Are Plants Smarter than We Are?

In the Mind of Plants

Jacques Mitsch (2009)

Film Review

This documentary is about scientists who study plant intelligence. When this documentary was first released in six years ago, the notion that plants were intelligent was still extremely controversial. As you will note from the film, nearly all the research into plant intelligence occurs outside the US.

The impetus to study plant intelligence came from the 2002 discovery that rice has nearly twice as many genes (50,000) as human beings (26,000). Most scientists agree that species with more genes are more evolved. When it comes to adaptation and cooperation, there’s really no question that rice plants are more advanced than people.

The University of Bonn is the foremost center for the investigation of plant intelligence. While there are many different definitions of intelligence, the criteria used by Bonn scientists include the ability to assess and react to the environment, the ability to interact socially and the ability to form and retain memory.

Through their research, they have discovered that many plants respond to touch, hard surfaces, electrical charge, electromagnetic radiation and even music. Plants interact socially with other plants by emitting chemicals, either as gasses or through their roots. Carnivorous plants can remember being approached by a tasty insect for as long as an hour and acacia trees retain the memory of being attacked by grazing animals for even longer.

Much of this research is based on Darwin’s hypothesis that carnivorous and climbing plants have some kind of central nervous system that enabled them to make complex choices to aid in their survival. Bonn scientists have discovered a special zone of transition behind the root tip that continuously screens and adapts to information from the soil. This zone of transition functions in almost the same way as nerve synapses do in animals. Plant rootlets explore and process the space around them and make complex choices about how to survive, such as when to flower and when to become dormant.

When this zone of transition is excised, plants lose this ability.

The second video, which is more recent, explores how trees communicate with one other via the fungi that wrap around their roots, enabling them to transfer carbon and nitrogen to one another, based on which tree has the greater need.

12 thoughts on “Are Plants Smarter than We Are?

  1. Pingback: Are Plants Smarter than We Are? | knowledge of self

  2. Fascinating stuff! Intelligence may be a misnomer … for humans, no matter what our pretensions. Watch a morning glory vine for a few weeks, and you may decide it wouldn’t be prudent to turn your back on one for too long — tell me how they sense there’s something a meter away from their growth tips that they might cling to! They will twine around their fellows to form a strong enough support to get within reach, even of a very fine wire or the like. And their stems feel light there’s a very slight electrical charge on their surface, whatever that is.
    In high school … a few … years ago, I did a biology paper on animal intelligence. At the time, most “authorities” dismissed the whole idea — at least those in the school library. If we ever learn much, perhaps we can attain a little humility. Which couldn’t hurt. Thanks for this intriguing post! – Linda


    • Excellent points, Linda. It’s my sense that human beings are mostly arrogance and hubris, and both get in the way of the little intelligence they possess.

      To the best of my knowledge plants have managed without arrogance and hubris, and this makes them much more skilled at adapting to their environment than human beings.


  3. Reblogged this on Taking Sides and commented:
    Enjoyed this very much. Plants, like us, are alive, and, like us, act upon and are acted upon by their environment. My intuition is that they are indeed ‘intelligent,’ that is, that plants, in varying degrees, are ‘aware’ and ‘purposeful’ in ways that are both similar to and different from our own. They may be attuned to different aspects of the world than we are, the world likely feels and looks different to them than it does to us, but it must nevertheless be a form of ‘being’ comprising some ‘subjective’ content, an ‘experience’ that may or may not be ‘reflective’ ( — ‘reflective’ in the Sartrean sense, in the sense that a conceptual (if not hard and fast) distinction, even in human experience, can be made between ‘pre-reflective’ and ‘reflective’ states of awareness). All of this is of course supposition on my part, but on this issue that is the direction in which my thinking inclines.


    • Thanks for reblogging, Norman. Plants, especially the interconnections their roots form via mycelium networks (which are often compared to neural networks), are a special interest of mine.

      I think we can learned a lot from these natural systems. There’s a lot of “innovation” there, which we can copy to create energy efficient solutions to current technological problems we face.


  4. Pingback: How Plants Control Us | The Most Revolutionary Act

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