Ever since those Israeli scientists discovered plants making ultrasonic “squeals” when stressed, the ‘plants feel pain’ brigade have been empowered. We now have ordinarily intelligent people asking questions like “Do trees feel pain when they are cut down?” … well today we’ll answer this little poser.
Do Trees Feel Pain When They Are Cut Down?No, trees do not feel pain when they are cut down because trees, like other plants, are not possessed of a central nervous system via which electrical signals can be interpreted as pain. Although we’re learning ever more about the connectedness of the plant kingdom through the ‘wood-wide web’ of fungi, just under our feet! More below …
Watch: “And now the science bit” – Dr Thomas Nuhse from the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health at The Uni of Manchester goes definitive on plant pain (almost!)
(the pertinent piece begins at 2:57 which is where the vid should start when you hit play)
Related: “Can Dogs Hear Plants Scream” (4 minute read)
A Scientific Definition Of Pain
We take so many things for granted in our day to day lives, without even thinking about them. The sensation of pain is one of those things. From before we’re born we have the ability to experience pain … it seems like a physical thing to us.
But when you actually stop and think about it, what is pain? It is simply a transmission of electrical signals through the nervous system to the brain. It’s that big grey lump of neurons in your skull which interprets those signals as pain and you react accordingly.
There are people for whom the brain does not interpret those stimuli correctly and they don’t feel pain. It is a condition known as Congenital Insensitivity to Pain (CIP)  and quite literally, a loose connection in the brain.
This super rare affliction proves that pain is nothing more than electrical signals. People with CIP can watch as the flame of a candle burns and blisters their skin but experience no discomfort whatsoever.
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines pain as:
“a complex experience consisting of a physiological and a psychological response to a noxious stimulus.”
The pain response in sentient beings is a self-defence mechanism. It’s one way we know that something is going to harm us. A warning that we need to take evasive action.
Physiology, Psychology & Trees
Even the real headbangers on this subject should agree that trees and other plants are unable to have a psychological response to a stimulus and even less so, a perceived threat.
Sure, trees can have a physiological response to being cut or damaged but that has nothing to do with a neural network processing signals via a central nervous system.
The very essence of pain, as we established in the previous section.
So trees are not sentient in the way we understand it. To illustrate the difference, imagine the threat posed by the destruction of the huge Nova Kakhovka dam in Southern Ukraine during the war.
Because humans are sentient and capable of a psychological response to this threat, evasive action can be taken. We try to get out of harm’s way to avoid what we know will be painful.
All the trees in the flood zone, by contrast, are blissfully unaware of what is coming and the first they know of the flood is when it actually hits them.
Now, I know a tree couldn’t get up and walk out of the way even if it did know what was coming but it could maybe initiate a chemical response in the leaves to protect itself from the flood waters, for example.
However, it’s highly unlikely that trees would have any time to respond to the oncoming deluge because they are only capable of a physiological response. ie: when the threat actually touches them.
This is a crucial difference between sentient animals and plants to the perception of a stimulus.
Humans feel pain via the central nervous system. Plants lack a central nervous system and so simply respond to external stimuli.
What About Common Mycorrhizal Networks?
I expect you were just about to ask that question, hey?
Of course you were 🙂
Fascinating botanical studies over the last century have unearthed a vast hidden communication network right under our feet.
It’s a fungal version of the internet which appears to connect trees and other plants together, allowing completely different species to work symbiotically, sharing nutrients and even alerting connected plants to external threats .
The extent of these mycorrhizal networks and the complexity of communication exhibited is hotly debated among those studying this evolutionary marvel but it definitely exists.
Even with these complex, almost neural-type networks of the wood-wide web, as it is affectionately referred to, we can still say with authority that all known plants, as well as trees, do not feel pain when they are cut down.
There is no central nervous system in a mycorrhizal network and so no interpretation of signals which we humans would process as pain … as far as we know!
Vegans Rest Easy – We’re Not Carrot Killers
Many of these sorts of questions gain traction and perceived validity online through bad actors using the ‘plants feel pain’ angle to discredit veganism.
This may sound like a bit of a victimhood mentality but vegan-haters are empowered and very vocal online. A few shouty ones can propel half-truths and blatant lies halfway round the world before the facts have their pants on.
We end up with people thinking that plants scream and trees feel pain. They really believe these ‘alternative facts’ too. It’s not even their fault when so much effort is put into convincing them across multiple media channels!
But don’t worry, you can peel your carrots and top and tail your beans without having to search your conscience every time.
I hope this article has helped to answer your question today. If we didn’t cover something or you have a story to share please leave a comment below … we always reply. A share on the socials is also most welcome (use the buttons below). Thank you 🙂
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Thanks for reading and have a peaceful day.
 – Schon KR, Parker APJ, Woods CG. Congenital Insensitivity to Pain Overview. 2018 Feb 8 [Updated 2020 Jun 11]. In: Adam MP, Mirzaa GM, Pagon RA, et al., editors. GeneReviews® [Internet]. Seattle (WA): University of Washington, Seattle; 1993-2023. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK481553/  – Figueiredo Aline Fernandes, Boy Jens, Guggenberger Georg. Common Mycorrhizae Network: A Review of the Theories and Mechanisms Behind Underground Interactions. Frontiers in Fungal Biology. 30 September 2021. Vol 2. DOI=10.3389/ffunb.2021.735299 ISSN=2673-6128