Plant Cognition


Context-triggered transformations of plants

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … the sum of processes involved with living
  • Knowing is … being (maintaining coherence; surviving)
  • Learner is … a plant
  • Learning is … survival-enhancing action
  • Teaching is … N/A




Plant Cognition is a research domain concerned with experimentally testing plants’ capabilities to perceive, respond to, and learn from interactions and other experiences/stimuli. Some sub-interests include root interactions, plant spatial awareness, plant social systems, plants learning to anticipate through Classical Conditioning, plant decision-making triggered by environmental stresses, and possible similarities between plant structures and animal nervous systems.


As might be anticipated, most commentary on and criticism of Plant Cognition have two main foci: (1) entrenched conceptual boundaries between animals and plants, and (2) entrenched brain-based definitions of cognition. Regarding the former, in a tone that is eerily reminiscent of debates on animal cognition a few decades ago and debates on human cognition a century ago, many are uncomfortable with the suggestion that plant activity might be better framed in terms of Darwinian dynamics than Newtonian mechanics. That is, talking about how plants react (i.e., drawing on physics) is fine, but assertions of choice, communication, and decision-making are bridges too far. Regarding the latter, some regard the observation that plants don’t have brains as clear and sufficient evidence that principles of cognition cannot be applied. Subdiscourses include:
  • Brain Chauvinism (Kevin Warwick; 2010s) – the tendency to reject notions of plant intelligence and consciousness on the basis of a conviction that such phenomena rely on a human-like central nervous system
At the other extreme, some regard the emergence of theories of Plant Cognition as overdue and underdeveloped recognitions of ubiquitous cognition:
  • Panpsychism (ancient) – the conviction, whether informal belief or formal philosophy, that all of reality is minded – that is either part of or infused with mind-like qualities, which some commentators argue include sentience, subjective experience, intelligence, and/or intention
  • Pancognitivism (David Ray Griffin, 1990s)– the assertion that, at a fundamental level, thought is present everywhere

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

Plant Cognition is a theory of learning – and one that is proving a useful device for compelling commentators to reveal their deep-seated (usually dualism-based) assumptions and beliefs about learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Plant Cognition is not a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

In spite of the reservations of its many detractors, Plant Cognition is a scientific theory – in part because proponents (unlike many detractors) are explicit about assumptions, metaphors, and definitions surrounding learning and cognition. As well, Plant Cognition has a substantial and rapidly growing evidence base.


  • Brain Chauvinism
  • Pancognitivism
  • Panpsychism

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Plant Cognition” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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