Pain is Not Suffering

Temple Grandin, in her book Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, argues that her autism is a condition that makes her brain — and therefore he mind – function in a few ways more similar to an animal than a neural typical. She came to believe this gave her an advantage in understanding how animals think and then created a whole career out of being able to think like an animal when most people (being neural typical) were unable to.

In the book, she makes an argument that even though animals do feel pain, that they do not suffer to the same degree humans do. I read this book before I came across Brett Hall’s blog post on the same subject and immediately recognized the similarities in their argument. And I’m fairly certain Brett had no idea that some (but not all) of his arguments actually had actual science behind them already.

On the other hand, Brett also takes the stance that “No experiment can settle this matter” of animal qualia. If by “settle” we mean “certainty” then, of course, we can’t. Nor can we “settle” any scientific question at all that way. But, as we’ve seen in this post, we can develop conjectures that explain animal behavior, and right now our best explanations do include the idea that animals experience qualia. Animal grief, in particular, has no known explanation but that some animals actually feel grief. (In this post, we’ll also look at some clever experiments that ruin the explanation that animals do not feel pain and only “react” to damage.)

But Brett is right that suffering is, to a limited degree, related to the ability to make explanations. Grandin points out that animals suffer far more from fear than pain precisely because they can’t explain the fear away as easily as a human.

The single worst thing you can do to an animal emotionally is to make it feel afraid. Fear is so bad for animals I think it’s worse than pain. … I think… humans have a lot more power to control fear than animals do. My guess is that animals and normal humans are opposites when it comes to fear and pain, and for roughly the same reason: different levels of frontal lobe functioning [i.e. in context, she means the part of the brain believed to do higher-level reasoning.]

Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, p. 189-190

Grandin argues that it is precisely because humans have explanations that they suffer less from fear:

…the frontal lobes [i.e. human higher reasoning] have a… means of combating fear that we know almost to a certainty is different in animals and in typical humans, and that is language. Nonautistic people use language to talk themselves out of fear.” (p. 193-194)

Temple Grandin, Animals in Translation, p. 193-194

There was a dog in my extended family that became so afraid during fireworks that, even after the 4th of July was over, the dog was never the same again and had to be put down. This isn’t an uncommon problem for animals. (I also have no idea how to make sense of such behavior without referencing the actual experience of feeling fear. Going insane can’t possibly be an appropriate evolutionary adaption on its own as an appropriate reaction to loud noises.)

Pain is Not Suffering

However, I feel Brett’s argument connecting suffering to explanations has limits. I completely agree with him that pain from exercising in enjoyable because you know why it exists. And I agree that if the same pain existed for an unknown reason, it would cause suffering. But I also have no doubt that if exercising created as much pain as one of my kidney stones that no one would recreationally exercise ever again. Having an explanation can only help reduce suffering up to a point. But it’s interesting that there is some science and biology to back up at least part of his view here.

But perhaps more strongly supporting Brett’s view is that neurological studies have found that pain and suffering aren’t the same thing. They don’t even seem to take place within the same region of the brain. Whereas pain is associated with the older animal portion of our brain, suffering is mostly associated with the must newer neocortex and particularly the frontal lobes. (p. 185)

Experiments That Show Pain and Suffering Aren’t the Same

A real life test of this theory took place in the 1940s and 50s.

…a few psychiatrists began treating cases of severe and intractable chronic pain by surgically disconnecting the patient’s frontal lobes from the rest of his brain. …the positive effect on a pain patient’s suffering was almost miraculous. A couple of days after the operation patients who’d be completely disabled by pain would be up and about, doing the things they used to do. The ‘recoveries’ were so dramatic that Antonio Egas Moniz, who invented the operation, won the Nobel Prize for his work in 1949.

I put “recovery” in quotation marks because leucotomy patients didn’t exactly recover. They acted like they’d recovered, but whenever people asked how they felt, they’d always say the pain was still there. What was different after the surgery wasn’t the pain; it was their feelings about the pain. They didn’t care about it anymore. Antonio Damasio has a description of one of these patients in his book Descartes’ Error. The first time Dr. Damasio saw him the patient was in such bad shape he was “crouched in profound suffering, almost immobile, afraid of triggering further pain.” Two days after the operation the man was sitting in a chair, playing cards with another patient. He looked completely relaxed.

When Dr. Damasio asked the patient how he was doing his answer was, “Oh, the pains are the same, but I feel fine now, thank you.” You can read story after story exactly like that one in the literature on leucotomy and pain. Dr. Damasio says they kept their pain but lost their suffering.” (p. 186)

Temple Grandin, Animals in Translation, p. 186

This experiment is interesting in that it confirms Brett’s view that pain is not suffering, but refutes his view that suffering is solely (or even primarily) related to explanations. Suffering is really an entirely different quale than pain that happens in a different parts of the brain. It’s possible to turn off suffering without turning off pain — all while still having the ability to form explanations. (It also seems to be possible to turn on suffering without physical pain as in the case of clinical depression.)

Animals Do Not Suffer Like Humans

So if pain and suffering aren’t the same thing, then do animals suffer from pain in the same way humans do? Likely not. This would be particularly true if Grandin is correct that suffering mostly associates with the frontal lobes.

This might explain why animals often do not act like they are suffering when they are in pain.

Prey animals can be incredibly uncomplaining. A few years ago… I saw a bunch of bulls being castrated. … Some bulls act perfectly normal, while others repeatedly stamp their feet. I interpret foot stamping as a sign of discomfort but not overwhelming pain.

Temple Grandin, Animals in Translation, p. 180-181

However, it’s hard to interpret from this alone because animals have an evolutionary advantage to hide their pain.

A few bulls, though, act as if they’re in agony. They lie down on the ground in strange, contorted positions and they mona – but they do this only when they’re alone.

Temple Grandin, Animals in Translation, p. 181

Grandin goes on to give many other examples of how animals often act like they just aren’t suffering that much when they are in pain.

Sheep are the ultimate stoics. I once observed a sheep who’d just had excruciating bone surgery. I would have had no way of knowing how much pain the animal was in base don the way she was acting, and a hungry wolf would have had no reason to pick her out of a flock [either.]

Temple Grandin, Animals in Translation, p. 181

Any human who’s ever had abdominal surgery will tell you it’s agonizingly painful, but vets say that dogs sure don’t act like they’re feeling anywhere near as bad as a human does. We don’t know whether they’re masking their pain or whether they just don’t feel as much pain as we do in the first place.

Temple Grandin, Animals in Translation, p. 181

But given the above experiments with humans, our best conjecture is that animals aren’t merely masking their pain, they actually suffer less than humans do from pain. In fact, Grandin argues that – contrary to popular belief – slaughterhouses today have eliminated all suffering from pain.

If all you had to do to eliminate suffering was to make sure the animal died instantly, today almost all of our slaughterhouses would have to be considered humane.

Temple Grandin, Animals in Translation, p. 181

Grandin, the inventor of many of the humane slaughter techniques currently used today, is far more concerned with animals suffering from fear than from pain in slaughterhouses today. We’ve already solved the problem of animals suffering from pain. And Grandin lays out in her book how to go about solving suffering from fear.

Do Animals Feel Pain?

Based on the above, might we instead conjecture that animals simply do not feel pain at all? Unfortunately, no. I previously wrote about why we believe animals feel emotions and how we can’t explain some animal behavior without making that conjecture. So we already have good reason to belive animals feel qualia including pain. I also argued in that post that the theory ‘animals act like they are in pain because they feel pain’ is a surprisingly hard-to-vary explanation.

Grandin offers further evidence of this theory by describing an experiment that refutes the competing view:

The short answer is yes. Animals feel pain. So do birds, and we now have pretty good evidence that fish feel pain too.

We know animals feel pain thanks both to behavioral observation and to some excellent research on animals’ use of painkillers. Starting with behavior, dogs, cats, rats, and horses all limp after they’ve hurt their legs, and they’ll avoid putting weight on the injured limb. That’s called pain guarding. They limited their use of the injured body part to guard it from further injury. Chickens who’ve just had their beaks trimmed peck much less, another obvious form of pain guarding.

We think insects probably don’t feel pain… because an insect will continue to walk on a damaged limb.

Up until recently nobody knew whether fish felt pain or not, but two researchers in Scotland have shown that they almost certainly do. The study used electrical measurements of the brain backed up by behavioral observation. First they anesthetized some fish and applied painful stimuli like heat and mechanical pressure to their bodies while running a brain scan. They found neurons in the fish’s brains that fired in a pattern very close to pain firing in a human brain. …it shows that fish have at least the sensory component of pain, though it doesn’t tell us whether the fish were actually feeling it consciously.

In the second part of the study, the researchers used behavior observations to figure out what the fish were probably feeling. They injected either bee venom or vinegar into the fishes’ lips. Which would be painful for humans and other mammals, and then watched to see what the fish did. The fish acted exactly the same way mammals act when they’re in pain. It took the fish an hour and a half longer to begin eating again than it did fish who’d had painless saline water injections, a classic sign of pain guarding. Their lips hurt, so they didn’t want to eat. They also showed other signs of pain. They rocked their bodies, something you see zoo animals do when they hurt, and they kept rubbing their lips against he side and bottom of the tank.

We have more evidence that animals feel pain from the experiments Francis C. Copaert did on animals and pain medication in the early 1980s. He injected rats with bacteria that produce a temporary bout of arthritis we know is painful in humans, then gave them a choice between a bad-tasting liquid analgesic and a sweet, sugary tasting liquid rats normally like. The rats chose the bad-tasting painkiller over the sugar solution, a pretty good sign they were choosing it for its painkilling properties. They definitely weren’t choosing it for its taste. Once the arthritis cleared up they switched to the sugar drink, another sign they were using the painkiller to treat pain.

Temple Grandin, Animals in Translation, p. 183-184

Brett argued that experiments like this simply show that animals react to damage. But I do not see how that is a good explanation of the above experimental results. The example of fish is telling because fish do not react to pain in ways similar to us. For a very long time, scientists thought fish felt no pain at all because of their lack of reaction. Only via the careful experiments explained above were we able to see that fish do react to painful — but non-damaging — stimulus. And they do so by rubbing near the spot the hurts to drown out the pain signal on the nerves just like humans do. We know humans rub painful spots to cause the pain signals in the nerves to get overwhelmed and thus reduce the pain. But why would an animal that feels no pain do that then?

And the example of the rats choosing painkillers over sugar seems to me to have no competing explanation at all other than that animals do actually feel pain and prefer to not feel it. Not wanting to feel pain seems like a fairly good experimental proxy for a least some level of suffering. I would be interested in Brett’s best alternative explanation of the results of these experiments that don’t reference animals feeling actual pain and don’t resort to outright ad hoc explanations. So it seems we are able to test in animals for the feeling of pain specifically and that it is not identical to ‘reaction to damage.’


This isn’t quite the same conclusion as Brett Hall intended, I admit. Animals (or at least some animals) do seem to feel pain and they do seem to suffer.

Grandin argues that most likely some humans must eat animals to survive and thrive. She believes herself to be in that category due to the nasty side effects she experienced when she attempted to be a vegetarian. (p. 179-180)

She also argues that dealing with animal suffering in slaughterhouses is a tractable problem that is already solved for pain. We also already have the techniques to resolve suffering from fear thanks to Grandin herself, though those aren’t widely deployed yet. And animals probably do not suffer to the same degree humans do due to differences in their brain biology. These findings suggest that (some) animals do suffer, but that we can resolve animals suffering without having to jump to extreme conclusions such as everyone becoming vegetarians. Animal suffering is a soluble problem and we’ve already solved much of it.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *