Sonya El Debssi was walking past the science room when the screaming started. “I thought something had happened, or that the kids were just totally out of control,” says the Phoenix Rising neuroscience teacher. When she walked into the room where Neil Kaber was leading his class in an experiment with human/plant communication, she found that for the first time, the plant had “talked” – hence the screams of excitement. “We were the first class that made the plant talk,” says Duke. “I wanted to do it again.”
The plant experiment was born out of Neil’s long term interest in Cleve Baxter and his experiences with plant communication, documented in the 1960’s classic The Secret Life of Plants. “Baxter was a polygraph expert who hooked a polygraph machine to a plant,” says Neil. Baxter observed that the polygraph registered a change in electrical resistance when it was harmed – or even when someone was thinking about harming it. “He was going to burn a leaf and the plant picked up the consciousness,”says Neil. “He said his life was never the same since. I’ve been thinking about this for years.”
He decided to conduct his own experiments, and include his elementary school science classes in the process. “We worked with a giant plant that came from Nancy,” he says. “I actually built a polygraph machine in order to give the plant a voice. It has an oscillator that will change with any fluctuation in voltage. I put a clamp with an electrode on either side of a leaf.”
For over a month, the two classes tried different ways of communicating with the plant. “It wouldn’t respond no matter what we did,” says Neil, even when they chopped up a cabbage in front of it in a replication of Baxter’s original experiment. “I knew it was time to get the kind of plant I was originally thinking of – a philodendron.”
The first class to focus on the new plant again produced no result. But then, things changed. “The second class came in. The polygraph was set at a frequency where you could hear any oscillation. After about fifteen minutes of focus, it went up and it went down again. They were the first class ever to get any response,” says Neil.
The students had different explanations for why the plant talked. “We just thought of fire,” says Noah, referring to himself and all the boys in the class. In this sense, they again replicated Baxter’s original experiment that produced results by imagining harm. The girls, however, disagreed. “We thought of FLOWERS,” says Wisdom. “It made the plant go ‘WEEEOOOOOEEEE!’”
For the next step, Neil plans to challenge the other classes to see if they can get any feedback from the plant. Meanwhile, the first class gets a party to celebrate their success. Expect it to get loud.