Plants are the unnoticed living organisms constantly surrounding us. While some people might admire their beauty, they may not know the complicated connections lying beneath them. Britt Holewinski explains their bond in the National Forest Foundation article, “Underground Network: The Amazing Connections Beneath Your Feet.” The author describes to readers that fungi create a “mycorrhizal network,” a web of roots that attach to trees and various plants. These roots allow them to share nutrients, water, and even communicate to one another through the webs.
The network allows for the benefit of all the living organisms attached. They can alert for danger or supply necessary minerals for the survival of the ecosystem.
When observed, this behavior can be seen as caring for the living things in the surrounding environment. As Holewinski remarks, plants can sense distress and respond accordingly. Their ability to react to the signals and assist in any way possible shows signs of an emotional response. It is similar to what people describe as empathy in humans.
The topic and definition of empathy varies depending on the source. Benjamin M.P. Cuff in the article, “Empathy: A Review of the Concept,” shares his thoughts while debating the various components of the emotion.
To start, it must be triggered by a stimuli. This could be witnessing an expression, a situation, or signaled through communication. In addition, he explains how empathy is separate from sympathy. Sympathy requires understanding the others emotion or situation while empathy is feeling it for yourself. This could also be defined as cognitive empathy, the understanding side, and affective empathy, the ability to feel it.
However, empathy is not the exact replica of the emotion another person is feeling, but the similarity to it. The depth and ability of empathy ranges from person to person. This could cause a reaction and an act of altruism, but it is not required.
Overall, it is summarized as:
Empathy is an emotional response (affective), dependent upon the interaction between trait capacities and state influences. Empathic processes are automatically elicited but are also shaped by top-down control processes. The resulting emotion is similar to one’s perception (directly experienced or imagined) and understanding (cognitive empathy) of the stimulus emotion, with recognition that the source of the emotion is not one’s own.
In the case of plants, the feeling of emotion is not something that can be scientifically tested. Even people themselves can only truly express their feelings through verbal communications. The best way to interpret emotion in plants is through behavior. With their giving nature, the sharing of plant resources appears to be altruistic.
Altruism is a key to viewing behavior caused by empathy. In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, author Karsten Stueber describes the link between empathy and altruism in their entry, Empathy. Stueber shares the findings of Social Psychologist C.D. Batson. He developed the “altruism-empathy thesis;” a theory stating that empathy causes altruistic tendencies. Stueber described that, “empathy/sympathy does indeed lead to genuinely altruistic motivation, where the welfare of the other is the ultimate goal of my helping behavior.”
The author interprets another side to this theory, where there is an egotistical reason for a helping response. People may aid another for their own benefit instead of pure external motivation. It could promote their social status or just make them feel good. More importantly, empathy can be a negative emotion, and acting on it can lessen that negative feeling.
If plants were to sense a stress signal, it is possible they feel empathy for the organism sending it, and send nutrients to lessen their own sense of negativity. It is not much different than humans sending food for a grieving friend. They want to alleviate their own feelings while attempting to make their friend feel better.
Moreover, animals are seen as having these same traits. In a classic psychological experiment done by George E. Rice and Priscilla Gainer, albino rats were studied to see if they can express altruistic behavior. The 1962 journal, “Altruism” in the albino rat, narrates their experiment. The researchers used the following definitions for altruism:
Webster (1941) defines altruism as “regard for and devotion to the interests of others.” The authors felt that altruism could be operationally defined as “behavior of one animal that relieves another animal’s ‘distress.'”
The study was done by placing one rat in an elevated chamber with a system that shocked it periodically. A second rat was placed at the bottom with a bar that could be pressed to stop the shocks and lower the rat from the chamber. When the rat in the chamber was shocked, it would show signs of distress, and the rat at the bottom was tested for whether it pressed the bar or not. This would prove the second rat was alleviating the first rat’s distress.
One test group had rats trained to press the bar, and the second test group contained rats with no training. In both study groups, the rats pressed the bar nearly the same number of times. Rice and Gainer concluded that the albino rats had altruistic tendencies after seeing a fellow rat in distress.
Furthermore, the albino rats must have had an emotional component that motivated them to help the other rat. A rat without any training to press the bar had to have an empathetic feeling that allowed them to search for a way to help. Rats are naturally intelligent and social creatures; they would have no other reason to help a member of their species.
Using Rice and Gainer’s definition of altruism, plants and rats have a very similar response to sensing one of their kind in danger. They each administer a response to alleviate their counterpart. Plants can be seen having the same idea of using their resources to aid a distress signal. In plants, it goes further, with even fungi and trees working together to promote the ecosystem’s health.
The empathy-altruism correlation can be seen in each plant, animal, and human. If a human is seen as having empathy for a performing a good deed, a rat could be seen as feeling the same as well. This theory is just as easily viewed in plants.
Holewinski, B. (n.d.). Underground networking: The amazing connections beneath your feet. National Forest Foundation. Retrieved 13 October 2022.
Cuff, Benjamin M.P., et al. “Empathy: A Review of the Concept.” Emotion Review, vol. 8, no. 2, 1 Dec. 2014, pp. 144–153. Retrieved 13 October 2022.
Stueber, Karsten. “Empathy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 27 June 2019. Retrieved 17 October 2022.
Rice, G. E., & Rainer, P. (1962). “Altruism” in the albino rat. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology. Retrieved 17 October 2022.