The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery (Atria Books, 2015), 261 pages.
I have to admit that it was the subtitle of this book the hooked me: “A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness.” Given my academic background in AI (artificial intelligence), why wouldn’t I want to know how the humble octopus relates to the study of human thought processes? It’s such a key part of the book that the key words appear in the book’s link on Amazon.
However, this book is more than a peek into the possible consciousness (or lack thereof) of a non-human species. Montgomery is an accomplished nature writer (this book lists twenty other books she has written) and is as much about the people she encounters at the New England Aquarium in Boston as a volunteer and, later in the book, the rapture of diving into the underwater realm of the octopus in the wild. These three pieces meld together nicely because Montgomery is such a good writer.
The surprise here is that most studies of potential non-human consciousness consider closely related species such as apes or other primates, or other big-brained and clever species like dolphins or elephants. Invertebrates such as cephalopods, of which the octopus is one, do not get the same amount of research and experimental funding that others do. For one thing, octopuses require expensive tanks, not a simple cage. By the way, it’s never “octopi”…on page 1, we learn immediately that you can’t paste a Latin plural (the “-i”) on a Greek word (eight + feet = octo-pus).
Octopuses also have to be housed alone, because they often fight to the death, even in the wild, and apparently one of the tastiest meals for an octopus is another octopus. The water needs to be chemically balanced just right, and so on. And to top it all off, they only live for three or four years (page 24), so training and long-term study is problematic.
This explains why the octopuses encountered here are always part of, or going to be part of, the ocean display at the New England Aquarium. The obvious drawback is that all evidence for “octopus consciousness” in the book is by necessity anecdotal, and not technically “scientific” in any way.
That’s not to say there’s no science. Octopuses live fast and die young, but they grow faster than almost any animal alive. A giant Pacific octopus can grow from an egg the size of a grain of rice to an adult weighing more than and larger than a full-grown man in three years (page 3). They can open jars, play with favorite toys (page 17), and squeeze through tiny openings (tanks have to be sealed tightly: any crack will tempt an octopus, who are usually accomplished escape artists). One octopus in Bermuda almost made it to the ocean before drying out on the lawn of the research center. I was surprised how long an octopus can survive in the air: 30 minutes before their slime dries out (page 75)—although brain damage begins in as little as 15 minutes (page 182). Some will scramble all over the room to elude their captors, but in most cases, an octopus on the floor is soon a dead octopus.
In addition to the thousands of dollars a setup costs, all could be lost if the pet octopus becomes alarmed and “inks.” In the wild, this screen provides a black cloud to cover a fleeing octopus, but in a tank, there’s nowhere to flee to. The ink poisons the entire tank of water, and often also kills the octopus (page 66). Octopuses have acute vision, and often closely examine visitor who intrigue them (page 202).
Montgomery claims that the octopuses in the book have distinct personalities, which they can express by changing colors and skin textures. The book has a fabulous color section illustrating octopus camouflage and mentions online videos showing how fast they can react to divers or threats. They like some handlers and are distant with others. They squirt some people right in the face, perhaps in annoyance. When a favorite comes and opens the tank, they will caress their arms with their tentacles—but never let an octopuses’ sucker near your face. Each arm sucker can exert up to 30 pounds of force and easily pop out an eyeball (page 15).
The stories of the author’s and other staff’s encounters with the four octopuses in the book (Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma) are fascinating. Taken as a whole, they offer a look into what a completely different form of experiencing the world we live in might be like.
Consider brains, for example. The octopus brain is tiny, true, but still has 300 million neurons, more than a rat (200 million; page 49). The complex octopus brain has 50 to 75 lobes, and most of the neurons are not in the brain, but in the arms (tentacles). So octopus intelligence, or consciousness, or whatever it might be, is not concentrated “behind the eyeballs” as it is in humans, but distributed throughout the mass of the body. This revelation, also on page 49, set me to wondering how it might feel to experience reality with a wholly alien way of being. Maybe we would have a harder time communicating with space aliens that we might imagine. The conventional messaging methods based on the “universal language” of math would not work if the octopuses of Tau Ceti start building spaceships and heading our way. Our water planet might look like heaven to them, if they can just get rid of those pesky land beasts with only two arms and two legs.
In the end, you won’t know for sure if the octopus has a different type of mind than humans and vertebrates, or any kind of mind at all. Heck, we aren’t even sure what it is that makes humans conscious, although I think all AI efforts to separate mind from body are misguided. You can make a computer and package it up in a life-like plastic sack and animate its expressions and movements to imitate a human, but at the end of the day, I think you’ll still have a computer packaged up in a life-like plastic sack.
After I read this book, I was even more certain this body-mind-“soul” unity cannot be broken. You want a human mind? Start with a body…