In the Mind of Plants

In the Mind of Plants

2008, Nature  -   38 Comments
Ratings: 8.62/10 from 274 users.

Plants are a vital source of life, providing sustenance and oxygen to the human and animal inhabitants of the world. But is plant life closer to sentient life than expected? This documentary from Jacques Mitsch outlines the ways in which intelligence is defined - by recognizing one's environment and interacting with it; having a memory; being able to communicate and interact socially; and having a brain to coordinate everything.

This film investigates the notion that plants are intelligent, evolved biological forms through interviews with researchers across the globe that are exploring the boundaries between animal and plant. Researchers in the Savannah desert find that populations of Kudu are mysteriously dying off, and make a surprising discovery – Acacia trees have developed a survival technique in response to dense herds of Kudu overgrazing.

When the trees sense that they are being overtaxed they defensively release a toxic gas, eliminating the threat to their population. In examining the predatory nature of plants such as the Venus Fly Trap, the narrator explains that plants have learned to adapt to their environments. In the case of the Venus Fly Traps and other carnivorous flora, the plants compensate for nutritional deficiencies by eating insects, further demonstrating that they are capable of reacting to their environment.

Scientists at Bonn University in Germany focus their studies on the exploration of plants' ability to recognize and respond to environmental stimuli. Using peas and beans as an example for their use of tendrils to seek out air and light, the researchers demonstrate their point by stimulating pea plants with sticks, causing the tendrils to react. They suggest that pea seedlings exhibit the capacity for memory and perception in their ability to grow upwards regardless of how they are positioned, i.e. a plant on its side reorients itself to continue vertical growth.

Japanese researchers investigate the way plants function at the molecular level, asking how plants sleep, if they need sleep and what happens if they don't sleep? By recreating day and night cycles in artificial conditions, they manipulate their botanical test subjects in the hopes of proving that sleep and rest are not purely animal behaviors.

A small but growing area of research, the study of plant intelligence is considered somewhat controversial and met with skepticism by the larger scientific community, but is no less important to our understanding of intelligent life be it human, animal or botanical. In the Mind of Plants provides valuable insight into this developing area of investigation and inspires viewers to consider our relationship with the botanical cohabitants of the world.

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38 Comments / User Reviews

  1. Kay

    I think that some plants have modified themselves to evolve as todays animals (including man)

  2. QuantumT

    Regarding intelligence in plants and in nature in general, I do believe that life itself is intelligent. Nowadays we call that kind of intelligence an application, or simply just an app. Welcome to the selfsustaining simulation ;-)

  3. QuantumT

    @Robin K
    Darwin did not regret anything. That is a myth made by fundamental christians. On his deathbed he thanked his wife for being a good spouse. That's it.

  4. hk909

    We know our brains control most of our internal biological functions. They regulate breathing, control our central nervous system, and so on. Intelligence, however, is a bit more difficult to explain, account for, or pinpoint. The assumption is that the brain is the seat of intelligence; but the tests that seem to "prove" that assumption primarily prove only that the central nervous system carries electrical impulses to all parts of the body. In reality, the brain may have nothing more to do with intelligence than simply as a regulator of electrical conduits.

    So there's still hope for the lowly plants - even without that all important gray matter.

  5. RDS

    I love all documentaries, we often overlooked some of the most powerful Concepts in life because they were originally presented to us in a manner that fails to stimulate and Intrigue the human psyche. documentary films and series brought to us today reach inquisitive minds, captivate and pull us in regardless of age.
    from David Attenborough to Sigourney Weaver and since the Advent of HD quality in the mainstream, our documentaries and educational television presentseven the migration of fungal spores in a manner that keeps us on the edge of our seats.
    unfortunately all too often the narrator whose image is never brought to us on screentends to be a little backstage by the video and audio.
    I enjoyed "in the mind of plants". I think the narrator is key how much information is retainedand are often overlooked in consideration save one brief flash during the credits.
    the voice without a face deserves a lot of credit sometimes I hear my kids say " oh I like her or him" not realizing you're getting sit through some quantum physics "boring junk".

  6. Carly

    Does anyone know who the music was composed by? I know Gilles Carles is credited for the original music in the end credits, but I can't seem to find any information on that online.

  7. Robin K

    For the record; In the end, Darwin admitted that he didn't believe in his own theory about evolution.
    I see most people forget to mention that.

  8. Tom Carberry

    Very interesting documentary.

    It leaves me with a number of questions I wish I could ask some of these botanists.

    What about giant plant colonies, such a mushrooms or aspen trees. Has anyone studied whether they communicate and how? Some fungus colonies grow to thousands of acres. Or Pando, the giant aspen tree organism in Utah that covers hundreds of acres.

    What about serotonin in plants and also in the human brain? How do their functions differ?

    I live in a giant forest made up of conifers and aspens, and it seems they must have interconnected root systems because the roots have no choice but to touch each other and wrap around each other.

    No one understands consciousness. No one knows where it comes from, although most people assume from the brain. But we have no actual evidence of that, despite all our modern tools.

    For all we know, consciousness may exist as a separate force in the universe, just like space, time, energy, and matter. The physicist Amit Goswami proposed this years ago in a book called the Self Aware Universe. What if consciousness shaped matter in order to make it into a better vessel in which for consciousness to reside?

  9. FreeOregon

    In the 1980's the Rutgers University Agricultural Engineering Department grew tomatoes in greenhouses. To entertain the graduate students they also piped in music.

    Peculiarly the tomatoes grew larger, faster and gave higher yields to Mozart than to contemporary Rock. Some thought this resulted from wavelengths or electrical pulses, but no work was done to verify cause and effect.

  10. a_no_n

    wow does this doc spend a LONG time getting to the point.
    after five minutes it was no closer to explaining what it was about and i started skipping ahead.

    for a documentary on plants, it seems to spend the first quarter of an hour talking exclusively about deer (bonobo's or whatever)

    this documentary screams Woo at me.

    the answer to do plants have intelligence is no. Unless you can point me to a plants brain, or it's method for processing information then no, they don't...they do what they do because of a little thing called evolution.

    This doc explains nothing.

    It certainly didn't leave me questioning the existence of intelligence in plants...the intelligence of some humans certainly, but not plants.

    1. dmxi

      i beg to differ...the jelly-fish being a prime example for an absent organ we call brain but still executing feats like 'seeing' & even hunting;things we still have not figured out yet how they accomplish those traits without a detectable processing 'machine',if you will.

    2. a_no_n

      but Jellyfish still have an explainable method for processing information in their highly developed Central Nervous System that can feel everything a brain needs to process..

      Some of them aren't even a single creature but a network of things hanging together...I get what you're saying but i don't think that supports the assertions this doc is making which seem to be taking evolution and applying some sort of sentience to it.

      this doc makes a LOT of assertions with very little evidence or any sort of developed explaination. the thinking seems to be thus;

      "Plant A has developed a survival mechanism therefore it and all other plants must be intelligent and have memories too."

      and it seems to justify this opinion more with a "because i say so" attitude than any sort of hard evidence.

      I don't buy it. it's all circumstantial and i question it's interpretation.

    3. dmxi

      agreed....just wanted to point out that our 'huma-centric' evaluation of 'life',& things to come could lend us a whole new conception of classification,is yet far from completion ....but as always that is my opinion which i can't back with 'hard evidence' (concerning plants),only studies that prove reaction when under certain situations which have been widely accepted in the scientific community......& i must confess that i haven't watched this doc yet & due to comments most probably won't!

    4. Fabien L

      It's worth a watch, you can dismiss the parts about it being intelligence and still enjoy to see how plants react to their surroundings.

    5. dmxi

      cheers for the tip.....will give it try.regards...

    6. Horst Manure

      Plus have eyes.

    7. Krackjack

      so if all that plants do is because "of a little thing called evolution" and not intelligence, are you saying that intelligence is not a product of evolution?

    8. a_no_n

      An interesting strawman...but a strawman all the same. I said nothing of the sort.

      Intelligent creatures evolved brains, where's a plants brain?

    9. Fabien L

      It all depends what you define as intelligence. If you look for a definition online, you will come up with many different point of view ranging from "goal directed adaptive behavior" to "problem solving" to "a mental capability that, among other things, involves the
      ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend
      complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience".

    10. a_no_n

      Perhaps. I'm certainly no authority on such things. I just wonder if there's a bit of
      Pareidolia going on in this instance. and the way plants just naturally develop is being mistaken for a pattern of intelligence because it 'does it' so well.

    11. Fabien L

      Could be though it can't be denied information is exchanged between the cells using proteins,
      hormones, peptides, etc. Is intelligence a product of a complex nervous system or can a totally different structure exhibit intelligence? I guess Artificial Intelligence proves you don't really need a biological brain, only processing power.

    12. rootbrains

      the brain is in the roots. use your brain to figure it out.

    13. a_no_n

      in science we use this thing called evidence, we don't just blindly believe everything some crank on the internet says.

      It's not MY responsibility to prove YOUR claims, it's yours.

      how about you engage YOUR brain and go learn the basics of the scientific method before trying to imply i'm an id**t!

    14. stubones49

      If you possessed an imaginative brain you could answer that question on your very own....
      Just THINK about it- What you understand as "A Brain" is limited to your understanding of what someone else wanted you to realize-
      You have been victimized by linear thinking my friend.....
      Start thinking out of the box-Use A bit of gestalt, if you want to understand A tree, become A tree.....

    15. a_no_n

      oh dear, asking for evidence is "Linear thinking" now is it?

      It's called "Critical thinking"

      the problem with thinking outside the box is that there is a lot of bullsh1t outside that box!

    16. Alien8

      Lol, we cannot even prove that the human brain has a "mind", There is no scientific evidence that consciousness exists, morality, imagination, and the likes. 100% of science findings about "minds" is a total failure of basic understanding (thing/ no-thing)

    17. hk909

      So plants can't be sentient creatures until such time as you decide to let them be. Wow! Your superhuman powers are astounding.

    18. a_no_n

      So instead we should just presume sentience on them and pretend we're walking around in a cartoon where everything has an opinion and a song to sing?

  11. Fabien L

    Fascinating documentary for anyone that likes plants. I earn my living growing and selling them and still learned something new like that Desmodium gyrans moves when music is played nearby.

    1. catherine todd

      What is "Desmodium gyrans" and what kind of music is played nearby? Does the music emit more powerful waves than other kinds of music? Is it harmonious music? Does the kind of music change the kind of movement? This is fascinating.

  12. pwndecaf

    Some people actually eat these sentient beings!

    1. victorshengli

      And what should we eat - rocks? (At least until someone decides that rocks can think too.)

    2. pwndecaf

      Rocks were kept as pets for some time, but mine didn't do much except sleep. Sometimes, I could get it to roll over, but it really needed to be helped. Good disposition, though!

    3. dewflirt

      On a school trip to Lunt Fort, I bought (yes, paid for) a pet stick. Your rock sounds like it might have been more fun.

    4. pwndecaf

      I had to look up Lunt Fort. Was it an old Roman stick or a modern English stick?

      Most sticks have more bark than bite - ouch!

    5. dewflirt

      It was a Midlander, so probably Roman. I lost him, rubbish pet but a master of camouflage :)

  13. ~Oliver B Koslik Esq

    This documentary reminds me that I need to get some plants for my house!

    1. oQ

      some plants are more fun than others.