The Human-Like Perception of Plants

The Soul of a Plant

The title sounds like a phrase of idealistic or even fanciful poetry fit to precede some reverie or ethereal dream of the imagination; but actually it is no more than the final idea which naturally suggests itself after a perusal of the accounts given in English journals of the strictly controlled and severely careful experiments and results demonstrated by Dr. J. C. Bose in London and Vienna. This distinguished scientist was one of the earliest experimenters in that field of research, which has brought about the use of wireless telegraphy. But he turned aside subsequently to a deeper line of original experiment and one likely to be more fruitful in its results to human knowledge. Following an absolutely original line, inventing his own apparatus, of the most simple yet subtle delicacy, and constructing them by the hands of Indian artisans, working without collaborators and with the smallest modicum of recognition by his fellow-scientists, he has pursued his investigations to a result so complete and impeccable that the scientists of Vienna are said to have exclaimed, when they saw his demonstrations, You have left us nothing to do!” The nature of these results may be best understood by an interesting account in one of the London dailies, which [discloses] very clearly the import of Dr. Bose’s discoveries. They are of such importance that [the whole article is quoted as is]:

    “In these days it seems to be impossible to live for more than a few weeks at a time without receiving some more or less serious mental shock. Soon after you have recovered from seeing an aero plane weighing half a ton leave the ground, you are called on to make a mental adjustment which will reconcile you to traveling in a train hanging in mid-air, and in another day or two you may find yourself face to face with the adventure of speaking to someone fifty miles away without the aid even of a wire. It is getting a little difficult to keep up with Science.

     Just now Professor J. C. Bose—a Hindu scientist who has been sent by the Government of India to lay the results of his discoveries before the Western scientific world—is giving people shocks in Maida Vale. If you watch his astonishing experiments with plants and flowers, you have to leave an old world behind and enter a new one. The world where plants are merely plants becomes mercilessly out of date, and you are forced abruptly into a world where plants are almost human beings. Professor Bose makes you take the leap when he demonstrates that plants have a nervous system quite comparable with that of men, and makes them write down their life-story. So you step into yet another world.

      Perhaps the most amazing experiment is one showing the actual death of a plant. This does not sound very wonderful—but have you ever seen a plant die? You have seen it gradually die, fade and wither; but it actually died long before it faded. Have you ever seen it die abruptly, as a man dies? Have you seen the death-struggle of a plant? That is what Professor Bose shows you—and it is a disturbing thing to watch. It gives a plant a human quality.

     The experiment is not easy to describe; but this is briefly what you see. In a darkened room, you see a strip of light on the wall, and this light moves slowly to the left. Quite suddenly it hesitates and quivers and struggles, and then moves slowly to the right. It is when the light hesitates and quivers and struggles that you are watching the death of the plant.

      One of the Professor’s great difficulties was to know how to kill a plant suddenly enough. When you pick a rose you kill it, but not abruptly. There is still a little nourishment for it in the stem, and its collapse is gradual. Such a death does not lend itself to dramatic demonstration. But Professor Bose found that water at a high temperature—say, 140 in warm water. Under the congenial influence of the warmth, the tendency is for the stem of the plant to expand. It enjoys the stimulant of the warmth, just as a man will enjoy the stimulant of a hot bath, and it shows its appreciation by expanding. . . .As the temperature of the water is gradually increased, the movement, shown so dramatically by the strip of light on the wall, increases. But there comes a moment when the heat of the water is too much for the plant—when, in fact, it is in danger of being scalded to death just as a man would be scalded if he were held in water which was gradually heated to boiling-point. And the plant’s nervous system collapses just as the man’s system would collapse. The strip of light on the wall pauses and quivers for a second, and then returns along its path. It has died suddenly—scalded to death—and the backward movement of the light is but a dramatic reproduction of the contraction of its body – that contraction which immediately follows death.”

     So far the phenomena noted are those of vital activities associated with the physical states we call life and death; but then there come others which are usually associated with mental consciousness, so that the writer of the article is induced to use such phrases as “the feelings of plants,” “the perception part of the plant,” [and] “the plant’s power of perception.”

     “Other experiments showing the feelings of plants are equally surprising. Professor Bose employs a compulsive force, which causes the plant to give an answering signal—a twitch in reply. These signals are automatically recorded on the delicate instruments the Professor has invented and the records reveal the hidden feelings of the plant. Some idea of the delicacy of the instruments may be gained from the fact that they can record a time interval so short as the 1,000th part of the duration of a heartbeat.

     The Professor connected a plant with the instrument, and then lightly struck one of the leaves. At once it was clear that the plant felt the blow. That is, its whole nervous system was affected, and its pulse, written down by the ingenious recorder, varied with the severity of the blow. The Professor gave the plant a little stimulant. At once the height of the pulse was increased. It was given a depressing drug and the effect was quickly seen in the feebler beating of the pulse.

     . . .When Professor Bose gave the plant a dose of alcohol, its response through the recorder was ludicrously unsteady. One had the humiliation of watching a drunken plant. The plant is, indeed, always too “brotherly.” Too much food makes it lethargic and incapable of reply, but the removal of the excess removes the lethargy.

     The resonant recorder indicates the time taken by the plant to perceive a shock, and here again there is considerable likeness to humanity, for a stoutish plant will give its response in a slow and lordly fashion, but a thin one attains the acme of its excitement in an incredibly short time—in the case of mimosa in the six-hundredth part of a second. The perception part of the plant becomes very sluggish under fatigue. When excessively tired or bored, it loses for the time all power of perception, and requires a rest cure of at least half an hour to restore its equanimity.

     That the too sheltered life is no better for plants than for man is suggested by another interesting experiment. A plant, which was carefully protected under glass from outside blows, looked most sleek and flourishing, but its conducting power was found atrophied or paralyzed. Yet, when a succession of blows were rained on this effete and bloated specimen, the stimulus canalized its own path of conduction, and the plant soon became more alert and responsive, and its nervous impulses were very much quickened.

     It is impossible for a spectator of the Professor’s experiments to make any attempt to separate himself from the rest of life. In the matter of automatic heartbeats the Indian plant, Desmodium Gyrans, shows remarkable activity, and Professor Bose, by obtaining records of these pulsations, shows that the throbbings in the plant are affected by external agents in precisely the same way as the heartbeats of an animal. Thus, in plant, as in animal life, the pulse-frequency is increased under the action of warmth and lessened under cold. Under ether the throbbing of the plant is arrested, but revival is possible when the vapor is blown off. Chloroform is more fatal. There is, too, an extraordinary parallelism in the fact that those poisons, which arrest the beat of the heart in a particular way, arrest the plant pulsation in a corresponding manner. Also, taking advantage of the antagonistic reactions of specific poisons, Professor Bose has been able to revive a poisoned leaf by the application of another counteracting poison.

      To find whether the plant varies in its state of responsiveness, Professor Bose has subjected mimosa (a plant especially sensitive and useful for this line of work) to uniform shocks repeated every hour of the day and night. And he was rewarded by the discovery that plants keep very late hours. Contrary to current views, the plant is awake till early in the morning, falling into deepest sleep between 6and 9 a.m. when it fully awake, becoming lethargic as the after noon passes, to sleep again in the early morning.

      Finally, following out the inevitable suggestions of all these remarkable phenomena, the writer proceeds to draw the moral—the lesson which Nature is always lying in wait to give to the self-confined egoism of man.

     “The superiority of a man must, in fact, be established on a foundation more secure than sensibility. The most sensitive organ by which we can detect an electric current is our tongue. An average European can perceive a current as feeble as 6.4 microamperes (a microampere is a millionth part be more excitable. But the plant mimosa is ten times more stolid then the common radish. But under the persuasion of Professor Bose’s instruments it responds vigorously to stimuli.

      That the establishment of this similarity of responsive actions in the plant and animal will be found of the highest significance is evident from the enthusiastic reception of these discoveries at Oxford, Cambridge, London and Continental scientific centers. By study of the vegetable organisms the more complex physiological reactions of the human being may be understood. Thus, as Professor Bose says, community throughout the great ocean of life is seen to outweigh apparent dissimilarity. Diversity is swallowed up in unity.” —

     Diversity swallowed up in unity!—It might have been a phrase from some free rendering of an ancient Upanishad. But how much precisely are we justified in deducing from these results produced by the severest tests of physical research, accepted by the scientific opinion of Europe and considered by thinkers of distinction to be of great importance for the future development of the Science of Psychology? Dr. Bose, then a young and unknown scientist, set out to prove the existence of nervous life in metals and plants by showing that they return precisely the same responses to the same stimuli as human beings. In the vegetable kingdom his thesis has been triumphantly proved. These are, obviously, successful experimental observations in the physiology of plants, their vital habits, their nervous responses, and we are now justified by them in saying that man and the plant are one body and one life. Can we go farther and say that they are also to a certain extent observations in plant psychology or that Dr. Bose has gone beyond his original thesis and established between man and the plant a unity of the incipient mind?

    If we accept the method of the modern psychologists who hold the physical and the nervous life to be the basis and the material of mind, we are practically compelled to say, yes. The responses of the plant are evidently identical with those which in man are translated in mental values as physical and nervous sensations; there is in the plant an incipient mind, a rudimentary soul; for it not only lives and dies, wakes and sleeps, but it makes the responses which in us would be pleasure and pain. Is there nothing, then, in the plant, which corresponds to the perceptive element in man? Has it, if we may say so, nervous sensation only and not mental perception?

       Scientifically, perhaps, we are not warranted to go so far, but that intuitive logic, which is, after all, as often justified by result as the experimental, certainly demands the presence of such a faculty, however much it may linger on the verge of the sub-conscient. The question, at any rate, is raised irresistibly by Dr. Bose’s experiments and demands a solution. It is doubtful, however, whether it can ever be solved by any method, which comes within the limits of scientific orthodoxy. We reach a borderline where the demands of increasing knowledge begin to cry out for an enlargement in the means and methods of enquiry.

       In any case, a great step has been made towards the unification of knowledge. A bridge has been built between man and inert matter. Even, if we take Dr. Bose’s experiments with metals in conjunction with his experiments on plants, we may hold it to be practically proved for the thinker that Life in various degrees of manifestation and organization is omnipresent in Matter and is no foreign introduction or accidental development, but was always there to be evolved. Mind, which modern Science has not yet begun rightly to investigate, awaits its turn.

       The ancient thinkers knew well that life and mind exist everywhere in essence and vary only by the degree and manner of their emergence and functioning. All is in all and it is out of the complete involution that the complete evolution progressively appears.

Sri Aurobindo

A Philosophical Review Vol-1, 15th August 1914

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