Could Insects be Conscious?

Insects may have consciousness and could even be able to count, claim experts

The models suggest that counting ability could be achieved with just a few hundred nerve cells, it is claimed. And a few thousand would be sufficient to make an animal a conscious being, rather than an automated ‘living robot’….To use a computer analogy, bigger brains might in many cases be bigger hard drives, not necessarily better processors.

This article from Mail Online is from November 17, 2009, though I just found out about it today via a PETA email. It doesn’t provide any evidence that insects’ brains fit the model they have created, just the possibility that they could. And it’s not at all clear to me how they can know that it only takes a few thousand neurons for an animal to be conscious.

I have always assumed (and hoped!) insects’ brains were not large enough to be conscious of pain, and being conscious of something doesn’t mean you are also conscious of pain, or conscious of pain in similar ways to humans.

Anyway, I thought this was an interesting article worth passing on.

11 Responses to “Could Insects be Conscious?”

  1. CAA Says:

    Fascinating. The newspaper report is a bit messy with the concepts of intelligence, intelligent behavior, advanced thinking, and consciousness. If they can model consciousness in a computer, I’d have thought we’d have heard. That we can model capacities for counting in a computer does not seem that surprising especially as it need not entail consciousness, since we could already program computers to count.

    At least in some of the literature on this question, the position is advanced that insects lack central processing of noxious stimuli, that they lack the very pathways for it to occur (or some insects, can’t remember details here). Thus, there can be no sentience since consciousness as far as we know requires central processing (though I think there is some work on octopi that is problematizing this assumption). Behavioral examples of this are given by cases where mantises continue to feed during and after being bisected (i.e having their back half ). And sentience is typically taken to be a rudimentary form of consciousness–that is, that it is likely that a being that lacks sentience lacks consciousness.

    Here’s more from just a few weeks ago. He’s a bit more restrained on the question of consciousness (and seems to not differentiate between a test of self-consciousness and consciousness). Also, he limits his claims of symbolic communication to a few species of bees and wasps that have complex societies.

    “Mongabay: Would you call bees or other insects ‘conscious’?

    Lars Chittka: It depends on how you define consciousness, and what you accept as a critical test. Many researchers interested in vertebrates hold that animals have consciousness if they can recognize themselves in a mirror. The rationale seems to be that you’re conscious if you recognize yourself as a unique entity, with thoughts, intentions and feelings distinct from others etc—but this is a spectacularly uncritical test. What’s shown in these tests is simply that individuals recognize their own appearance. However, recognition of one’s own visual appearance is just a special case of recognition of other individuals, and some insects can certainly recognize each other individually (see above). Others have said that predicting the outcome of one’s own actions equates to consciousness. Scientists working in robotics and neural networks have shown that such predictions can be made with relatively few neurons, i.e. numbers that could certainly be accommodated in an insect brain. Nonetheless I think at this stage we lack the critical tests to answer the question of consciousness in insects. “

  2. Meg Says:

    Why wouldn’t insects be conscious of pain, at least in some form, other than wishful thinking? They are animals that also have brains and nervous systems. They certainly act like other sentient animals in trying to avoid painful stimuli. And, unlike plants but like other sentient animals, they have the ability to get away from such stimuli — which is why feeling pain would be useful.

    There’s an interesting studied cited on this page under “Are Bees Smart”:

    I don’t think they have to experience pain, unpleasantness, and/or suffering the same way as us for us to consider them worthy of our consideration any more than we worry about how close the pain of a cow is similar to ours, or how my pain compares to yours and vice versa.

    I certainly think we should give insects the benefit of the doubt — especially as vegans, since there is no question that they are animals.

  3. Jack Norris RD Says:


    The reason I don’t think insects would feel the same agony a human would feel if they, say, got half their body crushed, is because it seems reasonable (to me) that it takes a lot more nervous tissue than what an insect has to be able to experience such a feeling. If I thought insects were feeling such agony, I would certainly look at driving, riding a bike, or even walking across grass or any surface where insects cannot be easily seen, in a much different way than I do now.

    That said, I certainly would not set out to cause them harm.

  4. Meg Says:

    Well, again, I don’t think it matters that they feel the “same agony”. But how much pain we experience is not based on how many nerves affected. Goodness knows, I’ve had small paper cuts that have hurt a lot worse than much larger cuts! And know matter how small or large, short or tall, I’d say that to be crushed is a pretty agonizing way to go. I wouldn’t really spend much time questioning whether a very tiny person would feel as much pain as someone who is 6’8 and 300 pounds.

    No doubt it would be troubling for you to consider that insects felt pain. It is troubling to me and I do feel bad when one hits the wind shield. But how bad *we* feel or *would* feel has absolutely no relevance to how much they hurt. It’s just wishful thinking. And I think many people have had such wishful thinking about other animals.

    Of course, some suffering and death is unintentional and/or unavoidable. That doesn’t lessen the suffering, unfortunately, but I do think that there is a moral difference, just as there is a moral difference between running someone down with a car because you want them to die and hitting someone with your car truly by accident.

  5. Jack Norris RD Says:

    > I don’t think it matters that they feel the “same agony”.

    It would matter a great deal to me if every time I drove my car or walked across the ground I was potentially going to cause an individual the same agony a human would feel by having their leg crushed. I would completely restructure those activities and might avoid any sort of vehicular transportation in order to avoid causing such suffering.

    > I’ve had small paper cuts that have hurt a lot worse than much larger cuts!

    It’s not only about how many nerve receptors are affected when you get a cut, but how many and what type of nerves in your brain are affected. If the signal doesn’t reach your brain, you would not feel any pain at all. And my sense is that the number of nerves in the brain affected when a human feels severe pain is probably more than what exist in the brain of an insect. I could be wrong about this, and that is why I brought up the paper.

    Of course, I agree that just because an organism is small doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel pain. Having lived with a hamster, I have no doubt that they feel pain. But at some point, an organism becomes too small to have enough nervous tissue to feel pain.

  6. Alan Dawrst Says:

    Thanks, Jack, for raising this very important issue! I’m also very uncertain as to whether insects deserve to be considered conscious

    but I think the question is highly important, because insects outnumber humans by a billion to one:

    While I don’t think we should worry about the possibility of conscious pain on the part of a single insect quite as much as that of, say, a pig, I do think we should give some weight to insect suffering unless further evidence strongly suggests otherwise.

  7. Jay Chamings Says:

    FYI, the original article is available for free on the journal’s website:

  8. Meg Says:

    Would you really stop driving, etc.? And if we can agree that insects at least do feel pain, how do you determine how much pain they must feel before you change your actions? And how would you test that? What if you were wrong? Would you treat humans differently depending on how much pain they felt? (And by “treat”, I mean deciding how much you should hurt them for your own benefit.)

    I don’t ask accusingly, just from pure curiosity. I admit that I do believe that insects feel pain and I do feel bad when I see them hit the windshield, but no, I’m not willing at this point to give up stuff that may (and probably will) accidentally hurt others. I think I would literally go insane trying to do so, so I have to draw the line somewhere, but that doesn’t keep me from recognizing that they feel pain, too, or that some of the things I do may very well be wrong.

    I do draw a moral distinction between intentionally exploiting and/or hurting others, especially just for my pleasure, and accidentally doing so, especially when things like driving are fairly necessary. Doesn’t really make a difference to the insects killed, I admit, but then we tend to draw similar moral distinctions when dealing with our fellow humans.

    Again, the number of nerves isn’t the only thing involved with pain, whether the nerves are at the wound site or in the brain. One can be more or less sensitized to pain for a variety of reasons. And I read recently that insects also make use of substance P, which I find interesting because I’m well aware of it’s function in our own pain mechanisms (let’s just say I’ve done quite a bit of reading up on pain over the years).

    It does seem to me that pain is relative and perhaps even if the same pain that an insect feels would feel like hardly anything to us if we could somehow feel it, that for that insect that pain would be agony simply because it is great relative to what other things they have felt and their brains would compensate. Otherwise, if all their pain was so insignificant, even to them, then there wouldn’t be much use in having it since the purpose of pain is to motivate us to get away from the stimulus triggering the pain response. And seeing as insects aren’t too small to have nerves and brains, as well as legs and wings to get away from painful stimuli, again, I really don’t see why they would have all the reasons and basic equipment to feel pain but not experience it. And studies on other arthropods like lobsters seem to provide good evidence that invertebrates can feel pain (researchers have, for example, applied painful chemicals on anesthetized and non-anesthetized lobsters and recorded responses, also using controls).

    I do *hope* that at least a quick death, such as being crushed, may be less painful (whether it occurs to insects or humans or squirrels). But that is then wishful thinking on my part and who is to say how painful death itself is. And certainly even a painless death is still death and not something to be trivialized. So, I give them the benefit of the doubt.

    Anyhow, again, interesting study that you shared! I find the topic more than a little fascinating and, despite my personal beliefs against exploiting animals for research, I admit that I do look forward to learning more from such studies.

  9. Alan Dawrst Says:

    Thanks for the questions, Meg! I take a more utilitarian stance on some issues, but I share your concern for the possibility of insect suffering. I, too, try to minimize the suffering of insects when I can, although because I suspect that insect lives are probably not worth living

    this usually means killing them as quickly and painlessly as I can, especially if they appear to be fatally injured or trapped:

    For the same reason, it’s not obvious to me that pesticides to more harm than good to insects, although we could at least, in theory, aim to make pesticides more humane:

    The main implication I see from the possibility that insects can feel pain is the enormity of the suffering that occurs in nature. With a global population of 10^18 insects, most species of which live just a few weeks, that amounts to a billion (perhaps painful) deaths for every human on the planet every few weeks.

  10. Meg Says:

    Hi Alan,

    “The main implication I see from the possibility that insects can feel pain is the enormity of the suffering that occurs in nature. With a global population of 10^18 insects, most species of which live just a few weeks, that amounts to a billion (perhaps painful) deaths for every human on the planet every few weeks.”

    I think this is very interesting. Suffering is a part of sentient life — at least so long as one is conscious. And I think that is where utilitarianism breaks down and certainly becomes overwhelming. If our goal is simply to reduce suffering, then we could do that simply by reducing life — killing and preventing the creation of more life. Nothing would reduce suffering more than wiping out all sentient life as quickly as possible.

    Now, I know most utilitarians would believe that would be the wrong thing to do (though I do wonder about some). And certainly I think that is wrong, too. But I think that’s where utilitarianism leads us if we follow it out honestly. Things make a lot more sense to me from a true rights perspective, when we focus not on reducing suffering per se but rather not seeing these sentient creatures as resources to use. They will suffer and die, yes, as all creatures must. But what is important is that we live their lives without trying to have dominion over them. That is what we are morally responsible for. And we need not ignore their suffering — nor should we, especially when we cause it for any reason. But I think the context and goals are better and clearer in the context of rights vs. dominion.

    If you haven’t read them already, I highly recommend the books On Their Own Terms by Lee Hall and Introduction to Animal Rights by Gary L. Francione.

  11. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Meg and everyone who is commenting,

    If someone has another point to make about insects feeling pain that has yet to be made, I will definitely consider putting it through, but I don’t want this page to become about rights vs. utilitarianism or about Francione & Hall, etc.

    But, since Meg brought up Lee Hall and Gary Francione, I want to point out that by letting Meg’s post through I am in no way endorsing Hall or Francione, both of whom’s views on animal advocacy I find terribly unrealistic. I won’t be putting through any further comments about them, however, pro or con.

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