Do insects experience fear in a way that I would understand it?

A good-sized dragonfly (for around here, anyway…small by worldwide standards) flew into a friend’s apartment. I went over to help her to get it out (by “help” I mean actually do the getting-outting whilst she hides).

It was on the ceiling, so I took a stick and tapped it lightly to get it to fly and land somewhere else. It took a few tries, as it kept landing in difficult places to get at. Then it landed on the ceiling once again. I noticed that it now appeared to be trembling, whereas it was previously very still. When I touched it with the stick again, it wouldn’t even move. It took a considerably harder push to get it to fly again.

Was this dragonfly quivering from fear? Was it now “petrified” with fear so that it couldn’t fly until I’d successfully dislodged him from the ceiling? I had been harassing it for a few minutes now, so I wonder if it was scared. Do bugs have fear mechanisms that are like ours?

It ended up landing on the floor at one point and I managed to lay a dishtowel over him so I could gently scoop him up and get him outside.

Their brains, such as they are, are so much simpler and so completely different in almost every way imaginable, that I highly doubt if insects experience any emotions or sensations the way we do. They’re just little bundles of hardwired neurological response.

As Q.E.D. says insects probably don’t have enough wiring to support mammal style emotions, experiments have demonstrated very stereotypical pre-programmed behaviour in some. (Maybe I’ll find a cite later)

Coincidentally I rescued a dragonfly that got stuck in my house yesterday and I got the same sort of impression, that it was panicing and then froze in fear when I started poking at it. I guess it’s human nature to read emotions in other ceratures. Also this thing was huge (by local standards, 6" wingspan) and it’s not as easy to treat it as a little robot (like you might do an ant) when the sucker is as big as a kitten :slight_smile:

Lizards don’t have many of the major brain structures that mammals have. An alligator may generate some of the same basic emotions, e.g. fear; however an alligator doesn’t have the interpretive media a human has and so it simply can’t experience it in the same way we do. A bug isn’t even close. One experiment that one may do with moths is to jiggle one’s keys. If one is lucky, one’s keys will generate noise in the frequency of bat sonar. The moths’ behavior is predictable depending on how far it is from the noise. You have a simple response: If bat distance < X, then fly in random pattern.

To experience fear you must first have an appreciation of self, an appreciation of a world outwith you, a memory of past situations, and an anticipation of possible future events.

I doubt it can be proved, but I think insects fail on all these counts. They’re not much else than a collection of automated, instinctive responses.

And yet, they learn. Might it be that humans are merely big bundles of neurological response? The differnce in the experience of fear may be only quantitative in nature.

My pet mantis appears to fulfil at least the latter three criteria: 1) Its eyes are highly adapted to their purpose, giving true 360[sup]o[/sup] vision - it will “follow your finger”. Clearly it ‘appreciates its environ’. 2) When a mere nymph, it would attack beetles which looked very similar to its preferred crickets, but having a much harder exoskeleton. After a while it learned that they were not worth the bother. Now it recognises the difference immediately and attacks far less indiscriminately. 3)On several occasions, crickets being jumpy blighters, I have witnessed the mantis anticipating its prey’s movement to the extent that it wil strike where the cricket will be in mid-air.

All of which says nothing about the ‘appreciation of self’. However, since “self” might also be an illusion which essentially reduces to a unique memory string from a given set of sensory apparatus, you might very well ask me to furnish proof that I fulfill the first criterion too!

Just to add, I’ve seen this with mere houseflies too. I’ve never noticed any trembling, but I have observed that after repeated harassing they also become “petrified”. However, I’ve always just chalked it up to my having tired them out sufficiently that they can no longer fly.

I posted this reply in a thread about whether crustaceans feel pain. I think it would apply to insects and fear.

Last night I wondered the same thing myself. I found a spider on my sink and I tried to scoop him up, and he kept running away, then I was going to just wash him down the drain, but he kept eluding me, and then I just felt sorry for him and let him be. He was trying so hard to live and ran like crazy each time I tried to get him. He was acting scared, so I felt sorry for him. I know he probably wasn’t really scared, but I had sympathy for this fellow living creature.

Here is a pretty fantastic book that you may enjoy about that very topic.

There is no way to know anything about the feelings or thoughts of another being from that being’s point of view. So there’s no way to answer the OP. On the other hand, a convention we follow is to look at behavior as a proxy for feelings. If a thing jumps when it sees xyz, and I also jump when I see xyz, I can infer that a thing feels the same thing as I do when each of experiences xyz. But that assumption can certainly be wrong. Consequently, your question cannot be provided with a believable answer. Or at least, the possiblity of correctness does not approach certainty. However, I believe that the more behavioral parallels you can find, the more likely you are to be correct about your inferences.

That doesn’t demonstrate learned behaviour – that’s likely a predictable development. I’m willing to bet that a mantis at the same stage of development, which had no exposure to beetles in its nymph stage, would disregard beetles without a “learning” period.

This, so clear, to you and I
Why must the rest, personify?


I’ve had many a discussion about this kind of thing with friends. I’ve always felt that the life and biology of other creatures are so dissimilar to our own that any comparison of life experience is going to be apples and oranges. IMHO insects are more like machines than they are like people.