I’ve long been fascinated by stories about octopuses. I confess I’ve eaten a few, too, and it’s obviously a worse than eating dog, which I could never. (OTOH, properly done calamari is really yummy!)
It’s not just that octopuses (and it is octopuses, by the way; the root is Greek, not Latin) are jaw-dropping smart. It’s that their intelligence operates in a completely different brain than ours — an evolutionary branch that considerably predates the dinosaurs. It isn’t just the top brain and eight satellite brains; it’s that their entire body, in some sense, and especially their skin, is their brain.
Check out this 13-minute TED Talk by marine biologist Roger Hanlon:
If you have any interest in brains or intelligence, you will definitely want to take the time. They really are astonishing.
As many have said, octopuses are very probably the closest thing we’ll come to actually meeting an alien intelligence.
The something it is like to be an octopus must put being a bat, a fellow mammal at least, to shame.
I do wonder what the smarter cephalopods and cetaceans make of each other. They would be equally alien to each other.
Alternate intelligences co-existing in the briny deep! 🙂
If you found that interesting, you might want to read the 2017 Scientific American article by Peter Godfrey-Smith, The Mind of an Octopus. It’s a thoroughly enthralling read.
Comparing octopus brains to all chordate brains:
Different animals are good at different things, as makes sense given the different lives they live. When cephalopods are compared with mammals, the lack of any common anatomy only increases the difficulties. Vertebrate brains all have a common architecture. But when vertebrate brains are compared with octopus brains, all bets — or rather all mappings — are off. Octopuses have not even collected the majority of their neurons inside their brains; most of the neurons are in their arms.
We have to go back about 600 million years to find a common ancestor. It’s thought to be some sort of flatworm with a very simple cluster of neurons in its front end that acted as a coordination center for neurons throughout the body.
From there we went our separate ways.
The author mentions that stories about octopuses leaving their aquarium to steal fishes from other aquariums isn’t terribly different from the natural behavior of moving overland from tidal pool to tidal pool in search of prey.
But here is a behavior I find more intriguing: in at least two aquariums, octopuses have learned to turn off the lights by squirting jets of water at the bulbs and short-circuiting the power supply. At the University of Otago in New Zealand, this game became so expensive that the octopus had to be released back to the wild.
As with many animals, they recognize individuals, including human individuals. They even have apparent feelings about those individuals:
In the same lab in New Zealand that had the “lights-out” problem, an octopus took a dislike to one member of the staff, for no obvious reason. Whenever that person passed by on the walkway behind the tank, she received a half-gallon jet of water down the back of her neck.
Something the author quoted really struck me (and made me a little sad):
“When you work with fish, they have no idea they are in a tank, somewhere unnatural. With octopuses it is totally different. They know that they are inside this special place, and you are outside it. All their behaviors are affected by their awareness of captivity.” ~Philosopher Stefan Linquist, University of Guelph, Ontario
Well, that kinda sucks. Dogs, at least, like being with humans and having a human home. You’d hope researchers either study them in the wild or provide nice big homes for them, not prison cells.
I was at an aquarium once where we could pet a small, tightly held, nurse shark to see what its skin was like. We were told that, as we petted it, it was tasting us through its skin.
Octopus suckers have a similar thing going on:
For instance, in an octopus, the majority of neurons are in the arms themselves—nearly twice as many in total as in the central brain. The arms have their own sensors and controllers. They have not only the sense of touch but also the capacity to sense chemicals—to smell or taste. Each sucker on an octopus’s arm may have 10,000 neurons to handle taste and touch.
Apparently it’s not well understood the exact relationship between the main brain and the eight satellite brains, one in each limb. The limbs clearly have some degree of autonomy.
The author describes an experiment (see the article) that sought to test how much control the main brain has over the limb brains. The result suggests a command structure with fine control (and some autonomy) in the limb:
So it seems that two forms of control are operating in tandem: there is central control of the arm’s overall path, via the eyes, combined with a fine-tuning of the search by the arm itself.
Gaea is a hexagonal wheel. Her main brain is in the hub with six satellite brains running the six sections of the wheel. When the Earth mission first gets there, Gaea is getting old and senile, and some of her sub-brains are rebelling.
Do octopus sub-brains ever rebel? Maybe when they’re teenagers?
One thing Roger Hanlon talks about in the TED Talk is how, despite such an early evolutionary branch, we see convergent functionality in the octopus.
We separately evolved “camera” eyes with a lens that focuses an image on a light-sensitive retina.
It appears a related cephalopod, the cuttlefish, experiences REM sleep.
But more importantly, it seems that despite their intelligence being implemented in a very different way, it still converges on certain necessities of physical reality.
This might offer some hope of being able to communicate with extra-terrestrial aliens.
An intriguing aspect of the difference involves how some feel our physical shape is important in how we think. But an octopus has no definite physical shape, no rigid bones or joints.
On some level, their brain and their body are the same thing, and their body is entirely fluid. What might that suggest about intelligence requiring, or not requiring, a shape?
I once spent about 20 minutes watching a squid in the Boston Aquarium.
And he (or she, I didn’t ask) just hung there watching me back.
I can’t say there was a connection. I’m not even sure there was “someone” there behind the eyes as much as, say, with dogs or other mammals.
Of course: alien intelligence, so maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe it’s wondering how the hell it came to be captive by such obviously stupid animals who have a disgusting shortage of limbs and can’t even recognize the most infantile of visual signals.
That’s the other thing that blows me away about octopuses and cuttlefish: Their skin is a video display, and a pretty damned good one.
And they can change the 3D shape of their skin to better imitate seaweed or other surroundings. (Pity that poor cuttlefish trying to imitate a checkerboard, although it gives it a good try.)
Last night I was watching out my window at fireflies, which always delights our inner child — so magical. Many creatures seemed to have harnessed the ability to selectively generate light or change their skin (some lizards can do that, too).
Bottom line, it fascinates me that such an early evolutionary branch found a way to rise to very high intelligence. (At least on the level of dogs, if not higher.)
One way to look at it is that we’ve already experienced First Contact.
And no more octopus sushi! (I really didn’t like it, anyway. Very rubbery.)
Stay flexible, my friends!