Plant Blindness: What research says
by Bhavani Prakash
What does “plant blindness” mean? Why are urban people in particular, “plant blind?” What can be done to get people and children to take notice of the plants around them? Dr. James H. Wandersee from Louisiana State University was at the Singapore Botanic Gardens recently to give a talk about his decade-long pioneering research on the topic which he has conducted with his colleague, Dr. Renee M. Clary. Their ongoing work is available at EarthScholars.com
If you are asked what is in this picture, what is your first response most likely to be?
Two elephants, right? You’re definitely not alone! Most people are likely to say the same. Very few would point to the millions of plants and the blades of grass in this picture in the first instance, or even if asked several times.
Not to worry though - plant “blindness” is not a physical condition like colour blindness. People simply aren’t tuned into plants for many reasons that Dr. James Wandersee, W.H. Bill LeBlanc Professor of Botany from Louisiana State University, USA outlined during his recent visit to the Singapore Botanic Gardens.
The term “Plant Blindness” was first put forth by Wandersee and Schlusser in 1998. They define the term as “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment—leading to:
(a) the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere, and in human affairs;
(b) the inability to appreciate the aesthetic and unique biological features of the life forms belonging to the Plant Kingdom; and
(c) the misguided, anthropocentric ranking of plants as inferior to animals, leading to the erroneous conclusion that they are unworthy of human consideration.”
If most people, especially in urban areas don’t pay much attention to plants, then they are less likely to appreciate the role of plants in life on earth, and to support plant conservation and research.
To quote Dr. Wandersee, “Paradoxically, plants form the basis of most animal habitats and all life on earth. While animals frequently steal the spotlight where extinction is concerned, one in eight plant species worldwide is currently threatened with extinction. Intellectually, we know that you don’t get pandas without bamboo plants, but culturally, this is often forgotten (Abbot 1988)”
Why don’t urban masses seem to notice, recognise or care about plants?
Unlike people in rural areas who have more direct contact with plants, or indigenous communities which use plants for food and ethnobotany, most urban populations don’t really notice plants around them or overlook them even if they are in their own environment. Why is this?
* We tend to be “zoocentric” or “zoochauvanistic“ because animals move around, catch our attention, and have more visual appeal. Plants don’t entertain or respond to us like animals do. We may notice them only if they are visually conspicuous as when they are in bloom.
- * Education systems support the animal centric bias. A study of two nationally syndicated textbooks in the US showed that animals are given specific names like a lion or tiger or deer, whereas plants are generically called “trees” or “grasses”. Moreover, most educational texts come in 2-dimensional formats, without the curriculum encouraging direct contact with plants.
- * Our visual information processing system is also responsible for how we see plants. As Dr. Wandersee say in this article, “seeing involves more than meets the eye.” Our brain combines plants visually, so we don’t see distinct plants or sets of leaves, but rather a “green blur.” Plants become the “backdrop.” When we watch a game of football, for example, we see the players, but hardly think of the huge population of grass plants the players are moving upon.
- * Data sent from our eyes must be interpreted by the brain to acquire meaning. Very few things come to our conscious attention unless it has “prior” meaning. The human eye generates more than 10 million bits of data per second as input for visual processing. Our brain extracts only about 40 bits of data per second from that vast data stream, out of which only 16 bits reach our conscious vision and attention. Those who have had meaningful prior educational and cultural experiences with plants are more likely to pay attention to them.
- * Food invariably comes in prepackaged form; we no longer have to gather or grow food, and this is especially true of urban populations, who have lost the connection with the entire lifecycle from planting seeds to growing a food crop and harvesting it. Plant identification skills is also a result of culture. Certain cultures use plants for decoration, for medicine or as herbs for cooking, so people are more likely to recognise them.
How can we promote plant perception and appreciation?
The study has important repercussions for how we we introduce plants to children and people and overcome what Dr. Wandersee calls a “human default condition.”
- * Humans can only recognize (visually) what they already know. “Inattention objects” become “attention” objects once objects have acquired meaning for an observer. Our vision is shaped by our experiences. Children are more likely to notice individual plants, if they have engaged in prior plant related activities. That shapes the subsequent attention level they allocate to plants. Children who are involved in gardening at school or at home, for example, are really more likely to develop an interest in plants, and will more likely grow up to learn the importance of plant and biodiversity conservation.
- * The influence of others who appreciate plants, plays an important role in the child learning to appreciate and recognise plants too. Studies show that the attention the mother played to plants correlated highly to how children responded to plants. A Plant Mentor- not necessarily a parent, is someone who helped the child grow and tend to plants, helped them to see the whole life cycle – at home, at school or in botanic gardens. Emotions also weigh on visual memories. Did they enjoy the process? Was it fun? Was it engaging – a task that required some deliberate mental or physical process?
- * Botanic Gardens in particular can play an important role in enhancing the public’s understanding and appreciation of plants with the right kind of descriptions of plants, and the right kind of activities and displays. For example, the Jacob Bhalla’s Children Garden in Singapore, Asia’s first children’s garden, has been designed to stimulate learning and appreciation of plants through play and exploration. Dr. Wandersee’s research with 15 Degree Lab.com shows that most people prefer to look at 0 to -15 degree angle, below the imaginary horizontal line. This is important when putting displays to attract children’s and adult’s attention within that visual zone.
The talk was fascinating, and I found myself extending this theory mentally to many other areas – why are people blind to climate change information, or to human and animal suffering? Prior experiences do play an important role in shaping people’s perceptions of things. How we create and shape those prior experiences is an important question for educators and activists alike?
To conclude I borrow from Dr. Wandersee’s lovely article- On Seeing Flowers: Are you missing anything? from the Human Flower Project
So, have you seen a flower…truly seen a flower? Have you studied the plant when its flowers have fallen and it is not in bloom? Have you raised it from seed and met its requirements for growth and flowering? Have you noted its similarities and differences with respect to the other flowers that you know? Have you identified it accurately by its suite of characteristics? Can you name its parts properly? Have you viewed that flower through the lenses of its structure, its foliage and stem, its floricultural history, its environmental stresses, its pollinators, your prior knowledge about it, its sociocultural significance, its evolutionary pathway, and its changes across geologic time? Have you compensated for the biases of your own visual observation system?
Maybe what you have really done up to now is akin to just glancing. Perhaps it might take each of us an entire lifetime to really SEE a flower.
(From “The Most Beautiful Flower” by Cheryl L. Costello-Forshey)
…I heard my voice quiver; tears shone in the sun
As I thanked him for picking the very best one.
Through the eyes of a blind child, at last I could see
The problem was not with the world; the problem was me.
And for all of those times I myself had been blind,
I vowed to see the beauty in life,
And appreciate every second that’s mine.
And then I held that wilted flower up to my nose
and breathed in the fragrance of a beautiful rose.
And smiled as I watched that young boy,
Another weed in his hand,
About to change the life of an unsuspecting old man.
A research paper by Dr. James Wandersee: Towards a Theory of Plant Blindness at Botany.org
Some Activist Approaches We Are Trying (taken from the above paper):
“Prevent Plant Blindness.” Those three simple words are emblazoned diagonally across our 20” x 30“, bulletin-board-sized, full-color, classroom poster which is being distributed to more than 22,000 US science teachers and botany instructors as part of our national campaign to increase students’ awareness of and interest in plants. We designed the poster to be initially puzzling, and to elicit
inferences about its meaning. This aligns with Solso’s (1994, p. 26) tenet drawn from visual cognition research which says “…we gaze longer at interesting or puzzling things….” The poster shows a treelined, riverine landscape. Hovering, Magritte-like, in the sky above is a large pair of dark-red-tinted glasses. The implication is that someone wearing those red glasses would not be able to see any of the green plants shown in the scene below—that if one’s vision is “filtered,” either physically or conceptually, one may actually miss seeing the plants that are present in one’s environment. The
back of the poster provides a complete definition of plant blindness, lists its symptoms, and offers directions for 20 simple, plant-science-related activities. This poster was subsequently endorsed by BSA’s Education Committee.
Besides the plant poster project, we have also written, illustrated, and published a 40-page children’s science picture book which presents a plant mystery to children between the ages of 4 and 8 (Schussler & Wandersee, 1999). It is intended to be the first of a series of mystery books involving the two main children’s characters, who are portrayed as being best friends, namely—Abby and Tate. The first book subtly introduces its “readers” to some basic principles of plant care and encourages them to try raising an African Violet plant. We have introduced the book to a fair number of elementary teachers, parents, and grandparents, and have made it available at cost on Amazon.com. It has just been translated into Spanish by plant ecologist Sandra M.Guzman, and a Spanish version will be available in about six months.
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