Plant Intelligence and Why Imagination Is the Key to Understanding the Natural World

Monica Gagliano believes she was born to be a scientist. She grew up in the city with parents who thought nature was something to be kept outside. But, Gagliano thought otherwise. She started a journal tracking the growth of her bean plant, and created her first data set at age nine.

Now, Gagliano is a research associate professor in evolutionary ecology at the University of Western Australia, and is a research affiliate at the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney. Though she began her career by studying animal behavior, she quickly turned her attention to plant behavior. In recent years, Gagliano has blazed the trail for a brand new field called plant bioacoustics, showing that plants do make sounds. Her studies have led her to author numerous groundbreaking scientific articles and to co-edit The Green Thread: Dialogues with the Vegetal World, and The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy, and Literature.

Underlying all of her accomplishments and studies is Gagliano’s effort to illuminate the forefront of a new scientific paradigm that dissolves the false separation between people and the natural world. In her new book, Thus Spoke the Plant — which she calls a “phyto-biography,” or a collection of stories written with and on behalf of the plants themselves — she describes her experiments that opened the space to begin to understand how to make contact with this other-than-human intelligence. (Read an excerpt from the book here.)

Following is a transcript of Gagliano’s Bioneers 2018 keynote address on incorporating imagination into science. View the full keynote video here.

View more keynotes, transcripts, and more from the 2018 Bioneers Conference.

Monica Gagliano:

A couple of weeks ago while I was in Brazil at a conference on plant physiology, one of my colleagues, a philosopher, asked a very simple question to a group of us: What killed the dinosaurs?

I’m sure that the first thing that comes to your mind, which is the same thing that comes to everyone’s mind, is the asteroid. Right? We know very well that 65 million years ago, an asteroid collapsed onto our planet, put up this big dust of sand and dirt which covered the sun. And then it got really cold and all the dinosaurs died. That’s how the story goes. In fact, we also know that at that particular time it seems that many species disappeared. So it kind of corroborated the idea that there was one single cataclysmic event that kind of wiped everyone out — the asteroid. Then in 1978, in the Yucatan peninsula, we found this huge crater that was dated back 65 million years. That was the cherry on top of the cake. You say, well, that’s the asteroid.

Now, I’m not here to debate whether the asteroid that was charged with the killing of the dinosaurs did a good job, did the job at all, or not. The reason for asking this question, which was the same reason my colleague asked it at the conference in Brazil, is that when we’re asked to think of an alternative explanation that is not the story of the asteroid, we find it really hard to think of something else. It’s just: But it is the asteroid. What else could it be?

The Role of Imagination In Science

The point of this is that by the time that you go to school, by the time you turn seven or thereabout, your imagination has already been stifled, and your actual ability to think of alternative possibilities is reduced dramatically. I’m going to talk about the role of imagination in the context of science, but it’s just an example of what it really means in the wider picture that we are experiencing right now.

Imagination, from the root of the word, basically means “creates images of something, or representing something, representing the world.” We all know our imagination touches and deeply moves us, especially when it’s expressed through creative approaches that artists and musicians, for example, are really good at. What I find intriguing is that imagination is the creative ability of our mind to literally dream the world and worlds. So it’s a bit surprising that such a critical creative endeavor would be kind of dismissed when we talk about science.

When we talk about science and about imagination in science, the word takes a totally different meaning. Suddenly you’re talking about fanciful speculations and empty assumptions. Basically they’re telling you, “What are you talking about? There is no such thing.” There is either a tendency to downplay the role of imagination in science, or to completely dismiss it from the important role that it has in the construction of knowledge through science.

I’m not here to lay judgment on science, but it is true that our modern techno-scientific world has subscribed to an arid version of imagination, and it’s very different and very far away from what we know imagination is when we think about it as the creative beings that we are, because we are all artists, we are all musicians in some ways.

What I am interested in is when science, which is a strong voice in our culture, describes a world that is deprived of imagination, then it is describing humans and the rest of nature as a system of cog wheels. And suddenly those parts are easily to dispose of. They are replaceable.In the worst cases, and we see this all the time, they become worthless. Again, I’m not here to pass judgment on science. I’m a scientist and I love science. I think science is yet another amazing creative endeavor of the human experience.

What I’m interested in is how we actually got to stand in front of this door to imagination, and why we are so scared, especially in science, to open it.

For me, the idea of the imagination brings up this feeling of unruliness and lack of control. In a world where we feel increasingly unsafe (and we feel like we need to control as a result) the more we control perhaps gives us the illusion that we will feel a little safer. But maybe it doesn’t work that way, and maybe we are standing in front of this door, and we are so concerned that if we open it, we are going to unleash chaos. But in fact perhaps imagination can release those solutions that we are so desperately looking for, and we can’t see them, just as we couldn’t see an alternative to the asteroid for the dinosaurs. Because we’ve been trained and conditioned to think that there’s going to be chaos if we open the door.

One of the most impressive scientists in history is of course Charles Darwin, who has guided a revolution of his own. He recognized the role of imagination. Actually many scientists wouldn’t be able to do their job without it, whether they like it or not. Darwin recognized imagination as a prerogative of the human. It’s a faculty that allows us to actually create the brilliant and novel results or opportunities that we are all looking for.

Why is imagination so important? Because it represents a reservoir of meaning. This is a meaning that is embodied. It’s in our flesh. It’s in our blood. It’s in our roots. It’s made of a pre-linguistic system, so we don’t even need to talk. We can feel it through our emotional system. It’s kind of like a birthright. How lucky is that? We’re so desperate for a solution and the solution is right here, inscribed in the system itself.

From a Darwinian perspective or from an evolutionary perspective, the reason this information is so important is because it guides action and adaptive behavior. These are the type of solutions that we want because another way to say this would be that these are the solutions to the eco-cultural and political issues that we are having at this moment.

All I can offer is my experience as a scientist and my own personal journey, when I chose to open that door for myself, and what it means when you extrapolate from the smaller story of the individual to a bigger picture of a collective.

When I opened the door, I found two things. I found plants and Indigenous Knowledge. When I started my research career, I was studying animal behavior and then I decided to switch to plants. When I started looking at plants, I looked at plants from the context of plants in relation to sound. That was totally inspired by my own experiences in the realm of Indigenous Knowledge where this story has been recurrent everywhere.

Can Plants Think? Do They Have Imagination?

My role, I felt, was to see whether science could actually test it. Isn’t that what science does? It tests ideas. And of course that in itself was scary enough. I had a couple of colleagues in my own department who couldn’t bear saying hello to me for two years. That is just a small example of how scary it is to actually open that door. But what do we do? We open it anyway, right? Then you get really good at it, and there’s a little bit of audacity that kicks in.

So I moved from just the communication of plants to something that was perceived even more threatening. That is the entire area of the cognitive abilities of plants, and learning and memory are under that umbrella.

Research on learning and memory comes from the domain of psychology, from the study of the human cognition. Several decades later we managed to move beyond humans and include some animals — and more recently, even machines. But one thing that this entire field has been insisting on is the fact that neurons and brains are the key. If you don’t have them, you are automatically a priori excluded. When you actually explore this assumption, you realize that that’s not true.

The first plant that I worked with is Mimosa pudica, also known as “the sensitive plant” because it moves really fast. You probably have learned about it from a beautiful article that Michael Pollan wrote a few years ago for the New Yorker. He did a really good job of describing one of the experiments that I did with these plants, which included dropping the plant to see whether the plants could learn to ignore me, basically. And they do. They learned really fast, and they remember for a very long time.

I’d like to spend some time talking about a kind of higher level of learning, which is from a pea. The nice, humble, green garden pea.

To understand what I did with the peas, we need to go back to the animal kingdom. I’m sure that many of you are familiar with the Pavlovian study of the dog. What is interesting about this experiment is the fact that, first of all, the dog is evaluating what is going on in his environment and he’s got his own value system. He’s deciding what he wants, what is worthwhile, what is going to help him to get there.

The next thing is that, of course, not all dogs are the same, so this value system is very subjective. There is a subject in there that is making these decisions. The decisions are made based on feelings, depending on how the dog feels about having that dinner and about this bell.

Now the really interesting thing about this experiment, from my perspective, is that in a way, by salivating to the sound of a bell that has been previously always rung to announce the arrival of dinner, what the dog is showing us is that he is actually extending the amount of information that is in the environment. He’s extending the information to something that is not in the environment, because dinner is actually not there. So food, or dinner in this case, is just a concept in the dog’s mind. In other words, the dog is imagining dinner.

Now, take this and apply it to a plant. Exactly the same strategy. Dinner for the plant is blue light. In response the plants don’t salivate, but the blue light triggers a phototropic response, which means that the plants will bend towards it. That light is what the plants want just as much as the dog wanted dinner. Now I had to find something that would replace the bell, but would play the same role. What I came up with was this little tiny fan, which on its own doesn’t do anything to the plant. The plant actually doesn’t really care that it’s there, so it keeps growing straight, hoping for some light somewhere.

Now just as Pavlov did with the dog, if you present the fan, always anticipating the light, eventually the plants learn that, just by the presence of the fan, I can start preparing and turn towards it, because the fan tells me where the light is going to be. Just like for the dog, there is someone in there who is making the decision and it’s based on a value system. How much do you want that light? What does the fan mean? And just like for the dog, not all plants are the same, and also that subject in there is deciding and choosing based on how he feels about things, and the experience of those things. Just like for the dog, the plant is actually stretching the field of perception, because dinner — in this case the light — is actually not even there. Like the dog, the food is a concept, an idea in the plant’s mind. In other words, the plant is imagining the food arriving.

This was a great study because apart from the scientific results, it was able to disrupt that linear thinking that if you don’t have a brain and no neurons, you can’t have this ability. We had to relinquish that or at least expand it.

The other thing that was good for me personally was that basically it showed me that imagination is everywhere, no matter what kind of mind or what kind of form you are. It would be the same as saying that imagination is at the heart of nature, our own nature as the human form, and any other nature. It’s an equally important bridge between that heart and the mind that dreams the world into being, whether it’s the human mind or not.

We are stuck in front of this door, and we are so concerned that if we open it we are going to unleash chaos. But guess what? By staying behind this door, we are staying stuck inside our minds. I’m sure everyone has seen the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, and it’s not exactly great news. But the good news is, it’s just as easy as opening the door. All we need to do is there.

When my mind and my heart were linked together through the bridge of imagination, I discovered a few things: First, it took me over those intellectual gaps that I was so afraid of. Second, it has integrated what would look like discrepancy between what I knew and what new was to come. Then it allowed for the emergence of this new insight, new understanding and inspiring ideas. It changed my life and my world as the individual, but it also showed me that it’s absolutely without a doubt possible. We can do it. We just need to dare.

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