Written by Prakriti Panwar, a first-year undergraduate student
The short answer to the question ‘can octopuses feel pain?’ is yes.
But how did scientists decide this?
They studied sentience, which is described as the capacity to have feelings (such as hunger, pain, thirst, warmth, etc).
London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) recently conducted research on the evidence of sentience in Cephalopod Molluscs (octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish) and Decapod Crustaceans (crabs, lobsters, and catfish) that proved that octopuses are sentient beings who can feel things.
To understand the research methodology, let’s first take a look at the options scientists ruled out initially.
One major obstacle in the research was that the only proof of feeling emotions is reports from subjects. And octopuses cannot do that- they cannot express themselves verbally. Moreover, octopuses are “evolutionarily distant” from human beings, so drawing biological comparisons and other assumptions is a far-fetched option.
So, how did scientists decide if octopuses can feel pain or not?
They relied on “behavioral and cognitive signatures of sentience.” This means that they characterized the types of behaviors and cognitive abilities that “imply a clear risk of pain, distress, or harm in the animal, and integrated this behavioral and cognitive evidence with what we know about the animal’s nervous system.”
The LSE study specifically relied on 8 main criteria such as possession of receptors sensitive to noxious stimuli, brain parts capable of integrating information, motivational trade-offs, and flexible self-protective behavior to name a few. The researchers rated their confidence on each of the eight criteria, ranging from 1 to 8.
These criteria were as follows:
- Presence of nociceptors, which are receptors sensitive to poisonous stimuli
- Presence of “integrative brain regions” that can integrate the information collected from various sensory organs.
- Presence of neural pathways that can connect the above-mentioned nociceptors to the integrative brain regions.
- The fourth criterion studied whether the behavior of the octopus is modified by chemical compounds (such as the effect of anesthetics) in the nervous system.
- The next criteria studied whether octopuses showed motivational trade-offs and flexible decision-making while dealing with noxious stimuli and trading it off with “an opportunity for reward.”
- Whether the octopus shows flexible self-protective behavior (like rubbing) to indicate the location of the body where the noxious stimuli are present
- The animal shows associative learning or learning how to avoid noxious stimuli through reinforcement
- Lastly, the animal shows that it values an anesthetic when injured
The results of this study strongly indicated the presence of sentience in octopods, with most criteria being ranked with a level of ‘high’ and ‘very high’ confidence.
What is the relevance of this study?
There are ethical reasons why octopuses and their feelings are being studied.
Because, unlike human beings, animals cannot express their pain even though they might be able to feel it.
For instance, Nueva Pescanova (a Spanish multinational company specializing in fishing, farming, processing, and marketing of seafood) is currently trying to get a license to open the world’s first commercial octopus farm. But the company is facing objections from animal welfare activists and organizations because “it is not ethical to farm such intelligent and possibly sentient animals.”
Implications of the study
This research led to the UK government passing an official bill that “recognises lobsters, octopus and crabs, and all other decapod crustaceans and cephalopod molluscs as sentient beings.” While there will be no direct impact of this bill immediately, it will ensure that animal welfare is considered in future decision-making, according to UK’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.
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