a "finishing line" for perceptions, an idea he thoroughly dismantles. This "cartesian theatre" (as he calls it) basically leads to an infinite regress, and requires bizarre interpretations of the evidence like that in the above article to be reconciled with experiment. The alternative is the counter-intuitive but otherwise kick-ass multiple drafts model.

kldickson: What counts as a brain? Does it have to be made from the same kind of tissue you've got? Do some human beings not have a real brain? Should we treat them differently?
posted by phrontist at 9:34 AM on June 11, 2009


integrated/self-regulating systems are an emergent property of intelligence/consciousness.

That's actually one of the core ideas of Gödel, Escher, Bach - that self-regulatory systems are the core principal of intelligence, and that the concept of what the 'system' itself constitutes can become more and more abstracted the harder one looks... to the semi-joking point that some math formulae or set structures could qualify as the basest form of self-governance. This leads one naturally to a side-related set of questions - are those patterns evidence of deliberate design by a greater and more complex creator-system, or are they just our own perception of naturally occurring concepts as translated into the symbol structures we're most comfortable using for abstractions?

::exhales reaallllly slow, coughs twice, passes it to the left::
posted by FatherDagon at 10:18 AM on June 11, 2009


Plants respond to stimuli!

Next: Gravity Theory
posted by Xoebe at 10:24 AM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


This leads one naturally to a side-related set of questions - are those patterns evidence of deliberate design by a greater and more complex creator-system, or are they just our own perception of naturally occurring concepts as translated into the symbol structures we're most comfortable using for abstractions?--FatherDagon

At the risk of appearing a total bore, I will post a couple of other pertinent quotations from Spinoza:
As [most men] look upon things as means, they cannot believe them to be self-created; but, judging from the means which they are accustomed to prepare for themselves, they are bound to believe in some ruler or rulers of the universe endowed with human freedom, who have arranged and adapted everything for human use.—Ethics 1, Appendix

I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or deformed, ordered or confused.—Letter to Oldenburg.
posted by No Robots at 11:09 AM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Of course, the "too beautiful to be self-created" argument is truly born out of man's own vainglorious need to know that he, too, is not an accident, but part of some vast and wonderful plan. He needs that reassurance to avoid being overwhelmed by the thought that he is but a ripple in the pond, meticulous in pattern and soon to be lost in the rest.
posted by FatherDagon at 11:22 AM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


The trick is to identify our own inmost thought, our self-identity, not as an isolated ego, but as an instance of the self-creating, self-thinking whole.

No bong hits needed here.
posted by No Robots at 11:30 AM on June 11, 2009


No Robots: Thanks for the infusions of Spinoza, you've motivated me to read TTP, which I've been putting off.

The trick is to identify our own inmost thought, our self-identity, not as an isolated ego, but as an instance of the self-creating, self-thinking whole.

DISCLAIMER: I have not read Hofstadter yet, so I'm guessing I'm missing out on a lot of bong-ripping prior art. My apologies.

How can something be self-creating? As oppose to what, other-created? The argument for other-created seems straightforward enough - before stuff gets gathered together to make me, it's other-stuff. The process of interaction between "me" and "not me" is ceaseless. I suppose human beings are bit unusual in being able to consider a (potentially mistaken) model of themselves. In that sense I suppose they could be self-creating. But Buddhist thought got anything right, I think it's that this is a false dichotomy.

When I look at you it's comparatively easy for me to see that you're interconnected with your environment and not fundamentally separated, but it's much harder (and questionably desirable) see myself this way.

Think about how hilariously ironic the Buddhist scenario is in light of evolutionary narrative: Universe has order for reasons this margin is to small to contain. Simple ordered rules give rise to replicating patterns. Replicating patterns gain survival value, even in the early stages of evolution, from preserving their coherence (after all, what else does it mean to survive?) by distinguishing self from other (as is apparently the case in plants!). Evolution eventually produces self-analyzing social animals which suffer existential crises because this division carries on vestigially as core part of their psyches, so they have to sit on mats and practice compassion to achieve enlightenment - to overcome a tendency that allowed for their existence in the first place, but made it miserable. Sounds like a Douglas Adams story waiting to be written.
posted by phrontist at 12:52 PM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the infusions of Spinoza, you've motivated me to read TTP, which I've been putting off.
Terry Neff's Spinoza Study has a nicely formatted version that makes for easy perusal.
How can something be self-creating?
There has been a lot of recent scientific work on the principle of self-creation, also known as autopoiesis.
When I look at you it's comparatively easy for me to see that you're interconnected with your environment and not fundamentally separated, but it's much harder (and questionably desirable) see myself this way.
It is indeed hard to relativize our own ego. But I would say, with Spinoza, that this is the only road to inner peace and happiness.
Think about how hilariously ironic the Buddhist scenario is in light of evolutionary narrative
Or you could think about how hilariously ironic the evolutionary narrative is in light of the Buddhist scenario. I'll leave you with that little koan.
posted by No Robots at 1:32 PM on June 11, 2009


Evolution eventually produces self-analyzing social animals which suffer existential crises because this division carries on vestigially as core part of their psyches, so they have to sit on mats and practice compassion to achieve enlightenment - to overcome a tendency that allowed for their existence in the first place, but made it miserable. Sounds like a Douglas Adams story waiting to be written.

That about sums it up, actually. And in fact, Buddhism explicitly builds on previous Hindu traditions that do more or less fully view this scenario in evolutionary terms--the only major difference between the Hindu and Buddhist conceptions is that, in the Hindu model, the underlying reality of the universe (Brahman) is static and unchanging throughout all eternity while in the Buddhist model its perpetually evolving according to the laws of cause and effect.

What you describe is pretty much exactly what the Buddhist concept of no-self is all about: you believe you suffer, you experience cravings and attachments that contribute to your suffering, but all of that's only because you mistakenly believe you have a self in the first place. Once you realize and fully internalize the realization that this is an error, problem solved.

Don't think for a minute that the absurdity of the situation is lost on sufficiently advanced Buddhists. Why do you think the Laughing Buddha is always laughing?
posted by saulgoodman at 2:02 PM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


But when it comes to questions about life and its origins, this would-be man of science begins to waver. Though he professes to accept evolutionary theory, he recoils at one of its most basic tenets: that the mutations that provide the raw material for natural selection occur at random. Look deeply enough, he suggests, and the randomness will turn out to be complexity in disguise - "hidden causality," the Buddha's smile. There you have it, Eastern religion's version of intelligent design. He also opposes physical explanations for consciousness, invoking instead the existence of some kind of irreducible mind stuff, an idea rejected long ago by mainstream science.—Review of the Dalai Lama's book, "The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality"
posted by No Robots at 2:31 PM on June 11, 2009


Triffids.
posted by acrasis at 4:47 PM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I just want to be clear, I was arguing for the buddhist view of non-self and against autopoiesis.

The question stands No Robot, how is this self-creation business supposed to work? Isn't it just a way to cling to self?
posted by phrontist at 8:12 PM on June 11, 2009


But when it comes to questions about life and its origins, this would-be man of science begins to waver. Though he professes to accept evolutionary theory, he recoils at one of its most basic tenets: that the mutations that provide the raw material for natural selection occur at random. Look deeply enough, he suggests, and the randomness will turn out to be complexity in disguise - "hidden causality," the Buddha's smile. There you have it, Eastern religion's version of intelligent design. He also opposes physical explanations for consciousness, invoking instead the existence of some kind of irreducible mind stuff, an idea rejected long ago by mainstream science.

The Dalai Llama is the leader of a group that can hardly be called Buddhist, if we're talking about the cannon of sutras, which I realize most groups are very far from in practice. It's so magical-thinking obsessed and replete with metaphysical cruft bolted on to provide a less mind-warping soteriological route for lay people it does immense PR damage to the term worldwide.

This talk of randomness/complexity/hidden causality/intelligence demonstrates just how slipshod our use of those terms is. When we speak of genetic variation being random the important point is that there are so many opposing and chaotic causal influences each mutation outcome is equally likely (or following some particular distribution). Without more information than we have, outcomes cannot be easily predicted. The mistake so many are rushing to make is that this unpredictability could cloak some telos, so intention, some order that takes outcomes in to account, that acknowledges conscious things as somehow special, that enforces the justice we want to see in the world. If you want to gussy this up in some eastern lingo so it sounds cool at the coffee shop you could say that, like the Tao Sage, the genes do not contend. They just do. And in Just Doing, things that do contend (to apparent perceived ill-consequence) arise.
posted by phrontist at 8:28 PM on June 11, 2009


I realize there is another important typo above. It should read..

But if Buddhist thought got anything right, I think it's that this is a false dichotomy.

I think buddhist thought got most everything right, though it's hard to tell for lack of scholarship on my part. My only reservations are on rebirth and some interpretations of karma.

posted by phrontist at 8:32 PM on June 11, 2009


Science fiction writers always get there first: Vaster Than Empires and More Slow by Ursula Leguin. There is another Leguin story about a drug that slows (speeds?) human metabolism to a plant's rate; can't remember the name of it, but it also touches on plant intelligence.
posted by nax at 5:18 AM on June 12, 2009


Having read this article earlier in the year, I planted my windowboxes experimentally, to see which combination of plants grew better, the like type ones or various plants together, lots of one kind and a little of another. So far the like plants group together are thriving more than any combination of types. From my tiny experience, this related plants grow better near each other theory has, so far, proven true.
posted by nickyskye at 3:14 PM on June 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Random afterthought: Years ago I asked a Tibetan lama if plants could be considered sentient beings, if plants were considered to have some form of mind, since they respond complexly to the environment with preferences, needs and seem to express some basic form of volition. The lama said no, plants were not considered sentient beings (Sems.chen in Tibetan) because they had no delusions and because of that did not experience rebirth in the wheel of existence.
posted by nickyskye at 5:36 PM on June 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


so plants are already buddhas, basically.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:16 AM on June 15, 2009


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