Thursday, 23 January 2014

Can plants learn?

So a while ago I wrote a post on the question of whether insects can feel pain and at the time I thought that was a reasonably unusual question to ask. Now I'm asking whether plants can learn.

Feed me, Seymour...

The reason why I'm asking this question isn't because I've gone off the deep end and I now think plants talk to me, but rather because there has been a pretty interesting paper published called: Experience teaches plants to learn faster and forget slower in environments where it matters:
The nervous system of animals serves the acquisition, memorization and recollection of information. Like animals, plants also acquire a huge amount of information from their environment, yet their capacity to memorize and organize learned behavioral responses has not been demonstrated. InMimosa pudica—the sensitive plant—the defensive leaf-folding behaviour in response to repeated physical disturbance exhibits clear habituation, suggesting some elementary form of learning. Applying the theory and the analytical methods usually employed in animal learning research, we show that leaf-folding habituation is more pronounced and persistent for plants growing in energetically costly environments. Astonishingly, Mimosa can display the learned response even when left undisturbed in a more favourable environment for a month. This relatively long-lasting learned behavioural change as a result of previous experience matches the persistence of habituation effects observed in many animals.
Is this the beginning of the Day of the Triffids? Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Probably not, but it's still interesting.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Has radical behaviorism reached retirement age?

Simon Baron-Cohen

The is an online magazine of sorts which has 'conversations' instead of 'articles' that are written by some of the leading minds and academics of our time. To kick off the New Year they decided to gather a range of responses from scientists and science educators on the topic of: "What scientific idea is ready for retirement?". This is, in my opinion, quite an interesting topic to discuss and there were some thought-provoking answers. There were also some questionable ones, like Sam Harris' suggestion that we need to expand the definition of science which can be summed up by him saying he doesn't understand why his ideas on morality and free will are wrong - but that's an issue for another time.

The response that I'm interested in is the one written by Simon Baron-Cohen where he answers: Radical Behaviorism. I'll be honest, when I was first linked to this article I thought it was a very risky approach from him. His other parodies and caricatures relied on the audience having very little in the way of formal education and I thought Borat was a much funnier character than a mad scientist who attempts to criticise an idea he doesn't understand.

But then I realised I had confused Sacha with his cousin Simon. What I thought was an elaborate yet ultimately unconvincing portrayal of a bad scientist turned out to be an actual psychologist making silly claims. But why are the claims silly? Let's review: