Do Plants Have Consciousness? Scientists Weigh In

This question has divided the scientific community for several years: do plants have a form of consciousness or not? A recent international study is trying to answer this question by challenging plant neurobiology hypotheses.

© Getty Images

Since the dawn of time, the origin of consciousness has been a topic of interest for the human species. Where does it come from, how does it work, and, above all, who has it and who does not? While some animals have been able to pass the famous 'mirror test' with flying colours, other species are completely incapable of even taking to it. This is particularly the case with plants, about which this question has recently been asked more and more frequently.

Discover our latest podcast

By observing their behaviour and their ability to adapt to their environment, scientists have hypothesised that plants are in fact endowed with a form of consciousness. This has even given rise to a new branch of science: plant neurobiology. However, this area of research has just taken quite a blow, following the publication of a scientific study conducted by American, British, and German researchers in July 2019.

The need to have consciousness

'Our criticism of the plant neurobiologists is they have failed to consider the importance of brain organisation, complexity and specialisation for the phenomenon of consciousness,' explained Lincoln Taiz, a botanist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, to the Guardian.

Their counter-theory: plants can actually react to touch, grow faster when there is competition in the environment, and set off traps when prey approach them... But they see no reason to believe that these actions are the result of free will, or learning on the part of plants.

Taiz added:

There is no evidence that plants require, and thus have evolved, energy-expensive mental faculties, such as consciousness, feelings, and intentionality, to survive or to reproduce.

'It’s bad science'

Moreover, researchers argue that this willingness to believe in the existence of plant consciousness is the result of anthropomorphism. In other words, an illusion or attribution of human behaviour to animals, objects, or even ideas.

'It’s bad science,' Lincoln Taiz concluded bluntly.

It takes the whole scientific enterprise and reduces its credibility. [...] They want to raise people’s consciousness about plants as living organisms and reach them on an emotional level. I’m very sympathetic to the motivations, but it is clouding their objectivity.

So, do plants have consciousness or not? At the moment, there is still too little scientific evidence to reach a verdict. The path to the answer may require a fundamental step: that of a definitive definition of what human consciousness is.

Scientists believe we may remain conscious during our own death Scientists believe we may remain conscious during our own death