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What Happens When You Anesthetize A Plant?

Think I could do this if I weren’t conscious?

Some of the best questions about the world around us are those that seem obvious when they’re asked … but anything but obvious until they’re asked.

I recently saw a spate of articles about the use of anesthetics and plants. We’ve known – at least since 1846 – that compounds like ether can anesthetize humans. Breathe a little in and you lose your sensibility to the world around you while maintaining core functions like breathing, heartbeat, and so forth. Simply put, you lose consciousness.

But what would happen if you apply anesthetics to plants, which don’t have hearts or lungs or spinal cords? Would plants also lose consciousness? That would, of course, imply that they are conscious.

It’s an interesting question and — being interested in the history of questions – I wondered if it had ever been asked before. As it happens, a French scientist named Claude Bernard was one of the first to experiment with anesthetics and plants. In 1878, he published Leçons sur les phénomènes de la vie, communs aux animaux et aux végétaux. (You can find the original text here. I discovered it via a 2014 article found here).

Through a series of ingenious experiments, Bernard found that anesthesias such as ether affect plants in very specific ways. For instance:

  • Movement – some plants will recoil when their leaf is touched. Under anesthesia, plants lose this ability to move but regain it when the anesthesia is removed. Other movements, however, such as those triggered by light, are not affected. The plant can still move but it doesn’t respond to physical stimuli.
  • Germination – under anesthesia, the germination process is interrupted but restarts when the anesthesia is removed.
  • Photosynthesis – anesthesia interrupts the photosynthesis process without interrupting the respiration process. Again, photosynthesis restarts when the anesthesia is removed.

In December 2017, researchers published an article in the Annals of Botany that effectively updates Bernard’s experiments. The researchers came to similar conclusions as did Bernard while using a variety of different anesthetics “that have no structural similarities.” They conclude that plants can be an effective research model “to study general questions related to anaesthesia, as well as to serve as a suitable test system for human anaesthesia.”

I find all this fascinating but I also wonder why it has taken almost 140 years to update Bernard’s original research. I think it has to do with our assumptions. We assume that animals – especially animals with spinal cords – are so fundamentally different from plants that we don’t think about comparing them. Carl Linnaeus laid down the rules: there are two kingdoms – the animal kingdom and the vegetable kingdom. Never the tween shall meet. Because of the strict delineation between the two, we haven’t been asking obvious comparative questions, perhaps to our detriment.

It occurs to me that the delineation between animal and vegetable is similar to Descartes’s delineation between mind and body. For Descartes, mind and body were two different universes. Only recently have we discovered how entwined they are. We’re now asking useful and insightful questions about how one influences the other.

I wonder what other useful questions we’re not asking because of our assumptions. Perhaps it’s time to create an encyclopedia of assumptions and begin testing them one by one.

I also think we need to start asking different questions. So many of our questions are about the differences between things. What’s the difference between mind and body? Between men and women? Between different ethnic groups? Claude Bernard, on the other hand, asked about the similarities between animals and plants. Perhaps we should follow his lead. If we asked about our similarities, we might discover that we’re connected in much more profound ways than we imagine.

(The New York Times has a good article on the recent plant experiments, which includes time-lapse photography of plants under the effect of anesthetics. You can find it here.)

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