(Investigator 117, 2007 November)
One would not, I suspect, connect plants with psychic phenomena, yet as a result of scientific experiments it has been suggested that plants are far more sensitive organs than ever before realized.
Inspired by experiments carried out on seeds by Dr. E Rhine, the parapsychologist, the Reverend Loehr, of The Religious Research Foundation of America, purchased a variety of seeds in 1952 and two bottles of spring water. One bottle was held by the Prayer Circle and prayed over, the other bottle was used as a control and did not receive prayer, the result was two out of three better growth rates in favour of the prayed for plants. A further experiment carried by another RRF member, Erwin Prust, who tried prayer for one plant and prayed for the other not to grow. The result was startling, the prayed for plant thrived, the other died after three days.
The spur for these experiments was the hypothesis, that if the growth of plants could be stopped by negative prayer, then this healing force might rid the human body of unwanted growth.
Cleve Backster, a polygraph expert of New York City, is a noted researcher in the field of plant potential, and whose paper Evidence of a Primary Perception in Plant Life, was published in the 1968 Winter edition of the International Journal of Parapsychology. Backster's findings seem to indicate that plants are extremely sensitive and that some sort of telepathic communication between plants and other life forms is probable.
Using a modified polygraph (lie detector) he found that plants register emotions similar to those found in human beings – fear, pleasure, pain and relief.
He further concluded that plants responded to "threat-to-well- being" experiments, in which a plant's fear was picked up by other plants even when shielded by barriers or in another room.
In one experiment designed to find out whether cells broadcast some sort of distress signal to other living cells, he dumped some shrimps into boiling water and monitored three plants on a polygraph to see if there was any reaction, the instrument readings indicated an emotional reaction that coincided with the exact moment of the shrimps' death.
In another experiment just thinking about burning a leaf caused the same electrical response in a nearby plant.
The experiments generated considerable attention in the popular press and resulted in the publication of a book in 1974, The Secret Life of Plants, by Tompkins and Bird.
In 1968, Dr Aristide Esser, a Dutch-born medical officer at the Rockland State Hospital in Orangeburg, New York, replicated some of Backster's tests and observed a similar emotional reaction by the plants. Serious investigators however, have failed universally to replicate Backster's experiments or to find any of the abilities attributed by him to plants.
One found that the electrical recording system Backster had used was unstable and that Backster's findings were attributable to this lack of stability. Other experiments using Backster's methodology were conducted at Cornell University in 1975, and produced negative results.
One is tempted to speculate what sort of telepathic communication one might receive from a carrot!
While polygraphs have been used extensively in criminal investigations and employment screening, they have become the subject of increasing scepticism in the past few years because there is no simple correlation between a person's physiological state and whether they are telling the truth.
Backster, C. 1968. Evidence of a Primary Perception in Plant Life. International Journal of Parapsychology. 10(4): 329-348.
Brown. B. 1971. ESP With Plants and Animals. Essandess Special Ed. NY.
Dowden. A.0. 1964. The Secret Life of the Flowers. Odyssey Press. NY.
Karlsson, L. Instrumentation for Measuring Bioelectrical Signals in Plants. Review of Scientific Instruments. 43(3): 458-464.
Kmetz, J..M. 1978. Plant Primary Perception: The Other Side of the Leaf. Skeptical Inquirer. 2(2): 57-61.
Muses, C. and Young, A.M. (Eds.) 1972. Awareness in Plants. Outerbridge & Lazard Inc. New York.
Tompkins. P. and Bird. C. 1974. The Secret Life of Plants. Penguin.
[From: Edwards, H. A Skeptic's Guide to the New Age, Published by Australian Skeptics]
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