Do insects have feelings?
This is a question I have been obsessed with the last couple of days. I was out walking the other day when I came across an overturned Carpenter Bee struggling to upright itself. I used the tip of my umbrella to flip it upright and continued on with my walk. But I begin wondering, did the bee feel grateful or irritated that I poked it with my brolly? Was it panicking when it stuck on his back? What was going on in its mind as when it felt the tip of my umbrella press up against him?
So I went a-googling.
The first search result was this – Do Insects have emotions and empathy?
The article defines emotions as a learned response that our brain develops when we experience stimulation that deviates from the norm. And emotions have an affect on our behavior (eg. feeling embarrassed or excited), perception (eg. is this dangerous or safe?) and resulting action (eg. fight or flight). With this definition, it then goes on to explore a few experiments involving insects.
The first study was on how honeybees react after being thrown into a vortex for a minute and then presented two different tasting chemicals – Octanone which is sweet tasting and hexanol which tasted bitter.
Bees that had been shaken became pessimistic, glass half-empty characters that were more likely to react to the nasty smell in the mixtures and recoil as opposed to being attracted to the yummy smell — a result of presumably being pretty irritated. Unshaken bees on the other hand remained their more optimistic, glass half-full selves and were more likely to see the mixtures as half-appetizing, as opposed to half-disgusting like their bad-tempered counterparts did. Moreover, there were emotionally relevant changes in neurotransmitter levels in the shaken up bees, like serotonin and dopamine.
The second study was about how fruit flies react to a simulated predator attack. And the final study was on emphatic woodlice. It appears that “calm woodlice reduced their more excited neighbors causing them to also become calm.” Which is a very human thing isn’t it? Like if there’s a fire and one person freaks out, everyone else will tend to freak out. We humans tend to follow the most vocal reaction and hence we are often advised to try and remain calm during an emergency.
The next search result that I felt was interesting is – Do insects feel pain by Relax I am an Entomologist
The author raised many interesting questions that I’m still trying to work out on my own.
But nociception is not pain. The current definition of pain requires an emotional response. Humans can feel pain without any physical stimulus and are capable of emotions associated with pain; like suffering and terror. Are insects capable of conscious or unconscious experience of emotion? Is consciousness required for emotions? This is where it gets controversial; because how do you quantify if an insect is experiencing an emotion or if insects are conscious? I usually tell people that insects are hardwired with predetermined behavioral responses to external stimuli, but this is a simplification.
So do insect have emotions and feelings?