Science in the Torah

Be Nice to Your Plants; They Have Feelings Too


Cleve Backster, an American expert in the use of polygraphs (lie detector machines) decided in 1966, as a one-time experiment, to attach a polygraph machine to a plant in his office as he watered it. To his utter amazement, the needle on the polygraph jumped in a manner similar to a person who had become mildly excited. The slightly dismayed expert wanted to check if he would be able to create an even stronger reaction, so he decided to burn the plant. Before he could even say a word about his plan, let alone put it into action, the needle of the polygraph shot up dramatically. The plant was behaving just like a person being tested and exhibiting a strong emotional response.

Apparently, the plant was able to perceive the approaching danger more than if it had eyes of flesh and blood.

This was only the beginning. The American expert dropped all of his other pursuits and dedicated himself to experiments concerning plants and their stunning mysteries. “I soon discovered that plants can see better without eyes, and sense better without a nervous system,” he said.

In the process of his research, he discovered that plants not only respond to direct threats upon them, but also to indirect ones. For example, when a person who did not like plants entered the room, the plants responded with their own type of “disappointment.” When an animal such as a wounded mouse entered, the plants responded with electric emissions that resembled “indignation.”

Backster then formulated a “blind” test, devoid of all human intervention, in order to exclude the possibility that the experimenter was somehow influencing the polygraph needle. He assembled a special device that randomly spilled the contents of various containers into a pot of boiling water every few minutes. Some of the containers held water, the others goldfish. Three types of philodendron were placed alone in a room with these containers and connected to a galvanometer – a device used for measuring weak electric signals.

The results of this experiment were startling. Each time the fish were poured into the pot of boiling water, all of the plants responded as if in great distress.

This discovery created a stir in the scientific world and resulted in worldwide recognition for Backster. Thousands of scientists requested printed results of his work and researchers throughout America began to speculate about potential uses for his findings.

This brings us to a teaching from the Sages, which describes how one of our great rabbis understood plants’ ability to perceive, and reveals his deep understanding of plants’ emotional intelligence: (Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 3:1)

“There once was a date tree that stood in the village of Hammatan that never produced fruit. People tried grafting [other date shoots] onto her – but still no fruit. Rabbi Tanchumah said to them, ‘This date tree sees the fronds of another date palm in Jericho and longs in her heart for them.’ The people brought some of the fronds to the date tree and grafted them on, and she produced fruit right away.”

There is a phenomenon well known to horticulturists: A climbing vine that is working its way towards the closest post will change its direction if someone moves the post. How is this possible? If we accept the premise that plants can see or sense their surroundings, this phenomenon can now be understood.

If, however, you still doubt that plants have feelings that motivate them, take careful notice of the section below.

It is important to note the official explanation for this phenomenon from the world of botanical researchers: “Climbing plants send out tendrils that turn in ever widening circles (or that sway from side to side), until they encounter some object around which they then wrap themselves. If the object is moved or removed before the tendrils are able to wrap themselves well, they return to their previous movements, until they wrap themselves around a nearby object.”

Science, however, knows only how to describe events, but not why they happen. It has no tools to explain the ultimate goal of a plant’s movement – whether it is blindly seeking for whatever it may find, or willfully moving itself towards something it desires. According to the Sages (as well as recent scientific discoveries), the second explanation may indeed make more sense.


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