If you peer at an octopus and get the eerie feeling it’s not only watching you, but thinking about you, you may not be imagining things. The more we study this animal, the more we learn about its intelligence and unique characteristics.
People who spend time with octopuses — octopus experts, professional aquarists and people who keep them as pets in home aquariums — will attest to their playful, curious, clever nature. Naturalist and author Sy Montgomery counts herself among those who appreciate octopuses, and she writes eloquently about her experiences studying and interacting with them in “The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness.” The book was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award.
Montgomery learned to scuba dive to commune with octopuses in the wild and spent time at the New England Aquarium and the Seattle Aquarium. She formed a deep bond with several octopuses she describes as her friends. To interact with an octopus at the New England Aquarium, Montgomery would stick her arms deep into the freezing water of its tank. The octopus would wrap its arms around hers and “taste” her with its strong and sensitive suckers. “Not everyone would like this,” Montgomery writes. But she was enchanted.
For an invertebrate, the octopus brain is huge. But more than size, scientists count neurons, the specialized cells central to the brain’s processing capabilities. By this measure, the octopus brain has an impressive 300 million neurons. A rat has 200 million and a human has 100 billion neurons, according to Montgomery. But most of an octopus’s neurons aren’t in its brain, they’re in its arms, leading scientists and others to speculate about how their minds work, how they solve problems and how they think.
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One of Montgomery’s favorite octopuses, Octavia, could multitask. She distracted her keepers at the New England Aquarium in order to steal a bucket of fish. Octopuses can solve puzzles — moving levers and latches and opening lids in a sequence to reach food. They also are masters of disguise, Montgomery writes, using camouflage to blend with their surroundings or to confuse predators or prey. They produce spots, stripes and blotches to create a light show on their skin — sufficient evidence of a high degree of intelligence.
According to Montgomery, certain common octopus behaviors suggest that octopuses are self-aware. From building shelters to shooting ink and changing color, an octopus has to be ready to outwit dozens of species of animals and so must anticipate the actions and imagine the mind of other individuals, she writes. This is an example of “theory of mind,” Montgomery explains, a sophisticated cognitive skill once thought to be unique to humans. So, if an octopus is self-aware, she posits, does it have a soul?
Anyone with an interest in the natural world and humanity’s relationship to it will find much to ponder in “The Soul of an Octopus.” “Assessing the mind of a creature this alien demands that we be extraordinarily flexible in our own thinking,” writes Montgomery. And she declares with certainty that, “if I have a soul—and I think I do—an octopus has a soul, too.”
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. An interview with Montgomery airs in November. Previous shows are online and available for podcast at http://boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner. To listen to previous interviews anytime, download our free app from Google Play or the iTunes App Store.