Moving the Goalposts for Plant Intelligence

What Cleve Backster’s research into plant intelligence reveals about the attunement of living things.

Plant Intelligence

Cleve Backster could name the moment the focus of his life changed forever, from lie detection to plant intelligence: early in the morning on February 2, 1966, at 13 minutes, 55 seconds of chart time for a polygraph he was administering. He had threatened the subject’s well-being in hopes of triggering a response. The subject had responded electrochemically to this threat. The subject was a plant.

Photo by Miguel Perez/www.flickr.com/photos/116158297@N06/

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Almost 20 years ago I interviewed Cleve Backster about plant intelli­gence. No, he wasn’t a botanist. He was one of the world’s experts on the use of polygraphs, or lie detectors. I know that sounds like an odd con­nection, but listen to his story, and the connection will become clear. Just after World War II he was a CIA interrogation specialist, and founded The Agency’s polygraph school. In 1960 he left the CIA and formed the Backster School of Lie Detection, to instruct police officers. This school is the longest running polygraph school in existence.

Backster could name the moment the focus of his life changed for­ever, from lie detection to plant intelligence: early in the morning on February 2, 1966, at 13 minutes, 55 seconds of chart time for a polygraph he was administering. He had threatened the subject’s well-being in hopes of triggering a response. The subject had responded electrochemically to this threat. The subject was a plant.

Here’s his story: “I wasn’t particularly into plants, but there was a going-out-of-business sale at a florist on the ground floor of the building, and the secretary bought a couple of plants for the office: a rubber plant, and this dracaena cane. I had done a saturation watering — putting them under the faucet until water ran out the bottom of the pots — and was curious to see how long it would take the moisture to get to the top. I was especially interested in the dracaena, because the water had to climb a long trunk, and then to the end of long leaves. I thought if I put the galvanic-skin-response detector of the polygraph at the end of a leaf, a drop in resistance would be recorded on the paper as the moisture arrived between the electrodes. … I noticed something on the chart resembling a human response on a polygraph: not at all what I would have expected from water entering a leaf. Lie detectors work on the principle that when people perceive a threat to their well-being, they physiologically respond in predictable ways. If you were conducting a polygraph as part of a murder investigation, you might ask a suspect, ‘Was it you who fired the shot fatal to so and so? If the true answer were yes, the suspect will fear getting caught lying, and electrodes on his or her skin will pick up the physiological response to that fear. So I began to think of ways to threaten the well-being of the plant. First I tried dipping a neighboring leaf in a cup of warm coffee. The plant, if anything, showed what I now recognize as boredom — the line on the chart just kept trending downward.

“Then at 13 minutes, 55 seconds chart time, the imagery entered my mind of burning the leaf. I didn’t verbalize; I didn’t touch the plant; I didn’t touch the equipment. Yet the plant went wild. The pen jumped right off the top of the chart. The only new thing the plant could have reacted to was the mental image.

“I went into the next office to get matches from my secretary’s desk, and lighting one, made a few feeble passes at a neighboring leaf. I real­ized, though, that I was already seeing such an extreme reaction that any increase wouldn’t be noticeable. So I tried a different approach: I removed the threat by returning the matches to the secretary’s desk. The plant calmed right back down.

“Immediately I understood something important was going on. I could think of no conventional scientific explanation. There was no one else in the lab suite, and I wasn’t doing anything that might have provided a mechanistic trigger. From that split second my consciousness hasn’t been the same. My whole life has been devoted to looking into this.”

He called what the plant was doing “primary perception.” He found that not only plants were capable of this: “I’ve been amazed at the percep­tion capability right down to the bacterial level. One sample of yogurt, for example, will pick up when another is being fed. Sort of like, ‘That one’s getting food. Where’s mine?’ That happens with a fair degree of repeatability. Or if you take two samples of yogurt, hook one up to elec­trodes, and drop antibiotics in the other, the electroded yogurt shows a huge response at the other’s death. And they needn’t even be the same kind of bacteria. The first Siamese cat I ever had would only eat chicken. I’d keep a cooked bird in the lab refrigerator and pull off a piece each day to feed the cat. By the time I’d get to the end, the carcass would be pretty old, and bacteria would have started to grow. One day I had some yogurt hooked up, and as I got the chicken out of the refrigerator to begin pulling off strips of meat, the yogurt responded. Next, I put the chicken under a heat lamp to bring it to room temperature, and heat hitting the bacteria created more huge reactions in the yogurt.”

I asked how he knew he wasn’t influencing it.

“I was unaware of the reaction at the time. I had pip switches all over the lab, and whenever I performed an action, I hit a switch, which placed a mark on a remote chart. Only later did I compare the reaction of the yogurt to what had been happening in the lab.”

“Did the yogurt respond again when the cat started to eat?”

“Interestingly enough, bacteria appear to have a defense mechanism such that extreme danger causes them to go into a state similar to shock. In effect, they pass out. Many plants do this as well. If you hassle them enough they flatline. The bacteria apparently did this, because as soon as they hit the cat’s digestive system, the signal went out. There was a flatline from then on.”

Cleve continued, “I was on an airplane once, and had with me a little battery-powered galvanic response meter. Just as the attendants started serving lunch, I pulled out the meter and said to the guy next to me, ‘You want to see something interesting?’ I put a piece of lettuce between the electrodes, and when people started to eat their salads we got some reac­tivity, which stopped as the leaves went into shock. ‘Wait until they pick up the trays,’ I said, ‘and see what happens.’ When attendants removed our meals, the lettuce got back its reactivity. I had the aisle seat, and I can still remember him strapped in next to the window, no way to escape this mad scientist attaching an electronic gadget to lettuce leaves.

“The point is that the lettuce was going into a protective state so it wouldn’t suffer. When the danger left, the reactivity came back. This ceasing of electrical energy at the cellular level ties in, I believe, to the state of shock that people, too, enter in extreme trauma.”

“Plants, bacteria, lettuce leaves …”

“Eggs. I had a Doberman Pinscher back in New York whom I used to feed an egg a day. One day I had a plant hooked up to a large gal­vanic response meter, and as I cracked the egg, the meter went crazy. That started hundreds of hours of monitoring eggs. Fertilized or unfertilized, it doesn’t matter; it’s still a living cell, and plants perceive when that con­tinuity is broken. Eggs, too, have the same defense mechanism. If you threaten them, their tracing goes flat. If you wait about twenty minutes, they come back.

“After working with plants, bacteria, and eggs, I started to wonder how animals would react. But I couldn’t get a cat or dog to sit still long enough to do meaningful monitoring. So I thought I’d try human sperm cells, which are capable of staying alive outside the body for long periods of time, and are certainly easy enough to obtain. I got a sample from a donor, and put it in a test tube with electrodes, then separated the donor from the sperm by several rooms. The donor inhaled amyl nitrate, which dilates blood vessels and is conventionally used to stop a stroke. Just crushing the amyl nitrate caused a big reaction in the sperm, and when the donor inhaled, the sperm went wild.

“So here I am, seeing single-cell organisms on a human level  —sperm — that are responding to the donor’s sensations, even when they are no longer in the same room as the donor. There was no way, though, that I could continue that research. It would have been scientifically proper, but politically stupid. The dedicated skeptics would undoubtedly have ridiculed me, asking where my masturbatorium was, and so on.

“Then I met a dental researcher who had perfected a method of gath­ering white cells from the mouth. This was politically feasible, easy to do, and required no medical supervision. I started doing split-screen videotaping of experiments, with the chart readout superimposed at the bottom of the screen showing the donors activities. We took the white cell samples, then sent the people home to watch a preselected television program likely to elicit an emotional response — for example, showing a veteran of Pearl Harbor a documentary on Japanese air attacks. We found that cells outside the body still react to the emotions you feel, even though you may be miles away.

“The greatest distance we’ve tested has been about three hundred miles. Astronaut Brian O’Leary, who wrote Exploring Inner and Outer Space, left his white cells here in San Diego, then flew home to Phoenix. On the way, he kept track of events that aggravated him, carefully logging the time of each. The correlation remained, even over that distance.”

“The implications of all this …”

He interrupted, laughing. He said, “Yes, are staggering. I have file drawers full of high quality anecdotal data showing time and again how bacteria, plants, and so on are all fantastically in tune with each other. And human cells, too, have this primary perception capability, but somehow its gotten lost at the conscious level.”

“How has the scientific community received your work?”

“With the exception of scientists at the margins, like Rupert Shel­drake, it was met first with derision, then hostility, and mostly now with silence. At first they called primary perception ‘the Backster Effect,’ per­haps hoping they could trivialize the observations by naming them after this wild man who claimed to see things missed by mainstream science. The name stuck, but because primary perception can’t be readily dis­missed, it is no longer a term of contempt.

“What’s the primary criticism by mainstream scientists?”

“The big problem — and this is a problem as far as conscious­ness research in general is concerned — is repeatability. The events I’ve observed have all been spontaneous. They have to be. If you plan them out in advance, you’ve already changed them. It all boils down to this: repeatability and spontaneity do not go together, and as long as mem­bers of the scientific community overemphasize repeatability in scientific methodology, they’re not going to get very far in consciousness research.

“Not only is spontaneity important, but so is intent. You can’t pretend. If you say you are going to burn a plant, but don’t mean it, nothing will happen. I hear constantly from people in different parts of the country, wanting to know how to cause plant reactions. I tell them, ‘Don’t do anything special. Go about your work; keep notes so later you can tell what you were doing at specific times, and then compare them to your chart recording. But don’t plan anything, or the experiment won’t work.’ People who do this often get equivalent responses to mine, and often win first prize in science fairs. But when they get to Biology 101, they’re told that what they have experienced is not important.

“There have been a few attempts by scientists to replicate my exper­iments … but these have all been methodologically inadequate. … It is so very easy to fail. … And let’s be honest: some of the scientists were relieved when they failed, because success would have gone against the body of scientific knowledge.”

I said, “For scientists to give up predictability means they have to give up control, which means they have to give up Western culture, which means it’s not going to happen until civilization collapses under the weight of its own ecological excesses.”

He nodded, then said, “I have given up trying to fight other scientists on this, because I know that even if the experiment fails they still see things that change their consciousness. People who would not have said anything 20 years ago often say to me, ‘I think I can safely tell you now how you really changed my life with what you were doing back in the early 70s.’ These scientists didn’t feel they had the luxury back then to rock the boat; their credibility, and thus their grant requests, would have been affected.”

I asked if there were alternative explanations for the polygraph read­ings. I’d read that one person suggested his machine must have had a loose wire.

He responded, “In 31 years of research I’ve found all my loose wires. No, I can’t see any mechanistic solution. Some parapsychologists believe I’ve mastered the art of psychokinesis — that I move the pen with my mind — which would be a pretty good trick itself. But they overlook the fact that I’ve automated and randomized many of the experiments to where I’m not even aware of what’s going on until later, when I study the resulting charts and videotapes. The conventional explanations have worn pretty thin. One such explanation, proposed in Harper’s, was static electricity: if you scuffle across the room and touch the plant, you get a response. But of course I seldom touch the plant during periods of obser­vation, and in any case the response would be totally different.”

“So, what is the signal picked up by the plant?

“I don’t know. I don’t believe the signal, whatever it is, dissipates over distance, which is what we’d get if we were dealing with electromagnetic phenomenon. I used to hook up a plant, then take a walk with a random­ized timer in my pocket. When the timer went off, I’d return home. The plant always responded the moment I turned around, no matter the dis­tance. And the signal from Phoenix was just as strong as if Brian O’Leary were in the next room. Also, we’ve attempted to screen the signal using lead-lined containers, and other materials, but we can’t screen it out. This makes me think the signal doesn’t actually go from here to there, but instead manifests itself in different places. All this, of course, lands us firmly in the territory of the metaphysical, the spiritual.”

I said, “Primary perception suggests a radical redefinition of con­sciousness.”

“You mean it would do away with the notion of consciousness as some­thing on which humans have a monopoly?” He hesitated a moment, then continued, “Western science exaggerates the role of the brain in con­sciousness. Whole books have been written on the consciousness of the atom. Consciousness might exist on an entirely different level.”

I asked whether he had worked with materials that would normally be considered inanimate.

“I’ve shredded some things and suspended them in agar. I get electric signals, but not necessarily relating to anything going on in the environ­ment. It’s too crude an electroding pattern for me to decipher. But I do suspect that consciousness goes much, much further. In 1987 I partic­ipated in a University of Missouri program that included a talk by Dr. Sidney Fox, then connected with the Institute for Molecular and Cellular Evolution at the University of Miami. Fox had recorded electric signals from protein-like material that showed properties strikingly similar to those of living cells. The simplicity of the material he used and the self organizing capability it displayed suggest to me that bio-communication was present at the earliest states in the evolution of life on this planet. Of course the Gaia hypothesis — the idea that the earth is a great big working organism, with a lot of corrections built in — fits in nicely with this. I don’t think it would be a stretch to take the hypothesis further and pre­sume that the planet itself is intelligent.”

I asked how his work has been received in other parts of the world.

“The Russians and other eastern Europeans have always been very interested. And whenever I encounter Indian scientists — Buddhist or Hindu — and we talk about what I do, instead of giving me a bunch of grief they say, ‘What took you so long?’ My work dovetails very well with many of the concepts embraced by Hinduism and Buddhism.”

“What is taking us so long?”

“The fear is that, if what I am observing is accurate, many of the theo­ries on which we’ve built our lives need complete reworking. I’ve known biologists to say, ‘If Backster is right, we’re in trouble.’ It takes a certain kind of character and personality to even attempt such a questioning of fundamental assumptions. The Western scientific community, and actu­ally all of us, are in a difficult spot, because in order to maintain our cur­rent mode of being, we must ignore a tremendous amount of informa­tion. And more information is being gathered all the time. For instance, have you heard of Rupert Sheldrake’s work with dogs? He puts a time-re­cording camera on both the dog at home and the human companion at work. He has discovered that even if people come home from work at a different time each day, at the moment the person leaves work, the dog at home heads for the door.

“Even mainstream scientists are stumbling all over this bio-commu­nication phenomenon. It seems impossible, given the sophistication of modern instrumentation, for us to keep missing this fundamental attunement of living things. Only for so long are we going to be able to pretend it’s the result of ‘loose wires.’ We cannot forever deny that which is so clearly there.”


An activist, philosopher, farmer, teacher, and leading voice of uncompromising dissent, Derrick Jensen is the author or co-author of many books including A Language Older Than Words, What We Leave Behind, and Deep Green Resistance. Reprinted from his latest book, The Myth of Human Supremacy (Seven Stories, 2016).