Feelings of a Moth (and why Brain Size matters)

On the surface, this may seem like a trivial question. After all, moths are such simple creatures and we have yet to entirely figure out how our own emotions work. But moths do possess a nervous system, which is vital in generating feelings in humans. So, do insects such as a moth also feel emotions like fear or pain? 

Moths do not show cognitive function or emotional response the way we do. Most of their actions are instinctive that have evolved to ensure their survival. But moths can sense danger, even if it is not the same process that we are accustomed to. 

In this article, we put a moth’s brain under a microscope and see how it works. We will discuss the many responses a moth’s brain makes in different situations.  

The question as to whether a nonvertebrate like the moth feels pain or not is as philosophical as it is scientific. But understanding how their brain works in response to various stimulations and comparing them with other animals may lead us to a better answer.

A Moths Brain 

From a strictly academic perspective, emotions are nothing more than chemical reactions occurring inside the brain that prompts various actions in an organism. So, to understand a moth’s emotional capacity, we must first look at its brain. 

Ny nature the moths’ brain is very limited in space and complexity. It has a very basic structure and lacks a complex emotional or rational system. The average brain of a moth is less than a cubic millimeter with about 1 million neurons (nerve cells) located there. A human brain for comparison has over 90 billion neurons just inside the brain.

Moth’s BrainHuman Brain
1 Million Neurons90 Billion Neurons
0.1 – 1.5 mm³1200 cm³
0.2 – 2.5 mg1.5 kg
Brain of Moths and Humans

Now, the size of the brain hardly equates to a more intelligent species. But the lower number of neurons does mean shorter neuronal networks and decreased diversity of types of neurons. The structure and the functions are limited and the complexity is downgraded to a primitive state of cue-reaction-mechanisms.

(Even if a moth’s brain is limited – it can do some impressive stuff you can see here: Moths And Sleep or Moths Vision)

But this actually makes it easier to dissect and understand the moth’s brain. And scientists can apply this knowledge to other species to better understand their nervous systems.

Do Moths Have Feelings or Emotions? 

Discerning emotions in other organisms, particularly in non-vertebrates, is not a straightforward task. This is because as humans, we have a relative grasp of how humans feel and react to emotions. But those reactions may not be the same for other animals.

Moths do have a nervous system and sense many cues inside and outside the body. Many of those trigger a need which is recognized by the insect, they feel it. It results into a different sensation, because a moth don’t have a complex limbic system and the need isn’t combined with emotions like in humans.

It is not interpreted and very direct/primitive, but it is a feeling. So, while moths lack of complex emotions like sadness or distress, they still have some sort of rudimentary feelings. 

This is similar to other insects, as moths have the need for shelter and reproduction. They are attracted to potential suitors and have a strong inclination for passing down their genes. They have a preference for nighttime rather than daylight (most species do anyway). They can become startled by the presence of predators and know to flee from a situation that may be fatal. 

Of course, this debate is somehow philosophic.

One could view these phenomena as purely instinctive and therefore, not suitable to be classified as “genuine emotions”. And if you are looking at it like this, you are most likely basing this judgment on how you see humans express emotions.

These reflexes in moths are necessary for the species to survive and continue to reproduce. One can easily argue that these patterns are pre-determined by their genes and are not proactive reactions. And there is merit in thinking this way as the old saying of “a moth to a flame” implies. 

But you can also have a broader perspective. Human emotion is also a mechanism that is intricately tied to our survival as a race. Perhaps, for non-vertebrates such as moths, these survival instincts are their best effort of replicating emotions. 

One thing is for sure – a moth’s brain works in a more primitive way than ours. While they do have areas in the brain for learning, there is no proof that they can compute complex decisions or impulses.  

Do Moths Feel Pain? 

Pain is an unpleasant sensation (external or internal) and is often associated with danger to the body and reflexively moving away from the source.

Moths do possess nociceptors, that are responsable for sensing danger or damage to the body. This leads to a survival instinct and the reaction of leaving the source and therefore protects the organism. This basic sensation and reaction mechanism isn’t accompanied by emotions, but still some kind of pain detection.

Moths sense pain, but don’t feel it.

Of course, this question is philosophic too and there are plenty ways of defining pain.

As humans, we are very emotional beings and especially pain is strongly combined with negative feelings. These feelings improve the reaction that will hep us to survive in the most efficient way.

As mentioned before, moths don’t have this complex limbic system that could provide them with the same feelings. Their reactions are tight directly to simple cues and this is sufficient for their survival.

But moths, like other animals, can sense danger. They will rapidly move away from predators when they attack.

But once again, these may be simply genetically predetermined reflexes that they have no control over. Because even though a bug zapper will surely do great harm to them, moths will still fly towards the bright light without hesitation. 

While research has found that flies can experience something that resembles chronic pain, no such study exists in the case of moths. 

So, it is hard to argue that moths feel pain the same way many vertebrates and even non-vertebrates do. It is more a basic reflex, activated by sensing the damage to the body.

Do Moths Think? 

Moths are simple creatures with a relatively non-complex nervous system. Most of their nervous functions are simple instinctive actions. They receive a stimulus and they react to it.  

Most moths will go over their entire life cycle following the same rules and performing the same activities as their predecessors. This shows that these bugs do not have the capacity or, at least, need to articulate or construct a thought the way we do.

They are not able to imagine different outcomes or calculate any result of their behaviour. Predicting the future is nothing a moth is capable of.

It is also most propable that moths don’t have any self-awareness. hey don’t recognize themselves as beings and are not conscious abot

But it is important to note that moths are still capable of learning. And through learning, they can also adapt to their surroundings to increase the chance of survival. But rather than a quick process, this is done through habituation. 

Going back to the bug zapper example, you will not see a moth realizing the danger and flying in the other direction. Their drive to move towards that light source will out weight most other instincts. If moths were capable of thinking critically, they would surely make the adjustments much quicker.

The basic cue is too strong to let them learn anything. Even if the danger will be their soon end.


Moths have a very limited brain and don’t possess the ability to conduct complex claculations or even imagination of the future. They also lack a limbic system that could provide them with emotions as we know them.

Nevertheless these insects are able to sense danger and even something like pain. They recognize damage to their body without the interpretation of pain.

Studying a moth’s brain may seem pointless on the surface but it can hold tremendous potential. By examining how different neural activities work inside their heads, we may unlock many of the mysteries about our own thought centers.

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