Can ants feel pain?

20 January 2017

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Question

Carol asks: Can ants feel pain?

Answer

Tom Crawford went crawling around for the answer with York University's Eleanor Drinkwater...

Eleanor - Ants can definitely sense that they’ve been harmed and react, but It’s been argued that there is a difference, however between simply sensing harm and reacting to it OR actually experiencing pain. Just sensing damage but feeling no pain is what’s known as nociception.

Tom - I find it hard to separate the idea of feeling pain and just reacting to danger…

Eleanor - It’s worth just thinking about what pain is: it’s thought to involve an unpleasant sensation as well as a negative emotional reaction to injury. You get nociception, which is the sensory nervous system informing the brain that you’ve been hurt, then the brain processes this to produce pain.

But you can get one without the other.

You can think about it like this- if you get tackled while doing sport, your sensory receptors  may signal to the brain that something has happened, but it’s only when you stop and realise how bad the injury is that you feel the pain. On the other hand, people who have lost a limb may experience phantom limb pain, in which they experience pain, but without nociception.

Tom - So we know that ants can sense harm and react to it - which is to say they experience nociception - but what about actual pain?

Eleanor - Interestingly, claims for the idea that insects can experience nociception without experiencing pain, comes from studies on robots. Robots can be programmed to exhibit behaviours that we would tend to think of as pain-like, for example Simroid robots used for dentist training will flinch if you poke them, or in games like The Sims, characters may jump around if they’ve been burnt. The fact that these behaviours can be programmed, without the need for a pain element, has been argued as evidence for the idea that a negative stimulus can be reacted to without the emotional element.

Tom - Are you saying that ants experience pain in the same way as The Sims?

Eleanor - Not exactly… my personal view is that unlike the human systems that these programs mimic, we currently know very little about insect expressions of pain, and even less about the neural systems of the many different species of insect that there are. We do know there are differences between insect and mammalian neural systems, so it is unlikely that insects experience pain in the same way that humans do, however, I don’t think it is beyond the bounds of possibility that at least some species have an insect version of pain, in addition to nociception. So basically the jury is out! Either way it’s still good to be gentle with the little critters when you come across them!

Tom - There you go Carole. I hope we’ve provided some insight, or should that be ant-sight, into your question. Next week we get a little topsy-turvy as we tackle Tim’s question…
Tim - Is there any explanation why the magnetic field of earth is north-south, as opposed to east-west, or any other angle?

Comments

Can ants feel some kind of sexual pleasure?

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