Donders Wonders Blog

Does one need a brain to feel and think?

Can animals think, remember, and experience emotions? What about plants? Can plants feel anything even if they don’t have a brain??

This post is also available in Dutch.

Can animals think, remember, and experience emotions? What about plants? Can plants feel anything even if they don’t have a brain?

Do animals remember the past? Can they plan ahead? Do they experience emotions? And do they grieve when they lose a loved one? If you happen to have a pet or two, perhaps you can answer positively to some or all of these questions about animal cognition – the umbrella term for thoughts, emotions, memory, decision-making, and so on. Even if you have no pets, you might still answer “yes”. Rightly so! There are plenty of scientific studies, ranging from behavioral to neuroscientific, to back up the claim that animals enjoy a rich cognitive and emotional world.

Most of us need no science to appreciate the depth of the internal world of animals. We have seen it first-hand. Yet several decades ago, it seemed ludicrous that animals had sophisticated feelings and thoughts, including our closest living relatives, chimpanzees. The situation changed when scientists began using rigorous experimental and neuroscientific techniques to study animals from up-close. It turned out that the things that we once considered uniquely human, like using tools, planning ahead, showing empathy, and so on, are actually shared with other animals. Step by step, we have come to grips with the idea that humans are far from the only intelligent and sentient species.

Now, this seems trivial because animals have brains. Indeed, animals, at least those that are mammals, have brains. What is more, a mammalian brain is anatomically very similar to ours. It makes quite some sense that for any type of evolved feeling and thinking there is a neural system in place. But what if there isn’t one? Can we still talk about cognition in that case? What about plants, for example? Are they intelligent and sentient in the same way we now think that animals are?

What a ridiculous idea! Plants do not have a brain, so we cannot talk about plant cognition and the internal experiences of plants. However, this does not sound at all ridiculous to Monica Gagliano. A marine ecologist by training, she has applied some of the methods from animal research into plant science to find that thinking may exist in the absence of a brain. It is true, plants do not have neurons. Yet they have a system that is brain-like. This system allows information to travel through the organism by means of electrical signals, similarly to the way that the human brain operates.

It is not so much the system (the brain) but the mechanism that is quite the same. Information being sent in the form of electrical messages allows every creature, be it a human, an animal, or a plant, to sense and react to the environment in flexible ways. Monica Gagliano has argued that this mechanism is perhaps at the core of every form of intelligent being.

No matter whether you are convinced, or not at all, by the existence of cognition without a proper brain, there is a lesson out there for all of us. Research on animal cognition has taught us that there is nothing unique about our cognitive abilities, and so we should do away with the self-centered thinking. The next great lesson for us coming from studies on plant cognition might be that humans do not stand at the top of the biological hierarchy. Because it is not a hierarchy at all, it is more like a circle where we all come to occupy our special place.


Written by Julija
Edited by Francie and Marisha
Translated by Felix
Translation edited by Floortje

+ posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Categories