This multi-award winning channel produces programmes made by volunteers trained by the charity WORLDwrite

Subscribe to our podcasts using your preferred service:

Help with our podcasts

Don’t Shout at the Telly: Pain & Animal Experimentation


Don’t Shout at the Telly: Pain & Animal Experimentation

This special Don’t Shout at the Telly forms the first programme in our new series on bio-medical science, supported by the Wellcome Trust. Dr Stuart Derbyshire, director of Pain Imaging at the University of Birmingham, introduces the issue by experimenting on volunteers. He then argues that as animals have no psychological self and are not conscious they cannot experience pain, as pain is not merely a response to physical stimuli. Discussants grapple with the complexity of  the arguments and whether when experimenting on animals their capacity to feel pain even matters if it helps mankind.

Recommended links:

Related topics: Debates, Science Progress

Subscribe to our newsletter


Leave a comment now

Ctriona Pierce said:

This is a hard debate but a vital one as it touches on who and what we are as well as what we do and I found the format here really helpful. I don’t understand why if you disagree with someone as the guy below clearly does you have to a) call it non-science b) assume they must be in the pocket of some big company or c) suggest they like being cruel to animals. These are sadly typical censorial responses. There is surely a major consideration-bottom line here which relates to conciousness which Dr Derbyshire is extending and exploring. If we understand it as a product of our social relationships not a purely physical phenomena or product of brain development then Stuart C’s points fail. His mountain dogs are not able to surpass instinctual or learned behaviours and hence they are unable to contribute to this debate. Dr Derbyshire is making us think hard about pain because it matters, are we just inflicting pain for our own betterment which a lot of people seem to say is fine as they are animals or are we in fact not inflicting pain in any case.

Stuart C said:

This is not science – it is pure propaganda. It is completely removed from every tenet of basic biological science. It is being expressed by someone employed to tell lies in the interests of big Pharmacutical Companies who have a vested interest in painful animal experimentation.

Pain is highly adaptive and has been strongly selected for in vertebrates at least for hundreds of millions of years. Mammals have exactly the same organisation of brain and nervous system and the same neurotransmitters that cause us to feel pain.

Victoria Braithwaite et al have conclusively demonstrated that fish feel pain, and explained this research in her book “Do Fish Feel Pain?”. Some people are born who do not feel pain – they are constantly in grave danger as they will neglect minor wounds, allowing them to become infected to the point they can become life-threatening.

Animals are obviously conscious like you and I. They can be rendered unconscious by an anaesthetic or a blow to the head. Two of my Pyrenean Mountain Dogs were clearly self-conscious in that they totally changed their carriage and body-language from anxious to laconic when they realised I wasn’t away, but present and able to see them! This means they had a sophisticated “Theory Of Other Minds” in that they were aware I held opinions of them and concealed their feelings in the hope that my opinion would accord with what they wanted it to be.

Over the last 20 years or so there has been a complete paradigm-shift among ethologists and other biologists who study animals – this has established animals feel a very similar range of emotions to humans, and revealed that they have capabilities far greater than our own in many aspects of their perception. For example, dogs are now being trained not just to sniff out drugs and explosives, but the glucose-levels in diabetic patients, and to detect cancer in humans.

I suggest you read Clive Wynne’s “Do Animals Think?” as an example of the devils advocate, and compare this with Jonathon Balcombe’s “Second Nature” and Marc Bekoff’s “Animal Emotions”. Make up your *own* mind, and I believe you’ll find yourself following up the references in the last two books. You might even get to Darwin’s “The Expression Of The Emotions In Man And Animals”.!

Shreya said:

I don’t think we as humans, with all our levels of consciousness to sympathise and empathise, want to believe that it is okay to harm animals. While the animal may not experience pain as a complete conscious experience with levels of associations, they do feel a response to disagreeable stimuli and act upon it. The moment of response is caused by discomfort and prolonging that discomfort forces them to suffer. If we as humans are superior to the animal world, then we should find it in the interest of our great morality to protect innocent and defenceless animals from unnecessary and inhumane treatment. There are alternative to animal testing, which we should use our uniquely human creativity to find rather than inflicting cruel and heartless punishment upon animals.

Randolph said:

My starting point in this is that as humans we are unique in the animal kingdom. Our thoughts, words and deeds as individuals and as part of human society at a certain stage of development make us the authors of history in a way that no other animals can possibly be. The experiments show that we experience pain as well as other feelings not in an asocial vacuum but in a human-social context. No dog is like this, even though they may whelp and limp when accidentally hit by a car for example. A dog would not get sympathy from another dog in this context but would get sympathy and help from some humans.

Blem said:

This is really interesting. I don’t think we should treat animals cruelly (because of our humanity) but at the same time, like this programme I would both make a clear distinction between animals and humans and also prioritise human beings over animals, so if we need to experiment on animals to advance humanity’s lot then we should go for it.

Helene said:

I may not have understood what Dr. Derbyshire was trying to explain but I am not convinced by the argument that animals cannot feel pain in the same way that we do. The fact that scientists are still working on developing new methods for experimenting which do not include animals confirms me in my opinion. This is an example: one of many other scientists looking for non-animal methods in biomedical research. Maybe it is the way we experiment the world, that makes us feel guilty about experimenting on animals?

Hilda said:

I don’t think there is a distinction between experience and feeling. I think both are connected. Human beings may feel and experience pain but animals experience pain too. If a dog does experience pain, is that not the reason we take them to the Vet? Is this the reason why animals are used for experiments? This may not be a valid argument, that because animals don’t feel pain we can use them for experiment. I enjoyed the points raised by the volunteers.

Rochelle Sampy said:

I have really enjoyed watching this video as it has shown a minority view which would have never been televised anywhere else. This has added to my understanding to the debate on animal experiementation in addition to other opposing debates which can be viewed elsewhere.

Camille said:

Woops! I meant I’m simply not convinced that ANIMALS don’t feel pain!!

Camille said:

I may not have understood the arguments, but these are a few of my thoughts. It was a really interesting discussion but I don’t agree with Stuart.

I don’t think the rubber hand is a good example of why ‘what you feel and what you experience isn’t necessarily tied to the objective world in the way in which you think it is.’ The volunteer felt the rubber hand as his because the paint brush was also stroking his actual hand. What would have been really interesting is if, after being trained to think of the rubber hand as his hand, whether once Stuart stopped using the paint brush on the real hand but continued on the rubber hand, whether the volunteer would have continued to feel the paintbrush. The brain is constantly trying to make sense of various and at times conflicting stimuli, and sometimes comes up with bizarre conclusions… but that doesn’t mean that what you feel and experience should be dismissed. If anything, understanding why the conflict happens makes the experience MORE valid, not less, and brings us closer to ‘real life’ because we have made sense of the conflicting information contained within it.
RE Ruling out behaviour as an indication of pain: isn’t that betraying a wilful ignorance of the reasons why the larvae shy away from light? It isn’t just fire they hate, it’s all light. This is a survival response linked to the fact that most of the time, larvae is found festering inside corpses where it is dark, safe and full of food. So using that behaviour as an argument against searching for physical signs of pain doesn’t really work because the photo-negative response larvae show isn’t about pain at all, it’s about finding and staying in a favourable environment for larvae. Also in both cases (maggots and locusts), we are talking about relatively low-level organisms without a properly developed central nervous system or brain, so when talking about animal experimentation (which is performed mainly on mammals) they aren’t particularly relevant or illustrative.

Surely the fact we don’t have a clue what is and isn’t a sufficient nervous system to experience pain is an argument for more caution with regards to experimentation rather than less? I don’t think neuroscience should be written off as a dead-end outright, it’s a new and developing science.
Talking about the mental in relation to pain seems to forget that pain is a deeply physical, primal thing. Believe me, the volunteer would have been able to tell the difference if you’d smashed into his real hand rather than the rubber one.
On the reason and language side of things as a requirement for experiencing pain: when do you draw the line? Some apes are as intelligent as human toddlers. If neither have language and only some reason, how can one experience pain and the other not?

As for the example that a dog with its paw in a trap doesn’t feel the same pain: thinking that no one wants to marry you because you’re maimed for life is very very different from the overwhelming, intolerable feeling of metal plunging into your flesh. I’m pretty sure if you were lying with your leg in a trap you wouldn’t be thinking anything at all – you would simply be overwhelmingly and unbearably consumed with the sensation of pain… just like the dog. Being in pain IS raw and immediate. To be quite frank I’ve never experienced a pain that wasn’t. Stuart is blurring lines between physical and emotional pain (i.e. being maimed, therefore not getting married), when I’m pretty sure if he truly suffered hideous physical pain he’d have no trouble drawing such distinctions.

I don’t think we extract what we want to experience, so much as our brain flags up what it thinks is the most important. So it would definitely flag up pain and put it to the top of the sensory agenda because the brain is there to filter out stimuli that is not relevant and does not impinge upon your chances of survival.

Suffering doesn’t require logic or reasoning — a small child dying still suffers even if they are not capable of understanding how or why for example.

I’m simply not convinced that humans don’t feel pain. Stuart mentioned at the beginning of the conversation the 3 Rs which is a cop-out on the part of labs. I think that Stuart saying that animals don’t feel pain is also a cop-out. The bottom line is not if they feel pain (I think they do), but which is more important: a human’s life or a an animal’s life? The answer is clearly human life, and thus if experimentation really does benefit humanity, then unfortunately experimentation must continue (even though I hate the idea of an animal suffering, I hate the idea of a human suffering even more).

Jenny said:

It’s quite interesting information and I’ve known a lot of unknown facts about animal’s behaviour. In my opinion people have to forget about experiments on animals. Animals can’t protect themselves. We are human being and have to find the other ways how to make researches without pain and deaths of animals.

MorningAJ said:

This completely ignores the fact that animal experiments are not the only option. Alternatives CAN work. When the law requires that alternatives have to be used, scientists find them (think UK legislation on cosmetics testing)

nigel rayment said:

If this is good science, I am a monkey’s uncle.