More than 200 years ago, French botanist René Desfontaines instructed a student to monitor the behavior of Mimosa pudica plants as he drove them around Paris in a carriage. Mimosa pudica quickly closes its leaves when touched — presumably as a defense mechanism. Desfontaines was interested in the plants’ response to the continuous vibrations of the ride. Initially, the leaves closed, but after a time, they reopened, despite the shaking. “The plants are getting used to it,” the student wrote in his notebook.
Stefano Mancuso recounts this tale in The Revolutionary Genius of Plants and reports on a modern follow-up: a repeat of the experiment (without the carriage) demonstrating that plants can indeed learn that an external provocation is harmless and remember what they’ve learned for weeks.
Learning is impossible without memory, and both are hallmarks of intelligence, argues Mancuso, who leads the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology at the University of Florence in Italy. But our animal-centric view of neuroscience makes us loathe to employ terms like “memory” and “intelligence” when talking about organisms without a brain. With infectious passion, Mancuso sets out to convince us that the plant way of doing things not only deserves our respect, but also may help us solve greater societal woes. [Continue reading…]