Kitchen Myths

Facts and fiction about food and cooking, by Peter Aitken

Lobsters scream with pain when boiled

It’s commendable that people do not want to inflict pain on animals, but this one is definitely false on the first account (screaming) and probably false on the second (pain).

As for the “scream,” there’s the problem that lobsters have no throat, no vocal cords, no lungs, so how could they scream at all? The fact is that the noise is caused by air trapped in the shell. When heated it expands and forces itself out through small gaps, causing the sound – sort of like when you force air out between your tightly clenched lips to make a rude sound.

What about pain? No one can know for sure what a lobster or similar critter feels, but we can make educated guesses based on what we know about pain in other animals, specifically humans. And I am talking specifically about pain, not discomfort or unpleasantness. Pain doesn’t just happen automatically—it is the result of specific receptors, nerve pathways, and brain regions all cooperating to convert certain physical stimuli into the perception of pain. This has all been thoroughly worked out in humans and other vertebrates. But guess what—lobsters and other crustaceans are not vertebrates and simply do not have these nerve pathways and brain regions (they don’t have a real brain at all, for that matter). In other words, no brain, no pain (sorry, I couldn’t resist that one!).

This does not mean that lobsters and similar animals do not feel anything, and it does not mean that there some stimuli they would rather avoid. These aspects of lobster and crab behavior are well established. But, that’s very different from feeling pain.

Can we know for absolutely positively 100% sure that lobsters don’t feel pain? No, because there’s no way for us to directly experience what they do and do not feel. That should not stop us from making educated guesses. I feel pretty sure that eyeless cave fish cannot see, and I have no doubt that you would feel pretty much the same pain that I would if you touch a hot stove, even though I cannot directly experience what the cave fish or you experience. I don’t have proof that the cave fish does not see or that you feel pain, but I am pretty confident that these things are true.

So, if you are worried about lobsters feeling pain, don’t eat ‘em—but please, don’t nag the rest of us.

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16 responses to “Lobsters scream with pain when boiled

  1. Pingback: Pain in Crustaceans? « Skeptical Vegan

  2. Scott September 26, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    I’m going to disagree with you here. Lobsters absolutely have a brain and there is no reason to suspect that they do not experience something comparable to pain. I am loathe to agree with vegans in general, but I think his linked blog post was actually well made and cogent.

    There’s simply no reason not to humanely kill the critters first before dumping them in boiling water.

    If it makes any difference to you, I’m a neuroscientist.

    • david February 27, 2012 at 7:06 pm

      I disagree. Whether they have brains is semantic. Many scientists consider lobsters to have a fused ganglia rather than a defined “true” brain. In humans, we interpret pain signals as a negative experience though our cerebral cortex. This part of the brain is lacking in lobsters. So lobsters can receive signals of pain as negative or noxious stimuli and react to it, but there’s no evidence that they interpret that signal as an experience of suffering. In other words, there’s no qualitative interpretation of that signal.

      For a neuroscientist, I’m surprised that you overlooked the importance of the cerebral cortex in pain interpretation.

  3. vigila January 5, 2012 at 4:02 am

    The whole point here is lost. Of course many organisms are equipped with the ability to avoid condition that can be harmful to that. Like Pinto (above) said. Non-humans did not evolve to analyse and think critically as well as the ability to form logical rational life choices so exceptionally great. Some people got it better honed.

    Even we have immediate reaction with no awareness. The last time you touched the hot stove you moved away immediately, so before you even register it you are saved from harm’s way. That is the sort of thing lobsters and many other organisms ‘feel’.

    Does it suffer, get angry, upset, feel really really worn old weary and tired? I say not. Survival and breeding(continuity of it’s OWN gene) is going to be the goal in it’s mind. They simply aren’t capable.

    It is nothing like humans and our close relatives.

    In conclusion, the more aware, conscientious and caring to others a being is I’d say the more evil it es to chop them up and do a stir-fry. That is of course, my personal opinion.

    I’ve read many many things on neuroscience. And focused a lot on these sort of stuff. I studied(and still am) several neuroscience subjects in a reputable university(the teaching staff is exceptional smart)

  4. Raven Lee February 14, 2012 at 6:30 am

    A brain is not needed to feel pain. That is a myth.
    Fish, Lobsters and Octopii do not have a visual cortex either, but they can all see.

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29915025/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/lobsters-crabs-feel-pain-study-shows/#.TzpEMLGiFjg

  5. david February 27, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    Lobsters don’t verbally communicate to one another, nor do they have hearing. Whether or not it can scream seems very unlikely to indicate suffering, as the purpose of screaming is to alert others. What would be the evolutionary purpose?

  6. Mandy January 2, 2013 at 7:01 pm

    I’m eating a lobster right now… The screaming makes it taste better…

  7. Pingback: Top 10 Animals That Are The Wrong Color | TopTenz.net

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  9. NiawNina W November 18, 2013 at 5:31 am

    I watched somewhere that it’s less cruel to put them in the freezer first since their deaths would be gradual and less painful than sudden high heat. I wonder if it’s true?

  10. uv January 20, 2014 at 4:07 am

    “So, if you’ are worried about women feeling pain, don’t rape ‘em — but please, don’t nag the rest of us.”

    What you sound like when you say:

    “So, if you are worried about lobsters feeling pain, don’t eat ‘em—but please, don’t nag the rest of us.”

    And yes, I am a woman, and have been raped.

    There’s ample evidence that lobsters do feel pain: http://www.animalliberationfront.com/Practical/Fishing–Hunting/Fishing/Lobsters.htm
    That’s a summary of David Foster Wallace’s ‘Consider the Lobster,’ his August 2004 feature on the Maine Lobster Festival for Gourmet magazine.

    • kitchenmyths January 20, 2014 at 10:51 am

      No offense, but that’s a pretty dumb comment. We know without a doubt that a woman being raped is a horrible thing BECAUSE THE WOMEN TELL US. And citing the Animal Liberation Front on this issue is like citing the NRA on gun control. Just a tad worse than citing a cooking magazine.

    • codenamegw April 19, 2014 at 3:55 pm

      I am vegetarian and agree that killing Lobsters is wrong. However bringing your experience of being raped into this is not only unnecessary but also disrespectful to many other people I know who have been raped.

      There is definitely an argument to be said that Lobsters may or may not feel pain; additionally there is the argument whether we have the right to end a life for our own needs. However, to suggest that “women being raped” = “Lobsters being boiled” is nonsense.

    • Tiff October 17, 2014 at 1:11 pm

      How dare you compare the Rape of a woman to the boiling of a lobster. I am sorry for what happened to you but there is simply no comparison.

      PS, I am a woman as well..

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