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Can Plants Feel? Unmasking Plant Intelligence with Paco Calvo and Natalie Lawrence, Ep 174



Have you ever wondered if plants have intelligence and emotions in the same way that humans do?Plant intelligence is a topic that has been gaining more attention in recent years. The idea that plants are not just passive organisms, but actively respond to their environment and make decisions, is fascinating. To delve deeper into this subject, we are joined by two experts in the field: Professor Paco Calvo, a professor of philosophy of science and the principal investigator at the MINT Lab, and Natalie Lawrence, a writer and illustrator with a Ph.D. and MSc in the history and philosophy of zoology. Together, they will share their knowledge and insights on plant intelligence and explore the ways in which plants communicate, learn, and make decisions. Whether you're a gardener, a scientist, or simply curious about the natural world, this episode will give you a new perspective on the intelligence of plants.

In this episode, we learn:

  • [06:32] Who is Professor Paco Palvo?
  • [07:01] Why is MINT Lab in the philosophy department instead of the plant science department?
  • [09:28] Who is Natalie Lawrence? 
  • [10:00] The relationship between animals and plants: biophilia
  • [13:34] What is anthropophilia?
  • [16:26] What role do houseplants play in our relationship with nature?
  • [18:04] How humans have shaped the phenotype, or characteristics, of plants through agriculture
  • [20:09] What special message would you engrave on your wind chime?
  • [22:40] The best way to sleep better and feel calmer naturally in no time!
  • [25:58] Different types of intelligence displayed by plants
  • [26:39] How do we see from a plant’s perspective?
  • [27:27] Tip 1: Observe the plants’ behavior through time-lapse photography
  • [27:45] Tip 2: Monitor the plants’ electrophysiological states
  • [28:14] Tip 3: Observe the plant holistically through naked eyes (the most important!)
  • [32:41] Melatonin synthesis in plants: what we can learn 
  • [34:57] How vines (climbing plants) have evolved to locate host trees through senses like “sniffing”
  • [36:59] Where to get the best quality and variety of seeds for ease of planting experience this year!
  • [38:35] Sourcing a wide variety of high-quality soil, fertilizer, potty mix, and more!
  • [40:24] What are some of the ways vines (climbing plants) can find their host trees?
  • [42:04] Are plants smarter? (Hint: It’s not what you think!)
  • [44:07] What are the limits of technology when it comes to understanding plant intelligence?
  • [46:56] Do plants have feelings? 
  • [50:24] Do plants understand music?
  • [53:35] What is plant blindness?


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The Mint Intelligence Lab

The Minimal Intelligence Lab (MINT Lab), a philosophy-based lab at the University of Murcia in Spain, studies how plants behave so we can figure out what makes them really intelligent. It is spearheaded by the wonderful Prof. Paco Calvo, a Professor of Philosophy of Science, who specializes in cognitive science and ecological psychology.

As opposed to looking at plants' molecular or physiological underpinnings, the lab raises different questions from a plant biology perspective and tries to understand how plants behave. The lab aims to find out what “intelligent behavior” is in plants, animals, and humans!

Natalie Lawrence is a writer and illustrator with a Ph.D. and MSc in the history and philosophy of zoology from the University of Cambridge. Her work has been published on various platforms such as BBC Wildlife and Aeon Magazine. She is a TEDx speaker and also appeared on the BBC Woman's Hour.


What is Biophilia?

The concept of biophilia, or connecting with other living things, can be a powerful tool for cultivating joy and calm in our daily lives. The good news, plant friends: you don't have to be a scientist to reap and experience the benefits of spending time with plants!

Incorporating plants into your morning routine, such as spending time with them before checking your phone or computer, is a great way to start the day and connect with yourself and nature.

While there is research on the benefits of spending time in nature, such as “forest bathing” in Japan, there is less research on the benefits of spending time with plants in our homes. Growing Joy: The Plant Lover's Guide to Cultivating Happiness (and Plants) delves into self-care and the effects of plants in the home and office spaces, which can be a great start to understanding the many benefits of having plants in our lives.

If you're looking to dive deeper into our plants’ abilities and impressive intrinsic behavior, check out Prof. Calvo and Natalie Lawrence’s book Planta Sapiens: The New Science of Plant Intelligence which also explores the concept of anthropomorphism, or assigning human-like characteristics to plants.


The Connection Between Plants and Humans

Co-evolution is a fascinating concept in understanding the relationship between different organisms and their adaptations. It refers to the mutual shaping of different forms of life in evolution. 

Take pollinators and flowers for example, they have a symbiotic relationship where pollinators are drawn to the nectar of flowers and in return, flowers have become more attractive to pollinators. Isn't that just impressive?

Human beings are just one more factor in this pattern of evolution and understanding our relationship with plants is important. Have you ever noticed that domesticated plants have shorter internodal lengths than wild plants? That's a result of their coevolution with humans!

In wild plants, internodes are typically longer, allowing the plant to reach taller heights and compete for sunlight with other plants. In contrast, domesticated plants have shorter internodes since we make sure their needs like sunlight and water are met, resulting in bushier plants that produce more fruit and flowers. 

Understanding co-evolution makes us appreciate the intricate web of life even more. So next time you're feeling stressed or disconnected, why not take a moment to appreciate the plants in your life and find comfort in the role they play in our world?


A Plant’s Perspective: Understanding How Our Plants Behave

Have you ever thought about what the world is like from a plant's perspective? It is a difficult exercise that requires more than just reading books, however, the MINT Lab has developed several methodologies to acquire plants' perspective. Here are examples of their methodologies that make understanding plants  more accessible to us: 

  • Time-lapse photography: This allows us to observe a week of plant behavior in just a few minutes. This is an essential tool for studying plant behavior, like how they react to light and water in varying factors.
  • Electrophysiological states: Electrodes are attached to plants to monitor their electrophysiological activity and see how it correlates with their observable behavior.

However, before these technical observations are conducted, simply observing the plant and its surroundings is also crucial, like paying attention to the day and night cycles, the changes in temperature and humidity, and other regularities that are important to the plant.

So instead of completely relying on technology to understand our plants, let's take a step back and observe the plant in its natural state! It can give us a deeper understanding and appreciation of their behavior than we expect.


Do Plants Understand Music?

Playing music to plants may be a common practice, but it is important to note that plants do not perceive music in the same way humans do.

According to Natalie, there is no evolutionary reason for plants to have an appreciation of music genres. Plants have sensors that can detect mechanical stimulation, such as vibrations, but this should be categorized differently from the human categorization of music genres such as classical versus hard rock.


Do Plants Have Feelings?

Plants feel but they don’t feel the way we feel! Prof. Paco and Natalie share that the idea of plants having feelings is a heavily loaded term and should be used with caution. Plants sense their surroundings through a variety of sensors and are constantly monitoring their environment.

However, the idea of plants suffering or having feelings should not be anthropomorphized, as it doesn't serve any function for the plant and is not relevant in the same way as human feelings. 

So plants can experience stress and negative subjective experiences, but it is important to separate this from the human understanding of feelings and suffering.

Despite this difference, humans and plants are closer to each other than we think. We surround ourselves with plants in our living spaces not just because of their beautiful greenery and the joy they bring, but because we are actually essential to each other’s survival and evolution.

Isn’t that a wonderful thing?


Mentioned in our conversation:


Thank you to our episode sponsors:

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