[Writing Under the Influence] EPISODE K: Plant Adaptation

People often wonder if plants are conscious or not, whether they have a mind, an agency, or some form of intention. Other people argue against this, saying that the survival tactics of plants are determined automatically on the chemical level and there is no room for intention, agency, or mind. But this is a false battle. Rather than revealing what plants are, the argument reveals what we (like to think we) are.

No matter which side you are on, the basic premise of the argument is that we are intelligent, conscious beings capable of acting based on intention. But actually, we are not even conscious about how much stuff we do without being conscious. For instance, if we need to be constantly aware of every single function of our bodies in order to function well, we will all be long dead. Not only most of the way body functions happens without conscious thought, but conscious thought in most cases also cannot control how the body functions. If intelligence is the capacity to use available resources to survive, we are intelligent only as far as our bodies are far more intelligent than we think.

Unconsciously, we constantly train our bodies through repetition to adapt to new environments. This process of adaptation is itself mnemonic. The very change that occurred to and is retained in our body is materialized memory. In this sense, it is obvious that plants have memory.

In other words, most of our own communication process is not conscious—it happens regardless of our thoughts. Semiotic communication is only a minor part of all the communication we engage in order to survive. The experiments scientists subject plants in order to see if they have a mind, memory, agency are reminiscent of the experiments once conducted on “savages.” Similar experiments have also been conducted on our own bodies to see if it has a mind, memory, agency of its own, independent of our mind.

So there is a comedic parallel between humans surprised and excited about how plants have memory and agency, and the conscious mind surprised and excited about how bodies have memory and agency. “Wow I thought you were not one of us but you are!” The plant/body responds, simply: “the only reason you can think is because of us. We condition you and not the other way around.” The mind-body split is therefore a split of two kinds of mind (operating on different scales), just as the plant-animal divide is a divide of two kinds of animals (operating on different scales).

But the mind has the propensity to find its own likeness. When we think about intelligence, we therefore tend to model agency on the mind itself. And it either accepts or denies the proximity (or even the superiority) of plants, while not being conscious about its own body actually working in very similar ways.

We are unconscious of certain forms of communication. In order to account for the effect of communication through non-semantic means we must resort to certain forms of media which makes them perceivable. Today, this is science (as discourse) and technology (as visualization tools)—for instance, a scientific documentary film about hormones. We constantly enact these mesophysical couplings of the body and the world yet remain unaware we are doing so. Thus we struggle to explain why we—our bodies—have motion sickness.