Well, it’s my pleasure to introduce
our first keynote of the morning. Twenty-something years ago
here at Bioneers, the ethnobotanist and self-
described plant person, Kathleen Harrison,
described the worldviews of the Indigenous shamans
and plant people with whom she was working
in the Amazon. She said this: “Everything is vibrantly alive
in the same way we feel we are. Every single species has eyes
with which it sees the world, and it sees as legitimate and truer version
of the world as what we see. Every species
has a song. It’s part of an encyclopedia
on the sonic level in the same way the seeds
are on another level. As a species, it has
a vast set of relationships to all the others in its world
and to its ecosystem. These plants are allies
to each other. They’re also
not allies. It’s a net of species that
are communicating, and we’re each just
beads on a net. In these traditions,”
Kathleen concluded, “the spirit resides
in the species, and every species will speak
to you in the same way from the same source. Take away your identifying mind and
just see the spirit in the plants.” Over the past 20 years, there’s been a
revolution in vegetal biology. Scientists are starting to
talk like shamans, and shamans are starting
to talk like scientists. [LAUGHTER] Where previously science has
regarded plants as inert mechanisms, research scientists are now
proving in the lab what shamans have
long observed: plants are animated with
intelligence and consciousness. They learn, remember,
communicate, and have intentions. In fact, they do most of the
things we associate with personhood. Monica Gagliano is a
research scientist operating on the far frontiers
of plant cognition to reveal them as
sentient organisms. She’s done so by combining the objectivity
of the scientific method with the subjectivity of intuition
and transcendental experience. Michael Pollan reported on Monica’s
rigorous research in the New Yorker, and Michael originally
referred Monica to us. Monica believes she was
born to be a scientist. As a girl she grew
up in the city. Her parents thought
nature was dirty. You didn’t touch nature and
you kept it outside. But of course,
she didn’t. She started a journal tracking
the growth of her bean plant, and created her first
data set at age 9. Monica’s a research associate
professor in evolutionary ecology at the University of
Western Australia, and a research affiliate at the
Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney. After studying animal behavior
as an animal ecologist, she turned her attention
to plant behavior. She’s penned numerous
groundbreaking scientific articles. She’s co-editor of The Green Thread:
Dialogues with the Vegetal World, and The Language of Plants:
Science, Philosophy, and Literature. Monica’s new book is
Thus Spoke the Plant. She calls it a
phyto-biography, a collection of stories written with and on
behalf of the plants themselves. She describes her imaginative
experiments that opened the space to begin to understand
how to make contact with this other-than-
human intelligence, in its own language and
on its own terms. Among other experiments,
she’s blazed the trail for a brand new field called
plant bioacoustics, showing that plants do
make sounds, or shamanically speaking, you might say
plants do have a song. Monica’s illuminating the forefront
of a new scientific paradigm. She recognizes and respects the
other-than-human genius of nature. She dissolves our false separation
between people and the natural world. She seeks to learn the
languages of nature, and she quiets her identifying mind
to see the spirit in the plants. Please join me in welcoming
a plant person supreme, Monica Gagliano. [APPLAUSE] Okay, so first of all,
I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners.
And also as I was listening to the welcoming ceremony, I just realized
that I should also honor the indigeneity that lives inside me,
and inside every one of us, because we are all indigenous
of this place. So…
[APPLAUSE] So I’m going to start
with a little talk. It’s actually a little anecdote
of something that happened to me just a couple of weeks ago while I was in Brazil
at a conference on plant physiology. And after the sort of
introductory plenary talk, we had nibbles and drinks,
and one of my colleagues, a philosopher, asked a very simple question
to a group of us. And so I’m going to pose the same
question that he asked here to you. And the question was:
What killed the dinosaurs? And I’m sure that the first thing
that comes to your mind, which is the same thing that
comes to everyone’s mind, is but of course it’s
the asteroid. Right? And in fact, we know very
well an asteroid collapsed onto our planet and put up with
this big dust of sand and dirt, and it covered the sun. And then it got really cold
and everyone died. And in fact, you know,
that’s how the story goes. And in fact, we also know that
at that particular time, it seems that many
species disappeared. And so it kind of
corroborated the idea that, well, there was one single
cataclysmic event that kind of wiped everyone out –
the asteroid. And then in 1978,
in the peninsula of Yucatan, we found this huge crater. And so that was the cherry
on top of the cake. It’s like, well,
that’s the asteroid. Now, of course, I’m not here
to debate that the asteroid that was charged with the
killing of the dinosaurs really did a good job,
did the job at all, or not, but the reason for putting
up this question, which was really the same reason
why my colleague asked it at the conference, is that when you’re asked to think
of an alternative explanation that is not the story of the asteroid
that you’ve been given since you were at school
and before, possibly, we find it really hard to
think of something else. It’s just: But it is the asteroid.
What else could it be? And so the point of this
is that very much by the time you
go to school, so by the time you turn 7
or thereabout, your imagination has
been already stifled, and the ability, your actual
ability to think of alternative possibilities is reduced
dramatically. And so I’m going to talk
about the role of imagination in the context of science,
but it’s just an example of what it really means in
the wider picture, especially in the context
of the wider picture that we are experiencing right now. So imagination from the
roots of the word, basically it means creates
images of something, or representing something,
representing the world. And of course we all know our imagination
touches and deeply moves us, especially within—
when it’s expressed through creative approaches that
artists and musicians, for example, are really good at. And so what I find intriguing
is that basically imagination is the creative ability of our mind
to literally dream the world and worlds. And so it’s a bit surprising
that such a critical creative endeavor would be kind of dismissed
when we talk about science. When we talk about science and you talk
about imagination in science, the word takes a
totally different meaning. And suddenly you’re talking
about fanciful speculation of empty assumptions. Basically they’re telling you:
What are you talking about? There is no
such a thing. There is either a tendency
to kind of downplay the role of imagination in science,
or completely dismiss it from the important role that
it has in the construction of knowledge through science. So I’m not here to lay
judgment on science, but it is true, though,
that our modern techno-scientific world has kind of subscribed
to a harried version of imagination, and it’s very different
and very far away from what we know imagination
is when we think about it as the creative beings that we are,
because we are all artists, we are all musicians
in some ways. So what I was interested
in is like, well, when science, which is a strong voice
in our culture still, when science describes a
world that is kind of deprived of imagination, then you’re describing the
human and the rest of nature as a system of
cog wheels. And suddenly those parts
are easily to dispose of. They are replaceable. And in the worst cases,
and we see this all the time, they become worthless. So, again, as I said, I’m not here
to pass judgment on science. I’m a scientist and
I love science. I think science is yet another
amazing creative endeavor of the human experience. So what I’m interested in is
how we actually got to stand in front
of this door, and why we are so scared,
especially in science, to open it. Because I have
my little theory. For me, the idea of the
imagination, of course, brings up like this feeling of
unruly and out of control. And in a world
that we safe— we feel increasingly unsafe,
and as a counterpart we feel like we need
to control, the more we control maybe we have the
illusion that we will feel a little safer. But actually maybe it doesn’t
work that way, and maybe we are standing
in front of this door, and we are so concerned
that if we open it, we are going to
unleash chaos. But in fact maybe imagination
can release those solutions that we are so
desperately looking for, and we can’t see them,
just as we couldn’t see an alternative to the asteroid
for the dinosaurs. Because we’ve been trained
and conditioned to think there’s going to be chaos
if you open the door. So I’m going to bring up one
of the most impressive scientists of the most
recent decades, and of course it’s Darwin, which has guided
a revolution of his own. And he recognized the
role of imagination. Actually probably many scientists
wouldn’t be able to do their job without it, whether they like
it or not. And so Darwin recognized imagination
actually is a prerogative of the human. I corrected that –
he said main. And not only that,
I corrected again, I added an s. It’s a faculty that allows us
to actually create the brilliant and novel results or opportunities
that we are all looking for. So why imagination is
so important? And why is it actually
not that difficult? Because it represents a
reservoir of meaning. And this is a meaning
that is embodied. It’s in our flesh. It’s in our blood.
It’s in our roots. And not only that,
but it’s like— it’s made of a
pre-linguistic system, so we don’t even
need to talk. We have it. We can feel it through
our emotional system, our body knows it. So it’s kind of like a birthright.
How lucky is that? We’re so desperate for a solution and the
solution is right here, inscribed in the
system itself. So pretty easy, right? [APPLAUSE] But from a Darwinian perspective or
from an evolutionary perspective, well, the reason why this
information is so important is actually because it does
guide action and adaptive behavior. So those are the solutions
that we want because another way to say this would be
that it’s the normative solution to the eco-cultural and also political issues
that we are having at the moment. So the question would be like:
Okay, great. I’ll subscribe to that. How do we open
the door? And all I can offer, because I don’t think that there is
one solution for all, all I can offer is my experience
as a scientist, and also my own
personal journey, when I chose to open
that door for myself, and also what it means
when you can extrapolate from that smaller story of
the individual to a bigger picture of a collective. So when I opened the door,
I found two things. I found plants and
indigenous knowledge. And of course, you probably know
from the introduction that Kenny gave, I started— I was studying animal behavior
and then I decided to switch on to plants, and that’s a story
of its own. And when I started
looking at plants, I looked at plants from the context of
plants in relation to sound. And that was totally inspired
by my own experiences in the realm of indigenous knowledge, where this story’s been
recurrent everywhere. And so my role, I felt, was just to see whether
science could actually test it. Isn’t that what science does?
It tests ideas. And of course that in itself
was scary enough, so that I had a couple of
colleagues in my own corridor, in my own department that
couldn’t bear saying hello to me for two years. [LAUGHTER]
I know. But that is just a small example
of what it means. You know? How scary it is to
actually open that door. But what do we do? We just open
it anyway. Right? And actually, then you get
really good at it, and there’s a little bit of
audacity that kicks in. I thought, oh yeah,
this is really disturbing. There must be
something in here. I’m going to push
it even further. So I moved from just
the communication of plants to something that it got
perceived even more threatening. And that is like the
entire area of the cognitive abilities of plants, and of course, learning and
memory under that umbrella. So I need to give a little
story here again, because of course research
on learning and memory comes from the domain
of psychology, so it comes from the study
of the human cognition. And then several decades later
we managed to move beyond the human and include
some animals. And then more recently,
even machines. But one thing that this entire
field has been insisting on is the fact that neurons
and brains are the key. And if you don’t have them, you are
automatically a priori, excluded, which of course, which when
you actually then explore this, you realize that
that’s not true. But in order to do good science,
you go and do your experiments. So the first plants that I
worked with is Mimosa pudica, also known as the sensitive plant
because it moves really fast, literally at that speed,
or even faster. And the reason why, this plant has
been loved forever, literally. There are records from
the Roman time. Darwin was passionate
about Mimosa. And then you probably
have known and seen about her from a beautiful
article that Michael Pollan, which is somewhere around,
wrote a few years ago for the New Yorker when
Mimosa was featured. And Michael did a really
good job of describing one of the experiments that
I did with these plants, which included like dropping the plant and see whether the plants
could learn to ignore me, basically. And it does. It learned really fast, and
it remembers for a very long time. But I’m not going to go
into Mimosa because I’d like to spend some time
to talk about a kind of higher level of learning,
which is from a pea. The nice, humble,
green garden pea. Now to understand what I
did with the peas, we need to go back to
the animal kingdom. And I’m sure that many
of you are familiar with the Pavlovian study
of the dog. So just to go briefly
through it, Pavlov noticed that of course
dogs salivate when they are about to receive
their dinner, and they’re getting
very excited. And then he wanted to know whether he could
kind of manipulate that behavior. So the salivation of the dog
to dinner is instinctive. Dogs do it. So then he needed to find
some neutral cue that he could use and see whether
he could change that response. And he turned up
with this bell. And so the story goes that
whenever he rang the bell and then presented dinner,
the dog would salivate. And then because the
dog learns about the relationship between these two things –
the bell and the dinner, and the fact that the bell
predicts the arrival of dinner – then the bell on its own suddenly
is producing the salivation of the dog. And so what is interesting
about this experiment is the fact that first of all,
the dog is evaluating what is going on in
his environment and he’s got his
own value system. So he’s deciding what he wants,
what is worthwhile, what is going to help
him to get there. Now the next thing about
this is that of course not all dogs are
the same. And so this value system
is very subjective. So there is a subject in there
that is making these decisions. And the decisions are
made on feelings, depending on how the dog
feels about having that dinner, or that dinner, and about this bell.
It could be really annoying. And so by also the experiences
that are connected to those cues. Now the really interesting thing
about this experiment from my perspective is
that in a way, by salivating to the
sound of a bell, which really, because it’s
predicting dinner, what the dog is showing us
is that he is actually extending the amount of information
that is in the environment. In other words, he’s extending
the information to something that is not in
the environment, because dinner is
actually not there. So food, or dinner
in this case, is just a concept in
the dog’s mind. Or in other words, the
dog is imagining dinner. Now, take this and let’s
apply it to a plant. Exactly the same strategy. So dinner for the
plant is blue light. And this response— The plants don’t salivate,
but… not for as much as I know, but they—blue light triggers
a phototrophic response, which means that the plants
will bend towards it. So that’s what the plants want
just as much as the dog wanted dinner. Now I had to find something
that would replace the bell, but would play
the same role. And what I came up with
was this little tiny fan, which on its own doesn’t do
anything to the plant. The plant actually
doesn’t really care, so it keeps growing straight,
hoping for some light somewhere. Now just as Pavlov
did with the dog, if you present the fan,
always anticipating the light, eventually the plants
learn that actually, just by the fan, I can start
preparing and turn towards it, because the fan tells me
where the light is going to be. So of course, just
like for the dog, there is someone in there
who is making the decision. And it’s based on
a value system. How much do you want that light?
What does the fan mean? And just like for the dog,
not all plants are the same, and also that subject in
there is deciding and choosing based on how he
feels about things, and the experience of
those things. Just like for the dog,
the plant is actually stretching the field of perception,
because dinner, in this case the light,
is actually not even there. So you know
where I’m going. So just like the dog,
the food is actually a concept, an idea in the
plant’s mind. Or in other words, the plant
is imagining the food arriving. So this of course
was a great study. [APPLAUSE] This was a great study because
apart from the results, the scientific results, it was
able to disrupt that linear thinking that if you don’t have a brain and no neurons,
you can’t have this. And it says, No, it
works some other ways. And so we had to relinquish
that or at least expand it. But the other thing that was
good for me personally is that basically it showed me
that imagination is everywhere, no matter what kind of mind
or what kind of form you are. So in other words it would
be the same as saying that imagination is at
the heart of nature, our own nature as
the human form, and any other nature. And equally it’s an important
bridge between that heart and the mind that dreams
the world into being, again, whether it’s the
human mind or not. Now, do you remember
this door? We are stuck in
front of this door, and we are so concerned that if we open it
we are going to unleash chaos. But guess what? By staying
behind this door, which means we are staying
stuck inside our minds, and we don’t want to cross
that bridge of the imagination that can link our
mind to our heart, we are actually
experiencing chaos. I’m sure everyone has seen the
IPCC report from last week, and it’s not exactly
great news. But the good news is that we
don’t have to do this. It’s just as easy as
opening the door. All we need to
do is there. So that that connection can
be reestablished. It’s already there, we just
have to open the door to it. Now, again, just to finish,
in my own personal life. When my mind – and I’m so happy
that I have one – and my heart – and I’m so grateful
that I have one – were linked together through
the bridge of imagination, I discovered a
few things. One, that it took me over
those intellectual gaps that I was so afraid of,
so the fear of opening this door. Two, that it has integrated what
had looked paradoxical would look like discrepancy between
what I knew and what was to come, the new. And then it allowed for the
emergence of this new insight, new understanding and
inspiring ideas. And basically it changed my life
and my world as the individual, but it also showed me that
it’s absolutely without a doubt possible. We can do it. And we just need to dare. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]