You probably have enough oxygen to realise that conscious thought becomes increasingly difficult as the level of oxygen decreases. You’ve probably always known that brain death happens very rapidly. You may even know that decay starts within 5 minutes of an interruption to the supply of oxygen. In short, you might not know it as hypoxia. Yes, brain hypoxia can cause severe brain damage or death surprisingly quickly.
What about plants? They don’t have brains. Plants reach out in nutation but we don’t think of them as sentient. We don’t mourn their passing because we consider them as ungrievable as a chicken dinner. Yet biologists have long known that changes to one part of a plant are sensed by the other parts. But quite how the information is transmitted widely across the plant has been a mystery. Plants aren’t conscious but they have a proxy nervous system. And we’re beginning to see that glutamate and calcium are vital to the plant’s internal communications.
Our animal nerve cells also communicate with the aid of the glutamate amino acid. Plants my not be so different to us after all. Perhaps you need to reconsider the hidden meaning of the half second snap of the Venus flytrap. I’m not suggesting you anthropomorphise plants, all I’m suggesting is that you keep an open mind. Let’s face it, to anthropomorphise something is to give it suffering as well as birth and death.
What exactly is the consciousness that enables us to know suffering? Awareness? Philosopher Daniel Dennett thinks consciousness is an illusion. Since I like imagining the pleasure of the taste of chocolate as yet uneaten, I’ll hold onto my anticipations of having a nice dessert this evening. You can suffer the deprivation of not sharing my chocolate.
I wonder how I breathe unconsciously. Or how I type or chew. Imaging scientists can show you that many different parts of your brain become active when you are aware of something. They can also use MRI to show how your unconscious acts stimulate very localised motor system controls in the same brain. The autonomic systems for flight or flight, for example. The implied action is called sympathetic in the trade. It would be considered parasympathetic if you chose to relax and simply let your heart and gut do their thing.
How does a ‘three-pound organ with the consistency of tofu exudes the feeling of life?’ was a question posed in an article about the Kavli Prize awarded annually for the biggest questions in science. Here’s an interesting read on Scientific American by Christof Koch from 2018.
I wonder if we are so wrapped up in ourselves that we aren’t seeing that other forms of life are conscious too. Some say that ‘the evidence for plants as conscious entities is currently lacking, and while parallels between plant physiology and neurobiology can be drawn, these are not equivalent systems.’
I watched a rerun of Silent Witness recently, until a burned cadaver appeared on an operating table. No nudity can be transmitted, thank you, but really, a blowtorched human face isn’t OK during dinner time either. Then my mind rushed to dispel thoughts of billions of discarded chicken bones in the world’s daily refuse yet there are trees planted to commemorate the lives of garden-buried budgies whose lives were lived incarcerated in our homes.
It was a Michael Viney article in The Irish Times that got me thinking about all this earlier today. I was reminded that I watch a clematis out in the back garden and have often wondered how it ‘senses’ there will be a wire for the tendrils to wrap themselves around. Even ‘… single-celled slime moulds and bacterial biofilms … explore their surroundings and adapt their shapes to take advantage.’
We are a very self-centred species and it suits us to consider that nothing else has consciousness. Motivated reasoning may have prevented us learning of the wonders of other forms of consciousness. Heck, we’re so smart that many expect to enjoy an infinite life after death.
Now I’m wondering if there’s a shortage of oxygen in my office.