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World Cucumber Day

Truth, lies and psychic plants: The Cleve Backster Story

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Cleve Backster is a remarkable man. He may not be the only former CIA operative to believe in extra-sensory perception – but he is the only one to believe that this ability is possessed not just by humans, but also plants. His findings were based on a field he pioneered: polygraph lie detection.

As an interrogator for the Army Counter-Intelligence Corps at the end of World War II, Backster was a master in the dark arts of truth serums and hypno-interrogation (that he had also been a circus stunt rider is irrelevant to our story). He then joined the CIA, founding their polygraph programme. The polygraph, popularly known as the ‘lie detector’, measures a subject’s blood pressure, pulse, respiration and skin conductivity while under interrogation. The theory states that certain fluctuations in these physiological responses reveal whether the subject is lying or telling the truth. Its effectiveness is debatable, with many studies concluding it simply doesn’t work. Regardless, the CIA liked it, and buoyed by his success, Backster formed the Backster School of Lie Detection in New York City in 1960. The school, which still exists, trained policemen in how to use the polygraph. 

In the 1960s Backster became fascinated by the work of the great polymath Jagadish Chandra Bose. Bose had invented an extremely accurate device for measuring the growth of plants, called the Crescograph. With measurements as small as one millionth of an inch, the device could register how different stimuli affected plant growth. Astonishingly, he discovered that music affected plant growth. Bose had noticed that plants and their different organs were sensitive stimuli and generated electrical impulses, suggesting excitement. The playwright (and vegetarian) George Bernard Shaw was traumatised by Bose’s demonstration of a cabbage supposedly convulsing in pain as Bose boiled it to death.

Perhaps this is what inspired Backster, early one morning in 1966, to hook his office plant up to the lie detector. In an attempt to produce a strong response from the plant, he decided to burn one of its leaves. As soon as he reached for his matches, the polygraph measured a strong reading. The plant was scared, and more significantly it had pre-empted his action – it had demonstrated extra-sensory perception! 

From this, Backster developed his theory of Primary Perception. He proffered that plants can feel emotions and communicate with other life forms. Backster’s radical new theory delighted the world, and his book ‘The Secret Life of Plants’ became a bestseller. Backster was interviewed on television by everyone from Johnny Carson to David Frost, and became a global sensation. There was even a show about Backster’s theories, starring Leonard Nimoy. 

It was all very exciting, and inspired scientists around the world to replicate his experiments, but it soon became apparent they couldn’t replicate his results…

Backster responded with possible explanations, such as his experiments not being reproduced properly, but the scientific community remained unimpressed. However, this did nothing to assuage Backster’s belief – he remained utterly convinced of his theory.

It is intriguing to note that these notions go back even further in history. Gustav Fechner was a German experimental psychologist who did some amazing things, including correctly predicting what happens if you cut a living human’s brain in two). In 1848 he published his theory that plants have an emotional life, and that one help them grow with affection and talk.

Perhaps, in time, it will turn out that Backster was right. In the meantime, though, be kind to your cucumber, just in case. 

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