Plant Blindness: Not Seeing The Forest Or The Trees? (EarthTalk)

EARTH TALK: Questions & Answers About Our Environment

Dear EarthTalk: What on Earth is “plant blindness”?

 – Betsy Carlucci. New York, NY

plant blindness
Plant blindness could be an existential threat to humanity. Credit: Francesca Zama, Pexels.

Botanists James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler coined the term “plant blindness” in 1998 to describe “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment, leading to the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs.” An additional aspect of plant blindness is the “inability to appreciate the aesthetic and unique biological features” of plants and “the misguided, anthropocentric ranking of plants as inferior to animals, leading to the erroneous conclusion that they are unworthy of human consideration.”

Wandersee and Schussler coined the term after years of discussion back and forth about a fundamental problem: if we don’t pay attention to plants and their role in supporting the rest of the lives on the planet including our own, how will we ever agree on the need to conserve them, much less support plant science research and education? Also, letting plants die out poses an existential threat to humanity and the rest of life on the Earth. Researchers believe one in eight plant species around the globe are threatened with extinction as our (plant-dependent) human population continues to swell.

What causes plant blindness? According to Wandersee and Schussler, social and educational biases are definitely a big factor, with so-called “zoo-chauvinistic” educators at all levels tending to use animal (instead of plant) examples to teach basic biological concepts in the classroom, lab or field.

Of course, there is likely more to it than educational biases. Wandersee and Schussler argue in an article in Plant Science Bulletin that another major contributor to plant blindness is the nature of the human visual information-processing system, in that our brains can’t possibly process everything around us immediately just because our eyes are open, and we are hard-wired to prioritize certain visual cues (like movement that may signal an animal threat) over others.

One study they cite concludes that over the course of a single second, the eyes generate more than 10 million bits of data for visual processing, but the brain can only extract 40 bits during this timeframe and can only fully process 16 of them that reach our conscious attention. Another study found that participants more accurately detected images of animals than plants in an “attentional blink” study designed to test people’s ability to notice one or two rapid-fire images. And yet another study found that children recognize that animals are living creatures before they can tell plants are also alive, and that they remember images of animals much better than images of plants.

To Wandersee and Schussler, devoting more of our educational resources to teaching kids and adults about plants and their role in supporting life is the key to overcoming plant blindness. Indeed, seeing the plants all around us could be key to our survival on the planet, so it behooves each and every one of us to learn more about the environment around us and start appreciating not just the other fauna we share life with but also the flora that helps make it all possible.

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