Guided by Plant Voices

Plants are intelligent beings with profound wisdom to impart—if only we know how to listen. And Monica Gagliano knows how to listen. The evolutionary ecologist has done groundbreaking experiments suggesting plants have the capacity to learn, remember, and make choices. That’s not all. Gagliano, a senior research fellow at the University of Sydney in Australia, talks to plants. And they talk back. Plants summon her with instructions on how to live and work. Some of Gagliano’s conversations happened in prophetic dreams, which led her to study with a shaman in Peru while tripping on psychoactive plants.

Shortly before the COVID-19 lockdown, I talked with Gagliano at Dartmouth College, where she was a visiting scholar. We spoke about her experiments, the new field of plant intelligence, and her own experiences of talking with plants. You can read our full conversation in Nautilus Magazine.

Here's an excerpt:

Steve Paulson: You are describing a surprising level of sophistication in these plants. Do you have a working definition of “intelligence?”

Monica Gagliano: That’s one of those touchy subjects. I use the Latin etymology of the word and “intelligere” literally means something like “choosing between.” So intelligence really underscores decision-making, learning, memory, choice. As you can imagine, all those words are also loaded. They belong in the cognitive realm. That’s why I define all of this work as “cognitive ecology.”

SP: Do you see parallels between this kind of intelligence in plants and the collective intelligence that we associate with social insects in ant colonies or beehives?

MG: That kind of intelligence might be referred to as “distributed intelligence” or “collective intelligence.” We are testing those questions right now. Plants don’t have neurons. They don’t have a brain, which is often what we assume is the base for all of these behaviors. But like slime molds and other basal animals that don’t have neural systems, they seem to be doing the same things. So the short answer is yes.

Read the full conversation on Nautilus.