Is it possible to demonstrate that there is pain in plants and animals? There is an old folk tale from the Solomon Islands that goes something like this: If there is an old tree that needs to be felled and is too big to use an ax, it can be brought down without actually cutting it with an ax.
The villagers get together and yell curses at the selected tree, throwing abuses and negative words at it every day for about a month. What they say happens at the end of the month is that the tree dies on its own and falls down to the ground. The simple act of continuously abusing and cursing the tree is all it takes.
It’s unproven, but the tale is as old as many folk tales we hear, giving us much to contemplate. Do trees have feelings? Can such negativity really take away the life out of a tree, perhaps even an animal? Do trees and animals feel pain?
The ‘scientific’ opinion about feelings of pain in plants and animals
On the early morning of February 2, 1966, a startling discovery was made. Grover Cleveland Backster Jr., a lie detector expert, decided to try out the lie detecting machine on a Dracaena fragrans plant in his office.
The revelation was unbelievable, as Backster concluded that plants have senses and they react to pain. While his theory had not convinced most scientists and Backster, himself, was unable to scientifically replicate the results of his “experiments,” he continued to assert that plants have life and can feel pain.
Backster isn’t the only famous person who has delved into this subject. Prior to Backster, Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose, the Father of Modern Indian Science, conducted a comprehensive experiment to prove that plants can respond.
His work suggests that plants’ growth and development can be influenced by music and loud noise or speech, that air pollution and dark skies can depress plants, and, basically, plants are affected by pain.
Today, several scientists have added to the discussion started by Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose and Grover Cleveland Backster Jr. Experiments that have been conducted prove that plants are able to react by releasing certain chemicals if they feel endangered, and that plants can sense obstructions even before contact.
Similar to human neurons that respond to pain, plants have electric signals that work to produce neurotransmitters in their system.
The pain experience in animals
Determining how animals react to pain is far simpler compared to that in plants, as it is more apparent. However, the complex issue to discuss is whether they have the same “experience” when it comes to pain. Do animals suffer emotionally while responding to pain, or is it only restricted to the physical experience?
Humans can experience pain even without being physically hurt. This is related to the fear or memory of a pain caused previously, or if one has witnessed someone else’s suffering. Research suggests that animals too have a similar response to pain as humans.
Experiments that were conducted demonstrated that animals with pain chose to eat food with pain killers, as they experienced reduced suffering post eating. They demonstrated behavioral changes if they have registered that certain activities, locations, or even people have caused physical pain to them.
Animals also face anxiety, especially when they are removed from their comfort zones or are away from the people they are comfortable with. Each animal reacts differently to strangers and new locations based on their “life” and pain experiences.
Any discussion on this matter comes down to the fact that there is much more that humans have in common with plants and animals than we know or understand. Acknowledging and accepting these similarities will help us understand biology as a concept of unity.