Plant Memory

Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay

Plants learn defensive behaviors that are hard to undo, too.

Plants have endured decades of a great deal of annoyance from scientists. The Atlas Obscura article by Sarah Laskow entitled A Quiet Revolution in Botany: Plants Form Memories is case in point. In addition to my new-found sympathy for plants in labs, I found reading about plant memory inspired some reflections about remembering and recovering from abuse.

The Laskow article chronicles the story of how different scientists have thought about plant behavior and how they tested their hypotheses by tormenting lab plants in the process. Not until the 1980s did scientists debunk theories such as dumb youth, hormonal, or merely biochemical. It seemed like scientists were responding to perceived emotions in plant behaviors like emotions in humans….

Then there’s the Thrill Ride experiment.

A scientist rigged up an amusement-park ride that dropped plants, known for their “dramatic response to unfamiliar mechanical stimuli” (in other words my herbivore kin), at a steep decline and in rapid succession 420 times in a single day. Like anyone who’s taken Space Mountain at Disney, the plants grew accustomed to the shock and stopped responding. Even days or months later, they had no response. They were having none of it.

For victims enduring abuse that numbing operates in a similar way but is no joke. It is a survival technique. The drama isn’t in our response but in our circumstances. The cause of the shock is not lack of familiarity but a clear sense of danger and distress. Going numb is the only control we have.

Like plants, we recoil from that which harms. That may mean going numb, disconnecting from reality, running away. It also means recoiling from that which may seem to harm but does not. Discerning between stimuli that evoke a sense of the earlier danger and its lessons to recoil is difficult–and seldom done well without conscious choice and practice.

Along the same lines, some plants recall a history of leaf damage to one side even when the cause of damage has been removed. The memory imprint is made, and now they grow in the other direction. When other stimuli can force them to grow toward where the pain was, they will–until the new stimuli is removed. Then they continue to grow in the other direction.

The hardest thing for survivors can be letting go of a defense mechanism that was life-saving when enduring abuse, but now is making us react unreasonably where abuse no longer is occurring. Plants did not un-learn lessons taught by annoying scientists. They simply lived on, with a trigger for behavior that was not consistently called-for.

Plants are keenly tuned into their surroundings. Ask a survivor about vigilance. Plants remember vibrations associated with certain insect clouds and respond in defense before attacks. I can wake up from a deep sleep at the sound of a bottle cap dropping in a room two hundred feet away.

Plants communicate with means not yet understood but using root systems or branches to share water or nutrients–acting as a whole organism. An ill tree is sustained. An old tree supports a young and vulnerable sapling. A tree in drought receives water from companions in way of stream. In best and healthy forms, friendships and survivor discussion groups can operate like this, too.

Plants have been further impressing scientists with an ability to pick and choose which memories to keep and which to toss. That’s seen as a higher order of memory cognition among the scientists. Anyone who has been recovering from abuse understands the same, as we and family members must sort through memories and life lessons riddled with the presence of abusers, pulling out some and adjusting so we can keep others.

The fact is that trauma hits us at the molecular level. This is especially true in the young and vulnerable. It imprints itself on our mind, body, and soul. The first-person experience permeates our psyche, personality, and memories. The less well-known but equally valid study of its lifelong impact on our bodies is exquisitely covered in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk, MD. Right down to the molecules and other markers that co-exist with (and affect) the genome in individual DNA.

Reading how shocks hit even plants at the molecular level brought these facts home to me afresh.

It’s important never to underestimate how recovering from abuse is slow and difficult and nonlinear. It is a process that runs far deeper than talk therapy can go alone. We have to get there, alone, into the DNA of the thing, in order to bring the story back – to give it words and a voice.

That way we can be like plants in connection, seeking life together, by helping each other let the false lessons go and preserve best lessons that have made us courageous, creative, and resilient.


Points in this article refer to A Quiet Revolution in Botany: Plants Form Memories by Sarah Laskow which was originally published on September 5, 2017, by Atlas Obscura and reprinted by GetPocket.com.

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