1989/03: Secret Live of Plants: Chapter 1 – Plants and ESP

The dust-grimed window of the office building facing New York’s Times Square reflected, as through a looking glass, an extraordinary corner of
Wonderland. There was no White Rabbit with waistcoat and watch chain, only an elfin-eared fellow called Backster with a galvanometer and a house plant called Dracaena massangeana. The galvanometer was there because Cleve Backster was America’s foremost lie-detector examiner; the dracaena because Backster’s secretary felt the bare office should have a touch of green; Backster was there because of a fatal step taken in the 1960s which radically affected his life, and may equally affect the planet.

Backster’s antics with his plants, headlined in the world press, became the subject of skits, cartoons, and lampoons; but the Pandora’s box which he opened for science may never again be closed. Backster’s discover that plants appear to be sentient caused strong and varied reaction round the globe, despite the fact that Backster never claimed a discovery, only an uncovering of what has been known and forgotten. Wisely he chose to avoid publicity, and concentrated on establishing the absolute scientific bona fides of what has come to be known as the “Backster Effect.”

The adventure started in 1966. Backster had been up all night in his school for polygraph examiners, where he teaches the art of lie detection to policemen and security agents from around the world. On impulse he decided to attach the electrodes of one of his lie detectors to the leaf of his dracaena. The dracaena is a tropical plant similar to a palm tree, with large leaves and a dense cluster of small flowers; it is known as the dragon tree (Latin draco) because of the popular myth that its resin yields dragon blood. Backster was curious to see if the leaf would be affected by water poured on its roots, and if so, how, and how soon. As the plant thirstily sucked water up its stem, the galvanometer, to Backster’s surprise, did not indicate less resistance, as might have been expected by the greater electrical conductivity of the moister plant. The pen on the graph paper, instead of trending upward, was trending downward, with a lot of sawtooth motion on the tracing.

A galvanometer is that part of a polygraph lie detector which, when attached to a human being by wires through which a weak current of electricity is run, will cause a needle to move, or a pen to make a tracing on a moving graph of paper, in response to mental images, or the slightest surges of human emotion. Invented at the end of the eighteenth century by a Viennese priest, Father Maximilian Hell, S.J., court astronomer to the Empress Maria Theresa, it was named after Luigi Galvani, the Italian physicist and physiologist who discovered “animal electricity.” The galvanometer is now used in conjunction with an electrical circuit called a “Wheatstone bridge,” in honor of the English physicist and inventor of the automatic telegraph, Sir Charles Wheatstone. In simple terms, the bridge balances resistance, so that the human body’s electrical potential—or basic charge—can be measured as it fluctuates under the stimulus of thought and emotion. The standard police usage is to feed “carefully structured” questions to a suspect and watch for those which cause the needle to jump. Veteran examiners, such as Backster, claim they can identify deception from the patterns produced on the graph.

Backster’s dragon tree, to his amazement, was giving him a reaction very similar to that of a human being experiencing an emotional stimulus of short duration. Could the plant be displaying emotion? What happened to Backster in the next ten minutes was to revolutionize his life.

The most effective way to trigger in a human being a reaction strong enough to make the galvanometer jump is to threaten his or her well-being. Backster decided to do just that to the plant: he dunked a leaf of the dracaena in the cup of hot coffee perennially in his hand. There was no reaction to speak of on the meter. Backster studied the problem several minutes, then conceived a worse threat: he would burn the actual leaf to which the electrodes were attached. The instant he got the picture of flame in his mind, and before he could move for a match, there was a dramatic change in the tracing pattern on the graph in the form of a prolonged upward sweep of the recording pen. Backster had not moved, either toward the plant or toward the recording machine. Could the plant have been reading his mind?

When Backster left the room and returned with some matches, he found another sudden surge had registered on the chart, evidently caused by his determination to carry out the threat. Reluctantly he set about burning the leaf. This time there was a lower peak of reaction on the graph. Later, as he went through the motions of pretending he would burn the leaf, there was no reaction whatsoever. The plant appeared to be able to differentiate between real and pretended intent. Backster felt like running into the street and shouting to the world, “Plants can think!” Instead he plunged into the most meticulous investigation of the phenomena in order to establish just how the plant was reacting to his thoughts, and through what medium.

His first move was to make sure he had not overlooked any logical explanation for the occurrence. Was there something extraordinary about the plant? About him? About the particular polygraph instrument? When he and his collaborators, using other plants and other instruments in other locations all over the country, were able to make similar observations, the matter warranted further study. More than twenty-five different varieties of plants and fruits were tested, including lettuce, onions, oranges, and bananas. The observations, each similar to the others, required a new view of life, with some explosive connotations for science. Heretofore the debate between scientists and parapsychologists on the existence of ESP, or extrasensory perception, has been fierce, largely because of the difficulty of establishing unequivocally when such a phenomenon is actually occurring. The best that has been achieved so far in the field, by Dr. J. B. Rhine, who initiated his experiments in ESP at Duke University, has been to establish that with human beings the phenomenon seems to occur with greater odds than are attributable to chance.

Backster first considered his plants’ capacity for picking up his intention to be some form of ESP; then he quarreled with the term. ESP is held to mean perception above and beyond varieties of the established five sensory perceptions of touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste. As plants give no evidence of eyes, ears, nose, or mouth, and as botanists since Darwin’s time have never credited them with a nervous system, Backster concluded that the perceiving sense must be more basic.

This led him to hypothesize that the five senses in humans might be limiting factors overlying a more “primary perception,” possibly common to all nature. “Maybe plants see better without eyes,” Backster surmised: “better than humans do with them.” With the five basic senses, humans have the choice, at will, of perceiving, perceiving poorly, not perceiving at all. “If you don’t like the looks of something,” said Backster, “you can look the other way, or not look. If everyone were to be in everyone else’s mind all the time it would be chaos.” To discover what his plants could sense or feel, Backster enlarged his office, and set about creating a proper scientific laboratory, worthy of the space age. During the next few months, chart after chart was obtained from all sorts of plants. The phenomenon appeared to persist even if the plant leaf was detached from the plant, or if it was trimmed to the size of the electrodes; amazingly, even if a leaf was shredded and redistributed between the electrode surfaces there was still a reaction on the chart. The plants reacted not only to threats from human beings, but to unformulated threats, such as the sudden appearance of a dog in the room or of a person who did not wish them well.

Backster was able to demonstrate to a group at Yale that the movements of a spider in the same room with a plant wired to his equipment could cause dramatic changes in the recorded pattern generated by the plant just before the spider started to scamper away from a human attempting to restrict its movement. “It seems,” said Backster, “as if each of the spider’s decisions to escape was being picked up by the plant, causing a reaction in the leaf.” Under normal circumstances, plants may be attuned to each other, said Backster, though when encountering animal life they tend to pay less attention to what another plant may be up to. “The last thing a plant expects is another plant to give it trouble. So long as there is animal life around, they seem to be attuned to animal life. Animals and people are mobile, and could need careful monitoring.”

If a plant is threatened with overwhelming danger or damage, Backster observed that it reacts self-defensively in a way similar to an opossum—or, indeed, to a human being—by “passing out,” or going into a deep faint. The phenomenon was dramatically demonstrated one day when a physiologist from Canada came to Backster’s lab to witness the reaction of his plants. The first plant gave no response whatsoever. Nor did the second; nor the third. Backster checked his polygraph instruments, and tried a fourth and a fifth plant; still no success. Finally, on the sixth, there was enough reaction to demonstrate the phenomenon.

Curious to discover what could have influenced the other plants, Backster asked: “Does any part of your work involve harming plants?” “Yes,” the physiologist replied. “I terminate the plants I work with. I put them in an oven and roast them to obtain their dry weight for my analysis.” Forty-five minutes after the physiologist was safely on the way to the airport, each of Backster’s plants once more responded fluidly on the graph. This experience helped to bring Backster to the realization that plants could intentionally be put into a faint, or mesmerized, by humans, that something similar could be involved in the ritual of the slaughterer before an animal is killed in the kosher manner. Communicating with the victim, the killer may tranquilize it into a quiet death, also preventing its flesh from having a residue of “chemical fear,” disagreeable to the palate and perhaps noxious to the consumer. This brought up the possibility that plants and succulent fruits might wish to be eaten, but only in a sort of loving ritual, with a real communication between the eater and the eaten—somehow akin to the Christian rite of Communion—instead of the usual heartless carnage.

It may be,” says Backster, “that a vegetable appreciates becoming part of another form of life rather than rotting on the ground, just as a human at death may experience relief to find himself in a higher realm of being.” On one occasion, to show that plants and single cells were picking up signals through some unexplained medium of communication, Backster provided a demonstration for the author of an article appearing in the Baltimore Sun, subsequently condensed in the Reader’s Digest. Backster hooked a galvanometer to his philodendron, then addressed the writer as if it were he who was on the meter, and interrogated him about his year of birth.

Backster named each of seven years between 1925 and 1931 to which the reporter was instructed to answer with a uniform “No.” Backster then selected from the chart the correct date, which had been indicated by the plant with an extra high flourish.

The same experiment was duplicated by a professional psychiatrist, the medical director of the research ward at Rockland State Hospital in Orangeburg, New York, Dr. Aristide H. Esser. He and his collaborator, Douglas Dean, a chemist at Newark College of Engineering, experimented with a male subject who brought along a philodendron he had nursed from a seedling and had cared for tenderly.

The two scientists attached a polygraph to the plant and then asked the owner a series of questions, to some of which he had been instructed to give false answers. The plant had no difficulty indicating through the galvanometer the questions which were falsely answered; Dr. Esser, who at first had laughed at Backster’s claim, admitted, “I’ve had to eat my own words.”

To see if a plant could display memory, a scheme was devised whereby Backster was to try to identify the secret killer of one of two plants. Six of Backster’s polygraph students volunteered for the experiment, some of them veteran policemen. Blindfolded, the students drew from a hat folded slips of paper, on one of which were instructions to root up, stamp on, and thoroughly destroy one of two plants in a room. The criminal was to commit the crime in secret; neither Backster nor any of the other students was to know his identity; only the second plant would be a witness.

By attaching the surviving plant to a polygraph and parading the students one by one before it, Backster was able to establish the culprit. Sure enough, the plant gave no reaction to five of the students, but caused the meter to go wild whenever the actual culprit approached. Backster was careful to point out that the plant could have picked up and reflected the guilt feelings of the culprit; but as the villain had acted in the interests of science, and was not particularly guilty, it left the possibility that a plant could remember and recognize the source of severe harm to its fellow.

In another series of observations, Backster noted that a special communion or bond of affinity appeared to be created between a plant and its keeper, unaffected by distance. With the use of synchronized stopwatches, Backster was able to note that his plants continued to react to his thought and attention from the next room, from down the hall, even from several buildings away. Back from a fifteen-mile trip to New Jersey, Backster was able to establish that his plants had perked up and shown definite and positive signs of response—whether it was relief or welcome he could not tell—at the very moment he had decided to return to New York.

When Backster was away on a lecture tour and talked about his initial 1966 observation, showing a slide of the original dracaena, the plant, back in his office, would show a reaction on the chart at the very time he projected the slide. Once attuned to a particular person, plants appeared to be able to maintain a link with that person, no matter where he went, even among thousands of people. On New Year’s Eve in New York City, Backster went out into the bedlam of Times Square armed with a notebook and stopwatch. Mingling with the crowd, he noted his various actions, such as walking, running, going underground by way of subway stairs, nearly getting run over, and having a mild fracas with a news vendor. Back at the lab, he found that each of three plants, monitored independently, showed similar reactions to his slight emotional adventures. To see if he could get a reaction from plants at a much greater distance, Backster experimented with a female friend to establish whether her plants remained attuned to her on a seven-hundred-mile plane ride across the United States. From synchronized clocks they found a definite reaction from the plants to the friend’s emotional stress each time the plane touched down for its landing. To test a plant’s reaction at still greater distances, even millions of miles, to see if space is a limit to the “primary perception” of his plants, Backster would like the Mars probers to place a plant with a galvanometer on or near that planet so as to check by telemeter the plant’s reaction to emotional changes in its caretaker at ground control on earth.

Since “telemetered” radio or TV signals traveling via electromagnetic waves at the speed of light take between six and six and one-half minutes to reach Mars and as many to return to Earth, the question was whether an emotional signal from an earthbound human would reach Mars faster than an electromagnetic wave or, as Backster suspects, the very instant it was sent. Were the round-trip time for a telemetered message to be cut in half it would indicate that mental or emotional messages operate outside time as we conceive it, and beyond the electromagnetic spectrum.

“We keep hearing about non-time-consuming communication from Eastern philosophic sources,” says Backster. “They tell us that the universe is in balance; if it happens to go out of balance someplace, you can’t wait a hundred light-years for the imbalance to be detected and corrected. This non-time-consuming communication, this oneness among all living things, could be the answer.” Backster has no idea what kind of energy wave may carry man’s thoughts or internal feelings to a plant. He has tried to screen a plant by placing it in a Faraday cage as well as in a lead container. Neither shield appeared in any way to block or jam the communication channel linking the plant to the human being. The carrier-wave equivalent, whatever it might be, Backster concluded, must somehow operate beyond the electromagnetic spectrum. It also appeared to operate from the macrocosm down to the microcosm.

One day when Backster happened to cut his finger and dabbed it with iodine, the plant that was being monitored on the polygraph immediately reacted, apparently to the death of some cells in Backster’s finger. Though it might have been reacting to his emotional state at the sight of his own blood, or to the stinging of the iodine, Backster soon found a recognizable pattern in the graph whenever a plant was witnessing the death of some living tissue. Could the plant, Backster wondered, be sensitive on a cellular level all the way down to the death of individual cells in its environment?

On another occasion the typical graph appeared as Backster was preparing to eat a cup of yogurt. This puzzled him till he realized there was a chemical preservative in the jam he was mixing into the yogurt that was terminating some of the live yogurt bacilli. Another inexplicable pattern on the chart was finally explained when it was realized the plants were reacting to hot water being poured down the drain, which was killing bacteria in the sink. Backster’s medical consultant, the New Jersey cytologist Dr. Howard Miller, concluded that some sort of “cellular consciousness” must be common to all life. To explore this hypothesis Backster found a way of attaching electrodes to infusions of all sorts of single cells, such as amoeba, paramecium, yeast, mold cultures, scrapings from the human mouth, blood, and even sperm. All were subject to being monitored on the polygraph with charts just as interesting as those produced by the plants. Sperm cells turned out to be surprisingly canny in that they seemed to be capable of identifying and reacting to the presence of their own donor, ignoring the presence of other males. Such observations seem to imply that some sort of total memory may go down to the single cell, and by inference that the brain may be just a switching mechanism, not necessarily a memory storage organ.

Sentience,” says Backster, “does not seem to stop at the cellular level. It may go down to the molecular, the atomic and even the subatomic. All sorts of things which have been conventionally considered to be inanimate may have to be re-evaluated.

Convinced of being on the track of a phenomenon of major importance to science, Backster was anxious to publish his findings in a scientific journal so that other scientists could check his results. Scientific methodology requires that a recorded reaction be repeatable by other scientists at other locations, with an adequate number of repetitions. This made the problem more difficult than anticipated.

To begin with, Backster found that plants can quickly become so attuned to human beings that it is not always possible to obtain exactly the same reactions with different experimenters. Incidents such as the “fainting” which occurred with the Canadian physiologist sometimes made it look as if there were no such thing as the Backster Effect. Personal involvement with an experiment, and even prior knowledge of the exact time an event was scheduled, was often enough to “tip off” a plant into noncooperation. This led Backster to the conclusion that animals subjected to excruciating vivisection may pick up the intent of their torturers and thus produce for them the very effects required in order to end the ordeal as rapidly as possible. Backster found that even if he and his colleagues discussed a project in their waiting room, the plants, three rooms away, could be affected by the imagery apparently generated by their conversation. To make his point, Backster realized, he would have to devise an experiment in which all human involvement was removed. The entire process would have to be automated. Altogether it took Backster two and a half years and several thousand dollars, some of it provided by the Parapsychology Foundation, Inc., then headed by the late Eileen Garrett, to devise the right experiment and perfect the fully automated equipment necessary to carry it out. Different scientists of varying disciplines suggested an elaborate system of experimental controls. The test Backster finally chose was to kill live cells by an automatic mechanism at a random time when no humans were in or near the office, and see if the plants reacted.

As sacrificial scapegoats Backster hit upon brine shrimp of the variety sold as food for tropical fish. It was important to the test that the victims demonstrate great vitality because it had been noted that tissue that is unhealthy or has begun to die no longer acts as a remote stimulus, is no longer capable of transmitting some type of warning. To see that brine shrimp are in good form is easy: in a normal condition, the males spend their whole time chasing and mounting females.

The device for “terminating” these playboy creatures consisted of a small dish which would automatically tip them into a pot of boiling water. A mechanical programmer actuated the device on a randomly selected occasion so that it was impossible for Backster or his assistants to know when the event would occur. As a control precaution against the actual mechanism of dumping registering on the charts, dishes were programmed at other times to dump plain water containing no brine shrimp.

Three plants would be attached to three separate galvanometers in three separate rooms. A fourth galvanometer was to be attached to a fixed-value resistor to indicate possible random variations caused by fluctuations in the power supply, or by electromagnetic disturbances occurring near or within the experiment’s environment. Light and temperature would be kept uniform on all plants, which, as an extra precaution, would be brought from an outside source, passed through staging areas, and hardly handled before the experiment. Plants selected for the experiment were of the Philodendron cordatum species because of its nice large leaves, firm enough to withstand comfortably the pressure of electrodes. Different plants of the same species would be used on successive test runs.

The scientific hypothesis which Backster wished to pursue was, properly phrased in the vernacular of science, that “there exists an as yet undefined primary perception in plant life, that animal life termination can serve as a remotely located stimulus to demonstrate this perception capability, and that this perception facility in plants can be shown to function independently of human involvement.”

The experimental results showed that the plants did react strongly and synchronously to the death of the shrimp in boiling water. The automated monitoring system, checked by visiting scientists, showed that plants reacted consistently to the death of the shrimp in a ratio that was five to one against the possibility of chance.

The whole procedure of the experiment and its results were written up in a scientific paper published in the winter of 1968 in Volume X of The International Journal of Parapsychology under the title “Evidence of Primary Perception in Plant Life.” It was now up to other scientists to see if they could repeat Backster’s experiment and obtain the same results.

More than seven thousand scientists asked for reprints of the report on Backster’s original research. Students and scientists at some two dozen American universities indicated they intended to attempt to duplicate Backster’s experiments as soon as they could obtain the necessary equipment.* Foundations expressed interest in funding further experiments. The news media, which at first ignored Backster’s paper, went into a flurry of excitement over the story once National Wildlife had the courage to take the plunge in February of 1969 with a feature article. This attracted such worldwide attention that secretaries and housewives began talking to their plants, and Dracaena massangeana became a household word.

Readers seemed to be most intrigued by the thought that an oak tree could actually quake at the approach of an axman, or that a carrot could shiver at the sight of rabbits, while the editors of National Wildlife were concerned that some of the applications of Backster’s phenomenon to medical diagnosis, criminal investigation, and such fields as espionage were so fantastic that they dared not as yet repeat them in print.

Medical World News of March 21, 1969, commented that at last ESP research might be “on the verge of achieving the scientific respectability that investigators of psychic phenomena have sought in vain since 1882 when the  British Society for Psychical Research was founded in Cambridge.” William M. Bondurant, an executive of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, produced a grant of $10,000 for Backster to pursue his research, commenting: “His work indicates there may be a primary form of instantaneous communication among all living things that transcends the physical laws we know now—and that seems to warrant looking into.

Backster was thus able to invest in more expensive equipment, including electrocardiographs and electroencephalographs. These instruments, normally used for measuring electrical emissions from heart and brain, had the advantage of not putting current through the plants, merely recording the difference in potential they discharged. The cardiograph enabled Backster to obtain readings more sensitive than the polygraph; the encephalograph gave him readings ten times more sensitive than the cardiograph.

A fortuitous occurrence led Backster into another whole realm of research. One evening, as he was about to feed a raw egg to his Doberman pinscher, Backster noticed that as he cracked the egg one of his plants attached to a polygraph reacted strenuously. The next evening he watched again as the same thing happened. Curious to see what the egg might be feeling, Backster attached it to a galvanometer, and was once more up to his ears in research. For nine hours Backster got an active chart recording from the egg, corresponding to the rhythm of the heartbeats of the chicken embryo, the frequency being between 160 and 170 beats per minute, appropriate to an embryo three or four days along in incubation. Only the egg was store-bought, acquired at the local delicatessen, and was unfertilized. Later, breaking the egg and dissecting it, Backster was astonished to find that it contained no physical circulatory structure of any sort to account for the pulsation. He appeared to have tapped into some sort of force field not conventionally understood within the present body of scientific knowledge. The only hint as to what sort of world he had wandered into came to Backster from the amazing experiments in the energy fields around plants, trees, humans, and even cells, carried out at the Yale Medical School in the 1930s and 1940s by the late Professor Harold Saxton Burr, which are only just beginning to be recognized and understood.

With these considerations Backster temporarily abandoned his experiments with plants to explore the implications of his egg discoveries, which appeared to have profound implications for the origin-of-life research—and are the makings of another whole book.