THE SECRET LIFE OF PLANTS
Plants and ESP
The dust-grimed window of the office building facing New York's Times Square reflected, as through a looking glass, an extraordinary
corner of Wonderland. There was no White Rabbit with waistcoat and watch chain, only an elfin-eared fellow called Backster with a
galavanometer and a house plant called Dracaena massangeana. The galvanometer was there because Cleve Backster was America's
foremost lie-detector examiner; the dracaena because Backster's secretary felt the bare office should have a touch of green;
Backster'swas there because of a fatal step taken in the 1960's which radically affected his life, and may equally affect the planet.
Backster's antic with his plants, headlined in the world press, became the subject of skits, cartoons, and lampoons; but the
Pandora's box which he opened for science may never again be closed. Backster's discovery that plants appear to be sentient caused
strong and varied reaction round the globe, despite the fact that Backster never claimed a discovery, only an uncovering of what
has been known and forgotten. Wisely he chose to avoid publicity, and concentrated on establishing the absolute scientific bona fides
of what has come to be known as the "Backster Effect."
The adventure started in 1966. Backster had been up all night in his school for polygraph examiners, where he teaches the art
of lie detection to policemen and security agents from around the world. On impulse he decided to attach the electrodes of one of his
lie detectors to the leaf of his dracaena. The dracaena is a tropical plant similar to a palm tree, with large leaves and a dense cluster
of small flowers; it is known as the dragon tree(Latino draco) because of the popular myth that its resin yeilds dragon blood. Backster
was curious to see if the leaf would be affected by water poured on its roots, and if so, how, and how soon.
As the plant thirstily sucked water up its stem, the galvanometer, to Backster's surprise, did not indicate less resistance, as
might have been expected by the greater electrical conductivity of the moister plant. The pen on the graph paper, instead of trending
upward, was trending downward, with a lot of sawtooth motion on the tracing.
A galvanometer is that part of a polygraph lie detector which, when attached to a human being by wires through which a weak current
of electricity is run, will cause a needle to move, or a pen to make a tracing on a moving graph of paper, in response to mental images, or
the slightest surges of human emotion. Invented at the end of the eighteenth century by a Viennese priest, Father Maximilian Hell, S.J.,
court astronomer to the Empress Maria Theresa, it was named after Luigi Galvani, the Italian physicist and physioloogist who discovered
"animal electricity." The galvanometer is now used in conjunction with an electrical circuit called a "Wheatstone Bridge," in honor of the
English physicist and inventor of the automatic telegraph, Sir Charles Wheatstone. In simple terms, the bridge balances resistance, so that
the human body's electrical potential-or basic charge-can be measured as it fluctuates under the stimulus of thought and emotion. The standard
police usage is to feed "carefully structured" questions to a suspect and watch for those which cause the needle to jump. Veteran examiners,
such as Backster, claim they can identify deception from the patterns produced on the graph.
Backster's dragon tree, to his amazement, was giving him a reaction very similar to that of a human being experiencing an emotional
stimulus of short duration. Could the plant be displaying emotiion?
What happened to Backster in the next ten minutes was to revolutionize his life.
The most effective way to trigger in a human being a reaction strong enough to make the galvanometer jump is to threaten his or her
well being. Backster decided to do just that tot the plant: he dunked a leaf of the dracaena in the cup of hot coffee perenially in his hand.
There was no reaction to speak of on the meter. Backster studied the problem several minutes, then conceived a worse threat: he would burn the
actual leaf to which the electrodes were attached. The instant he got the picture of flame in his mind, and before he could move for a match,
there was a dramatic change in the tracing pattern on the graph in the form of a prolonged upward sweep of the recording pen. Backster had
not moved, either toward the plant or toward the recording machine. Could the plant have been reading his mind?
When Backster left the room and returned with some matches, he found another sudden surge had registered on the chart, evidently
caused by his determination to carry out the threat. Reluctantly he set about burning the leaf. This time there was a lower peak of reaction
on the graph. Later, as he went through the motions of pretending he would burn the leaf, there was no reaction whatsoever. The plant
appeared to be able to differentiate between real and pretending intent.
Backster felt like running into the street and shouting to the world, "Plants can think!" Instead he plunged into the most meticulous
investigation of the phenomena in order to establish just how the plant was reacting to his thoughts, and through what medium.
His first move was to make sure he had not overlooked any logical explanation for the occurence. was there something extraordiinary about the plant?
About the particular polygraph instrument?
When he and his collaborators, using other plants and other instruments in other locations all over the country, were able to make similar
Observations, the matter warranted further study. More than twenty-five different varieties of plants and fruits were tested, including lettuce, onions
oranges, and bananas. The observations, each similar to the others, required a new view of life, with some explosive connotations for science.
Heretofore the debate between scientists and parapsychologists on the existence of ESP, or extrasensory perception, has ben fierce, largely
because of the difficulty of establishing unequivocally when such a phenomenon is actually occurring. The best that has been achieved so far
in the field, by Dr. J.B. Rhine, who initiated his experiments in ESP at Duke University, has been to establish that with human beings the phenomenon
seems to occur with greater odds than than are attributable to chance.
Backster first considered his plants' capacity for picking up his intention to be some form of ESP; then he quarreled with the term. ESP is
held to mean perceptions of touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste. As plants give no evidence of eyes, ears, nose, or mouth, and as botanists
since Darwin's time have never credited them with a nervous system, Backster concluded that the perceiving sense must be more basic.
This led him to hypothesize that the five senses in humans might be limiting factors overlying a more "primary perception," possibly common
to all nature. "Maybe plants see better without eyes," Backster surmised: "Better than humans do with them." With the five basic senses, humans
the choice, at will, of perceiving, perceiving poorly, not perceiving at all. "If you don't like the looks of something," said Backster, "you can look
the other way, or not look. If everyone were to be in everyone else's mind all the time it would be chaos."
To discover what his plants could sense or feel, Backster enlarged his office, and set about creating a proper scientific laboratory, worthy of
the space age.