Are plants sentient? Graphic: Ryan Kamber.
Sound is an immensely important part of the human experience. We’re taught about the five senses at an early age, and our ability to hear is among the most valuable. Another big factoid we learn at a young age is that plants, much like everything else in the animal kingdom, are living things.
A few weeks ago we did a profile on SugarTop Buddery, an Oregon-based cannabis cultivator, processor, and distributor. We covered all branches of the company. But one section that we kept coming back to was their Serenaded Buds series. This was a collection of videos that saw local artists come to the SugarTop greenhouse and play songs for the plants.
After some research, we found a number of studies that suggest sound waves, and even music specifically, have the ability to stimulate plant growth.
For example, Indian Botanist Dr. T.C. Singh did an experiment in 1962 where he exposed plants to different musical instruments. Singh found that the plants that experienced music saw a 20% increase in height and a 72% increase and biomass. Out of all the instruments he exposed his plants to, it was the violin that triggered the most growth.
We’ve decided to give this topic a little more of a spotlight, so we put in a few more hours of research. Here’s what we found:
A Secret Life?
In 1973, Peter Tomkins and Christopher Bird released a book titled The Secret Life of Plants. Citing work from 20th and 19th-century scientists, The Secret Life of Plants makes a case that much like us, plants can also feel emotions. The book also mentioned the 1962 study done by Dr. T.C. Singh.
Many in the scientific community blasted this book. Botanists and physiologists labeled Tomkins and Bird’s studies and claims as “pseudoscientific.” For instance, botanist Arthur W. Galston wrote a scathing piece on the subject in 1974. “By ignoring accepted rules of evidence,” Galston added, “the authors of a popularized book on plants reach many false conclusions.”
Leslie Audus, another botanist, called the book’s claims “outrageous.” Audus even went as far as to say that others should consider it a work of fiction.
Regardless of these harsh criticisms, Tomkins and Bird made the book into a documentary and released it in 1979. They even recruited one of the biggest names in music at the time, Stevie Wonder, to do the soundtrack.
Today, much of the contents of this book and documentary have been effectively disproved. This is unfortunate, but factually accurate or not, that Stevie Wonder soundtrack still slaps.
21st Century Takes
In December of 2013, an article titled The Intelligent Plant was published by Michael Pollan in The New Yorker. The piece starts off by acknowledging the 1973 book, presenting it as “a beguiling mashup of legitimate plant science, quack experiments, and mystical nature worship […].”
Pollan makes a case that The Secret Life of Plants was detrimental to many in the field of plant science.
Furthermore, an Israeli biologist named Daniel Chamovitz is quoted as saying that Tomkins and Bird “stymied important research on plant behavior as scientists became wary of any studies that hinted at parallels between animal senses and plant senses.”
Chamovitz’s own book, What a Plant Knows, was published in 2013. This project touched upon many of the same themes as the 1970s book and documentary, but had much more substantial scientific evidence to back its claims up.
However, Pollan’s The New Yorker article found itself somewhere in the middle of these arguments. “More likely, in the scientists’ view, intelligence in plants resembles that exhibited in insect colonies,” Pollan writes. In other words, plants are able to mindlessly communicate with each other and organize a network.
While a plant’s senses aren’t exactly like ours, as they’ve evolved to have between 15 and 20 distinct senses, according to Pollan. These senses help plants identify threats and locate food.
Glenn Holland is the CEO of The Human ConneXion LLC, based in Cary, North Carolina. Holland and his colleagues have done a great amount of research to come up with new and innovative approaches that can change the way we look at traditional farming.
They found that vibrations can organically stimulate plant growth. So they got to work on a product that can mechanically vibrate plants and seeds to speed up the growth process. The company caters the Ganjagrid Plant Vibration Trainer specifically towards the cannabis industry.
The structure is a square grid made of aluminum that’s woven together, coming in multiple different sizes. Designed for indoor grow tents, the Ganjagrid is placed on top of the plants, making sure each leaf is put through a square opening. Specifically, the structure is then able to mechanically vibrate the plant, harnessing the sound waves from music. Cultivators can also use these vibrations to control pests or enhance growth.
Post from @the_human_connexion on Instagram.
These benefits go way beyond growth stimulation though. Research shows that exposing plants or seeds to the Ganjagrid Plant Vibration Trainer can increase yields, while simultaneously decreasing costs.
Holland also sees the potential for his company to help adapt to the painful process of climate change, as research shows that the product can greatly reduce its carbon footprint. The Human ConneXion stays away from the overuse of items such as plastic, nylon, and other nonbiodegradable materials.
“Vibration is a fundamental input to life in the universe […],” Holland tells Emerald. “As humans move towards sustainable production of food and medicine, controlled environmental agriculture will play a key role.”
Some other integral aspects of using the Ganjagrid Plant Vibration Trainer are shorter overall height for the plants, a denser canopy, and stronger stalks and stems.
Cannatunes is a Philadelphia-based company that specializes in plant consciousness through multimedia experiences. In other words, they take the frequencies of different plants and compose them into multi-sensory experiences that provide cultivators with a multitude of “Plant Generated Soundscapes,” the company explains.
In a 2018 interview with Emerald, Loretta Maps Bolt explains that the idea came to her in college when she was introduced to a number of researchers who studied plant sentience.
“Their work germinated some ideas in my mind about the extent to which we can fully understand and communicate with the wisdom of plants through language,” Bolt adds. “While on tour years later as an environmental educator, I became aware of the possibility of creating soundscapes from the electrical data [garnered from] plants.”
Using electrical data directly from the plants themselves, Cannatunes is able to translate this data into musical notes. After years of experience and research, they’ve found a way to tailor their soundscapes to specific strains.
Post from @cannatunes on Instagram.
“I find that this species reflects more often the personality and character within,” she said. “For example, Sativa strain soundscapes tend to be more busy and fast, while Indica’s tones are more mellow.”
So what’s so revolutionary about this concept?
“Back when I was a cannabis farmer, I used to daydream of a world where people could have the intimate connections to the cannabis plant that I was experiencing,” Bolt told us.
Thanks to scientists like Dr. T.C. Singh, authors like Daniel Chamovitz, and innovations like Ganjagrid and Cannatunes, that daydream becomes more realistic by the day.