Can Plants Learn?

April 08, 2022 2 min read

Can Plants Learn?

In a previous blog post we suggested that plants are a lot smarter than we give them credit for! Have a read here if you haven’t seen that one.

Today we wanted to write a bit more along that theme and ponder on whether or not plants can learn.

Here’s one experiment that suggests they can.

You may be familiar with Pavlov’s experiments with dogs? Where they learnt to associate dinner time with the sound of a bell. Very quickly they would salivate at the sound of the bell alone having learnt the association. One researcher attempted to do this with plants.

Could a plant learn an association?

Pea Plant

Instead of a hungry dog they used pea plants and the equivalent of a bell was a small fan and the ‘dinner’ was a blue LED light from which the plant can generate food from photosynthesis.

As expected, when the light was turned on, the plants would grow towards the light. This tilt in the plants is the equivalent of the dogs salivating in expectation of a food reward. The tiny fan was placed next to the light and the plants were exposed first to the fan, then the light was switched on. This happened many times, with the location of the light and fan being moved around the plants. The constant was always the fan first and the light switched on after and the plants duly tilting towards the light.

After 3 days of this, the researchers tested using just the fan. They observed the plants tilting towards the fan in anticipation of the light. The plant associated the breeze generated by the fan, with the imminent arrival of their form of food.

This research is only at its earliest stages and as yet there is no clear explanation as to why else the plant is doing this. So we think it's shows the intelligence and capability of plants to learn. And we think it’s fascinating!

Got any favourite plant facts you want to share with us?