Friday, September 11, 2009

Cleve Backster Part III: Implication

So far, I've more or less described what Cleve Backster's claims are, with respect to primary perception, and tried to show why they're less impressive than they first sound. This final section is mostly not about Cleve Backster at all, and is instead about the part of Backsterism that I find most interesting: his audience.

See photo-related disclaimer in Part I, if you have not done so already.

Why does primary perception seem to just automatically make sense to so many people? We all know, after all, that in order to have thoughts and perceive the world around us, we have to have a brain and nervous system,1 and even Backster isn't arguing that plants have nervous systems.2 Nor has Backster, or anybody else, proposed any way around this lack-of-a-brain problem: for all of Backster's theorizing about "primary perception," he has yet to propose any actual physical receptor in the plant that receives the signal and leads to the actual physical response, or come up with an idea about what is being transmitted between organisms, or even come up with an explanation for why the electrical conductivity of a leaf should be changing at all. I mean, not that this should all be entirely his responsibility to explain, but he could at least act like the questions are interesting.

And yet: tell a gardener, especially certain flaky-crunchy environmental types of gardeners,3 that plants have feelings and that wanting a plant to do better will cause it to do better, and a lot of them will agree with you and tell you they've observed that very thing. Indeed, they'll find it so obvious as to not even be worth thinking about, except insofar as it means all life is interconnected and Gaia and Nature and isn't it all just so wonderful and amazing? (Everybody else seems to find the interconnectedness of all life so much more profound than I, who was more or less raised on PBS nature specials,4 do.5 Sometimes this bothers me.)

But so anyway. This gut feeling that plants should be responsive, on some deep level, to human thoughts and feelings, and not just any human's thoughts and feelings but our own personal thoughts and feelings, is very common. And who knows, maybe plants are aware of stuff on some level or another. But I contend that from a purely emotional, in-an-ideal-world way, we shouldn't want Backster to be right, and the sorts of people who tend to believe that there is something to primary perception (who are generally the sorts of people who care about others and want people to get along and are empathetic when others have a problem) should want it to be true considerably less than everybody else does.

Why should this idea, of all ideas, be giving anyone warm Gaia fuzzies?6 If Backster is correct, after all, then plants have feelings, and can feel, at minimum, anxiety and pain. He hasn't really even tried, as far as I know, to demonstrate that plants could feel love, or appreciation, or generalized benevolence: the only feelings he's really demonstrated are anxiety and suffering. (In fairness to Backster, those are much easier things to test for.)

So it's all very nice to think that you and your Hoya have a loving, mutually appreciative relationship which makes it grow well. That's easy: you watch out for it, you don't injure it on purpose, you get rid of bugs when you find them. Why wouldn't it love you? But how about your lawn? Your lawn has received years of abuse and mutilation at your hands, and every single one of those mowings hurt. Your lawn, according to Backster's theory, has every reason to hate your guts and want you to die. How are your warm Gaia fuzzies doing now?

And this is not just your lawn; this is everywhere. Everytime you eat a salad, you're eating plants in such abject terror that they're unable to endure the fear without fainting.7 Trimming your yew, taking a pothos cutting, dividing a Hosta, pinching a coleus: in every case, says Backster, not only are you causing pain to another living, feeling being, which would be bad enough, but it knows you're going to do it in advance and consequently gets to helplessly anticipate the pain for several minutes before the actual cutting starts. If you were doing this to a kitten, they'd lock you up. And rightly so.

And there's really very little that human beings do that doesn't have suffering plants at some point in the process. Most of what we eat, wear, pave over, walk on, write on, build with, decorate for Christmas, give one another on Valentine's Day, all of it: soaked in death and pain and fear, according to Backster.8 Sure, go vegan, support animal rights, be against factory-farmed eggs, milk and meat because of the cruelty.9 But you have to eat something, right? And if being against cruelty is your motivation . . . well, best case scenario, you can eat fruit. Period. Maybe.10

So it's really just as well that there's no compelling evidence that Backster's theory is true. Plants probably really don't know what you're thinking, they probably really don't suffer (at least not in the way you do, or even the way a fish would), your lawn is probably not plotting to kill you. And you're probably really not leaving an ever-widening wake of botanical terror and misery behind you with every step you take and breath you draw. So relax already.

I don't imagine that most people consider the universal-suffering angle of it when they're wondering about the emotional life of their plants. Backster himself dwells more on the amazing interconnectedness of all organisms, life energy, and so forth, even though most of his actual experiments are about executions and threats, which now that I think about it is kind of amazing, rhetorically. But it seems to me that there has to be more to the appeal of primary perception than merely people feeling a connection to nature. There are lots of other, less troubling, ways to feel connected to nature, after all. My suspicion is that Backster has accidentally (on purpose?) come up with a theory that satisfies some psychological needs, and that is what keeps this stuff in the public consciousness. Just a guess of mine; I can't prove it's right. But:

Backster's work partly makes intuitive sense to us because it flatters our egos. In the ordinary world, you have a plant, you give it light, fertilizer, and water at the appropriate times, and it grows lush and strong, because that is what it's genetically programmed to do when given those inputs. The plant may be important to you, but you are not necessarily important to the plant. In the world of primary perception, though, you have a plant, you give it light, fertilizer and water at the appropriate times, and it grows lush and strong -- because it loves you. A lot of people don't even get that kind of direct emotional feedback and appreciation from our families, neighbors, co-workers, bosses, etc. So the theory starts out being kind of seductive and emotionally rewarding.

But it gets better, because it only counts in one direction. If you have a plant, and you give it light, fertilizer and water at the appropriate times, and it goes black and dies anyway, nobody is going to tell you the plant died because it found you so repulsive that it would rather die than continue to live with you. Nobody's going to wonder about the mysterious wrongness of your soul that causes plants to blacken and die. Nobody will ascribe the death to the plant's seething rage over being forced into captivity. No, in that case, suddenly everything becomes about stimulus and response: pH, temperature, humidity, pests, etc., and it's not about you in the slightest. So if the plant does well, it loves you, and if it doesn't, well, maybe the air was too dry. You get all the emotional gratification with none of the risk of rejection, and who's not going to at least want to believe that?11

Even besides the obvious emotional appeal of having another organism that cares so much about you that it can literally feel your pain, Backsterism also lets you think that there's another sentient being in the world to whom you are the most important thing in the universe, and allows you to take special credit for perfectly ordinary plant behaviors, like growing.12, 13 As nice as it might be to think that your plant grows only because you share a close emotional bond, which makes you a worthwhile person, wouldn't it also be pretty nice to think that your plant grows because you have skills, knowledge, and all-around competency in plant growing, that makes you a worthwhile person? And the second one of those can actually be verified!

Another factor might be that plants, when compared head-to-apical-meristem14 against people, for my money mostly come out looking better: they're easier to understand, they don't take your stuff without asking and then put it down somewhere else, they don't stop talking to you in order to take a cell phone call from another person, they don't commit genocide or start religious wars, etc. I mean, people are frequently very disappointing, and I have zero blame for anybody who wants to look for alternatives. (I'm not kidding.15)

But anyway.

Because of all this, I feel a little . . . strange, for trying to debunk Backster. I mean, surely this isn't really hurting anybody, right? If it helps some little old lady in Utah feel less alone, is it really so bad for her to think somebody's listening to her when she talks to the plants, or feel loved when her Phalaenopsis flowers? I mean, this is all basically harmless, right?

Well yeah, kind of. Certainly the world has bigger problems to deal with. At the same time, dealing with these bigger problems is going to involve making decisions, and making good decisions does require, minimally, having some kind of grasp on what is actually going on. For example, my opinion on biofuels kind of does depend on whether Backster is right.16 I'm not likely to be the one making that decision for the world, but I would like the people who are to be using the best information available, not just whatever people want to believe or whatever flatters egos. Even at the individual level, these things matter somewhat. It's harmless if our hypothetical lady in Utah believes her plants have feelings, but it's less harmless if some scammer starts selling special water for $25 a gallon that, I don't know, eases plants' suffering, enhances communication between plant and human, or something.17

So here we are at the end. I've more or less convinced myself that if there were something to Backster's work, after 43 years there would be more and better evidence than what he's come up with, which is more or less what I thought when I started out, though at least I have better reasons for thinking this now. You probably didn't change your mind during the course of the posts, either: this is fine with me. What I'd like to do at this point is try to engage people in a conversation about this. If you think I'm being condescending by saying, basically, that I think hard-core Backsterites are all just sad, lonely people trying to validate themselves through their houseplants (not exactly what I was saying, I think, but maybe that's how it sounded), say so. If you have changed your mind, if I brought up a perspective you hadn't considered, if you see a glaring flaw in my logic, you just named your band Warm Gaia Fuzzies, whatever. I thought fairly long and hard about all this, but I know there are perspectives I missed. So please. I invite conversation.


1 Some people, I suppose, would argue that neither of these are strictly necessary, and a soul is sufficient. Ghosts and whatnot. Okay, fine, whatever. Unless you're prepared to argue that plants have souls, though, my point still stands.
2 (or souls, for that matter, unless I misread him)
3 I have nothing against gardeners or environmentalists, though there is a particular section of the gardener / environmentalist / critical thinker Venn diagram that I find sort of especially hard to relate to (here labeled "flakes & suckers").
I mostly reside in the "dumb people who think they're practical" region, though I move around. Occasionally I even totally kick ass. I most emphatically do not mean by this that people in this category, or any of the others for that matter, are necessarily stupid or unpleasant or whatever. People in every spot on this diagram can be totally sweet, viciously nasty, drooling idiots, or brilliant original thinkers, all of which is an entirely different and unrelated Venn diagram.
4 Aside from the occasional brief mention of evolution, or "millions of years," nature specials were one of very, very few categories of TV program that my parents found acceptable. Which I was interested in anyway, probably (in true circular fashion) because I watched nature specials all the time. I eventually got over having a problem with evolution (it helps considerably if you learn what evolution actually is, as opposed to the monstrous strawmana creationists claim it is), but growing up thinking of "Growing Pains" and "Doogie Howser, MD" as forbidden fruit has probably warped me in ways I'm not even aware of.
     a (Monstrous Strawman = Band Name Alert!)
5 Well of course life is all interconnected. We all share common ancestors, so we have certain biological similarities in common, and we all live on the same planet, in a complex ecological web, so we are critically interdependent on some/most/all of these other species as well. That anybody could find this mind-blowing, rather than just obvious, sort of baffles me, but then, I was watching National Geographic specials about the Serengeti while you were watching "Miami Vice," so my perspective on these things is odd.
6 (Warm Gaia Fuzzies = Band name alert!)
7 Well, "fainting" is Backster's word for it. I would suggest "coma," or maybe "the sort of pain that knocks you unconscious" as more accurate, considering the scale of the trauma we're talking about.
8 Backster never comes right out and says this, of course. In fact, it's hard to find acknowledgment, in his book, that he's deliberately inflicting pain, suffering or death on one organism in order to measure the responses of another, even though his theory is pretty clear that this is what has to be happening. I don't have a problem with somebody making a career out of torturing plants and yogurt, because I don't believe that plants and yogurt can suffer, but Backster does, or at least claims to, and manages to justify it to himself somehow. This is not right, y'all. I mean, better this than kittens (there's much less doubt that kittens are capable of suffering), and it should be noted that I don't get the impression that Backster is a mean or cruel person in general: quite the opposite, if anything. But there's still something really off about a man who can make a career out of what he believes to be torture and execution and not see any problem with that.
9 Not that you asked, but: I am not a vegan, nor have I ever been, though the husband has (not at the moment, but I think he'd still count as ovo-lacto, or maybe just lacto, presently), and as a result I eat a lot less meat and fish than I used to. All of the good arguments are on the side of the vegetarians (environmental, animal cruelty, nutritional, etc.), and I don't really dispute any of this. But I also still drink a lot of milk, and it's not even the good kind of milk from free-range hippie cows who stand around and sing all day in idyllic meadows until it's time to be milked by gentle hippie milkmaids of all ethnicities and genders who play the autoharp and paint one another with henna tattoos all day while the cows are singing, but eeeeevil factory milk that's probably full of bovine growth hormone and tobacco by-products and asbestos and is extracted by machines operated by slack-jawed men who burn tires for entertainment and can't spell and wear clip-on striped ties with plaid shirts.
Because, apparently, I am a bad person.
Or maybe I just really like milk and really dislike spending money.
But that probably also makes me a bad person.
10 I'm assuming that fruit would be okay because the whole point of fruit is to "pay" animals for dispersing and fertilizing seeds; therefore it wouldn't make much sense for the plant to consider it painful. Though with seedless varieties of grapes, watermelon, bananas, oranges, etc., there's a different problem: eating seedless fruits would be exploitation, because you're receiving the payment for a service you're not providing, and that's damaging to the plant's dignity. So seeded varieties only, and then only if you plant the seeds afterwards. Preferably while surrounded by hennaed milkmaidsa, with autoharp accompaniment.
     a (The Hennaed Milkmaids = Band Name Alert!)
11 Even I would like to believe my plants love me, and that I'm important and appreciated. It sounds nice. It's less appealing to think that the lawn wants me dead, that each plant that's died in my care meant it as a gigantic "fuck you," and that the plants I've thrown out due to mealybugs have been cursing my name all the way to the landfill, but sure, it would be nice to be able to think that the plants spend as much time thinking about how to make me happy as I do thinking about how to make them happy.
12 Hey, your Streptocarpus bloomed. That's pretty awesome, it must think you're a wonderful person. Of course, millions of Streptocarpuses that never met you and have no idea who you are have also bloomed. And the flowers might mean that the plant is making a last-ditch effort to reproduce and pass on its genes before it is consigned to oblivion (some plants really do do this; I'm not making it up) due to your shitty care, and you're actually a horrible caretaker of plants. It's risky, trying to get your personal affirmations from plants. Of course, people aren't so great for that kind of thing either.
13 Curiously, both of these things (being at the center of someone else's universe and taking exceptional credit for nonexceptional growth and development) are also generally involved in having a baby. As far as I can remember from the book, Backster never mentions having kids, and I don't think I even remember him saying anything about getting married, either, though I'm less sure about that. Google searches reveal no wife or children either. Coincidence? Sure, very possibly. But maybe not: he would hardly be the first person to invent a child substitute, if indeed that is what's going on. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, necessarily, so long as you remain aware that your substitute is not an actual child. Some people do have trouble remembering this. Watch "Dog Whisperer.")
14 (apical meristem = growing tip)
15 (I realize it can sometimes be difficult to tell.)
16 Perhaps not the best example, since biofuels are sort of problematic anyway: they don't increase atmospheric CO2, but they don't do anything to decrease it either: ideally, whatever energy source we come up with should reduce CO2 levels. They're also not great from an air pollution standpoint, from what I hear. So I'm probably against them to some degree either way. But you know what I mean.
17 (Maybe some kind of anesthetic for taking cuttings? The skeevy, predatory part of my mind that comes up with scams is unable to come up with any very good ideas, which is unusual, since I'm usually frighteningly good at coming up with that kind of thing. But whatever. It doesn't matter: I know there's money in primary perception somewhere, for anyone who's sufficiently unethical.)


David Nolan said...

Excellent series of posts. Humorous, biting, factual - all at the same time. I read them all to an ailing aloe and it immediately looks more flush and active....

"So if the plant does well, it loves you, and if it doesn't, well, maybe the air was too dry."

I almost laughed myself out of my chair at this point - I have totally thought along those lines before I have to admit. Luckily, I have you to thank for making me see that sometimes, whatever the care you apply, plants just don't flourish - or sometimes, they just die. Its not a reflection on my character or care, its just a fact of plant life.

our friend Ben said...

Oh, my, Mr. S. What a tremendous post! This has to be your best yet (excluding, of course, Nina-related posts, but that's just the warm, fuzzy, hippy part of my nature speaking up). The graph alone was worth the price of admission. You do realize there actually ARE fruitarians, right? Folks who will only eat something if it's going to drop to the ground and die anyway, such as fruits, nuts, and grains, and would as soon cut off their arm as pull up a lettuce or carrot, much less eat it. As for the cruel nature of Baxter's experiments, I've always wondered how scientists who perform unspeakably cruel and painful experiments on animals are able to live with themselves. Of course they do it in the name of "the greater good" (unless they're in, say, the cosmetics industry), but that's also how the Nazis justified their experiments on people. Anyone who asserts that animals can't feel pain, terror, and emotion should, in my opinion, be forcibly reminded that s/he is an animal him or herself. But I digress. Kudos on a truly marvelous piece of work!

sheila said...

This was indeed a fun post and worth the wait! I'm not going to get into big debates - frankly, I'm too tired from the stress of life. But I have to say that at the moment there is a certain relative who is giving me a whole lot less in the way of emotional fulfillment that all of my plants put together. Does that mean the plants have primary perception? No. But my interactions with the plants are a lot more satisfying - and cost me a lot less money. Harrumph. I'm going to go sulk now.

And I will probably feel guilty as hell next time I have to cut a plant. I will try to think of it as a haircut and not an amputation.

Tatyana@MySecretGarden said...

Excellent post!

mr_subjunctive said...


Yeah, that's been my general experience with relatives as well. Really wasn't joking when I said I don't blame anybody who wants to look for alternatives to people.

I didn't necessarily mean, now let's all get really angry and argue about it. For what that's worth. Just, you know, wanting to get feedback.

David Nolan:

At one point shortly after I started the greenhouse job, I had to report to the boss that some of the plants had died for some reason or another, I don't remember what it was. I was really scared about doing so, but her reaction was basically just, no big deal, that's something plants do sometimes. Which made me feel somewhat better.

Though she was a lot less understanding on certain other occasions.

But so yeah. Dying is something plants just do sometimes; it's not always possible (or even desirable) to figure out why.

our friend Ben:

I was aware of fruitarians, though I didn't know that they ate nuts too. (The babies! Won't someone think of the babies!)

As for Backster and cruelty in the name of science, well, it's that kind of thing that makes me think maybe Backster doesn't believe his own theory, on some level.

Animal testing is kind of weird and barbaric, but we also still don't have any good alternatives, really. They've been working on computer models for decades now, but obviously any computer model is only going to be as complete as the information you can feed into it, and collecting that information is going to involve animal testing. I mean, either we have animal testing, we stop producing new compounds and trying new therapies, or we continue producing new compounds and therapies and just release them into the market untested. None of these sound particularly good to me, and somebody suffers in each case, so . . . you know. Maybe it's speciesist of me, but I would prioritize human suffering above animal suffering.

I do get the impression that science and industry have changed over the years to try to be less cruel whenever possible. I mean, you'd much rather be a lab rat in 2009 than a lab rat in 1960.


Thank you.

CelticRose said...

Loved the post Mr. S. I especially liked the part about your lawn hating your guts. :-)

You're right. People who believe stuff like this always look at the positive side and conveniently forget about any negatives. Take psychic abilities, for example. If psychics existed, that would mean you ultimately have no privacy at all. If you were psychic, you'd be subject to all kinds of thoughts that you'd rather not know about.

Speaking of interest band names, here's a song on the subject of plant feelings by the Arrogant Worms. ;-)

lynn'sgarden said...

Okay, actually scared myself that I followed and UNDERSTOOD this post first time! You raise the thought of why aren't Backster's 'followers' at least questioning the electric conduciveness of plants...don't you think he just assumes the public to understand basic primary perception as a given? I mean, come on, why explain something so the fundamental law of physics..which precedes (I think) basic understanding of biology and chemistry. Humans have nervous system, animals too so why not a living houseplant?

I do like the notion that surrounding yourself with plants is emotionally rewarding. A healthy blooming (pot of chrysanthemums) at my bedside table cheers me up and starts my day off right. But when it's done blooming and goes in the compost, I'm not gonna say 'woe is me, plant murderer'. Does that make me bad in your book?!
So bottom line, you'll just agree to disagree with Backster then? Like you said, who's he hurting? Confuse the heck out of maybe..but not hurting.
Awww, I see you as a young'n sitting crossed-legged watching PBS nature specials...I GOT TO watch Doogie...who's STILL a cutie-patootie today!

Thank you, Mr_Subjunctive! for your time and energy in these posts..I do say You Kick Ass!! Laughed to tears on some parts. So relax already...just do pictures tomorrow..your readers need a break ;^)

Karen715 said...

Wonderful end to a wonderful series. Informative, witty, thought-provoking--these posts are all of that, and more.

Though it hasn't come up in a while, posts on plant perception used to crop up with some regularity on the GW House Plants forum. In response, I used to post a link to the Skeptic's Dictionary entry on Backster. (I know you found it lacking, but I think it is, at least, a decent place to start.) I think I also pointed out that polygraphs aren't even all that reliable for what they are used for in humans: detecting lies. They measure certain physical responses, but they cannot prove what those responses mean.

I remember one woman (not a regular) posting that she "laughed at your link." She wasn't laughing because she felt the article wasn't thorough enough. It was clear that she was sneering at the notion of skepticism, in the same way that certain types of religious folk "pity" non-believers.

I think that is part of the reason why some people have so much invested in the idea that plants "feel." I do agree with you that the need to believe that your plants reciprocate your tender feelings is part of it, as is the need to feel important to someone. But I do think a certain need to believe that there is more to plants than what meets the eye is a also a big part of it. I think some people feel "robbed" or "cheated" of their sense of wonder by science. They cherish the notion that there is more to nature than what we can prove. They feel that for each thing we come to know, there is one less thing to believe, one less thing they can take on faith.

mr_subjunctive said...

Sorry I'm so late getting back. It's a watering day, and somehow watering always takes longer than the time I set aside for it.


I like the video. Going to use it for my post tomorrow.


Yeah, I guess I wind up at "agree to disagree." I mean, I would like to do the experiments myself and see what happens, but if I can't do that, I'll just say that I'm unconvinced but it's not the biggest thing in the world.

mr_subjunctive said...


True. I considered trying to address the "your science is destroying my sense of wonder" thing in an earlier draft, but the only part that really survived was the references to the interconnectedness of all life in Part III and the stuff about dodder from Part II.

I've never understood how understanding how something works makes it less. I mean, to me, the open-mouthed staring at something in wonder and awe is fairly dull; I'm much more impressed when I learn something weird and surprising about the world. Differences in education? Fundamentally different human personalities? I'm not sure.

In any case, I don't fault anybody for wanting to believe that there's more to plants than meets the eye, because 1) I believe it too and 2) it's true. But it is so baffling to me that the only thing that seems credible is that plants are, deep down, just like people. (And, usually, so is everything else: the planet, the rocks, human technology, etc.)

I don't even know what to say about that. It's a fairly alien mindset, to me. I don't relate to it.

Ginny Burton said...

I'd just woken up when I read this post, and suddenly into my foggy brain popped the refrain from a song by The Fugs: "Ask any vegetable/And the chances are good/That the vegetable will respond to you."

After a quick Google check, I see that Frank Zappa wrote the song. But I saw The Fugs perform it in the spring of 1968, I'm pretty sure.

Arrcue said...

To the author,

I just wanted to say that you have greatly illuminated me concerning the claims of Backster and plant's having emotions. I am writing a research paper for my college class actually, and my subject is the investigation of "primary perception". Initially, I was going into the paper on the side of plants having these mysterious abilities of intelligence, empathy and a psychic sense if you will. This is due because I did read "The secret life of plants" and was mesmerized by the notion of plants essentially having a capacity of communicating with us. However, I knew in the back of my mind that there is just too much fuzziness concerning the science and validity of these implications. You certainly asked great questions regarding the claims and answered many more along the way which I reserved in my own mind.

I feel bad for the sense that Backster seemed like a nice and honest man personally, and I feel averse to calling him out on any "potential" bullshit. But in the name of science and just seeking the truth, you do have to be critical of the claimer and his work. I'm certainly glad you did speak your mind and write these because it was a perspective I really needed to listen in on. Good work.

Also, it seems that a lot of these notions of plant's having similar emotional capabilities as us can be explained via psychology, i.e anthropomorphizing things. As you have also eluded to some of this.