[Feature story] Plant Memory & Cognition? The Intelligent Behavior of Plants

by Shu-Yu Liu

Do plants have memories and can they feel anything? Or do they bare feelings? To unveil the mystery of plant behaviors, scientists have concluded, after conducting a lot of research, that plants have behaviors and cognition,

Mimosa plants close when stimulated by external forces

Plant responses

Plants have a sense of hearing and can pick up the vibrations of sound waves. For instance, some plants can even “hear” the vibrations generated by insects chewing leaves, thereby secreting chemicals to kill the insects, or seeking help from other species. Take tea green leafhoppers for example, which is one of the common pests of tea plants. The secretions from its larvae can induce tea leaves to produce special molecules that are volatile, which attracts Evarcha albaria, the natural enemies of leafhopper and they feed on them. In this way, tea plants are protected from being consumed by the leafhoppers.

There are different rules for survival under different living environments. To avoid growing in the wrong environment, plants need to pick up as many different signals in the environment as possible. Therefore, plants have been found to have very sophisticated sensory systems and unique behaviors, and can even exchange information through the spread of seeds and chemicals carried by dispersal vectors including fungi, birds, insects, and wind.

The most special thing is that plants also have memory. They can keep track of past events and adjust their ways of meeting new challenges accordingly. Based on the information, they make adjustments on how to sprout, grow, and respond to the world around them. The secret to plants making memories may help scientists train the plants to cope with challenges brought by extreme weather such as poor soil and extreme heat.

It was not until the beginning of the 20th century did scientists begin to look into plant memory. A French research team discovered that a certain plant remembered the leaves on one side of its stem had been damaged, so it channeled the energy for growing to the other side. Some plants even remember the difficulties they have been through, and when they are faced with the same challenges again, they can adjust their responses. For instance, there are strategies that include increasing the amount of water retention, becoming more sensitive to light, and enhancing salt tolerance and cold tolerance. In some cases, these memories can even be passed on from generation to generation.


Plants are not static and insensible; instead, they respond to external stimuli just like other creatures. They can feel the pain, acquire information, and make memories. Although plants do not possess a brain structure like humans and animals, plants still learn from their own hardships and always find their way out.



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