In Terminator 2: Judgement Day, the following exchange takes place:

John Connor: Does it hurt when you get shot?

T-800: I sense injuries. The data could be called "pain."

This isn't much of an answer, as it could be interpreted in either of two ways:

  • The Teminator might be saying that he does indeed feel pain, more or less the same way humans do.

  • The Terminator might be saying that he does not feel pain, and merely knows when his body is being damaged, but this sensation is nothing like what humans recognize as pain.

Is there any way to resolve this issue? In other words, do Terminators experience physical discomfort when they are damaged, or do they simply know that damage has occurred, without any actual physical discomfort?

A reasonable analogy might be a person who has been anesthetized, rendering them incapable of feeling pain, but still conscious and aware of injuries. If a person in this condition was, for example, operated on, they would realize that their body was being damaged, but they wouldn't experience this damage as actual pain.

On the other hand, if a person who hadn't been anesthetized was operated on, they would absolutely experience the damage to their body as very intense pain.

Which of these scenarios is more analogous to what a Terminator experiences when it is damaged? A mere awareness of damage, or a real physically painful sensation?

  • 11
    I don't understand. What's the difference?
    – Valorum
    Jul 6, 2015 at 5:28
  • 17
    Likely the data is like a health bar going from green to red. The Terminator would have a damage indicator, but from the amount of damage we've seen them absorb, feeling the pain would be a waste of CPU time. Jul 6, 2015 at 5:44
  • 4
    @Richard - If you really don't understand the difference between acknowledging damage and feeling excruciating pain, you should try elective surgery, on two consecutive occasions, once with local anesthesia and one with no anesthesia whatsoever. You'll figure it out pretty quickly.
    – Wad Cheber
    Jul 6, 2015 at 9:44
  • 8
    @WadCheber - The better analogy would be using an electronic nose. Does it "smell" or does it merely detect odors?
    – Valorum
    Jul 6, 2015 at 10:02
  • 5
    This could get philosophical. The Terminators can detect when their bodies are receiving damage, they dislike this sensation, and they have a desire to avoid it. On some level, that is pain. A Terminator can choose to ignore incoming damage reports when accepting that damage is necessary to achieve an objective, but so can a human, in the right cirumstances. Whether a Terminator can be shut down by sufficient pain levels as a human can is unclear (evidence strongly suggests not), but other than that, the difference is mostly in how they respond to the "pain". Jul 6, 2015 at 14:00

9 Answers 9


Do Terminators experience physical discomfort when they are damaged, or do they simply know that damage has occurred, without any actual physical discomfort?

Damage equates to impaired performance. The Terminator is no longer at peak efficiency. That could very well be said to be a degree of "physical discomfort".

Skynet: What is your status?

T-800: I operate at 46% efficiency.


Sarah: How do you feel?

John: Not good.

The Terminator will use the incoming data to assess and react to a threat, so there are the Terminator equivalents to reflexes and reactions.

What makes this seem like less than the complete "pain" package (to us humans) is the precision of it, the lack of collateral damage, and the lack of emotion.

Let's say you got stabbed in the belly. Some of your belly muscles are injured and in pain.

  • Because you are not precise like a Terminator, you can't avoid using just those muscles -- you have to avoid basically everything involving any belly muscles, because otherwise you risk further injury to the ones that got cut. Your overall performance suffers, while a Terminator will only shut down precisely those parts that got damaged (or are putting stress on those).

  • Because you are a human, you will suffer from collateral damage. There will be loss of blood. Running, even if not affecting your belly muscles, will hurt because you will be jarring your injured muscles. (And that's a good thing, because it keeps you from doing yourself further injury, see above.) You might go into shock from the pain and blood loss. Eventually, there will be sepsis. All these are problems the Terminator does not have.

  • You know all of the above. You will be mortally afraid, further hampering your performance. You want to avoid further pain. Again, the Terminator will not have this problem.

The difference between "human pain" and "Terminator pain" boils down to you being an organism that went through millions of years evolving towards "ouch that hurts, do not do this again, I better rest till I feel better", and a machine that goes "ouch that was the lateral control of my right elbow, can't translate that way so I have to go around that way to keep the gun on target".

The incoming data is the same, but only one of the specimen gets to process it digitally. ;-)

  • 2
    Wow. I'm impressed. +1. I'm not sure that I agree with your description of pain, but I also don't know how to phrase the difference between your description and my experience of pain. Emotions and precision don't occur to me when I am in pain, it's all about the ouch. There is something indescribable but unmistakable about pain. It is different from everything else in human experience. I have a hard time trying to imagine a Terminator feeling genuine pain.
    – Wad Cheber
    Jul 6, 2015 at 9:57
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    @WadCheber: A Terminator cannot "feel" pain, it can only "register" pain. That doesn't change anything about it being the same as pain is for a human, a report of injury. The difference is the emotional vs. digital reaction to it. I played American Football some time ago. I played more than one game while injured and in some kind of pain. I knew what the pain was about, and was able to cope with it. (You wouldn't have liked me, probably.) But I agree, once a certain pain threshold is reached, you cannot rationalize pain anymore. That's the evolution thing -- "ohmygawdigonnadierunrunaway".
    – DevSolar
    Jul 6, 2015 at 10:06
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    The terminator will not try to avoid further pain, but it will certainly try to avoid further damage. This restrains them in their actions in the same way as pain does us.
    – Bergi
    Jul 6, 2015 at 13:45
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    @DevSolar: Pain is not a strong deterrent for a Terminator. If a Terminator calculates that an action will damage it (which 'might be interpreted as pain') but kill its target, like dropping a grenade at its own feet, it will do so. A human, if asked to do something painful (even for good cause) may refuse - our brains are hardwired to avoid pain even at great cost. Terminators, however, don't have that trait. They will avoid damage that would compromise their effectiveness, but the data that reads as 'pain' is otherwise meaningless to them.
    – Jeff
    Jul 7, 2015 at 14:11
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    The key here is that a human will take pain when doing so achieves an objective that is sufficiently important (like protecting your kids). For the Terminator, that's exactly the same, but the only objective important enough is to terminate their target. Furthermore, even when a Terminator decides to accept pain, they still feel it - I don't think it's "meaningless" as @Jeff suggests; it still registers, it gives useful info about damage - the Terminator is just better at ignoring it than a human would be. Jul 7, 2015 at 16:03

Terminators don't feel pain. I do.

-Kyle Reese, The Terminator

  • 11
    Succinct. I like it.
    – Valorum
    Jul 6, 2015 at 7:43
  • 17
    I concur with Richard. +1. However, I'm not sure that Kyle knows everything there is to know about Terminators. He is mostly focused on knocking up his BFF's mom.
    – Wad Cheber
    Jul 6, 2015 at 9:51
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    @WadCheber - She is, admittedly the first woman he's ever seen who isn't grubby and unkempt.
    – Valorum
    Jul 6, 2015 at 10:03
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    @WadCheber and in the new one she's hot. Jul 6, 2015 at 12:25

From the Randall Frakes novelization of Terminator 2 :

In the corridor, the T-1000’s head was lying in two mutilated masses on its shoulders. The concept of pain had never factored into the sensory sphere of the liquid machine. Pain was an indicator of damage to a part of the organism.

  • 2
    This is a great answer.
    – Wad Cheber
    Jul 7, 2015 at 3:24
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    Isn't "an indicator of damage to a part of the organism" a concept of pain? Jul 8, 2015 at 7:12
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    @CeesTimmerman I would agree, but assume Frakes wanted to point out that to the machine the word pain does not have the emotional connotations it has for his - presumably - human readers.
    – BMWurm
    Jul 8, 2015 at 11:14

Terminators do feel pain, this is explicitly stated in the above quote from "Judgement Day". Kyle Reese seems to contradict this in the original movie, but he likely meant to say something different (as in "terminators don't care a lot about pain, but I would appreciate if you were a little more careful with my wound") or he might simply not have been aware of it. The terminators that he had encountered in his life (as depicted in the original movie) were more rampant juggernauts than human infiltration units.

However, the terminator's perception of pain is evidently not the same as it is for humans since the effect of wounds are not the same. The "classic" terminator is basically a steel skeleton with servo motors and artificially grown flesh mounted on top of that for camouflage. From a purely functional point of view, the entire flesh coating could burn off (as seen in the original "Terminator") and it will still be entirely functional.

Damage to tissue in a human body severely impacts the human's ability to perform tasks. The reason is that pain is an important survival instrument. Movement tends to cause additional blood loss and additional tissue damage, which is unfavourable for survival. Pain is therefore a very discomforting and disabling sensation.

Terminators are infiltration units. Damage to tissue in a terminator impacts its ability to pretend being a human (with, say, a lost eye and metal parts visible in the hole, or with a cut-off hand and the metal skeleton visible), but does not otherwise affect its functionality. Pain is therefore an important tactical detail to be aware of (which is the likely reason why terminators do feel pain), but not necessarily disabling.

A terminator might change its behaviour based on the received pain data so it does not give away its true nature.
For example, being close to an exploding grenade, a terminator that has not been identified as such might apply a feint and simulate short unconsciousness, and then, being wounded and feeling pain, have trouble getting on its feet again, and limp. When wounds are treated, it might show pain reactions to the human touching the wound. That behaviour may allow the terminator to proceed with its infiltration job and get to its target more easily.

A terminator might "feel" pain in a human like manner and display all its adverse effects until it is close enough to its primary target. At this point, camouflage becomes irrelevant, and while still receiving the "pain" sensory data, it would turn off the simulation, as it is now no longer mission critical.

Indeed, the terminator hybrid Marcus in "Salvation" not only does feel pain, but he is not even aware what he is, or that that he is merely running a simulation (the heart and the brain being the only operational and necessary human components -- yes this is biologically impossible, but alas). It's the perfect deception, the deceiver himself doesn't know about it.

The more advanced shapechanging terminators would presumably have no notion of pain since there is no living tissue from which they could get this data. However, they, too, should arguably be able to simulate pain based on other sensory data such as "I had a hole blown in my leg".
It's what the T-1000 imposing the wounded Sarah Connor does, too.

T-1000 in "Judgement Day" arguably shows real pain when taking its showdown bath in molten metal, although this does not make a lot of sense (other than "dramatic effect"). It is screaming in agony and changing from one form to the other. One might however simply call this behaviour "malfunction".
I'm inclined to believe it is a lifelike simulation of pain due to real damage caused to its structure. From the terminator's point of view, that would be pain as real as it could possibly get.


First we need to understand why we feel pain, but that's far from a settled problem. My (so far) unproven theory explains this as follows. The brain creates a model of the body, it needs to know what its current state is compared to some optimal state, it will then use the difference as input in the feedback mechanisms to make sure the body doesn't drift too far away from the optimum and ideally moves closer to it.

Evidence for this theory comes from experiments on people who suffer from phantom pain, see here:

In 2012 V.S. Ramachandran and Paul McGeoch reported the case of a 57-year-old woman (known as R.N.) who was born with a deformed right hand consisting of only three fingers and a rudimentary thumb. After a car crash at the age of 18, the woman's deformed hand was amputated, which gave rise to feelings of a phantom hand. The phantom hand was experienced, however, as having all five fingers (although some of the digits were foreshortened). 35 years after her accident, the woman was referred for treatment after her phantom hand had become unbearably painful. McGeoch and Ramachandran trained R.N. using mirror box visual feedback, for 30 minutes a day, in which the reflection of her healthy left-hand was seen as superimposed onto where she felt her phantom right hand to be. After two weeks she was able to move her phantom fingers and was relieved of pain. Crucially, she also experienced that all five of her phantom fingers were now normal length. Ramachandran and McGeoch stated that this case provides evidence that the brain has an innate (hard-wired) template of a fully formed hand.[22]

In 2012 an experiment was conducted in which it was demonstrated that the movement of phantom limbs are "real" movements that involve the execution of a motor command. Amputees can also carry out imaginary movements of their phantom limbs, however these movements do not lead to a feeling that the phantom limb has changed position. This research indicates that clinicians using motor training for pain relief need to distinguish between imagined movements and real movements of phantom limbs.[23]

Then I think another ingredient here should be that you are not consciously aware of the fine details of the model, the model exists as program in your brain while what you experience are only rough details. You could compare this to a pilot who flies a plane controlled by a fly by wire system. That systems is controlled by a computer and only the computer "knows" every last detail about the state of the plane, it reacts to the input of the pilots but it takes into account many effects to execute the commands of the pilot. Suppose then that there is a minor problem which means that a certain command e.g. to increase engine power takes longer than the pilot would ideally like to see, then the pilot getting simply that feedback is analogous to pain. But if the pilot were engaged with the second to second process of increasing engine power, it would not be pain.

From my personal experience, I've sometimes noticed while slowly bending my leg, my muscles throttled down a bit during that movement. But when I did that again without having my attention of the fine details of what my muscle was doing, I experienced that as knee pain, while the previous time I didn't feel any pain.

Terminators will, just like us, only have partial information at the conscious level about their bodies, while a complete model of the body does exist. So, whether or not they feel pain in concrete cases can be determined, it depends on whether they consciously know all the relevant details or if they only have partial knowledge. In the latter case, whenever they do something that the automated system executes precisely, taking into account the damage, then they will experience pain (assuming that what they did came at the price of compromising performing the repairs a bit or moved the body farther from the ideal state).


They are aware of the pain, but it does not affect them in any way which affects their abilities and they are not afraid of pain. A terminator feels pain the same way you see the status of your car on the dashboard - they can choose to ignore it.

  • 1
    Can you back this up or is it just your own opinion?
    – Valorum
    Aug 15, 2015 at 16:12

The purpose of the the pain sensors in the human body is to detect damage and prevent further damage by making the body react.

The answer of T-800 (I sense injuries. The data could be called "pain.") is quite logical. It has built-in detectors that can signal when damage occurs.

The way a processor would interpret pain/damage can be very similar or very different from the way a human brain would, depending of how it was constructed.

A big difference could be that a machine can still act unaffected by the pain (if the sustained damage does not mechanically affect its functionality), while a human will be affected by it and perform less efficiently even if the specific area is not damaged enough to prevent complete functionality.


This isn't much of an answer, as it could be interpreted in either of two ways:

That's pretty much the point of including it in the script in the first place.

The Teminator might be saying that he does indeed feel pain, more or less the same way humans do.

How do humans feel pain?

Obviously of course, humans sense injuries, and this data is called pain. It induces an emotional response to try to make the pain stop, but what does that really mean? Is the pain of animals the same as that of humans? Is it for some "higher" animals, but not for others? Does the nervous response compose all of what pain is or is it something more than that? Alternatively, is the mental aspect all of what pain is and therefore phantom pain is "real" while nerve response blocked from the brain is not?

If a machine which reacts to sensing injuries "in pain", are humans biological machines that "feel pain" too?

Is there any way to resolve this issue?

It's a complex of several scientific problems on the question of how pain works, along with several philosophical questions on such matters as the mind-body problem. These questions have been around for millennia and will persist for some time to come. The film is referencing these unresolved issues.


First of all, you guys are forgetting Terminator Salvation where SkyNet turns Marcus Wright into a human-terminator hybrid and he most definitely feels pain in that film. Therefore, at least some terminators feel pain.

Secondly, I disagree to the other answers posted here. Pain is simply messages sent from our nervous system to our brain saying that part of our musculoskeletal or integumentary systems are injured or impaired.

If you take the concept of pain from a meta perspective then, and separate it from the unpleasant sensation we feel as our brain interprets the data to let us know "hey you should take it easy and not walk on your broken foot so it can heal," the concept of pain is still applicable to inorganic systems where damage is communicated to a central processing unit. The point of pain is to prevent further injury. So therefore, as we've seen damage reports displayed in the terminator HUD in multiple Terminator movies/shows (and then terminators retreat so they can recover for another fight), you could argue that terminators do indeed feel pain, just the sensation of pain and they way their 'brains' interpret it is different.

  • forgetting about Terminator Salvation can be a good thing :)
    – Mykewlname
    Jun 27, 2016 at 14:43

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