The university of life

Can plants and trees feel pain?

It is a common question that lingers on the fringes of our society: can trees feel pain? Pain cannot occur without two major events. Something has to distribute a pain stimulus to a pain receiver, and the pain receiver must be able to perceive the pain stimulus. Science is always very straightforward.

It is certainly true that many trees and plants are the focus point of physical abuse, normally associated with pain. We cut of the genitalia of plants (flowers) on a regular basis, and display them in a quite macabre fashion in our homes as trophies. We take tiny plant embryos (grain) and grind them into flour. We then burn them in an oven. On a beautiful Sunday afternoon we do not sit down quietly and think of world peace. Instead we venture out into the garden and decapitate millions of individual grass plants with specialized machinery, sometimes even electrical, or petrol engine powered to maximize carnage. We cut down old and large trees in the forest while we leave their children witnessing this heinous crime. We then turn them into Ikea couches, and park our assess on them as a last contemptuous gesture. The list of atrocities committed to the general family of plants and trees goes on and on. Hence there must be no question that we hurt plants and trees.

Can plants and trees receive this multitude of pain stimuli? In the 1950s American researchers did some classical experiments with people with severed spinal cords. During the night they amputated the right leg without any anaesthesia, leaving the left leg. Most patients failed to notice the disappearance of their leg, until they were visually challenged with a bloody stump. Some people woke up during the night, but usually because of an auditory stimulus, or a full bladder.

The conclusion reached was that there can be no pain if a pain stimulus cannot reach the brain. A Japanese group repeated this experiment with plants. They broke the stem of the plant and then amputated some of the roots during the night. There was no difference between the amputated plants and the control group in pain awareness. The japanese rightly concluded that either the plants could not receive the pain stimulus to their brain, or they did not possess a brain. We would like to speculate even further and postulate that since no reports of a plant or tree brain exist we conclude that these green creatures cannot feel pain.


Professor at the UOL

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