On One Hand

September 16, 2007

Thoughts and energy

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 2:59 pm

While the spiritualistic fads of astrology, spirit animals, and extra-sensory perception were gaining popularity in the 1960s, an American scientist decided that plants, too, have bizarre nonmaterial connections to human thought. Cleve Backster was an interrogator for the CIA, and as such he delt with polygraphs – machines that can detect subtle physical changes in people to read their thoughts and emotions. He decided to use the same machines to experiment on plants, coming up with what would later be called plant perception, primary perception, or the Backster Effect.

In his experiment, Backster hooked a polygraph machine to a potted philodendron, then imagined burning one of the plant’s leaves with a lit match. He found that the machine recorded distress from the plant as a response to his thinking, and furthermore, the plant could distinguish his actual intent from his simple pretending – hard evidence, he would insist, that living things are connected in elusive unseen ways.

The experiment was repeated with varied success by other curious, self-motivated individuals, but never with the controls a serious scientific journal or university would require to call the results valid. Any scientific institution with a reputation to protect wouldn’t touch such an experiment, no matter how curious its researchers may have been. The popular TV show MythBusters performed an experiment similar to Backster’s, to find that their equipment did indeed record unlikely reactions from a plant in response to their thoughts, but when the initial results didn’t show up on later experiments (Backster would argue it was the plant distinguishing imagination from actual intent), the show claimed to have busted the myth.

Whether or not there is really some sort of energy field that connects people to plants, or, as would harmonize with a great number of religions, at least a field connecting human beings to each other, the tests do show that the human mind is willing to perceive very subtle stimulii from its environment, and, if a person believes that the object he or she is looking at has a consciousness of its own, a person will interpret that connection in dramatic ways.

I am a plant enthusiast, and I have a certain way of inspecting plants I’m taking care of. Every week or so, I’ll spend a few minutes with each plant, and appreciate its presence. Sometimes I will lift the pot off of the windowsill to note all the new growth, I’ll gauge the plant’s general health, I’ll check for bug-infestations or wounds, and decide if the plant looks like it needs more water, fertilizer, or light. It’s a soothing thing for me to do, which is why I have so many plants in the first place. I say it’s how I show love; my former boyfriend Garrett used to tell that the way I looked at him reminded him of how I inspected my plants; if we were alone together, I’d often unconsciously start examining his skin to see if there was anything new or unusual, checking his moles or warts and lightly touching his hands or feet to get a feel for them.

Going back to my relationship with plants, I always have some specimens I spend a little more time on than the others. I’d water or fertilize any plant that wilted or yellowed, but if one of them seemed more interesting or unusual, I would linger when “inspecting” it. Without fail, the “favorite” got to be bigger than the others; I started a collection of cactus seedlings when I was 9 years old, and 13 years later, the one I looked at the most has turned out to be about 5 times taller than its nearest rival. This summer I cut a ginger root in half and planted it in 2 different pots, and the piece I gave to Garrett – a gift I invested with a lot of love and thought – sprung into a healthy, two-foot bamboo-like shoot while the other didn’t even emerge from the soil for two months until after I broke up Garrett and was no longer following the progress of the first one. I’ve always assumed the phenomenon occurs because I am more aware of what’s going on with the plant I like better, so give it more precise amounts of water and light.

A month ago I brought some semi-tropical seeds from Southern California, and planted them in little containers inside a covered tray. Their surroundings are identical, since they’re in the same tray, and all the seeds sprouted at the same time. A week after I planted the seeds they sprung to life, and there were usually about 2-3 emerging seedlings per container, so I had to thin them out. I picked out the smallest sprouts to leave room for the bigger sprouts to grow. In one instance, I uprooted the smaller seedling of a container that had two, and since about a third of the little plant’s roots were still intact, I decided to save it and pressed the seedling into the soil into an otherwise-empty container in the same tray.

A month later, that formerly small and seriously injured seedling was the biggest out of the entire collection. I have no logical explanation for its success; all the seedlings get the exact same amount of sun and light, and since they’re in a miniature covered greenhouse that recycles its water, all the seedlings get the same amount of moisture. Furthermore, since the seedling’s roots had been seriously torn when it was moved, the plant was at a huge disadvantage. The only potentially-beneficial difference between the seedling I transplanted and any of the others is that the one I transplanted got a little extra attention when I bothered to preserve its life. It had physical contact with an intelligent being that, in a loving way, took some time to give it a chance to survive. Whenever I checked on the seedlings after that, I took some extra time to consider the injured one to see how it was doing. Later it was markedly larger than it should have been, almost twice as big as the smallest seedlings in the tray and at least a third larger than its nearest rival.

Can just thinking about a plant really make it grow faster? Eccentric botanists who “talk to their plants” have been suggesting so for generations, to the frustration of trained scientists who say that the phenomenon is better explained in other ways. One possible answer is that exhaled breath has higher-than-average levels of carbon dioxide, a gas plants need in order to survive, so close proximity to humans would give any plant a boost in growth. Also, extra thought and attention probably means the caretaker would subconsciously offer extra water and fertilizer as well.

The scientific method requires “double-blind” studies in which the person making the observations is different from the person performing the experiment; basically, a person might try to “love” one plant more, but in order for the experiment to work he or she can’t be the person to water and feed the plant and can’t be the person measuring to see if the loved plant is actually bigger than the others. The person making the measurements isn’t even allowed to know which plant is receiving more attention, otherwise his or her bias would surely have an impact on the findings. Only with a double-blind process of data collection can the experiment be considered to have real scientific credibility.

A beleiver in energy fields, on the other hand, might counter that it is the act of feeding and measuring a plant that transfers the energy that makes the plant grow, so a double-blind study wouldn’t work in the first place; a true scientific test is impossible. There is a kind of intellectual satisfaction in that, since for thousands of years no experiment in science has been able to confirm or deny the things that we tend to consider as part of religion; beleivers insist that something about the supernatural’s very nature makes it elusive. Why should the case of thriving plants be any different?

Any conclusion about the realness of extra-sensory fields would be mired in doubt. But I think the most important lesson in all this doesn’t require a bizarre or supernatural force to be true. That lesson is that somehow, even when I am trying to do otherwise, my secret thoughts and emotions affect reality, because they effect my actions in subtle ways. Either some mysterious energy filled the favored plant with vitality, or my subconscious had me give it better physical care. Either way, the impact was real and measurable. It means that that when someone or something is loved, that thing is more likely to thrive, because the beings that love it will give it more of what it needs to do so. From an evolutionary perspective, that makes sense, because an individual’s feelings of love and compassion increase the chances of survivial for the community as a whole if that love can help its subjects thrive.

Realizing that makes other pieces of my life suddenly clear. When I am in a relationship, I rapidly lose weight, maybe because I am focusing all my “love” onto another person rather than on myself. I am always trying to keep my weight up, but somehow it is much easier to do when I have no responsibilities for the emotional well-being of another. When I lose that deep relationship, I lose all the love coming from another person, but have not yet re-learned to love myself. I’ll lose weight even faster at that time. As soon as I learn to care for myself again, though, my weight suddenly begins to increase, and I feel energized and healthy again. People who constantly try to lose weight find the opposite to be true; when they are in relationships, they find themselves getting heavier, especially around the time the relationship ends, and only when they are comfortable alone do they have enough self-focus to exersize and be conscious of their diet.

Obviously, this phenomenon has the potential to affect others. If you secretly favor one person over another, you will treat that person better no matter how hard you try not to; to change the situation, you have to start with your own deepest feelings of bias or favoritism. It means that your resentment of another person, if unaddressed, will manifest itself no matter how hard you try to bury it. Your own thoughts and feelings control you in stronger ways than your rational intent for consistency can conceal what’s in your heart. It also means that if you are putting more love into a person or relationship than you are getting in return, your physical health and ability to thrive will be affected.

Taken on a broader scale, this understanding has strong social implications. Our thoughts do affect things around us, and maybe society’s general thoughts and feelings affect the world even when those thoughts are largely unspoken. Minority groups could end up feeling secret racism even if no one says anything racist out loud. Our insecurities about a foreign religion will affect our views on peace and war even when we think the categories are separate. All these thoughts and feelings will impact our actions, in such decisions as our choice of friends and our voting, and have a profound impact on the world. That means we have an equally profound responsibility to root out any secret evils that hide in our own hearts and belief systems.

The ethical responsibilities involved in this are broad, but there is a brighter way to look at it. It means cynicism can be put aside, because the way we care for each other, as human beings, is not an illusion, is not self-serving and is extremely important. Whether by physical or mysterious means, to simply “appreciate the presence” of another person, plant or animal will lead to its greater liklihood to thrive. Love, caring, and affection are important, and they really do affect the physical world in concrete, measurable ways.


1 Comment »

  1. you should research, N,n-DMT and then think about how it’s in every mammalian brain and also in some plants. Then you should ask yourself what evolutionary purpose it serves. I just got a Venus Flytrap and it’s the darndest thing. You should also research Bio_electro_magnetism.

    Comment by psycho_active — September 18, 2007 @ 6:17 am | Reply

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