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January 12, 2016

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Scientists plan to test whether plants can learn like Pavlov’s dog

Jan. 12, 2016
Courtesy of Tübin­gen Un­ivers­ity
and World Science staff

Two sci­en­tists have re­ceived fund­ing to study wheth­er plants can learn like Pav­lov’s dog—the pooch who fa­mously drooled on cue when­ev­er its own­er Ivan Pav­lov rang a bell.

Pav­lov, a Rus­sian phys­i­ol­o­gist, no­ticed in the 1890s that dogs would drool eve­ry time they saw not only food, but even some­one who was ex­pected to feed them. 

The Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) (Cre­dit: Alex­andra Kehl)


Pav­lov tested wheth­er they would al­so eventually drool at the sound of a bell that al­ways rang at the same time as food ar­rived. He con­clud­ed that they would—they would drool any time they per­ceived a stim­u­lus as­so­ci­at­ed with food. 

This pro­cess is a form of learn­ing called clas­si­cal con­di­tion­ing, and it ap­plies to all an­i­mals in­clud­ing hu­mans. But what about plants?

Re­search­ers Mi­chal Grunt­man and Katja Tiel­börger from Tü­bin­gen Un­ivers­ity in Germany are to re­ceive €100,000 (a­bout $109,000) from the Han­no­ver, German­y-based Volk­swa­gen Founda­t­ion to find out.

Their proj­ect, called “Pav­lovian Plants,” aims to ex­plore wheth­er plants can learn de­spite hav­ing no brain. If so, they say, it would mean the line be­tween the an­i­mal and plant king­doms is less clear than we think. The re­search­ers sus­pect that plants don’t dif­fer from an­i­mals at the most bas­ic lev­el of be­hav­ior. 

“We be­lieve that plants are cer­tainly not pas­sive green or­gan­isms, but that they can dem­on­strate learn­ing,” said Grunt­man. 

The sci­en­tists plan to use two plants that nat­u­rally make quick move­ments in re­sponse to stim­u­li. One is the Ve­nus Fly Trap, which snaps its leaves shut to catch in­sects that brush the leaves. An­oth­er is Mi­mo­sa pu­dica, which re­tracts its leaves when they are touched in or­der to avoid harm.

Grunt­man and Tiel­börger want to see wheth­er they can train these plants to take these ac­tions in re­sponse to oth­er cues, as well—much as non-food stim­u­li ac­ti­vat­ed a re­sponse in Pav­lov’s dog. The re­search­ers al­so plan to use Ara­bidop­sis, a com­mon mod­el plant in mo­lec­u­lar bi­ol­o­gy.


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Two scientists have received funding to study whether plants can learn like Pavlov’s dog—the pooch who famously drooled on cue whenever its owner Ivan Pavlov rang a bell. Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, noticed in the 1890s that dogs would drool every time they saw not only food, but even someone who was expected to feed them. Pavlov tested whether they would also eventually drool at the sound of a bell that always rang at the same time as food arrived. He concluded that they would—they would drool any time they perceived a stimulus associated with food. This process is a form of learning called classical conditioning, and it applies to all animals including humans. But what about plants? Researchers Michal Gruntman and Professorin Katja Tielbörger from Tübingen University in Germany are to receive €100,000 (about $109,000) from the Hannover, Germany-based Volkswagen Foundation to find out. Their project, called “Pavlovian Plants,” aims to explore whether plants can learn despite having no brain. If so, they say, it would mean the line between the animal and plant kingdoms is less clear than we think. The researchers suspect that plants don’t differ from animals at the most basic level of behavior. “We believe that plants are certainly not passive green organisms, but that they can demonstrate learning,” said Gruntman. The scientists plan to use two plants that naturally make quick movements in response to stimuli. One is the Venus Fly Trap, which snaps its leaves shut to catch insects that brush the leaves. Another is Mimosa pudica, which retracts its leaves when they are touched in order to avoid harm. Gruntman and Tielbörger want to see whether they can train these plants to take these actions in response to other cues, as well—much as non-food stimuli activated a response in Pavlov’s dog. The researchers also plan to use Arabidopsis, a common model plant in molecular biology. dog