The Plants Respond: An Interview With Cleve Backster

A raw, less polished version of the interview available here

Sometimes it happens that a person can name the exact moment when his or her life changed irrevocably. For Cleve Backster, it was early in the morning of February 2, 1966, at thirteen minutes, fifty-five seconds into a polygraph test he was administering. Backster, a leading polygraph expert whose Backster Zone Comparison Test is the worldwide standard for lie detection, had at that moment threatened his test subject’s well-being. The subject had responded electrochemically to his threat. The subject was a plant.

Since then, Backster has conducted hundreds of experiments demonstrating not only that plants respond to our emotions and intents, but so do severed leaves, eggs (fertilized or not), yogurt, and human cell samples. He’s found, for example, that white cells taken from a person’s mouth and placed in a test tube still respond electrochemically to the donor’s emotional states, even when the donor is out of the room, out of the building, or out of the state.

I first read about Backster’s work when I was a kid. His observations verified an understanding I had then, an understanding not even a degree in physics could later eradicate: that the world is alive and sentient.

I spoke with Backster in San Diego, thirty-one years and twenty-two days after his original observation, and a full continent away from the office on Times Square in New York City where he had once worked and lived. Before we began, he placed some yogurt into a sterilized test tube, inserted two gold electrodes, and turned on the recording chart. I was excited, yet dubious. We began to talk, and the pen wriggled up and down. Then, just as I took in my breath prior to disagreeing with something he’d said, the pen seemed to lurch. But did it really jump, or was I only seeing what I wanted to see?

At one point, while Backster was out of the room, I tried to muster up some anger by thinking of clear-cut forests and the politicians who sanction them, of abused children and their abusers. But the line depicting the electrochemical response of the yogurt remained perfectly flat. Perhaps the yogurt wasn’t interested in me. Losing interest myself, I began to wander around the lab. My eyes fell on a calendar, which, upon closer inspection, turned out to be an advertisement for a shipping company. I felt a sudden surge of anger at the ubiquity of advertising. Then I realized — a spontaneous emotion! I dashed over to the chart, and saw on it a sudden spike apparently corresponding to the moment I’d seen the ad.

When Backster returned, I continued the interview, still excited, and perhaps a little less skeptical.


Jensen: Can you tell us in detail how you first noticed an electrochemical reaction in a plant?

Backster: The initial observation involved a dracaena cane plant I had in my lab in Manhattan. I wasn’t particularly interested in plants, but there was a going-out-of-business sale at a florist on the ground floor of the building, and the secretary had bought a couple of plants for the office: a rubber plant and this dracaena cane. I had done a saturation watering of these plants — putting them under the faucet until the water ran out the bottom of the pots — and was curious to see how long it would take the moisture to get to the top. I was especially interested in the dracaena, because the water had to climb up a long trunk, then out to the end of the long leaves. I thought that if I put the galvanic-skin-response detector of the polygraph at the end of the leaf, a drop in resistance would be recorded on the paper as the moisture arrived between the electrodes.

That, at least, is my cover story. I’m not sure whether there was another, more profound, reason for my action. It could be that my subconscious was nudging me into doing this — I don’t know.

In any case, I noticed something on the chart that resembled a human response on a polygraph: not at all what I would have expected from water entering a leaf. Lie detectors work on the principle that when people perceive a threat to their well-being, they respond physiologically in predictable ways. For instance, if you were conducting a polygraph test as part of a murder investigation, you might ask a suspect, “Was it you who fired the fatal shot?” If the true answer were yes, the suspect would fear getting caught in a lie, and the electrodes on his or her skin would pick up the physiological response to that fear. So I began to think of ways to threaten the well-being of the plant. First, I tried dipping one of its leaves into a cup of warm coffee. The plant, if anything, showed boredom — the line on the chart kept trending downward.

Then, at thirteen minutes, fifty-five seconds chart time, the thought entered my mind to burn the leaf. I didn’t verbalize the idea; I didn’t touch the plant; I didn’t touch the equipment. Yet the plant went wild. The pen jumped right off the top of the chart. The only thing it could have been reacting to was the mental change.

Next, I got some matches from my secretary’s desk and, lighting one, made a few passes at the leaf. I realized, though, that I was already seeing such an extreme reaction that any increase wouldn’t be noticeable. So I tried a different approach: I removed the threat by returning the matches to the secretary’s desk. The plant calmed right back down. 

I immediately understood something important was going on. I could think of no conventional scientific explanation. There was no one else in the lab suite, and I wasn’t doing anything that might have provided a mechanistic trigger. From that moment on, my consciousness hasn’t been the same. My whole life has been devoted to looking into this phenomenon.

After that first observation, I talked to scientists from different fields, to get their explanations for what was happening. But it was totally foreign to them. So I designed an experiment to explore in greater depth what I began to call primary perception.

Jensen: Why “primary perception”?

Backster: I couldn’t call what I was witnessing extrasensory perception, because plants don’t have most of the five senses to begin with. This perception on the part of the plant seemed to take place at a much more basic — or primary — level.

Anyway, what emerged was an experiment in which I arranged for brine shrimp to be dropped automatically, at random intervals, into simmering water, while the reaction of the plants was recorded at the other end of the lab.

Jensen: How could you tell whether the plants were responding to the death of the shrimp, or to your emotions?

Backster: It’s very hard to eliminate the connection between the experimenter and the plants being tested. Even a brief association with the plants — just a few hours — is enough for them to become attuned to you. Then, even though you automate and randomize the experiment and leave the laboratory, guaranteeing you are entirely unaware of when the experiment starts, the plants will remain attuned to you, no matter where you go. At first, my partner and I would go to a bar a block away, but after a while we began to suspect that the plants were responding, not to the death of the brine shrimp, but to the rising and falling levels of excitement in our conversations.

Finally, we had someone else buy the plants and store them in another part of the building. On the day of the experiment, we went and got the plants, brought them in, hooked them up, and left. This meant the plants were alone in a strange environment, with only the pressure of the electrodes and a little trickle of electricity going through their leaves. Because there were no humans to attune to, they began “looking around” their environment. Only then did something so subtle as the deaths of the brine shrimp get picked up by the plants.

Jensen: Do plants become attuned only to humans, or to other living creatures in their environment as well?

Backster: I’ll answer that question with an example. Often, I hook up a plant and just go about my business, then observe what makes it respond. One day, I was boiling water in a teakettle to make coffee. Then I realized I needed the teakettle for something else, so I poured the scalding water down the sink. The plant being monitored showed a huge reaction to this. Now, if you don’t put chemicals or hot water down the sink for a long time, a microscopic jungle begins to grow down there. It turned out the plant was responding to the death of the microbes in the drain.

Time and again, I’ve been amazed that the capability for perception extends right down to the bacterial level. One sample of yogurt, for example, will react when another is being fed, as if to say, “That one’s getting food. Where’s mine?” This happens with a fair degree of repeatability. Or if you drop antibiotics in the other sample, the first yogurt sample shows a huge response to the other’s death. And they needn’t even be the same kind of bacteria for this to occur. The first Siamese cat I had would eat only chicken. I’d keep a cooked bird in the lab refrigerator and pull off a piece each day to feed the cat. By the time I’d get to the end, the carcass would be pretty old, and bacteria would have started to grow on it. One day, I had some yogurt hooked up, and as I got the chicken out of the refrigerator and began pulling off strips of meat, the yogurt responded. Next, I put the chicken under a heat lamp to bring it to room temperature.

Jensen: You obviously pampered your cat.

Backster: I wouldn’t have wanted the cat to have to eat cold chicken! Anyway, the heat hitting the bacteria produced a huge reaction in the yogurt.

Jensen: How did you know you weren’t influencing this?

Backster: I was unaware of the reaction at the time. You see, I had pip switches set up all over the lab; whenever I performed an action, I hit a switch, which placed a mark on a remote chart. Only later did I compare the reaction of the yogurt to what had been happening in the lab.

Jensen: And when the cat started to ingest the chicken?

Backster: Interestingly enough, bacteria appear to have a defense mechanism such that extreme danger causes them to go into a state similar to shock: in effect, they pass out. Many plants do this as well; if you hassle them enough, they flat-line. The bacteria apparently did this, because as soon as they hit the cat’s digestive system, the signal went out. There was a flat line from then on.

Jensen: Dr. David Livingstone, the African explorer, was mauled by a lion. He later said that, during the attack, he hadn’t felt pain, but rather a sense of bliss. He said it would have been no problem to give himself up to the lion.

Backster: Once, I was on an airplane and had with me a little battery-powered galvanic-response meter. Just as the flight attendants started serving lunch, I said to the man sitting next to me, “You want to see something interesting?” I put a piece of lettuce between the electrodes, and when people started to eat their salads we got some reactions, but they stopped as the leaves went into shock. “Wait until they pick up the trays,” I said, “and see what happens.” When the attendants removed our meals, the lettuce got back its reactivity. The point is that the lettuce was going into a protective state so it would not suffer. When the danger left, the reactivity returned. This ceasing of electrical energy at the cellular level ties in, I believe, to the state of shock in humans.

Jensen: So you’ve tested plants, bacteria, lettuce leaves . . .

Backster: And eggs. I had a Doberman pinscher for a while that I used to feed an egg a day. One day, I had a plant hooked up to a large galvanic-response meter, and as I cracked an egg to feed the dog, the meter went crazy. After that, I spent hundreds of hours monitoring eggs, both fertilized and unfertilized. Turns out it doesn’t matter; it’s still a living cell.

After working with plants, bacteria, and eggs, I started to wonder how animals would react. But I couldn’t get a cat or dog to hold still long enough to do any meaningful monitoring. So I thought I’d try human sperm cells, which are capable of staying alive outside the body for long periods, and are certainly easy enough to obtain. In this experiment, the sample from the donor was put in a test tube with electrodes, and the donor was separated from the sperm by several rooms. Then the donor inhaled amyl nitrite, which dilates the blood vessels and is conventionally used to stop a stroke. Just crushing the amyl nitrite caused a big reaction in the sperm, and when the donor inhaled, the sperm went wild.

There was no way, however, that I could continue that research. It would have been scientifically sound, but politically stupid. The dedicated skeptics would undoubtedly have ridiculed me, asking where my masturbatorium was, and so on.

Then I met a dental researcher who had perfected a method of gathering white blood cells from the mouth. This was politically feasible, easy to do, and required no medical supervision. I started doing split-screen videotaped experiments, with the chart readout superimposed at the bottom of a screen showing the donor’s activities. We took the white-cell samples, then sent the people home to watch a preselected television program likely to elicit an emotional response — for example, showing a veteran of Pearl Harbor a documentary on Japanese air attacks. What we found was that cells outside the body still react to the emotions you feel, even though you may be miles away.

The greatest distance we’ve tested is about three hundred miles. Brian O’Leary, who wrote Exploring Inner and Outer Space, left his white cells here in San Diego, then flew home to Phoenix. On the way, he kept track of events that aggravated him, carefully logging the time of each. The correlation remained, even over that distance.

Jensen: The implications of all this —

Backster: — are staggering, yes. I have file drawers full of high-quality anecdotal data showing time and again how bacteria, plants, and so on are all fantastically in tune with each other. Human cells, too, have this primary-perception capability, but somehow it’s gotten lost at the conscious level. Or perhaps we never had such a talent.

I suspect that when a person is spiritually advanced enough to handle such perceptions, she or he will become properly tuned in. Until then it might be best not to be tuned in, because of the damage we could cause by mishandling the received information.

We have a tendency to see ourselves as the most highly evolved life form on the planet. It’s true, we’re very successful at intellectual endeavors. But that may not be the ultimate standard by which to judge. It could be that other life forms are more advanced spiritually. It could also be that we are approaching a place where we’ll be able safely to enhance our perception. More and more people are openly working in these still-marginalized areas of research. For instance, have you heard of Rupert Sheldrake’s work with dogs? He puts a time-recording camera on both the dog at home and the human companion at work. He has discovered that, even if people come home from work at a different time each day, at the moment the person leaves work, the dog at home heads for the door.

Jensen: How has the scientific community received your work?

Backster: With the exception of marginalized scientists like Sheldrake, the response has been first derision, then hostility, and now mostly silence.

At first, scientists called primary perception “the Backster effect,” perhaps hoping they could trivialize the observations by naming them after this wild man who claimed to see things that had been missed by mainstream science. The name stuck, but because primary perception can’t readily be dismissed, it is no longer a term of contempt.

At the same time that scientists were ridiculing my work, the popular press was paying very close attention to it, in dozens of articles and in books, such as Peter Tompkins’ The Secret Life of Plants. I never asked for any of the attention, and have never profited from it. People have always come to me seeking information.

Meanwhile, the botanical community was getting pretty upset. They wanted to “get to the bottom of all this
nonsense,” and planned to resolve the issue at the 1975 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in New York City. Arthur Galston, a well-known botanist at Yale University, got together a select group of scientists to, in my opinion, try to discredit my work; this is a typical response by the scientific community to controversial theories. I had already learned that you don’t go into these fights to win; you go in to survive. And I was able to do just that.

They’ve now gotten to where they can’t counter my research, so their strategy has been just to ignore me and hope I’ll go away. Of course, that’s not working either.

Jensen: What is their main criticism?

Backster: The big problem — and this is a big problem as far as consciousness research in general is concerned — is repeatability. The events I’ve observed have all been spontaneous. They have to be. If you plan them out in advance, you’ve already changed them. It all boils down to this: repeatability and spontaneity do not go together, and as long as members of the scientific community overemphasize repeatability in scientific methodology, they’re not going to get very far in consciousness research.

Not only is spontaneity important, but so is intent. You can’t pretend. If you say you are going to burn a leaf on the plant, but don’t mean it, nothing will happen. I hear constantly from people all over the country who want to know how to cause plant reactions. I tell them, “Don’t do anything. Go about your work; keep notes on what you are doing at specific times, and later compare them to your chart recording. But don’t plan anything, or the experiment won’t work.” People who do this often get the same results I have gotten, and win first prize at science fairs. But when they get to Biology 101, they’re told that what they have experienced is not important.

There have been a few attempts by scientists to replicate my experiment with the brine shrimp, but these have all been methodologically inadequate. When they learned that they had to automate the experiment, they merely went to the other side of a wall and used closed-circuit television to watch what occurred. Clearly, they weren’t removing their consciousness from the experiment, so it was very easy for them to fail. And let’s be honest: some of the scientists were relieved when they failed, because success would have gone against the body of scientific knowledge.

Jensen: The emphasis on repeatability seems antilife, because life itself is not repeatable. As Francis Bacon made clear, repeatability is inextricably tied to control, and control is fundamentally what Western science is all about, what Western culture is all about. For scientists to give up repeatability, they would have to give up control, which means they would have to give up Western culture, and that isn’t going to happen until this civilization collapses under the weight of its own ecological excesses.

Backster: I have given up trying to fight other scientists on this. But I know that, if they perform my experiment, even if it fails they will still see things that will change their consciousness. They will never be quite the same.

People who would not have said anything twenty years ago often say to me, “I think I can safely tell you now how you really changed my life with what you were doing back in the early seventies.” These scientists didn’t feel they had the luxury back then to rock the boat; their credibility, and thus their grant requests, would have been affected.

Jensen: Looking at your work, we are faced with several options: We can believe you are lying, along with everyone else who has ever made similar observations. We can believe that what you are saying is true, which would require that the whole notion of repeatability in scientific method be reworked, along with our notions of consciousness, communication, perception, and so on. Or we can believe that you have made a mistake. Is it possible that you’ve overlooked some strictly mechanistic explanation for your observations? One scientist has said there must be a loose wire in your lie detector.

Backster: In thirty-one years of research, I’ve found all my “loose wires.” No, I can’t see any mechanistic solution. Some parapsychologists believe I’ve mastered the art of psychokinesis, that I move the pen with my mind — which would be a pretty good trick in itself. But they overlook the fact that I’ve automated and randomized many of the experiments so that I’m not even aware of what’s going on until later, when I study the resulting charts and videotapes. The conventional explanations have worn pretty thin. One such explanation, proposed in an article in Harper’s, was static electricity: if you scuffle across the room and touch the plant, you get a response. But of course I seldom touch the plant during the observation, and in any case that response would be totally different.

Jensen: So what is the signal picked up by the plant?

Backster: I don’t know. Whatever it is, I don’t believe the signal dissipates over distance, which it would if we were dealing with an electromagnetic phenomenon. The signal from Phoenix, for example, was just as strong as if Brian O’Leary had been in the next room.

Also, we’ve attempted to obstruct the signal using lead and other materials, but we can’t shut it out. This makes me think the signal doesn’t actually go from here to there, but instead manifests itself in different places. I suspect that it takes no time for the signal to travel. There is no way, using earth distances, that we could test this, because if the signal were electromagnetic it would travel at the speed of light, and biological delays would consume more than the fraction of a second it would take for the signal to travel. The only way to test this would be in outer space.

I get support for this belief — that the signal is dependent on neither time nor distance — from some quantum physicists. There is a quantum theory called the Bell theorem, which states that two atoms distant from each other will sometimes change the direction of their spin simultaneously.

All this, of course, lands us firmly in the territory of the metaphysical, the spiritual. Think about prayer, for instance. If you were to pray to God, and God were on the far side of the galaxy, and your prayer traveled at the speed of light, your bones would long since be dust before God could respond. But if God — however you define God — is everywhere, the prayer doesn’t have to travel.

Jensen: Let’s get more concrete. You have a mental image of burning the plant, and the plant reacts. What, precisely, happens in that instant? How does the plant know to react?

Backster: I don’t claim to know. In fact, I have attributed a lot of my success at remaining active in this field — at not having been discredited — to the fact that I make no claim to know. You see, if I give a faulty explanation, it doesn’t matter how much data I have, or how many quality observations I’ve made. The mainstream scientific community will use the incorrect explanation as an excuse to throw out my data and observations. So I’ve always said that I don’t know how this happens. I’m an experimentalist, not a theorist.

Jensen: The plants’ capacity to perceive intent suggests to me a radical redefinition of consciousness.

Backster: You mean it would do away with the notion of consciousness as something on which humans have a monopoly?

Jensen: Humans and other so-called higher animals. According to Western thought, because plants don’t have brains, they cannot have consciousness.

Backster: I think Western science exaggerates the role of the brain in consciousness. Whole books have been written on the consciousness of the atom. Consciousness might exist on an entirely different level. Some very good research has been done on the survival of consciousness after bodily death. All of it points toward the notion that consciousness need not be specifically linked with gray matter. That notion is another straitjacket we need to discard. The brain may have something to do with memory, but a strong case can be made that much of our memory is not stored there.

Jensen: The notion of bodily memory is familiar to any athlete: when you practice, you are trying to build up memories in your muscles.

Backster: The brain might not even be part of that loop.

Jensen: I’ve also read articles on the physiological aftereffects of trauma — child abuse, rape, war. A lot of research shows that trauma imprints itself on different parts of the body; a rape victim might later feel a burning in her vagina, for example.

Backster: If I bump myself, I explain to the tissue in that area what happened. I don’t know how effective this method of healing is, but it can’t hurt.

Jensen: Have you also worked with what would normally be called inanimate materials?

Backster: I’ve shredded some substances and suspended them in agar. I get electric signals, but they’re not necessarily related to anything going on in the environment. The patterns are too crude for me to decipher. But I do suspect that consciousness is more widespread.

In 1987, I participated in a University of Missouri program that included a talk by Dr. Sidney Fox, who was then connected with the Institute for Molecular and Cellular Evolution at the University of Miami. Fox had recorded electric signals from a proteinlike material that showed properties strikingly similar to those of living cells. The simplicity of the material he used and the self-organizing capability it displayed suggest to me that biocommunication was present at the very earliest states in the evolution of life on this planet.

Of course, the Gaia hypothesis — that the earth is a great, big, working organism — fits in nicely with this. The planet is going to have the last word concerning the damage humans are inflicting upon it. It’s only going to take so much abuse, and then it may well burp and snort a little, and destroy a good bit of the population. I don’t think it would be a stretch to take the hypothesis one step further and attribute such a defense strategy to a kind of planetary intelligence.

Jensen: How has your work been received in other parts of the world?

Backster: The Russians have always been very interested, not at all afraid to venture into these areas of research. In many ways, they seem much more attuned to spiritual concepts than most scientists in the West. And whenever I talk with Indian scientists — Buddhist or Hindu — about what I do, they say, “What took you so long?” My work dovetails very well with many of the concepts embraced by Hinduism and Buddhism.

Jensen: What are we Westerners afraid of?

Backster: The fear is that, if what I am observing is accurate, many of the theories on which we’ve built our lives need complete reworking. I’ve known biologists to say, “If Backster is right, we’re in trouble.” It would mean a radical rethinking of our place in the world. I think we’re seeing it already.

Our Western scientific community in general is in a difficult spot because, in order to maintain our current mode of scientific thought, we must ignore a tremendous amount of information. And more such information is being gathered all the time. Researchers are stumbling all over this biocommunication phenomenon. It seems impossible, given the sophistication of modem instrumentation, for them to miss this fundamental attunement between living things. Only for so long are they going to be able to pretend it’s “loose wires.”

Originally published in The Sun Magazine, and republished in Free Spirit in August 1998.
Translated to Czech and published in Baraka in October 1998.

Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen
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