Are plants conscious? A new study found that anesthetics work on flora – but what exactly is happening here? University of Bonn plant cell biologist Frantisek Baluska told The New York Times, “Plants are not just robotic, stimulus-response devices. They’re living organisms which have their own problems, maybe something like humans feeling pain or joy. In order to navigate this complex life, they must have some compass.”
Plants can be frozen with anesthetics, researchers discovered, including the medicines used on humans during surgery. The researchers’ findings could help us learn more about anesthesia – and plants. A team of scientists from institutions in Germany, Japan, the Czech Republic, and Italy exposed several different plants to substances like ether and lidocaine. They found, for example, that pea plants exposed to diethyl ether vapor stop moving and their tendrils curl. A Venus flytrap didn’t respond to stimulus similar to an insect that moved across it – its cells actually stopped firing, according to The New York Times.
The plants seemed to return to life when the anesthesia wore off – almost as if they had regained consciousness. Baluska told The New York Times, “How organisms are perceiving the environment or responding or adapting are based on some very similar principles.”
Cell membranes change under anesthesia, growing more flexible. Membranes of some of the plant root cells under anesthesia had difficulty performing tasks they normally would. Membranes are also key for transferring messages from one cell to another via electricity, and some scientists think electrical activity across neurons contributes to consciousness in humans.
But when asked if plants are indeed conscious or not, Baluska said, “No one can answer this because you cannot ask them.”
The journal Annals of Botany published the research in December.