Science News has an intriguing article on what we might call ‘plant psychology’ as some biologists are increasingly thinking of our green leafy friends in terms of their memory, communication and behaviour.
On a related note, an edition of ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind from the end of last year focussed on the ‘psychology’ of bacteria.
These sorts of discussions are the interesting result of our current most popular way of understanding the mind: the cognitive approach.
This attempts to explain the mind in terms of an information processing system, so mental processes are defined in terms of how they perform computations.
For example, memory is the process of encoding, storing and retrieving information. Perception transforms sensory data, such as light spots on the retina, into elaborated experiences; and attention selects which channels of processing to prioritise.
In its most basic, and somewhat caricatured form, the cognitive approach says our minds are just calculations because we have been able to successfully describe what parts of it do using maths.
But if the mind is just calculations, it makes it very difficult to say what is and what isn’t a mind.
If something learns, reacts and communicates, all of which can be described in information processing terms, than many things could be described as having minds. Computers, plants, bacteria, perhaps even whole ecosystems.
Indeed, many of the big debates in psychology (consciousness, intentionality and so on) are attempting to define the mind outside of the computation metaphor, and this is where the hard work lies.
Discussions about whether plants have minds make us think about how we define our own minds, as simply saying ‘a mind is what humans have’ doesn’t help us understand how to make sense of them.