Insects May Experience Emotions
Most of us are totally appalled at the thought of killing a puppy, but hardly bat an eyelid when we step on an ant or swat a fly. It’s partly because of the “cute” factor, but also that insects aren’t considered sentient beings. Or are they?
So, what is a sentient being? It really depends what definition you observe. For example, in Buddhism, sentience is apportioned to all living things; so that would include insects. The more broadly accepted definition of a sentient being in Western culture is one that is able to experience emotions; including pain, which is not only a sensory but also an emotional experience.
Insects aren’t really thought to experience emotions such as pleasure or frustration and they are more a reactive than reflective creature – run away from the light, run toward the light, run to the food, run away from the foot hovering overhead – very basic “programming” for want of a better term to help ensure survival and the continuance of the species.
A recent study carried out by researchers at Newcastle University in the UK may start turning our perceptions of insects’ inability to experience emotions on its head.
An experiment with bees found stressing the creatures creates a pessimistic outlook and a loss of interest in what are normally pleasurable activities – much like a reaction found in humans and other animals.
The research team are taking things further to determine if “happy” or excited bees are more optimistic.
A professor at the Queensland Brain Institute commented that while it is difficult to prove any animal is feeling emotion, by measuring all the behavioural correlates and physiological parameters, if there is a strong parallel with the human experience, it’s not such a great leap to ascribe the reactions as emotion.
Perhaps Buddhists have had it right all along.
This finding is actually quite a big deal as sentient beings (aside from humans) have special protection in some countries. For example, according to Wikipedia, in 1997, animals were recognized as sentient beings under EU law, which requires member states to observe welfare requirements.
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