PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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Beans, Dynamics, and Embodied Cognition

Plants are not the subject one expects to find in a psychological experiment. When the topic is intelligence, we think in humans or animals, but never in plants. However, at least since 1970’s—although the idea appeared during the 19th century—we can find a group of dissident botanists, biologists, and psychologists claiming plants are able to exhibit a bunch of cognitive behaviors such as perception or learning. This field of study (plant neurobiology or plant signaling and behavior) witnessed a rapid growth in the 21st century (see Trewavas 2003, Brenner et al. 2006, Carello et al. 2012).
As other attempts to explain cognitive behavior, the study of plant intelligence faces the task of deciding the paradigm and the experimental methodology to embrace for its research. My claim is that embodied cognition (specially the ecological approach; see Chemero 2009) is the right paradigm, and dynamical systems (Kelso 1995) is the correct tool, to study plant intelligence. To support my claim, I offer both a theoretical argument and an example of a dynamical model applied to climbing beans’ behavior.
The theoretical argument targets the assumptions of the different approaches to cognition. The more the approach includes notions as representations or information-processing, the more zoocentric and, crucially, CNS-centric it is. The requirements for labelling an organism as intelligent grow exponentially as the computer metaphor is needed for the explanation. Otherwise, when the approach takes a behavioral/ecological scale, as in the case of ecological psychology, it is easier to include plants in its scope. This fact, however, should not be seen as a weakness of the approach due to low requirements, but as a strength for being able to include more cases of adaptive and flexible behavior in its scope.
The model I use as example aims to capture climbing beans’ main behaviors when approaching to a pole: circumnutation and fishing. Both behaviors are oscillatory and stable depending on the distance between the apex of the climbing bean at the end of each cycle and the pole. The model is an adaptation of the attractor term of Fajen & Warren’s steering model (2003) with the addition of a duffing oscillatory term and achieves a way to explain behavioral transitions in plant in the same fashion they are explained in human beings or animals.


Brenner, E. D., Stahlberg, R., Mancuso, S., Vivanco, J., Baluska, F., and Van Volkenburgh, E. (2006). Plant Neurobiology: An Integrated View of Plant Signaling. TRENDS in Plant Science 11(8): 413-419.

Carello, C., Vaz, D., Blau, J. J. C., and Petrusz, S. C. (2012). Unnerving intelligence. Ecological Psychology 24(3): 241–264.

Chemero, A. (2009). Radical Embodied Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fajen, B. R., and Warren, W. H. (2003). Behavioral Dynamics of Steering, Obstacle Avoidance, and Route Selection. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 29(2): 343-362.

Kelso, J. A. S. (1995). Dynamic patterns: The Self-organization of Brain and Behavior. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Trewavas, A. J. (2003). Aspects of Plant Intelligence. Annals of Botany 92: 1–20.

Author Information:

Vicente Raja    
University of Cincinnati


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