Plant cognition

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Plant cognition is the study of the mental capacities of plants.[1] It explores the idea that plants are capable of responding to and learning from stimuli in their surroundings in order to choose and make decisions that are most appropriate to ensure survival. Over recent years, experimental evidence for the cognitive nature of plants has grown rapidly and has revealed the extent to which plant perceptual awareness of environmental information directs many behavioural feats and associated cognitive abilities.[2] Some research claims that plants have physical structures functioning in the same way as the nervous systems of animals.[3][4]


The idea of cognition in plants was first explored by Charles Darwin in the late 1800s. In the book The Power of Movement in Plants written together with his son Francis, he used a neurological metaphor to acknowledge the sensitivity of plant roots when he proposed that the tip of roots acts like the brain of some animals,[5] even though plants neither possess actual brains nor nerves. 

Irrespective of whether this neurological metaphor is correct or, more generally, the modern application of neuroscience terminology and concepts to plants is appropriate, the Darwinian idea of the root tip of plants functioning as a "brain-like" organ (together with the so-called "root-brain hypothesis") has experienced an ongoing revival in plant physiology.[6]

While plant "neurobiology" focuses on the physiological study of plants, modern plant cognition primarily applies a behavioural/ecological approach. Today, plant cognition is emerging as an exciting field of research directed at experimentally testing the cognitive abilities of plants, including perception, learning processes, memory and consciousness. This framework holds considerable implications for the way we perceive plants as it redefines the traditionally held boundary between animals and plants.[7]


In 2003, Anthony Trewavas led a study to see how the roots interact with one another and study their signal transduction methods. He was able to draw similarities between water stress signals in plants affecting developmental changes and signal transductions in neural networks causing responses in muscle.[8] Particularly, when plants are under water stress, there are abscisic acid dependent and independent effects on development.[9] This brings to light further possibilities of plant decision-making based on its environmental stresses. The integration of multiple chemical interactions show evidence of the complexity in these root systems.[10]

In 2012, Paco Calvo Garzón and Fred Keijzer speculated that plants exhibited structures equivalent to (1) action potentials (2) neurotransmitters and (3) synapses. Also, they stated that a large part of plant activity takes place underground, and that the notion of a 'root brain' was first mooted by Charles Darwin in 1880. Free movement was not necessarily a criterion of cognition, they held. The authors gave five conditions of minimal cognition in living beings, and concluded that 'plants are cognitive in a minimal, embodied sense that also applies to many animals and even bacteria.'[11] In 2017 biologists from University of Birmingham announced, that they found decision-making center in Arabidopsis.[12]

In 2014, Anthony Trewavas released a book called Plant Behavior and Intelligence that highlighted a plant's cognition through its colonial-organization skills reflecting insect swarm behaviors.[13] This organizational skill reflects the plants ability to interact with its surroundings to improve its survivability, and a plant's ability to identify exterior factors. Evidence of the plant's minimal cognition of spacial awareness can be seen in their root allocation in regards to neighboring plants.[14] The organization of these roots have been found to originate from the root tip of plants.[15]

In 2016, a research team led by Professor Monica Gagliano from the University of Western Australia’s Centre for Evolutionary Biology set how to test whether plants learn to respond to predicted events in their environment. The research demonstrated that plants were capable of learning the association between the occurrence of one event and the anticipation of another event (i.e. Pavlovian learning).[16] By experimentally demonstrating associative learning in plants, this finding qualified plants as proper subjects of cognitive research.[17]

On the other hand, Dr. Crisp and his colleagues proposed a different view on plant memory in their review: plant memory could be advantageous under recurring and predictable stress; however, resetting or forgetting about the brief period of stress may be more beneficial for plants to grow as soon as the desirable condition returns. [18]


The idea of plant cognition is a source of debate.

Amadeo Alpi and 35 other scientists published an article in 2007 titled “Plant Neurobiology: No brain, No gain?” in Trends in Plant Science.[19] In this article, they argue that since there is no evidence for the presence of neurons in plants, the idea of plant neurobiology and cognition is unfounded and needs to be redefined. In response to this article, Francisco Calvo Garzón published an article in Plant Signaling and Behavior.[20] He states that while plants do not have "neurons" as are discussed with animals, they possess an information-processing system composed of cells. He argues that this system can be used as a basis for discussing cognitive abilities in plants.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hall, Matthew (2011). Plants as persons : a philosophical botany. Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 978-1-4384-3429-2. 
  2. ^ Gagliano, Monica (2015-01-01). "In a green frame of mind: perspectives on the behavioural ecology and cognitive nature of plants". AoB PLANTS. 7. doi:10.1093/aobpla/plu075. PMC 4287690Freely accessible. PMID 25416727. 
  3. ^ Garzon, Paco; Keijzer, Fred (2011). "Plants: Adaptive behavior, root-brains, and minimal cognition". Adaptive Behavior. 19 (3): 155–171. doi:10.1177/1059712311409446. 
  4. ^ Karban, Richard (2008). "Plant behaviour and communication". Ecology Letters. 11: 727–739. doi:10.1111/j.1461-0248.2008.01183.x. PMID 18400016. 
  5. ^ Darwin, C. (1880). The Power of Movement in Plants. London: John Murray. Darwin Online
  6. ^ "ABOUT US - Plant Signaling and Behavior". Plant Signaling and Behavior. Retrieved 2017-03-25. 
  7. ^ "Monica Gagliano - the science of plant behaviour and consciousness". Monica Gagliano - the science of plant behaviour and consciousness. Retrieved 2017-03-25. 
  8. ^ ANTHONY TREWAVAS; Aspects of Plant Intelligence. Ann Bot 2003; 92 (1): 1-20. doi: 10.1093/aob/mcg101
  9. ^ Shinozaki, Kazuo (2000). Molecular responses to dehydration and low temperature: differences and cross-talk between two stress signaling pathways. Current Opinion in Plant Biology 2000,3:217-223.
  10. ^ McCully, M (1999). "ROOTS IN SOIL: Unearthing the complexities of roots and Their Rhizospheres". Annual Review of Plant Physiology and Plant Molecular Biology, 50:695-718.
  11. ^ Garzon, Paco; Keijzer, Fred (2011). "Plants: Adaptive behavior, root-brains, and minimal cognition". Adaptive Behavior. 19 (3): 155–171. doi:10.1177/1059712311409446. 
  12. ^ Topham, Alexander T., et al. "Temperature variability is integrated by a spatially embedded decision-making center to break dormancy in Arabidopsis seeds." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2017): 201704745.
  13. ^ Trewavas, A (2014). Plant Behaviour and Intelligence. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1, 95-96.
  14. ^ Paco Calvo Garzón, Fred Keijzer (2011). "Adaptive Behavior". Vol 19, Issue 3, pp. 155 - 171.
  15. ^ Trewavas, A (2014). Plant Behaviour and Intelligence. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1, 140.
  16. ^ Gagliano, Monica; Vyazovskiy, Vladyslav V.; Borbély, Alexander A.; Grimonprez, Mavra; Depczynski, Martial (2016-12-02). "Learning by Association in Plants". Scientific Reports. 6 (1). doi:10.1038/srep38427. ISSN 2045-2322. PMC 5133544Freely accessible. PMID 27910933. 
  17. ^ Gagliano, Monica (2017-03-04). "The mind of plants: Thinking the unthinkable". Communicative & Integrative Biology. 10 (2): e1288333. doi:10.1080/19420889.2017.1288333. 
  18. ^ Crisp, Peter A.; Ganguly, Diep; Eichten, Steven R.; Borevitz, Justin O.; Pogson, Barry J. (5 February 2016). "Reconsidering plant memory: Intersections between stress recovery, RNA turnover, and epigenetics". Science Advances. 02 (02). doi:10.1126/sciadv.1501340. 
  19. ^ Alpi, A; Amrhein, N; Bertl, A; et al. (2007). "Plant Neurobiology: No Brain, No Gain?". Trends in Plant Science. 12: 135–136. doi:10.1016/j.tplants.2007.03.002. PMID 17368081. 
  20. ^ Garzon, Francisco Calvo (2007). "The quest for cognition in plant neurobiology". Plant Signaling and Behavior. 2: 208–211. doi:10.4161/psb.2.4.4470. PMC 2634130Freely accessible. PMID 19516990.