Dear Joseph,

If you’ve ever had a headache, it might have felt like pain was radiating right out of your brain.

Curious about how exactly headaches happen, I visited my friend Samantha Gizerian. She’s a brain scientist at Washington State University.

It turns out the brain doesn’t have sensors or receptor cells for pain. It’s the reason a lot of patients can be awake and even talk during brain surgery.

Headaches most often happen when sensors or receptor cells in your skin, head or neck, send a message to the brain. There, the brain helps you translate the message into a feeling of pain.

It happens with the help of the central nervous system, the network of your brain, spinal cord, and a whole lot of nerves in your body. It’s all part of what allows you to sense your world.

You’ve done some great research in finding out that the humans and insects have some similar anatomy. Of course, there’s also quite a lot of differences. Insects do not have pain receptors like we do.

Even though they don’t have these same receptors, there’s still the question of whether they experience pain or some kind of headache. Good science takes collaboration, so I also visited fellow scientist Jenny Glass. She’s a scientist at WSU who studies insects.

She explained that while insects don’t have these particular kinds of pain receptors, they do respond to things in their environment with touch, smell, taste, vision, and chemical signals.

Some insects scurry or roll away from whatever might be harming them. It’s often an automatic response that helps them survive.

Many studies have shown that insects are capable of learning from their experiences. They know to avoid certain situations that might be harmful.

Glass explained that there are still a lot of questions when it comes to whether or not this response or learning translates to feeling pain, effort, or injury. The research doesn’t yet have a clear answer.

“But Joseph is onto something as many scientists are looking into the consciousness, or awareness, of insects and other animals,” Glass said.

Who knows, maybe one day you’ll be a scientist who helps us investigate big questions like this one. In fact, continuing to explore this question might just change the way some of us think about ants and other animals. Either way, we can all agree, you ask a very compassionate question.

Dr. Universe