The Neurobehavioral Nature of Fishes and the Question of Awareness and Pain

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This review examines the neurobehavioral nature of fishes and addresses the question of whether fishes are capable of experiencing pain and suffering. The detrimental effects of anthropomorphic thinking and the importance of an evolutionary perspective for understanding the neurobehavioral differences between fishes and humans are discussed. The differences in central nervous system structure that underlie basic neurobehavioral differences between fishes and humans are described. The literature on the neural basis of consciousness and of pain is reviewed, showing that: (1) behavioral responses to noxious stimuli are separate from the psychological experience of pain, (2) awareness of pain in humans depends on functions of specific regions of cerebral cortex, and (3) fishes lack these essential brain regions or any functional equivalent, making it untenable that they can experience pain. Because the experience of fear, similar to pain, depends on cerebral cortical structures that are absent from fish brains, it is concluded that awareness of fear is impossible for fishes. Although it is implausible that fishes can experience pain or emotions, they display robust, nonconscious, neuroendocrine, and physiological stress responses to noxious stimuli. Thus, avoidance of potentially injurious stress responses is an important issue in considerations about the welfare of fishes.