Do plants feel pain like animals, and how do we know?



Whether or not plants have the capacity to feel pain has garnered a large amount of interest from the public in recent years. If plants were found to be capable of feeling pain then the consequences could be far-reaching, facing us with the question of whether or not it is ethical to destroy and eat them. Thankfully, both for them and us, plants do not have the capacity to feel pain, since they lack the nervous system that would grant them the ability to experience physical feelings of the kind that animals have. What plants can do, however, is react to the world around them based on evolved stimulus responses. So while it’s interesting to learn the cutting-edge science of plant behavior, you should feel free to fill your dish with a hearty meal of vegetables and other plant-derived foods.


Do plants feel pain?

In order to determine whether or not plants feel pain, it is first important to establish what we mean when we are discussing pain. Pain is a reaction within the nervous system that is associated with something being wrong. We’re all familiar with the shooting pain of a stubbed toe or the unpleasant sensation associated with being pinched, which are both examples of pain.


The question of whether plants feel pain arises primarily because of their reaction to unpleasant stimuli such as being cut with a knife or even simply being touched by a human or nonhuman animal. Contrary to what we previously thought, plants are proving themselves to be highly sensitive to environmental stimuli, and have also demonstrated the ability to communicate amongst themselves concerning those stimuli. For example, one species of mustard plant is able to send out electrical signals to its leaves urging them to increase its chemical defenses when being eaten by caterpillars. This signal is not an example of pain, however, but rather an evolved response to a stimulus — one that has helped keep the plant species alive. We know that it is not the same as the physical pain we and other animals feel, because plants lack the nervous system and neuroreceptors necessary to feel pain.


Another factor that drives the debate surrounding whether or not plants can feel pain is our tendency to anthropomorphize plants when discussing their experience. When we talk about plants as being able to feel, see, or experience the world using the senses with which we’re familiar, it becomes easier for us to slip into their roots, so to speak. While this tactic is useful when discussing issues as crushing as the clearing of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, it also blurs the lines between what is real and what is being said as an emotive or informative metaphor.


In short, while plants are able to react to stimuli in a way that resembles a pain response, they are not actually able to feel pain as it’s generally understood, because they lack the necessary neurological components to experience pain.


Do plants feel pain like animals?

Due to their lack of a brain and pain receptors, we can be sure that plants do not feel pain, as humans and other animals do. While this means that you should feel no qualms about eating your fruits and veggies, this lack of ability to feel pain does not excuse mass deforestation and the associated destruction of ecosystems. Forests are some of the most biologically diverse areas on earth and play host to thousands of species of animals. In addition to acting as an important resource for animals, plants also contribute to maintaining clean air for all the creatures that exist on this planet. For these reasons, as well as the intrinsic value held by plants and trees, it is of the utmost importance that we take measures to protect them and ensure that they thrive — whether a field of daffodils or a redwood that has survived hundreds of years of history.


How do we know plants don't feel pain?

We know that plants don’t experience pain as they do not have the neurological system necessary to feel pain. In fact, not only do they not experience pain, they also do not experience other sensations as we understand them, whether positive or negative. Despite their lack of a brain, pain receptors, and other neurological components, plants still do respond to stimuli, which many have misconstrued as an ability to feel. For example, a flower will turn its petals toward the sun or a Venus flytrap will capture an unsuspecting insect victim. However, without the biological systems, such as a brain, to tell the plant that a particular experience is painful it is unable to register that a specific stimulus is unpleasant and rather simply reacts as it has adapted to do.


Do plants feel pain? Frequently asked questions

With the increase in interest surrounding whether or not plants are capable of experiencing pain the same way that people and other animals do, a number of other questions are also being asked on a more frequent basis. The driving forces behind these questions include curiosity and the desire to act and eat as ethically as possible, though for some the motivation is a desire to discredit vegetarians and vegans. Below are just a few of the many questions that come up surrounding the topic of plants' lack of experience of pain.


Do plants scream when you cut them?

Researchers at the University of Tel Aviv found that plants do emit sounds when they are cut or deprived of water. While the sounds cannot be heard by humans, animals with ultrasonic hearing, such as bats and mice, can hear the sounds from as far as 15 feet away. While the source of the sound is not known for sure, the researchers suspect that the sounds are likely emitted when air bubbles trapped in the water moving through the plant explode. The researchers found that within the hour following being cut, tomato plants emitted a greater number of sounds than tobacco plants.


Do plants make noises when you eat them?

When plants are still alive and connected to the ground and their other sources of energy, they do react when they are being eaten, by secreting defensive chemicals. Interestingly, plants do not respond solely to being eaten but rather to the sound of being consumed. When scientists played recordings of insects eating a plant near a living plant, the living plant responded even though it was not being actively consumed. Plants that were exposed to the sounds of insects and quietness did not respond in the same way.


Do plants feel love?

Whether or not plants feel love really depends upon whether or not plants are conscious. The reality is that the evidence supporting the sentience of plants is unconvincing at best. There are a few key areas in which plants are lacking that strongly suggest that they do not have any form of consciousness. Firstly, plants do not perform the proactive behaviors that conscious beings are capable of, but rather simply respond to stimuli. Secondly, instead of serving as complicated a purpose as they do in humans and other animals, the so-called communication that plants take part in serves an immediate physiological purpose. Finally, plants are not capable of the type of learning that humans and other animals are capable of. When taken together these characteristics suggest that plants are not conscious beings. When taken together with their lack of a brain, it is highly unlikely that plants are capable of feeling love.


Do plants feel emotions?

Researchers have concluded that plants likely do not have morality or consciousness. This determination has been based on a lack of convincing testimony, behavior, anatomy, physiology, or phylogeny suggesting that plants do in fact have the ability to experience life in a manner similar to humans and other animals. Based on the lack of evidence suggesting that animals can experience life in a manner similar to humans and other animals, it is unlikely that they are able to feel emotions.


Conclusion

The evidence that plants are able to experience pain is lacking, leading most researchers and plant biologists to believe that plants cannot feel pain in the same way that humans and other animals do. This determination is tied most closely to the absence of a brain, pain receptors, and other physiological and anatomical indicators. Despite their lack of ability to feel pain, plants are still highly sensitive and demonstrate a sophisticated ability to respond to external stimuli. In addition to their sensitivity, plants, whether a tiny three-leaf clover or a mighty oak tree, play an essential role in maintaining a healthy environment that can be enjoyed by humans and other animals around the world. For these reasons, it is important to take steps toward protecting plants, whether from urban sprawl or deforestation and its primary driver — industrial animal agriculture. One key step that we can take to protect plants as individuals is actually to eat them, and only them, while omitting animal flesh and products from our diets. Shifting our diets to focus primarily on plants means that we are not contributing to the mass destruction of plants that is being driven by animal agriculture.