What is the last animal you saw? Can you remember its color, size and shape? Could you easily distinguish it from other animals?
What about the last plant you saw?
If your mental ideas about animals are sharper than plants, you are not alone. Children realize that animals are living animals before they can say that plants are also alive. Appeal tests also show that study participants remember animal images better than plant images. For example, an American study has tested "attentive flicker" – the ability to observe one of two rapid-fire images – using plant images, animals, and unrelated objects. This showed that participants more accurately detected animal images than plants.
This tendency is so widespread that Elisabeth Schussler and James Wandersee, a pair of American botanists and biology educators, have created the term for it in 1998: "plant blindness". They described it as "inability to see or notice plants in their own environment".
Plant blindness, not surprisingly, leads to underestimation of plants – and in limited interest in plant protection. Plant biology courses around the world are closing at breathtaking speed, and public finance for plant science is drying up. While studies have not been made about the extent of plant blindness and its change over time, increased urbanization and time spent with facilities means that the "natural deficit disorder" is increasing (the damage caused to people by the alienation of nature). And with less exposure to plants, there is greater plant blindness. As Schussler explained, "people can recognize (visually) what they already know".
Plant protection is important for environmental protection. Ultimately, however, it also depends on human health
This is problematic. Plant protection is important for environmental protection. Ultimately, however, it also depends on human health.
Plant research is important for many scientific breakthroughs, from tougher food crops to more effective medicines. More than 28,000 plant species are used in medicine, including anti-cancer drugs and blood thinners. (BBC Future recently wrote about one recent example: how fungi could help us fight cancer).
Plant experimentation also offers an ethical advantage over some forms of animal testing: versatile techniques such as genome editing can be improved with plants that behave easily and cheaply. For example, sequencing the Arabidopsis genome, a flowering plant important in biological research, has been a milestone not only in plant genetics, but in genome sequencing in general.
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Given how key plants are – and have always been – for our survival, how have people become "blind plants"?
There are cognitive and cultural reasons that animals, even animal species that are not objectively more important to humans than plants, are more easily distinguishable.
It includes how we categorize the world. "The brain is basically a differential detector," explains Schussler and Wandersee. Because plants are barely moving, they grow close together and are often similar in color, our brains tend to group them together. With approximately 10 million bits of visual data per second transmitted by the human retina, the human visual system filters out non-threatening things, such as plants, and aggregates them together.
This is not limited to people. Limited attention capacity can even affect the way blue jays visually hang on plants and insects around them.
Then there is our preference for biobehavioural similarity: as primates we tend to notice the creatures that are most similar to us. "From my experience with great apes, they are generally more interested in creatures that are more similar to them," says Fumihiro Kano, a monkey psychologist at the Japanese Kyotos University. As with humans, there is a social element. "Human-minded apes are more interested in human images than non-human images, including their own kind," Kano says.
The idea that animals are fundamentally more interesting and visible than plants is also growing in human societies. We name animals and give them human qualities. We often use animals as mascots of a sports team. And we are tuned to individual variations between animals: the personality of a dog, say, or the unique color pattern of a butterfly.
People are more supportive of efforts to protect species with human traits
Seeing animals as similar – or more similar – encourages our empathy. Deciding on nature conservation is the key. Most of us feel prompted to want to protect, say, polar bears, not because they go through a rational list of reasons why we need them, but because they are pulling their hearts, says Environmental Psychologist Kathryn Williams of the University of Melbourne. Even within the framework of animal protection, some charismatic animals (especially large mammals with their eyes facing forward) receive a lion's share of attention. In fact, Williams' research has shown that people are more supportive of efforts to protect species with human traits.
The challenge is increased for plants. For example, in 2011, plants accounted for 57% of the US list of endangered species. However, they received less than 4% funding for endangered species.
"Building these emotional links to ecosystems and species and the plant as a whole is key to plant protection," says Williams.
Of course, science is not a zero-sum game where more interest and money in one set of organisms must automatically lead to fewer resources elsewhere. But as with any type of bias, the recognition that it is the first step to reduce it.
It becomes less plant blind
One key to reducing plant blindness is to increase the frequency and variety of ways we see plants. That should start soon – as Schussler, a biology professor at Tennessee University in Knoxville, says, "before students say they're bored with plants." One civic science project to help with this is TreeVersity, which asks ordinary people to help classify plant images from Harold University Arboretum.
The best strategy is daily interaction with plants, says Schussler. She introduces talking about conservation of plants in local parks and horticulture.
Plants could also be more emphasized in art. Dawn Sanders of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, who collaborated on environmental projects in the Gothenburg Botanical Garden, found that visuals and stories are important for students to connect with plants and ask questions about plants, for example how old. plants.
Sanders' work also points to cultural differences. "Plant blindness is not applicable to all people in the same way," he says. Compared to initial research on American students, he says, "we found that our Swedish students connect with plants through memory, emotion and beauty, especially about things like summer and the first spring days". For example, vitsippa (wood anemone) is valued as a spring herald.
In India, the connection between man and plant may be more about religion and medicine. Geetanjali Sachdev examines botanical art and education at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore. "Their value is certainly experienced at visceral level," he says about plants. "We can't escape because plants are so intertwined in many aspects of India's cultural life."
In fact, Sachdev documents the ubiquity of plant motifs around Indian cities: from lotus blossoms painted on water tanks to botanical powder paintings on the ground.
These images transcend flowers that often dominate unforgettable encounters with plants in Western countries. "From mythological views, trees, leaves, and flowers would be significant, but from medical perspectives in Ayurveda (Indian form of traditional medicine), many other parts of the plant have value – leaves, roots, flowers and seeds," he says. .
So plant blindness is neither universal nor inevitable. "Although our human brains can be involved in plant blindness, we can overcome this with greater awareness," says Schussler.
Williams is also optimistic about growing empathy for plants. "It's not unlikely," he says. "It's imagination." Even fictional plant figures appear. Two of the comic book worlds are McPedro, the Scottish-Irish cactus from the comic book Girls with Slingshots and Marvel's superhero Groot, which has caused some strange biological discussions.
World food supplies face more challenges than ever, thanks to a combination of population growth, water scarcity, reduced agricultural land and climate change. By researching biofuels, plants are also important as a potential source of renewable energy. This means it is important to be able to recognize, learn and innovate with our green friends. Our future depends on it.
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