Time to Act?

Decision making, with and without consciousness

By Georgeann Sack

All images by plant_microverse

These images reveal the structures of plants. A talented plant cell biologist from Charles University in Prague has taken optical cross sections of these plants using a confocal microscope, then colorized the resulting image files to create works of art. You can view them in more detail here.

Plants are alien to us. We have placed them into an entirely separate category of life because they use different cellular machinery to generate energy. In spite of clear differences, plants and animals have similar goals. Primary among them is to survive and reproduce.

In the gorgeous image below, the anther of a plant (red) is opening to release the pollen grains inside (green). More interesting than the image is the accompanying text, which states, “This process is strictly regulated by the plant, which is actively pumping the water out from the anther, only when the surrounding weather conditions are optimal for the release of the pollen grains.”

The plant is gathering information from its environment in order to make a decision. Once a certain, to be determined, threshold is met, the plant initiates an energetically demanding physical process to release pollen (e.g. if  the temperature is between 60–80 degrees F and the wind is blowing at a steady 10 mph, then release pollen). The better a plant is at sensing the environment and releasing pollen at optimal moments, the more likely it is to reproduce. This simple fact of life has caused the evolution of an ever-improving if-then computation. No consciousness needed.

Will the pollen grains find their way to an anther? The plant will never know. There is no reason to suspect that the plant could ever know anything at all. There is no reason to imagine that the plant wants any particular outcome to occur, or that it has the capacity to want for anything. And yet, it is able to make an informed decision about when to release pollen.

Human beings are also capable of making informed decisions without consciousness. We make most of our decisions this way. Only a small number of decisions enter our conscious awareness and are deliberated in that mental work space.

Why are any decisions considered consciously? Is there a benefit or cost to conscious consideration of a decision that needs to be made?

If you were to track your conscious decision making over the next month, do you think there would be any commonalities in the types or qualities of decisions that you actively mull over?

Let’s try it. I’ll track mine if you track yours, and let’s report back to see what we noticed.

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