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Smarty Plants

Tuesday, February 13, 2018 - 11:42 PM

Do you really need a brain to sense the world around you? To remember? Or even learn? Well, it depends on who you ask. Jad and Robert, they are split on this one. Today, Robert drags Jad along on a parade for the surprising feats of brainless plants. Along with a home-inspection duo, a science writer, and some enterprising scientists at Princeton University, we dig into the work of evolutionary ecologist Monica Gagliano, who turns our brain-centered worldview on its head through a series of clever experiments that show plants doing things we never would've imagined. Can Robert get Jad to join the march?

This episode was produced by Annie McEwen. 

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Aatish Bhatia, Jennifer Frazer, Monica Gagliano, Lincoln Taiz, Alvin Ubell and Larry Ubell

Produced by:

Annie McEwen


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Comments [36]

Audrey from DC

Amazing episode and so timely. My husband and I were just having a discussion about whether plants have “feelings” or feel pain when we harvest them. I thought my husband was being hyperbolic when he claimed they do, but now I suppose his argument has some merit! I continue to remind him that I eat plant-based for health reasons, not humanitarian...excellent work on this podcast!

Feb. 20 2018 04:30 PM
Daniel from Carlisle, PA

Regarding the introductory experiment, I would like to know whether a plant's roots would travel toward a speaker playing any kind of sound and not just the sound of water. Was there an EM field generated by the speaker, or was a piezoelectric speaker used? Are there types of vibrations that "attract" roots?

Super-cool stuff! Keep these types of shows coming!

Feb. 20 2018 08:44 AM
norma from San Antonio

How can anyone who believes that life adapts and evolves doubt that plants learn? How can anyone doubt that I love Radiolab? And Robert and Jad? And Simon? And that's the extent of my memory. Thanks everyone!

Feb. 19 2018 08:37 PM
Karen from DC

Loved this episode. I would like to know what the name of the music played at the end of the program

Feb. 19 2018 06:51 PM
Dude from Rusty Belt from Rust Belt

It amazes me how many times Radio lab produces a wonderful minor story into a bigger one. Yet, the miss the major epiphany right in front of their eyes. Jad repeats it a few times. "They don't have brains.. where do they store this information?" Why not ask that of people? I have never bet a bear in the wild. ( A moose, a mountain lion, a plethora of deer, even seen bear tracks, but never a bear.) Further, nobody I know and interact with on a regular basis has seen a bear in the wild. nobody I know has ever been attacked by one. However, if I saw one, I would know to be afraid. My behaviors would be intrinsic. So where was that memory stored? It was passed down to me through various methods.

As you pointed out, the bell or the fan provide no rational benefit to Pavlovs dogs nor the plants respectively. This is similar to the Stephenson experiments of the mythical "Banana Monkey water spray" experiments. What if the stimulus was "Muslims", "Blacks", "democrats"? What if we react for reasons that are artificial and irrational. Where are those "memories" held.

My theory.. You have to abandon the notion of individualism and embrace collectivism. Embrace the notion that the human race is a songle organizm much like the plants are an organism. That "memory" resides in the cells. Each of us is just a cell. So which is more emotional evoking? The notion that plants are more like humans than we thought.. or that humans are more like plants than we thought?

Feb. 19 2018 11:52 AM
Kate Rakow from Confluence, PA

Fascinating contrast for the mimosa in a predictable environment vs an unpredictable environment.

Feb. 19 2018 09:06 AM
Zachery s from Oxford, mi

After listening to your episode of smarty plant
I wonder when you did not being up the farmers that play music to the crops or does talking to your plant helps them grow better.

Good podcast thanks

Feb. 18 2018 08:40 PM

Have you guys ever heard about Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose? He had performed several interesting experiments long time ago on plants and showed how smart they are.

Feb. 18 2018 07:23 PM
CS from Montreal

Interesting topic but it seems a shame you didn't try again to replicate the experimen of dropping the plants. Trying the experiment once, having it fail, then just sort of shrugging and going on with the story casts a lot of doubt on the entire episode, which is a shame.

Feb. 18 2018 10:33 AM
Tracey from Australia

Has anyone heard of the research at Damanhur, a spiritual community in Italy, that has been looking at plant communication? They've developed a device that clips to a plant's leaf and picks up electrical impulses. The device interprets these as sounds so the plant plays the device like an instrument. Amazing to hear!
Check them out at

Feb. 17 2018 08:14 PM
Steve from Buffalo, NY

I think episode was interesting, but I feel like they dropped the ball in the last 8 minutes or so.

Here are my major issues:
- Besides Dr. Taiz (UC Santa Cruz), the hosts and guests seem to enjoy the use of metaphor in scientific writing (which can be misleading to non-scientists)
- Producer Annie McEwen thinks the use of metaphors and creative language makes the researcher in question "...more open minded that someone who's just looking at a notebook."
- Side note: I'll be talking broadly here, but confusing scientists as being close-minded is a big pet peeve of mine. They are open minded, but then they actually go out and find out if those ideas are true or not. They either conduct a study themselves or do the relevant literature review to learn what other professionals have found evidence for.
- Saying that scientists don't like using words like "mind", "taste", or "hear" when talking about plants because it's too human or too animal. They don't like using those words because there isn't evidence for those conscious experiences in plants. They have chemoreceptors to sense their environment and while it fills similar roles to our senses, it's much different than what animals experience (but equally as interesting).
- The use of the straw-man logical fallacy that intelligence is unique to humans
- The idea that plants have meaningful intelligence without evidence for that claim

maybe I'm being too harsh on Radiolab, but sometimes I can be pedantic.

Feb. 17 2018 11:12 AM
Sonal from California, USA

Loved the podcast.

Here is an experiment I had done on plants. This experiment has been successfully done by many. Even thoughts have such profound impact on plants.

Feb. 17 2018 03:01 AM
Cath Kleier from Denver, CO

Best. Podcast. Ever.

My students and I will repeat these experiments during Introduction to Botany in the fall, and I use your podcast as the introduction. On with the plant parade!

Feb. 16 2018 12:31 PM
Jason Teets from Detroit, MI

Loved this episode! Great job, and nice to see a return to the science roots a bit (so punny). I do think the male scientist talking about metaphor comes off a bit sexist with a bit of a dose of "mansplaining", but I'm not sure why other listeners are faulting Radiolab for this. They just produced this and told the story people; they don't support misogyny.

Feb. 16 2018 11:00 AM
Joshua Caraco

"what a plant knows" by Daniel Chamovitz is a fun book exploring current science in plant senses. Surprised no one came up with it. Very scientific (plenty of citation) but a light pop science book that could be a jumping off point.

Feb. 16 2018 01:06 AM
val from Portland, or

Do you ever publish what music you use on your show. I caught just a little snippet of something, and would like to explore it more.


Feb. 15 2018 06:52 PM
Ben from Brooklyn from Brooklyn

Similar to what Phil Hopkins from Southwestern University was saying. Memory and consciousness don't exist in the brain as a vessel or in neurons, but between neurons, rather it is the overall network itself and patterns within which encodes a memory. The more complex the network, the deeper the consciousness that imbues the network. Plants have their own chemical networks, potentially richer than our own.

The term anthropomorphizing is another way that humans have put ourselves at the center of the universe. Couldn't it be that plants and animals are part of a larger category of cell based, chemical networked organisms.

Feb. 15 2018 04:55 PM
Kacy from Durham, NC

Your producer's statement that anthropomorphizing plants is "creative" shows a total lack of understanding of how scientific creativity works. Working scientists must never fall into the trap of forcing what we observe to fit a structure that already exists in our mind. That isn't creative, it's lazy. Real scientific curiosity means observing carefully, and letting your mind wander over many different possible explanations for what you are seeing. It means feeling free to imagine that things you think you know are actually not true, and that things could be possible that right now don't seem to be. It's pretty much exactly the opposite of thinking by analogy.

Also, I want to point out that you did two things to Dr. Monica Gagliano that were disrespectful. I'm glad to see from these comments that I'm not the only one who felt this way. First, it was unkind to badly attempt a replication in such a public way. "We could not repeat your experiment" is one of the most dismaying things a working scientist could ever hear, and you treated it like a lark. Second, I was gobsmacked that you gave the final word on Dr. Gagliano's research to a pair of house inspectors and your own producer. Typically you do a much better job recognizing the expertise of your guests. One wonders if her being a young woman impeded your recognition of her authority on the subject.

Feb. 15 2018 03:41 PM
Ann Thompson

The structure of this episode really lends a sexist interpretation to Dr. Gagliano’’s research as somehow “less scientific “. I like radiolab, but this was disappointing. The disparaging use of ‘metaphor’ - not even a wholly correct use! - is nonsense.

Feb. 15 2018 02:51 PM
the skleeve from Portland, OR

Thank you thank you thank you for returning to, for at least an episode, a science based/natural world/"deeper-insight" type topic! Please give us more. Nice to have Jad's and Robert's back-and-forth discussions, too - missed that. Very interesting results, and I'd be interested to see how readily the researcher's results can be replicated.

Feb. 15 2018 01:30 PM

I am going to differ from the tone of the previous comments. This podcast, unlike other RadioLab ones, struck me as deeply and seriously misogynist. The carefully controlled experimental outcomes of a younger female scientist are pitted against the random non-replication of other 'scientists' and the irrelevant musings of a senior male scientist.

Replication is key to the creation of scientific knowledge, but building a lego tower and so that plants can be dropped is not replication. One hopes that the 'scientists' you engaged for that activity do not conduct their own research in such an uncontrolled fashion. Valid observations regarding the relevant variable/s require that other variables be controlled.

Nor is metaphor the issue. And the objective of the original experiments is not to "make plants more like animals." Your producer was entirely correct in her comments and I wish she had stuck to her point. The scientist conducting the experiment is seeking to determine whether processes believed to be unique to animals are actually shared by plants. This is similar to scientific observations made decades ago regarding tool manufacture and use, which documented that these behaviors are not unique to humans.

The unfortunate emphasis across the board on the brain as a 'thing' ignores the biochemistry of brain function. Plant biochemistry should have been what you engaged with during the latter part of the program.

Feb. 15 2018 01:25 PM
Mike O from New Hampshire

Loved this story, it is very interesting to hear how much there is about Plants, and ourselves, that we still do not know. This is really eye opening and makes me wonder what the future will hold for these types of studies on plants.

After sharing this article with co-workers, I was given the link to this other plant related article. Check it out, it's another interesting one:

Feb. 15 2018 11:58 AM
Phil Hopkins from Southwestern University

I'm a professor of philosophy that focuses on the phenomenology of the body. I just listened to the Radiolab episode about Monica's research. I thought I'd mention that I think you'd find the notion of "procedural" memory, as distinguished from "episodic" memory, outlined by Henri Bergson in Matter and Memory (1896) particularly relevant to these findings. He carefully distinguishes the kind of motor-memory that allows us to do things, and rejects the notion entirely that memory is some kind of collection of recordings in some container like the brain, but, rather, is the development of a whole sense/nervous system.

Happy to chat about it further if you're interested.

Feb. 15 2018 10:37 AM
Paul Potter from Eldersburg, MD

This would’ve been better to post yesterday, but I was a day late in listening to this episode...Happy belated Valentine’s Day !

Feb. 15 2018 09:06 AM

Can you please let me know where can I find the music playing in the background at the end of the episode?
Thanks for another great episode.

Feb. 14 2018 10:54 PM
Andrew Graham from Athens GA

What if the memories that the plants accessed are stored in the brain of the researcher? Could pheromones or other unseen chemicals that plants excrete somehow be a conduit into the human (or other organism) sub-conscious through which the plant offloads "processing power"? Just a thought.

Feb. 14 2018 08:13 PM
joe from LA

Can I please have links to the source papers. I want to read more about the studies.

Feb. 14 2018 06:29 PM
Adam Lidstone from Newfoundland, CA

Great episode this week, happy to hear the Newfie in the middle! Great job to all making this show.

Feb. 14 2018 04:13 PM
E. Marie from Mid-Atlantic

This was such an intriguing topic- Thank you! I too am a scientist and like to think that perhaps there are still many things that as humans, we have yet to even comprehend. I applaud the scientist who is open-minded and performed her experiments on the plants ( as opposed to the gentlemen scientists you interviewed who seemed less receptive to bigger ideas). The house inspector duo was entertaining also - just a wonderful array of input from various interviewees!!

I absolutely love the song at the end of the whole podcast. Truly beautiful - I would love to hear it in its entirety.

Feb. 14 2018 03:38 PM
Jim from Omaha

This episode was much better. Its getting back to your science roots, pun intended.

Feb. 14 2018 02:51 PM
Evan Neal from Springfield, MO

This was a great podcast and interesting topic! I enjoy the science based topics over the human interest and politically charged ones. I feel like episodes like this one really bring you back to your roots (pun intended).

Feb. 14 2018 01:02 PM
Heidi Barthelemy from Los Angeles

Looks interesting!
This is one of a handful Radiolab podcasts that keep returning the error message, “...not available at this time...”.
I came to the website to listen and it won’t play for me here, either.

I’ll keep trying. I get most of the other RL podcasts.
Love your work. 💖 Happy Valentine’s Day.
Change is the only Constant. Love Prevails.

Feb. 14 2018 12:30 PM

I really enjoyed this podcast! There are several specimens of Mimosa pudica at the national botanical gardens. If you're a DC local definitely check it out.

Feb. 14 2018 11:12 AM

To continue the ideas from this episode and "From Tree to Shining Tree", I'd suggest reading "The Hidden Life of Trees" by Peter Wohlleben. It expands on some of the concepts seen in these two episodes and exposes a side of trees that many do not know exist. While Wohlleben does use anthropomorphic traits at times, the book is deeply rooted in science and blends this science with his experiences as a forester in Germany. All in all, a delightful and insightful read.

Feb. 14 2018 10:10 AM

An interesting book on this topic is The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins/ Christopher Bird. This book accounts a series of experiments on plants with polygraphs which reveal not only a plant's sensitivity to outside forces but also sensitivity to HUMAN THOUGHT. I highly recommend it.

Feb. 14 2018 09:48 AM

Is there a site where I can view the experiments conducted.

Feb. 14 2018 03:01 AM

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