Plants, Collective Metaphysics, and the Birthright of Kinship: An Interview with Monica Gagliano

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Over the past two decades, a remarkable body of scientific literature has emerged on the intelligence and sheer virtuosity of plants, and a maverick group of scientists and philosophers now talk about “vegetal consciousness.” One of the leaders in this field is Monica Gagliano, an Italian evolutionary ecologist who is a senior research fellow at the University of Sydney in Australia.

Her groundbreaking experiments with Mimosa pudica, known as the “sensitive plant,” because it instantly closes its leaves when touched, revealed that plants learn and remember, shattering the shibboleth that only animals with brains and neurons have this capacity. Another experiment showed how peas make decisions when navigating a maze, choosing to grow toward flowing water that they can actually hear.

Gagliano has also written a highly personal memoir, Thus Spoke the Plant, that revealed another dimension of her life. She recounts a series of prophetic dreams, along with trips to Peru and the United States to study with shamans and indigenous healers, with whom she had experiences with ayahuasca and other psychoactive substances. Her experiences of “talking” with plants and even receiving instruction from them have stretched the boundaries of what scientists are willing to divulge.

I talked with Gagliano at Dartmouth College, where she was a visiting scholar. We spoke about the new field of plant intelligence and her efforts to reconcile the seemingly conflicting realities of modern science and indigenous ways of knowing.

Steve Paulson: Was there a particular moment or turning point when you realized you wanted to devote your professional life to plants?

Monica Gagliano: It feels more like it was decided for me. And then I had only a choice. Either you follow or you follow. So guess what? I followed.

Steve Paulson: Can you explain what happened?

Monica Gagliano: I originally trained as a marine ecologist and worked with animals, specifically fish on the Great Barrier Reef. I was in the water most of the time, so I spent a lot of time getting to know these animals, not just as my objects of research but also as subjects. And then one day, the fish taught me a big lesson: “We’re not here just for your science. We are here because we have our own lives, our own stories to tell.” That kind of changed a bit of everything.

Steve Paulson: Because you realized at that point that to do your research, you had to kill these fish to study them?

Monica Gagliano: Exactly. And it became very clear to me that there was no question that was important or big enough to justify me killing another being. So, yes, that kind of triggered a professional as well as personal crisis. And I had just moved from one side of Australia to take up a position in western Australia. I moved into a new home and started a new veggie patch. As I was planning the garden, planting and creating this new space, it became very clear, while I had my hands in the dirt, that I could use plants to ask the same questions. And why haven’t we asked these questions with plants before? We don’t want to really face the answer, whatever the answer is, especially if the answer points to the fact that plants, like anything around us, are actually alive and kicking. And they have their own story to tell. They’re not just sticks in the ground.

Steve Paulson: Some of the words you use to describe the response of plants in your experiments is that they understand and learn. And you’re suggesting they remember. We do not normally associate those functions with plants.

Monica Gagliano: For me, to use the words memory and learning feels totally appropriate. I know that some of my colleagues accuse me of anthropomorphizing. But actually, there is nothing anthropomorphic about this. These are terms that refer to certain processes. And memory and learning are not two separate processes. They are one and the same. You can’t learn unless you can remember. So if a plant is ticking all the boxes and is doing what you would expect a rat or a mouse or a bee to do, then for me she’s passing the test, and I don’t really care whether it is a plant. The test is being passed and whoever passed the test can be said to be learning or remembering.

Steve Paulson: You are describing a level of intelligence in these plants that’s pretty sophisticated. Do you have a working definition of intelligence?

Monica Gagliano: That’s one of those touchy subjects. Intelligence really underscores decision making, learning, memory, choice. As you can imagine, all those words are also loaded. They belong in the cognitive realm. That’s why I define all of this work as cognitive ecology.

Steve Paulson: This is a very controversial position among scientists. The common criticism of your views is that an organism needs a brain, or at least a nervous system, to be able to learn or remember. Of course, plants don’t have neurons. Are you saying neurons are not required for intelligence?

Monica Gagliano: Science is full of assumptions and presuppositions that we don’t question. But who said the brain and the neurons are essential for any form of intelligence or learning or cognition? Who decided that? And when I say neurons and brains are not required, it’s not to say that they’re not important. For those organisms like ourselves and many animals who do have neurons and brains, it’s amazing. But if we look at the base of the animal kingdom, sponges don’t have neurons. They look like plants because, when they’re adults, they settle on the bottom of the ocean and pretty much just sit there forever. Yet if you look at the sponge’s genome, they have the genetic code for the neural system. It’s almost like, from an evolutionary perspective, they simply decided that developing a neural system was not useful. So they went a different way. Why would you invest that energy if you don’t need it? You can achieve the same task in different ways.

Steve Paulson: Your critics say these are just automatic adaptive responses. This is not really learning.

Monica Gagliano: It’s the job of science to revise itself. It’s the job of science to be humble enough to realize that we actually make mistakes in our thinking, but we can correct that. Science grows by correcting and modifying and adjusting what we once thought was the fact. Can you as a scientist create the space for these others to express their own, in this case, “plantness,” instead of expecting them to become more like you? The plant is doing this in a plant way. So can we appreciate the plantness or the animalness or the humanness of different beings?

Steve Paulson: There’s an emerging field of what’s called vegetal consciousness. But I think there’s a popular understanding that for an organism to be conscious, it has to have an emotional life. Do you think plants can feel pain? Can they experience joy?

Monica Gagliano: It depends on what you mean by feeling and joy and all of that. It also depends on where you are expecting the plant to feel those things, if it does, and how you recognize them in a human way. I mean, plants might have more joy than we do. It’s just that we don’t know because we’re not plants.

We have only talked about this from the scientific perspective, which is the Western view of the world. It comes straight from the Greeks, the Romans, and the medieval times. All of those dudes—because most of them were men—had certain ways of seeing the world. And we also know that this perspective has literally occupied the worldview of others.

But the worldview that I’m talking about, for example, is the Indigenous worldview. Why is that less valuable? Why is that way of knowing completely wiped under the carpet as if it doesn’t have anything to say? When you actually do explore those perspectives, they require your experience. You can’t just understand them by thinking about them. My own personal experience tells me that plants definitely feel many things. I don’t know if they would use those words to describe joy or sadness, but they are feeling bodies. We are feeling bodies.

Steve Paulson: You’ve studied with shamans in Indigenous cultures, and you’ve taken ayahuasca and other psychoactive substances. Why did you seek out those experiences?

Monica Gagliano: I didn’t. They sought me. So I just followed [laughs]. They just arrived in my life. You know, those are important doors that you need to open, and you either walk through or you don’t. I simply decided to walk through. I had this weird series of three dreams while I was in Australia doing my normal life. By the time the third dream came, it was very clear that the people I was dreaming of were real people. They were waiting somewhere in this reality, in this world. And the next thing, I’m buying a ticket and going to Peru, and my partner at the time is looking at me like, what are you doing? [Laughs]. I have no idea, but I need to go. As a scientist, I find this is the most scientific approach that I’ve ever had. It’s like there is something asking a question and calling you to meet the answer. The answer is already there and is waiting for you, if you are prepared to open the door and cross through. And I did. So I think it was a very scientific approach to go and explore.

Steve Paulson: What did you do in Peru?

Monica Gagliano: The first time I went, I found this place that was in my dream. It was just exactly the same as what I saw in my dream. It was the same man I saw in my dream, grinning in the same way as he was in my dream. So I just worked with him, trying to learn as much as I could about myself with his support.

Steve Paulson: This was a local shaman whom you identify as Don M. And there was a particular plant substance, a hallucinogen, that you took.

Monica Gagliano: I did what they call a dieta, which is basically a quiet, intense time in isolation that you do on your own in a little hut. You are just relating with the plant that the elder is deciding on. So, for me, the plant that I worked with wasn’t by itself a psychedelic in the normal way of thinking about it. But of course, all plants are psychedelic. Even your food is psychedelic, because it changes your brain chemistry and your neurobiology all the time you eat. Sugars, almonds—all sorts of neurotransmitters are flying everywhere. So again, even the idea of what a psychedelic experience is needs to be revised because a lot of people might think that it is only about certain plants. And I find that all plants are psychedelic. I can sit in my garden. I don’t have to ingest anything and I can feel very altered by that experience.

Steve Paulson: So there was a very particular regimen that you went through under the guidance of the shaman. What happened?

Monica Gagliano: I learned what I needed to learn, and then I left and took that knowing with me, which took a long time to unpack and unfold, of course. And still, sometimes little things arrive in my head and I’m like, “Oh, my God. I know where that comes from.” And it took ten years to actually open up and show itself and provide the meaning that makes sense to me so that I can use that bit of information to do whatever it is that I need to do.

Steve Paulson: Did you feel like you were communicating with the plants when you were in Peru?

Monica Gagliano: I communicate with everything all the time. So not just in Peru. Not just with that plant. Once you start working with these plants in this way—and maybe this is why the curanderos in all sorts of traditions are so proud of those relationships—these others are living with you. So you are not just one, but you become a collective. And I guess we are always a collective. In literal terms as well. You know, we have viruses and bacteria living with us all the time. But to have also these other metaphysical aspects indicates our metaphysics is not singular. We are a collective. So, yeah, it’s almost like, well, the plants are here. The ones that I have dieted with, the ones I really spent time with to build the relationship, I did as you would with any friends of yours.

Steve Paulson: It sounds like these plants were your teachers. Did they have specific information to tell you about your life and your work?

Monica Gagliano: Yeah, I mean, some of the plants tell me exactly how wrong I was in thinking about my experiments and how I should be doing them to get them to work. And I’m like, “Really?” I’m scribbling down without really understanding. Then I go in the lab and try what they say. And even then, there is a part of me that doesn’t really believe it. For one experiment, the one on the Pavlovian pea, I was trying to address that question the year before with a different plant. I was using sunflowers. And while I was doing my dieta with a different tree back in Peru, the plant just turned up and said, “By the way, not sunflowers. Peas.” And I’m like, “What?” People always think that when you have these experiences, you’re supposed to understand the secrets of the universe. No, my plants are usually quite practical [laughs]. And they were right.

Steve Paulson: What do you do with these kinds of personal experiences? You are a scientist who’s been trained to observe and study and measure the physical world. But this is an entirely different kind of reality. Can you reconcile these two different realities?

Monica Gagliano: I have the feeling now in hindsight that I was all along the target, that the plants were calling me to experience what I’ve experienced exactly for that purpose. It’s like: can you become comfortable walking between these two worlds? They look so separate and different, but actually they are the same, but most of the time you are just only paying attention to half of it. Can you learn to pay attention to all of it all the time? I think there are some presuppositions that a scientist should just explore the consensus reality that most of us experience in more or less the same way. But I don’t see why. From its earliest centuries, science has always been about experimentation and observation. And it is always personal, because it’s you observing and it’s you experimenting as the scientist. So I don’t really have a conflict because I find this is just part of experimenting and exploring. If anything, I found that it has enriched and expanded the science I do.

Steve Paulson: You have said that you’ve come to think of a plant as a subject rather than an object. Can you explain what you mean?

Monica Gagliano: It’s very simple, because if you objectify not just plants but even animals or other humans, you are actually allowing or giving yourself permission or justification to do whatever you want because objects don’t have rights, objects don’t have their own identity. They don’t scream at you because they’re not happy. They don’t try to sue you. From that perspective, objects are something you use. In fact, even the UN definition of biotechnology is about uses of animals and plants, which, of course, is what GM [genetic modification] technology is about. Biotechnology uses these others as objects for whatever they want—in this case, for business and profit. For me, the question of use and the question of object are one and the same. Therefore, I cannot work with someone, whether a plant or a human or an animal, and not recognize that they have their own story. So they are subjects in themselves, and they have their subjective story to tell. So I don’t use them, but I collaborate with them.

Steve Paulson: What does it mean to think of a plant or to interact with a plant as a subject? What changes when you look through that lens?

Monica Gagliano: There is an honoring of the life that is there. By objectifying, you take away the life.

Steve Paulson: It sounds like you’re saying the plant has some sense of being, or, to use different language, a soul. And maybe that extends even to inanimate objects, like rocks and rivers. Do you see everything around you as alive? I mean, in an animistic sense, is there beingness within everything in the natural world. 

Monica Gagliano: It shouldn’t really be that controversial, but we’re still discussing it. And what you’re describing is exactly how I feel about the entire question of consciousness. For me, consciousness doesn’t arise from matter, but it is the substrate from which different forms of matter arise. And from that perspective, there is no conflict to think that plants would be conscious, because consciousness is to me what we call essence. That is, you know, life. And life takes many forms. Some of them are biological and some are not.

I’d rather assume that consciousness is everywhere and then we can refine later, rather than the opposite, because if we get this wrong, that would be really quite serious. Wouldn’t it be safer to just allow for it rather than to decide a priori that it can’t be?

Steve Paulson: You are challenging centuries of Enlightenment thinking and presenting a different way of knowing the world than the scientific materialism of the vast majority of scientists.

Monica Gagliano: Yeah [chuckles]. Is that a problem? Are they going to burn me at the stake? They probably would if they could. But it’s not kosher in our society to burn people at the stake because they think differently.

Steve Paulson: More and more people these days are talking about kinship with the more-than-human world. Does this idea of kinship resonate with you?

Monica Gagliano: Yeah, I like the word. Kinshipcontains this idea of family. It extends the concept of family beyond my blood sister or blood brother. And then you extend it to the nonhuman and even to place. You know, there are places where I just feel love for. So I think kinship and love are very closely connected. And it’s important at this time in particular because we care for things we love. We definitely don’t destroy them because we don’t want to see them die. So kinship can be a very potent medicine for this time.

Steve Paulson: So you’re saying kinship is not just an idea or a theory. There’s a practice that’s involved, there are implications for how we should live.

Monica Gagliano: And here at Dartmouth I was talking with colleagues from the environmental humanities, which is a relatively new academic area. And they were telling me how the new students are flocking to these courses on environmental humanities because it’s one of the few places that brings together the best of the humanities and the best of environmental science. The students realize that we can’t separate those two. You know, the humanities allow you to talk about, for example, love or empathy. And science allows you to work out which method would work to care about this. So when you put the two together, you’re really empowering people to think and act in a way that is based on kinship.

Steve Paulson: As I listen to you, I get the sense that you are giving us a world that is magical and enchanted. If you could spread that vision to all of us, how would the world change. 

Monica Gagliano: First of all, I’m not giving you anything.

Steve Paulson: I know, I don’t mean to turn you into a guru, but if a lot of people saw the world the way you’re describing it, what would it look like?

Monica Gagliano: It would be a very different place. The thing is, we all see it exactly as I’m describing it when we are kids. So whatever practice works for you. Maybe you are an ultramarathon runner and that’s what gets you in that soft spot where you are feeling connected to the world in a very deep and profound and kind of mystical way. Or you’re doing yoga, or meditation, or when you are reading—who knows what works for you? But whatever it is you do, when you find yourself arriving in that place, expand that space and take it everywhere you go. Then you are changing the world because you’re creating a vision that is very different from the one of disconnection and lack of care and lack of love that we are experiencing at the moment because we are responsible for dreaming it that way. So this is almost like it’s part of our heritage, because as kids we all come as totally magical beings in a magical world. And then we kind of get lost because we’re trained to think, This is not how we do it. But we can also train ourselves and others in a different way. We can remind each other that this place is actually pretty amazing. If you really stop and think about what this place is and how incredible it is that you can breathe, that is a pretty psychedelic experience in itself. And then you will start seeing everything and everyone in a different way. You know, it’s not difficult because it’s our birthright.

Reprinted from Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations, Vol. 3: Partners.

  • Monica Gagliano

    Monica Gagliano is a research associate professor in evolutionary ecology and former fellow of the Australian Research Council. She is currently based at Southern Cross University, where she directs the Biological Intelligence Lab funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation.
  • Steve Paulson

    Steve Paulson is the executive producer of the Peabody Award–winning public radio program To the Best of Our Knowledge. His radio reports have also been broadcast on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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