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 pretty 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.

41 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.

    • randomuser2349 May 31, 2015 at 12:37 am

      Your comment is very very wrong. You definitely DO need a brain, not to mention a brain that is developed enough, to feel pain. The thing is that lobsters DO have a brain. ALL arthopods, whether it be a crustacean, an insect, a spider, a centipede, a millipede, etc. have brains. Anyone who says they don’t have a brain has no idea what they are talking about.

      That being said, the media kind of jumped the gun in saying that that study proved that they feel pain. I realize I may be coming off as some apologist by saying this, but it really isn’t that simple. What Elwood has shown is that crabs are capable of avoidance learning with respect to electric shocks, and that they can physiologically respond to stress triggered by noxious stimuli. What it doesn’t show, however, is that they experience the conscious emotion of pain. The argument-by-analogy works when it comes to the animals we interact with everyday like dogs, birds, cats, rats, horses, other mammals, etc. because their nervous system layout functions similarly if not essentially identical to ours. When it comes to invertebrates with vastly different and far simpler nervous systems, it becomes trickier. I’m not saying for certain that they do or do not feel pain at all, but there is still no consensus yet. NeuroDojo, a blog run by a neuroethologist, has a good post on this:

      Also, when it comes to not needing a visual cortex to have vision, let me tell you that even humans don’t need it to respond to vision. People with cortical blindness cannot see, but they can still respond reflexively to visual information.

  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…

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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:–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.

      • navin July 28, 2018 at 7:19 pm

        humans do not have the need to eat animals, one only eats an animal because one has acquired a taste for it. a vegan or vegetarian diet is the healthiest diet.

    • 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..

    • southernguy November 11, 2014 at 5:59 pm

      this comment… why? Why did you find the reason to tell us? Honestly, are you looking for attention..?

    • disrepectedfemale May 24, 2015 at 12:00 am

      Wow. To compare a women being raped to a booking lobster is almost inhuman. The pain and suffering caused by a women being raped lasts a lifetime how dare you even think the two are anywhere close.

      • Moanische May 4, 2017 at 7:09 am

        Do I really need to book a lobster? Why do things always have to be so complicated??

  11. Emma February 8, 2015 at 11:44 am

    No scientific arguments, no links to articles, only wishful thinking and guessing.
    Looks like another poor attempt to justify the indulgence for your own palate.

    “(…)So, if you are worried about feeling pain lobsters, do not eat ’em-but please, do not nag the rest of us.”
    Generally, this ignorant passage best illustrates that the whole “article” was not intended to demonstrate the truth but to mute your own conscience.

    To paraphrase you: If you feel nagged because you eat lobsters, do not eat ’em-but do not try to push your beliefs and guessings.

  12. teguh March 11, 2015 at 12:28 am

    if you dont wanna kill anything so dont eat anything…coz anything that people eat comes from a living being at some point….just drink water from a river or something but not to much u might kill the fish…

  13. Lisa July 25, 2015 at 8:37 pm

    Not true.
    Ripping the legs off live crabs and crowding lobsters into seafood market tanks are just two of the many practices that may warrant reassessment, given two new studies that indicate crustaceans feel pain and stress.
    The findings add to a growing body of evidence that virtually all animals, including fish, shellfish and insects, can suffer.
    Robert Elwood, the lead author of both papers, explained to Discovery News that pain allows an individual to be “aware of the potential tissue damage” while experiencing “a huge negative emotion or motivation that it learns to avoid that situation in the future.”

  14. Stephanie Bartell October 29, 2015 at 3:49 pm

    The fact that this discussion exists proves only one thing; we do not know for certain whether or not they feel pain as we understand it. If you freeze them first for at least two hours, then you can kill them quickly while they are unconscious. Why make another creature suffer needlessly to fill your belly? No animal should be boiled or eaten alive. But then again, far too many people don’t even respect human life let alone animal life. It’s a very sad world we live in.

  15. beth January 23, 2016 at 2:46 pm

    I do have to say here that just because we cannot relate to lobsters physically or mentally doesn’t mean they don’t feel pain at all. I also think that if there is no evidence to be sure than it would be more humane to kill the lobster before boiling it because personally I wouldn’t like to be boiled in a pan myself so I don’t think that the lobster if it could make decisions would either.

  16. Jessica Cornwell April 21, 2016 at 1:49 am

    While lobsters are voiceless they are not deaf! Lobsters have minimal ability to hear sound but with sesitive body hair that will be able to detect the tempreture around them.

    Scientists have proven that lobsters are voiceless but not deaf, they are sensitive and they feel pain.

    Poor lobsters, I’ve heard they are immortal too.

  17. point July 26, 2016 at 5:44 am

    That was a really long way of saying: “Do Lobsters feel pain?: We don’t know, but they do not feel pain the way we understand it. There could be a possibility that they do feel pain.”

  18. that guy September 14, 2016 at 3:44 am

    hey! lets not boil animals live in pans?? maybe we just shouldn’t kill them. regardless of whether they feel pain or not it is still evil to boil them alive!!!!!!

    • That Guy Makes Me Yawn July 11, 2018 at 12:00 am

      The next time I make lobster, I’m going to put it in the pot while the waters still tap temp and bring it up to a slow boil, just for you.

  19. Orlando B. April 4, 2017 at 2:28 pm

    If you are going to make such posts please educate yourself. Of course invertebrates feel pain and other sensiry stimuli. This is basic biology.

  20. Pingback: 18 Interesting Facts About Lobsters – No Comment Diary

  21. Pingback: Swiss Will Not Put Live Lobsters Into the Boiling Water Any Longer – IOTW Report

  22. Kay Brown January 12, 2018 at 8:25 pm

    Instead of having an argument over brains vs. ganglia and the definition of “pain”… why not try a simple experiment: stun or kill the lobster before boiling it than see if that scream you hear is escaping air. (Spoiler alert: It won’t scream).

    I used to believe that this explaination of steam or air escaping… until I went lobster hunting on a coral reef at night. When I grabbed the lobsters and put them into my dive bag… they screamed. My God did they SCREAM ! I don’t know how they make the sound… but just like cicadas and crickets with no mouths ether… they make a sound, loud and clear.

  23. Pingback: Switzerland: New Law Makes It Illegal To Boil Live Lobsters

  24. Chris March 7, 2018 at 1:11 am

    I witnessed a lobster in a supermarket lobster tank, that had a crack in it’s shell on it’s top, just behind it’s eyes.

    The shell crack went clean through, exposing it’s white, soft tissue, beneath.

    I observed that lobster repeatedly picking at the specific spot where it’s shell crack was, using one of it’s small claws and bringing that claw up to where the crack was. It picked at the crack’s immediate area, over and over, again.

    That told me 2 things:
    1). It appeared that the lobster felt pain, and,
    2) The lobster appeared to know exactly where the pain was coming from.

    I bought that lobster, used water-resistant adhesive and a bandage to close the crack, and then I released it back into the northern Atlantic Ocean, after taking off the 2 rubber bands on it’s 2 front claws.

    I checked the shoreline over the next few weeks to see if that lobster washed up on the shore after I had released it. No sign of it. Hey, I think I saved that lobster!

    • Paul June 29, 2018 at 1:49 am

      That is the funniest thing I have read for some time. Aside from making you feel good, your attempts at “helping” this animal probably fell short I’m afraid. The injury to the lobster, whilst appearing to be quite traumatic, were likely nothing more than a crack in the armour. Lobster regularly lose appendages that, at the next moult begin to grow back. I have also seen wounds to lobsters whereby almost an entire side of the carapace has been lost/broken in a previous event, and that hasn’t inhibited the survival of the animal. They are extremely hardy animals, able to suffer (I use that term very loosely) some extreme injuries and survive.

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