Like plants talk when we’re not around


A real surprise in recent decades has been the discovery that plants have nervous systems like animals and use some of the same connections in communication – for example TMAO to relieve stress and glutamate to speed up transmission.

Venus Flytrap at work

biologist Peter Rogers recently pointed out that the similarities may shed some light on questions surrounding anesthesia. Surprisingly, it is possible to stun a plant. The pubic plant (Mimosa pudica) and Venus flytrap showed that:

Thirty years after anesthesia debuted in the operating room, Claude Bernard, a French physiologist, demonstrated that the pubic plant (Mimosa pudica), which shyly folds up when touched, becomes unresponsive to touch after exposure to ether, a commonly used anesthetic. The plant also folds up at night, but this movement was unaffected by the anesthetic. Bernard concluded that anesthesia does not impair mobility; rather, it inhibits the plant’s ability to perceive its environment. That means anesthesia blocks consciousness…

Peter RogersHow Venus Flytraps Give Scientists Insights into Consciousness and Anesthesia” at the think big (March 27, 2022)

In 2017 another attempt was made to stun a plant, this time on the Venus Flytrap:

Corresponding [plant physiology expert Rainer] Hedrich, Venus flytraps remember when touched. When prey lands on the plant’s trap, it brushes against a sensory hair. The hair fires an electrical impulse, releasing a wave of signaling molecules throughout the trap. After two pulses, the trap closes and captures the animal prey. After five pulses, the plant produces digestive enzymes. Because anesthesia disrupts memory in animals, Hedrich hypothesized that the anesthesia prevented the plant from remembering any stimulation.

To test this, Hedrich determined whether stunned fly traps still released signaling molecules. They found that sensory hair still released the signaling molecule when stimulated, but the signal did not spread throughout the trap. In an animal, this is similar to local pain receptors that detect pain and release local pain signals, but these signals never reach the brain.

The Venus flytrap’s response to anesthesia suggests that anesthesia affects the plant at a cellular and organ level, similar to how it affects animals. And that makes it a model to study general questions about anesthesia and even consciousness.

Peter RogersHow Venus Flytraps Give Scientists Insights into Consciousness and Anesthesia” at the think big (March 27, 2022)

Well, “consciousness” is going a little too far, because it’s best to be clear about what we mean by that. In plants, such as worms, there could be an extensive communication network without an actual consciousness in the sense of “I” being involved. The effect would be roughly similar to that of a “smart” building, albeit much more complex. That means the communication is highly sensitive and extensive, regardless of whether someone is actually “at home” or not.

Still, the way plants communicate is remarkable. For example, one researcher tells us that plants RNA can use “Talking” to neighbors and influencing their gene expression was a rather unexpected finding:

Why would one plant affect the gene expression of another plant? One possibility, Perata says, is that “sharing information through the exchange of RNA would allow plants suffering from stress to warn nearby plants that are not yet affected by the stress.” Competition could be one be another explanation, he writes; For example, if a plant releasing miRNAs “could inhibit physiological functions in a nearby plant,” it might gain “a competitive advantage for resource utilization.” …

[Plant molecular geneticist Hailing]Jin adds that these new findings raise many new questions and that there is likely much more to learn about the role of RNA in plant communication. What we currently know about it is just the “tip of the iceberg,” she concludes.

Alejandra ManjarrezPlants use RNA to talk to neighbors” at the The scientist (October 21, 2021)

There is also extensive plant communication via fungal networks:

Simple answers to natural facts help the plant to learn; B. Response to the position of the sun (heliotropism)Response to recent temperature changes (vernalization)a response to losing or gaining a stimulus (habituation/weaning)and associating one stimulus with another (Associative Learning). Yes, the last two points are also studied in animal and human psychology.

What about the memory? philosopher Laura Ruggles provides an example:

During the day, the mallow uses motor tissue at the base of its stems to turn its leaves towards the sun, a process actively controlled by changes in water pressure inside the plant (called turgor). The strength and direction of sunlight are encoded in light-sensitive tissue, distributed across the geometric arrangement of the mallow’s leaf veins, and stored overnight. The plant also tracks information about the cycle of day and night via its internal circadian clocks, which are sensitive to environmental cues signaling dawn and dusk.

Using information from all of these sources, the mallow can overnight predict where and when the sun will rise the next day. It may not have concepts like “the sun” or “sunrise,” but it does store information about the light vector and day/night cycles that allow it to reorient its leaves before dawn so their surfaces face the sun, when she rises to heaven heaven. This also allows him to relearn a new location when plant physiologists play around with his “head” by changing the direction of the light source. If the facilities are closed in the dark, the anticipation mechanism also works offline for a few days. As with other foraging strategies, this involves optimizing available resources—in this case, sunlight.

Laura RugglesThe Mind of Plants” at the aeon (December 12, 2017)

Although the plant does not “think,” it does have an effective substitute for thinking in the form of cascades of chemical communication. It turns out that nature is much more densely packed with information than we thought.

Note: One last thing: something else plants sometimes do is manipulate pests into killing themselves:

You might also like to read:

Plants help each other. Are you confident? Can they suffer? Recent discoveries that plants can do many things we previously thought only animals could do raise some interesting questions. The sophisticated communication systems in plants underscore the fact that information is immaterial, but they do not imply individual consciousness.


How plants can count and remember without a brain. Plants like the Venus Flytrap can tell time by the chemicals circulating in their systems. Although a mind is required to work with ideas, many natural systems store information in other ways. Plants store information about their experiences.


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