Do Plants Have Feelings? ‘Dubious,’ Says New Study

There has long been a debate over whether plants have feelings, emotions, and consciousness. Despite having no brain, pain receptors, or nerves, plants react to the environment around them and can communicate with each other. Whether that means they are conscious, feeling organisms is a bone of contention between scientists, religions, and plant lovers.

A secret life?

The Secret Life of Plants, published in 1973, claimed plants grew better when exposed to classical music compared to rock and roll. It also claimed that plants reacted to the emotions of humans around them.

Although much of the book has been disproved, the idea still grips people. In television shows such as The Good Life and Good Omens, skits imply that the way people talk to their plants impacts the plant’s health.

A large Samanea saman tree in Thailand

A large Samanea saman tree in Thailand. Photo: Shutterstock


In the 2000s, ecologist Suzanne Simard started talking about “mother trees.” Her work was the inspiration behind the ‘Tree of Souls’ in Avatar. She hypothesized that what she called mother trees (the oldest and largest trees within an ecosystem) actively help younger trees survive. She says that these trees will send nutrients, carbon, water, and alarm signals to younger trees of the same species to aid their growth and protect them. According to Simard, they send the resources to the young trees via mycorrhiza, networks of underground fungi.

In 2006, a group of scientists coined the phrase “plant neurobiology,” for a new field of study. The scientists argued that plants have coordinated responses to the changing environment around them, with intricate electrical and chemical signaling processes. They also announced that they found neurotransmitters alongside nerve-like cells.

In 2022, a study looked at the growth of French beans. Some plants were grown on their own, others with a cane stuck into the soil 30cm away. Those near the cane grew roots toward it. The paper argued that the plants were not responding directly to a stimulus because the cane was too far away. Therefore, the plant must somehow have perceived the cane.

Tiny pine sprouts growing in a forest

Pine sprouts. Photo: Shutterstock


A myth?

But a recent study claims this is all a myth. The researchers believe the studies listed above have insufficient scientific evidence.

The team critically reviewed books on the mother tree concept and found that there are several flaws. The studies and information within many of the books have not been peer-reviewed and many scientific papers contradict the ideas presented.

The books claim that mother trees can specifically help other trees of the same species. The question is, why would they have evolved to do this? Plants of the same species are in direct competition with each other for resources.

The mother tree theory also argues that trees can transfer carbon to younger ones through a network of fungi. Strictly speaking, there is evidence of this occurring, but it is on such a minute scale that the carbon would have no physiological effect. The team also points out that those conducting these experiments controlled the variables so poorly that their validity is dubious.

The researchers say that people’s apparent desire to liken plants to humans could turn out to be harmful.

In a TED Talk, Simard said: “We need to save the legacies, the mother trees and networks, and the wood, the genes, so they can pass their wisdom onto the next generation of trees so they can withstand the future stresses coming down the road.”

Humanizing plants and believing they can adapt to their surroundings and pass on wisdom infers that plants and forests will be able to cope with climate change. The research team is worried that political decisions around the protection of forests will start to be “based on pleasant-sounding but false messages.”

Rebecca McPhee

Rebecca McPhee is a freelance writer for ExplorersWeb.

Rebecca has been writing about open water sports, adventure travel, and marine science for three years. Prior to that, Rebecca worked as an Editorial Assistant at Taylor and Francis, and a Wildlife Officer for ORCA.

Based in the UK Rebecca is a science teacher and volunteers for a number of marine charities. She enjoys open water swimming, hiking, diving, and traveling.