Monday, September 7, 2009

Cleve Backster Part I: Introduction

I have been trying, for something like the last eight or nine weeks, to write one or more blog posts about Cleve Backster, the man who, in 1966, hooked up a Dracaena fragrans to a polygraph machine and concluded that not only do plants all have feelings, they're also all mildly psychic. Backster was later featured in a book called The Secret Life of Plants, which a lot of us will have heard of or possibly even read, because that's the sort of thing you do when you're a plant obsessive, and I know a good chunk of my readership is composed of plant obsessives.

All three of the Cleve Backster posts will include pictures of Portulaca flowers, because Portulaca flowers are pretty and I have a lot of pictures of them. I do not, in so doing, mean to suggest that Portulaca is somehow more relevant to Backster or his claims than any other plant. The majority of these flowers will be from 'Tequila Mix,' though there are a couple 'Sundial Mix' and at least one NOID mixed in.

I wanted to write about Backster and his claims because I strongly suspected, just from the sound of them, that they were bullshit, plus they were plant-related, and about anthropomorphizing plants, which if anybody is qualified to talk about plant anthropomorphization, I think it's me. I originally wasted thousands of perfectly good pixels writing a rebuttal to an interview with Backster from 1997 (the interview is on-line and you can find it if you look; I'm not going to link to it), only to find, through the magic of Interlibrary Loan, that most of my criticisms had been addressed by Backster in a book he published in 2003 (Primary Perception, White Rose Millennium Press, Anza, CA, 2003) and I had to write the whole thing over again.

My criticisms weren't addressed in the sense that Backster provides a lot of meaningful information about his claims and the evidence for them, but they were addressed in the sense that he acknowledges in the book that a lot of what he's described turns out not to work so well in other people's labs, and he goes into more detail about what he's done and what he thinks it means. Backster also has explanations for why other people can't duplicate his results, which explanations sound a hell of a lot like stuff that you just make up off the top of your head when somebody catches you spreading bullshit, but of course I can't prove that that's what he's doing.

It also turns out that in order to present a fair account of what Backster's claims are and why I think they're bunk, a lot of time has to be spent nailing down exactly what the claims are, and I wasn't sure that I had it in me to do that, or that my readers would have enough patience to read it all. So I considered throwing the whole idea out and moving on.


The problem is, though, that Backster's claims, and the willingness of people to believe them, really bother me. Like, above and beyond my normal irritation with bad science, to the point where I started to suspect that the irritation meant something about me, people in general, or both. So I've decided to put my head down and try to charge through all this one last time, and if this doesn't work out, I give up. The stuff that bothers me, we'll try to work out in Part III.

So.

[deep breath]

The story of the "discovery" of primary perception1 has Backster working in his office early one morning. He was, at the time, running a school for the training of polygraph ("lie detector") operators, something he'd done for the CIA for some period previously.2 He watered a Dracaena fragrans3 and was seized by the question of whether or not he could determine when the water reached the leaves using the electrical-conductance part of the polygraph, which is ordinarily used to measure the sweatiness of a subject's palms.


This is not, on the face of it, a particularly silly thing to wonder, nor a particularly silly way to find out. I have no idea whether or not one can find this out using electrodes like Backster had, because he (understandably) seems to forget the question once the plant starts reading his mind, but it stands to reason that the conductance would change when the leaf's hydration level changed, so, you know, whatever. And obviously he had a polygraph right there to test with, because he was running a polygraph training school. So this much of the story all checks out.

What he found when he hooked up the leaf to the polygraph was that the graph sort of slowly trended downward, which I infer means slowly increasing electrical resistance (the same as decreasing electrical conductance). And here's where he starts to go off the rails a little: he notes that in a human subject, this sort of graph would indicate boredom.

So he decides to try to make the plant interested in what's going on. First, he dunks a leaf in some hot coffee. No response from the plant. And Backster is pondering, and thinking, and suddenly gets the idea to burn one of the leaves with a match, at which point the polygraph needle starts to go wild.

Backster is careful to note at this point in the text that he was nowhere near the plant at that moment (fifteen feet away, he says) and there were no other people in the building at that time (it being between 7 and 8 AM), and the only thing that changed was that he had the idea to burn the plant.


Despite the plant being, apparently, in the plant-equivalent of abject terror and panic, Backster goes ahead and fetches a match from another room. While he's doing so, the plant calms down to about halfway between it's earlier, "bored" conductance and it's more recent "freaking the hell out" conductance,4 but then he comes back in and lights the match and burnt the tip of a different leaf (i.e., not the one with the electrodes on it), which elicits the desired "oh god oh god I am being burned alive" response from the plant.

He later showed a colleague (who would eventually become his business partner) the trick, but wouldn't let the colleague hurt the plant, he says. The plant also reacted to the mental threats from the colleague.

Subsequent experimentation refines and elaborates this effect. Backster learns that the plants can tell the difference between a human intending to do something and merely pretending to intend, thereby making houseplants smarter than virtually all dogs, and an awful lot of children.5 He finds that plants are "territorial," in the sense that they don't notice or feel everything that happens everywhere, but only stuff in the space they have decided belongs to them, and only among the humans and animals they have decided are relevant to their interests. So for example, a plant at one end of a thirty-foot hallway might respond to a person at the opposite end, thirty feet away, but wouldn't necessarily respond to a person on the other side of the wall, only two feet away, if the plant only considers the hallway to be its territory.


Plants, Backster finds, also attune themselves to the emotions of the people around them, particularly the individual who cares for them. If you water a plant every day,6 says Backster, however routine it may be to you, the plant knows that you're you and will preferentially feel emotions relating to you. So, for example, if you go a couple blocks away and get hammered in a bar and get yourself into a bar fight, the plant, two blocks away, will also register strong emotions relating to you being thrown across a pool table or what have you. Readers who are thinking, at this point, hey, wait a minute! You just said they don't notice anything outside of their particular territory! are correct: Backster says both things, in rapid succession, on pages 30-33 of his book. I have no idea whether he realizes that the two claims are in conflict, but he doesn't appear to notice it within the book. Now please, don't get ahead of me again.

Backster further claims that plants are also sensitive to non-human and partly-human life forms, including but not limited to bacteria in sink drain sludge, human cells being shed during urination, eggs, brine shrimp,7 human sperm cells, etc., and that these same kinds of conductance responses can be measured from eggs,8 yogurt, human cells in petri dishes, and so forth. That is, primary perception is not only something observed in plants: basically anything you hook up to an electrode which is alive, and some things that aren't alive or never were alive, will show some kind of a response like this (Though in the book, as I recall, Backster doesn't try to make claims for inanimate objects so much. He does mention it in the 1997 interview I talked about earlier). Further testing reveals that in extremely traumatic situations (a lettuce leaf in a plane where everyone is eating salad, for example), plants/eggs/yogurt/etc. will do the equivalent of "fainting," and their graph will go completely flat. Etc.

Backster comes up with an experiment he is obviously very proud of,9 wherein a plant is put in a small room with a beaker of continuously boiling water, and another beaker containing brine shrimp, and a randomizing device (try as I might, I couldn't figure out how this was supposed to work, but I'm not terribly interested either, and it doesn't matter: I'm happy to accept that it works the way Backster tells me it works), such that the plant is being read by the electrodes, and at some random moment, the beaker containing the brine shrimp is tipped into the beaker of boiling water and they (the brine shrimp) all die. On what we are told is a statistically significant number of occasions, the plants reacted when and only when the shrimp died, and this experiment was the basis of Backster's only published paper to date, in the Winter 1968 International Journal of Parapsychology, called "Evidence of a Primary Perception in Plant Life." I would really like to have read this paper, because I'm curious about how he set up the experiment and the specific results he reports, but I couldn't locate it.10


What happens subsequently, alas, is that as news of Backster's experiments spread, and scientists attempt to duplicate his results, they find that they cannot. Backster comes up with a flurry of explanations for this:

One, the researchers who were attempting to repeat his results were doing things like washing the plant's leaves with distilled water before the experiment, thereby getting the plant attuned to them personally, which is of course a big no-no, because . . . apparently plants like people better than brine shrimp. Or something. Maybe they'd like the shrimp better if the shrimp were washing their leaves. I don't know. In any case, the plants react to what the people are thinking and feeling during the experiment, instead of to the shrimp, even though the shrimp are right there next to them and plants are supposed to be territorial and all. Backster claims he had to have someone else buy the plants and store them elsewhere in the building until immediately before the experiments, so as not to get the plants attuned to anybody. You also can't watch the experiment while it's in progress, because your conscious awareness of what's happening with the experiment interferes with the experiment in some vaguely-defined but apparently important way.

Two, the same plant can't be used in identical experiments over and over. They get used to having brine shrimp executed nearby,11 and so are only good for maybe three experiments apiece. Which apparently he didn't tell the scientists12 about until after they did the experiments and failed to duplicate his results.


Three, life is just fundamentally non-reproduceable, and "Mother Nature . . . doesn't jump through a hoop ten times in a row merely because someone wants her to." Backster claims that the best way to get results is to not try, to just go on about your business doing whatever you do, noting when you're reacting strongly to things or when interesting things are happening, and then you can check these against the log from the plant later and see what things the plant considered important. You also can't conduct these experiments when animal experiments are going on elsewhere in the building, or there's noise, or people visiting the lab, or someone talking on the phone, because then you don't know whether the plant is responding to the thing you're trying to make it respond to, or if it's reacting to your secretary having a fight with her husband by telephone in the next room.

So these are, more or less, the claims being made. On Wednesday, I will try to take them apart, in Part II.

-

1 This is Backster's term for it. He's basically acknowledging the obvious, that plants don't have noses, tongues, eyes or ears with which to sense their environments, and proposing that they know the things that he thinks they know through some other, more fundamental means. It's information being processed by the plant, so perception, and it's being processed at a fundamental, base level, without the use of sense organs like our own, ergo primary. This also has the added benefit of making it sound more important, which I bet is not accidental.
2 Pages 11-20 of his book are spent establishing his credentials, which are neither negligible nor particularly impressive: he went to prep school, he went to college, he volunteered for the military following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and sort of wandered into polygraph operation as an offshoot of his interest in hypnosis. He wound up in the CIA, trying to figure out ways of making interrogation subjects talk, or at least figure out when they're lying, via hypnosis, "truth serum," and eventually polygraphs, which were just beginning to be investigated as an interrogation tool. Backster's introduction is amusing to me, in a way I can't quite pin down: it's like he paints himself as this total badass who is incredibly smart and does everything incredibly well, and yet his self-presentation is clumsy enough that I came away with the impression that he thinks he's Batman or James Bond or somebody. I kept thinking, dude, you study plant feelings: I mean, at best, you're a minor supervillain.
3 Also a Ficus elastica, which I feel bad for, both because it's often left out of the story and because it is probably dead now. I figure someone should give it the dignity of a mention. The original Dracaena was still alive as of 2002-03, but nobody ever says what became of the Ficus. Backster never claims to have hooked up the Ficus to the electrodes, which I think is kind of weird, since it was right there in the same office and everything, and why wouldn't you.
4 The reader should note that I'm paraphrasing like mad, here, and Backster, being both a gentleman and of a different generation (born 1924, and still alive as of this writing, as far as I can tell), doesn't actually use words like "freaking the hell out," probably because such words are associated with those damned hippies or something. He's very square, for someone who's into all this weird parapsychological shit.
5 My own observation, not Backster's.
6 Don't do this. Why would you do this?
7 (= "Sea Monkeys")
8 Curiously, it doesn't even appear to matter whether the eggs are fertilized or not: a cell is a cell is a cell, apparently.
9 Not unfairly: it's a fairly clever idea for an experiment, though it may or may not measure what he thinks it's measuring.
10 It's difficult to locate forty-one-year-old parapsychology journals, just in general, and then a staggering amount of scientific publication is not on-line, or is on-line but in a form inaccessible to anybody who doesn't have thousands of dollars to throw at subscriptions to The Journal of Amphibian Digestive Systems or whatever. I understand -- journal editors have to eat too -- but it also puts up obstacles to research. If you want to know what's going on in science these days, you have to have a lot of money for subscriptions, access to a university library, or the ability to settle for secondhand journalist interpretations of the research, which are frequently oversimplified or misunderstood to the point of being wrong. Very frustrating.
11 (Who wouldn't? Most of us would barely notice living brine shrimp, much less dead ones.)
12 I refuse to say "other scientists," since that would imply that Backster was an actual scientist. We'll get to why I don't consider him an actual scientist eventually.


19 comments:

our friend Ben said...

Good lord! Sounds like working for the CIA is even more stressful than I'd thought.

Paul Anater said...

Thanks. This kind of clap trap can't be debunked loudly or often enough.

Claude said...

Ok, but what happens if a plant decides that it hates you? Do you have to wear an alluminum foil hat to block it's psycic death rays? I'm only asking because theres a shrub lurking outside my back door that seems to be out to get me...

mr_subjunctive said...

Surprisingly, I can't think of any occasion when Backster claims that plants even can hate a person; it's almost all that they feel the same emotions you're feeling (*because it is all about you*; this is important to keep in mind for parts 2 and 3). When they do have spontaneous emotions of their own, they're almost always interpretable as either fear or boredom, so that's how Backster almost always interprets them. This might be face-saving on his part, because of course if the plants have any reason to hate anybody, they would have reason to hate Backster himself. . . .

lynn'sgarden said...

Ha! This book (Secret Life of Plants) was a birthday gift, which I've yet to read! But now I'll have to put Primary Perception on my list just to find how he addresses your issues! Sure, we know all plants react to certain stimuli but some of these studies are off the wall! But you're right about people generally believing what they read...who would DARE challenge..bullshit or otherwise.

Are these pretty portulacas growin in your garden? Let's have a photo of a mad scientist setting fire to plants in Part II...but maybe I'm getting a ahead of you...lol!

mr_subjunctive said...

Most of the Portulaca pictures are from my own plants, yes. The fuchsia-and-white-spotted one in this post, and a pale yellow one in part 2 or 3, were both photographed at a garden center in the Quad Cities, and there's a reddish one in one of the posts that was at Menards in Iowa City. But 18 of the 21 pictures in the series are of my own plants, all 'Tequila Mix.'

If you do want to read Primary Perception, get it from the library, rather than buying it. I mean, maybe once you've read it you'll still want to buy it, but don't pay for it before you're sure that it's worth the money.

Karen715 said...

I'm glad you're doing this. I'll save any more substantive comments for part III (if I have any), but I will note that my irritation with Backster's claims is similar to yours, and has been for years.

Emily said...

I'm fascinated - thanks for deciding to go ahead and post these!

CelticRose said...

I'm loving this essay and I can't wait for parts 2 & 3!

It's amazing some of the screwy things people will believe, isn't it? I really enjoy watching people debunk these crazy notions.

There's a website and forum that you should check out that's devoted to debunking and denouncing ridiculous claims like this. www.randi.org

mr_subjunctive said...

Yeah, I did run across some skeptical organization while researching this that had a short piece on Backster -- I don't think it was randi.org (maybe skeptic.org?), but somebody. And I knew about Randi himself, and JREF, already, by reading Bad Astronomy, Pharyngula, etc.

I was kind of disappointed in the skeptical Backster stuff I found, because A) there wasn't very much of it, and B) most of what I did find basically took the approach of, oh, plant feelings, what a self-evidently stupid idea, the guy's a quack, end of story. I mean, yes, that's what I thought too, but I was under the impression that being a skeptic meant being able to give reasons. Which was a lot of why I was trying to write this in the first place: I felt like if it was going to be taken down, then somebody needed to try to take the idea seriously in the first place, and nobody was really doing that.

I don't think I did a perfect job of it, but I was trying to weigh everything I was writing against two thoughts: 1) Suppose I someday meet Backster in person, and he's read everything I've written in these posts -- let's not give him cause to punch me in the face, and 2) Suppose someday science does demonstrate that Backster was on to something, even if he didn't get all of the particulars right -- let's at least try to have good reasons and explanations for rejecting Backster's own work.

I did a fairly bad job with #1, particularly with the "thinks he's Batman" stuff, but then, I think by the end of it all, he'd given me fair cause to punch him in the face too (the most egregious example of this so far being the "Nature doesn't jump through hoops" business, but he's kind of a dick about one other thing in particular, that I took personal offense to, which will come up in Part II), so I feel I behaved reasonably well under the circumstances. And it's worth noting that I do not get the impression that Backster is anything other than utterly sincere: I think he genuinely believes he has a good theory and is a little perplexed that this isn't universally obvious.

sheila said...

This is a great topic. As a child, I was already a plant obsessive, and I read The Secret Life of Plants when I was maybe 10 or 12. I was, and still am, intrigued with the concept. Perhaps it is indeed bull, or perhaps there is some truth in it.

I have noticed, in a completely non-scientific way, that when I take care of plants for businesses, there is a definite link between the employees being stressed out and the plants' health declining. Why? I have no idea. I have wondered if the plants somehow "pick up" on the feelings of the employees working there. And then I berate myself for too much anthropomorphizing.

I do have somewhat of a personal relationship with the plants I own, as well as the ones I care for professionally. I talk to them (quietly enough that I hope no one overhears) on occasion. I have actually said, "Hey, babe, you're not looking so good. What's wrong? Talk to me!" And "Let's get it together, dude. You can be replaced, you know." And "I expect to see some flowers happening soon, or you're not coming indoors before frost this year!" I don't really think the plants "hear me", but it's entertaining. My mother swears she got a tree in the yard to start growing when she threatened it with cutting it down.

Looking forward to more on this topic. Also wondering when someone will send the men in little white coats to my house.

Pam J. said...

"The problem is, though, that Backster's claims, and the willingness of people to believe them, really bother me. Like, above and beyond my normal irritation with bad science, to the point where I started to suspect that the irritation meant something about me, people in general, or both."

Oh how I recognize this kind of thinking. Drives me mad. I want to tell my brain to shut the F up when I get this irritated by something so beyond my control. Not sure I'm up to reading your entire Part I but I'll give it a shot.

mr_subjunctive said...

Pam J:

Well, in that case, you'll probably really like Part II. Though Part I is kind of necessary background for II.

I'm not sure whether anybody is going to like III: I'm still working on it, somewhat, and I have been having a terrible time with the ending.

shelia:

It may well be the other way around: the plants mellow out the employees when they're doing well, but when they start to go bad, they look less pretty, and the environment feels worse, and then the workers get more stressed. I mean, we do already know that pretty rooms are nicer to be in than ugly rooms.

I don't really think talking to plants is a big deal one way or the other: it's more or less the same as talking to oneself. We're social creatures: we'll talk to things whether they listen or respond or not. It's how we're built.

sheila said...

mr s, I agree that pretty plants make employees happy. But I've seen time and again, when times get tough and people are worried about layoffs, the plants start to go to hell. And I'm doing the exact same things I was before, and the plants were fine before. Unless the employees are dumping scalding coffee on them or something out of spite, there shouldn't be any change.

jim said...

How plants react to the death cries of the shrimp and other living organisms have finally been explained scientifically. The simple truth is that plants can recognise every single vibrational wavelength from the smallest to the largest and as everything in the universe vibrates, plants recognise everything. The understanding of how it does this is all to do with the properties of water. Water has the ability to change its vibrational pattern depending upon the environment in which it is in. As all living organisms including plants, have water content, it is through the properties of water that Cleve Backsters ideas work. In fact once you read all of the evidence in the book Blinded by Science, the fact that plants can recognise emotional intent, will seem inconsequential compared to all of the other ideas that are suggested. I found the book at www.blindedbyscience.co.uk and for some reason it is free at the moment.

mr_subjunctive said...

jim:

That's not an explanation; it's an unsupported assertion that raises more problems than it answers. You may as well say there are invisible elves running back and forth between people and plants to tell the plants what the people are feeling.

Also, if it's as simple as that, then how come people don't all know what the plants around them are feeling? Shouldn't this work in both directions?

jim said...

Dear mr subjunctive.

It is a fair point you make that if plants can recognise emotions in humans then why can't we recognise plants emotions. But why do you think that we can't? Let me give you some examples that will I hope show you how all of these interactions work.

Plants have been shown to recognise vibrations at every wave length from the very short to the very long. How do they do that, via the properties of water. How can we test that, very easily by just plugging machines into the plants and measuring their electrial output to assess their.
responses.

Can humans recognise similar wavelenghts,of course they can, except we don't have the organs to interpret the resutls. Our skin has been shown to be full of sensors that pass on the all vibrational waves into the blood which is 90% water. In countless studies it has been shown that water that is treated with a vibration causes blood coagulation levels to change within 15 minutes of swallowing the water. So we do change if we come across new vibrations, but not in a way that we could measure other than by doing countless blood test.

I would suggest that if we were to be wired up to a lie detector machine and meaured our response to a plant being cut up, you might find that there is a response. Sadly no-one has done such a test

However, lots of test have been conducted that show by placing a plant in a room our behaviour changes and our concentraion levels are improved our reaction times get quicker and the sympotms of illness such as ADHD are alleviated

I know that it sounds amazing but I learned all of this from the book Blinded by Science, lopus a whole load more.

mr_subjunctive said...

jim:

It is a fair point you make that if plants can recognise emotions in humans then why can't we recognise plants emotions. But why do you think that we can't?

Because there is no credible evidence that plants even have emotional states to begin with, much less that we could detect them.

Plants have been shown

Shown by whom? Using what methods?

to recognise vibrations at every wave length from the very short to the very long.

1) Define "recognize."
2) What kind of vibrations? The movement of atoms relative to one another? Sonic vibrations through the air? Electromagnetic vibrations like radio waves and X-rays?

How do they do that, via the properties of water.

What properties?

How can we test that, very easily by just plugging machines into the plants and measuring their electrial output to assess their.
responses.


What machines? How do you know that the machines are measuring the emotional responses, instead of the rate of photosynthesis or the vibrations of the table the plants are sitting on or the movement of water through the plants' tissues? What evidence justifies concluding that they have feelings?

Can humans recognise similar wavelenghts,of course they can, except we don't have the organs to interpret the resutls.

If we can't interpret what we're recognizing, then how do we know we're recognizing it?

Our skin has been shown

By whom?

to be full of sensors

What do they look like? Where are they located? How were they detected? How do we know that they're sensors and not, I don't know, immune cells or something?

that pass on the all vibrational waves into the blood which is 90% water.

Blood plasma (blood with the cells centrifuged out) is 90% water. Blood itself is 82-83% water.

Also: when one talks about vibrations or energy of any kind encountering matter, one of two things happens. Either it's reflected (echoes, mirrors) or it's absorbed. When light or sound is absorbed by a substance, it's converted into heat. This is the principle behind, for example, microwave ovens (electromagnetic energy + water molecules = water molecules moving around faster, which we call "hot water").

mr_subjunctive said...

(continued)

In countless studies it has been shown that water that is treated with a vibration causes blood coagulation levels to change within 15 minutes of swallowing the water.

"Treated" how? How are blood coagulation "levels" measured? (Do you mean blood coagulation times, or the concentration of blood-coagulation proteins in the blood?) By whom?

Since the studies are countless, I won't ask for all the references. How about just five?

So we do change if we come across new vibrations, but not in a way that we could measure other than by doing countless blood test.

And how do we know that it's the vibration-treated water doing this, and not the expectation on the part of the researchers and/or subject that something's going to happen? Have there been double-blind studies where some subjects got vibrationally-treated water and others got plain water and there was a statistically significant difference in blood coagulation between the two?

I would suggest that if we were to be wired up to a lie detector machine and meaured our response to a plant being cut up, you might find that there is a response. Sadly no-one has done such a test

I'm sure some people would show a response. I expect I certainly would, but mostly because I'm very interested in plants and I'd be curious about what the person cutting up the plant is doing. But what that shows is not that people have a psychic connection to plants, but that people respond to (in this case visual) stimuli. Which we already knew.

However, lots of test have been conducted that show by placing a plant in a room our behaviour changes and our concentraion levels are improved our reaction times get quicker and the sympotms of illness such as ADHD are alleviated

Again, if this is actually true, it shows that people react to visual and (maybe) olfactory stimuli, not that vibrational energy is being transmitted between water molecules in the plant and human. This effect is already explainable by science.

I know that it sounds amazing but I learned all of this from the book Blinded by Science, lopus a whole load more.

It does indeed sound amazing. But that doesn't make it true.

Also: you may not have noticed that this post is only Part I of the Cleve Backster series. There's also a Part II and a Part III, in which some of my specific problems with Backster's experiments are addressed.