Read an Excerpt
Plants and ESP
The dust-grimcd 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 be opened for science may never again be closed. Backster's discovery 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 ofsmall 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 wellbeing. 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 be 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 be 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 bow 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 be 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.