He then turned to crabs. If he applied a brief electric shock to one part of a hermit crab, it would rub at that spot for extended periods with its claws. Brown crabs rubbed and picked at their wound when a claw was removed, as it is in fisheries. At times the prawns and crabs would contort their limbs into awkward positions to reach the injury. "These are not just reflexes," Elwood says. "This is prolonged and complicated behavior, which clearly involves the central nervous system."
He investigated further by placing shore crabs in a brightly lit tank with two shelters. Shore crabs prefer to hide under rocks during the day, so in this situation they should pick a shelter and stay there. But giving some of the crabs a shock inside one of the shelters forced them to venture outside. After only two trials, the crabs that had received shocks were far more likely to switch their choice of shelter. "So there is rapid learning," Elwood says, "just what you would expect to see from an animal that experienced pain."
Finally, Elwood looked at how the need to escape pain competed with other desires. For humans, pain is a powerful motivational driver, and we go to great lengths to avoid it. But we also can override our instincts and choose to endure it if the rewards are great enough. We suffer the dentist's drill for the long-term benefit, for example. What would a crustacean want badly enough to make it endure pain?
For hermit crabs, it turns out to be a good home. These animals take up residence in abandoned seashells, but they can be made to give up their home if given a shock inside the shell. Elwood found that the likelihood of a hermit crab's dumping its shell when given a shock depends not only on the intensity of the shock but also on the desirability of the shell. Crabs in better shells took bigger shocks before they were willing to move out. This suggests that the crabs are able to weigh different needs when responding to the noxious stimulus. Once again, this behavior goes far beyond reflex, Elwood says.