The Plants Respond:
An Interview with Cleve Backste

by Derrick Jensen

Photo by Arleen Hartman

Sometimes it happens that a person can name the exact moment when his or her life changed irrevocably. For Cleve Backster, it was early in the morning of February 2, 1966, at thirteen minutes, fifty-five seconds into a polygraph test he was administering. Backster, a leading polygraph expert whose Backster Zone Comparison Test is the worldwide standard for lie detection, had at that moment threatened his test subject’s well-being. The subject responded electrochemically to his threat. The subject was a plant.

Since then, Backster has conducted hundreds of experiments demonstrating not only that plants respond to our emotions and intents, but so do severed leaves, eggs, yogurt, and human cell samples. He’s found, for example, that white cells taken from a person’s mouth and placed in a test tube still respond electrochemically to the donor’s emotional states, even when the donor is out of the room, out of the building, or out of the state.

Jensen: Can you tell us in detail how you first noticed an electrochemical reaction in a plant?

Backster: The initial observation involved a dracaena cane plant I had in my lab in Manhattan. I had done a saturation watering of these plants—putting them under the faucet until the water ran out the bottom of the pots—and was curious to see how long it would take for the moisture to get to the top. I thought that if I put the galvanic-skin-response detector at the end of a leaf, a drop in resistance would be recorded on the paper as the moisture arrived between the electrodes.

I noticed something on the chart that resembled a human response on a polygraph: not at all what I would have expected from water entering a leaf. Lie detectors work on the principle that when people perceive a threat to their well-being, they respond physiologically in predictable ways. For instance, if you were conducting a polygraph test as part of a murder investigation, you might ask a suspect, “Was it you who fired the fatal shot?” If the true answer were yes, the suspect would fear getting caught in a lie, and the electrodes on his or her sin would pick up the physiological response to that fear. So I began to think of ways to threaten the well-being of the plant.

At thirteen minutes, fifty-five seconds chart time, the thought entered my mind to burn the leaf. I didn’t verbalize the idea; I didn’t touch the plant; I didn’t touch the equipment. Yet the plant went wild. The pen jumped right off the top of the chart. The only thing it could have been reacting to was the mental image.

I immediately understood something important was going on. I could think of no scientific explanation. There was no one else in the lab suite, and I wasn’t doing anything that might have provided a mechanistic trigger. From that moment on, my consciousness hasn’t been the same. My whole life has been devoted to looking into this phenomenon.

I designed an experiment to explore in greater depth what I began to call primary perception.

Jensen: Why “primary perception”?

Backster: I couldn’t call what I was witnessing extrasensory perception, because plants don’t have most of the five senses to begin with. This perception on the part of the plant seemed to take place at a much more basic—or primary—level.

It’s very hard to eliminate the connection between the experimenter and the plants being tested. Even a brief association with the plants—just a few hours—is enough for them to become attuned to you. Then, even though you automate and randomize the experiment and leave the laboratory, guaranteeing you are entirely unaware of when the experiment starts, the plants will remain attuned to you, no matter where you go.

Jensen: The implications of all this—

Backster: --are staggering, yes. I have file drawers full of high-quality anecdotal data showing time and again how bacteria, plants and so on are all fantastically in tune with each other. Human cells, too, have this primary-perception capability, but somehow it’s gotten lost at the conscious level.

I suspect that when a person is spiritually advanced enough to handle such perceptions, she or he will become properly tuned in.

We have a tendency to see ourselves as the most highly evolved life form on the planet. It’s true, we’re very successful at intellectual endeavors. But that may not be the ultimate standard by which to judge. It could be that other life forms are more advanced spiritually. It could also be that we are approaching a place where we’ll be able safely to enhance our perception.

Jensen: So what is the signal picked up by the plant?

Backster: I don’t know. Whatever it is, I don’t believe the signal dissipates over distance, which it would if we were dealing with an electromagnetic phenomenon.

Also, we’ve attempted to obstruct the signal using lead and other materials, but we can’t shut it out. This makes me think the signal doesn’t actually go from here to there, but instead manifests itself in different places. I suspect that it takes no time for the signal to travel.

I get support for this belief—that the signal is dependent on neither time nor distance—from some quantum physicists.

All this, of course, lands us firmly in the territory of the metaphysical, the spiritual.

Jensen: The plants’ capacity to perceive intent suggests to me a radical redefinition of consciousness.

Backster: You mean it would do away with the notion of consciousness as something on which humans have a monopoly?

I think Western science exaggerates the role of the brain in consciousness. Consciousness might exist on an entirely different level.

Excerpt from The Sun, July 1997


[Cleve Backster lives in San Diego, California and teaches at the Backster School of Lie Detection. For 40 years he has conducted extensive research related to electrical responses in plant life and at a cellular level in other living organisms. He is best known for “The Backster Effect”.]