The more we look at octopuses, the more we question our concepts of what consciousness really is and what the boundaries of cellular behaviour really are…
Two-thirds of an octopus’ neurons reside in its arms, allowing it to mix senses, smelling and tasting via touch. They can also divide this intelligence 8 ways, solving how to open a shellfish while another arm is ‘occupied’ doing something else, e.g. exploring a cave for more treats/texting their other halves ;)…
These intelligent arms react after they’ve been completely severed. In one experiment, severed arms jerked away in pain when researchers pinched them.
Not only is octopus intelligence distributed throughout their bodies, it’s also divided, into components that can act with autonomy:
“When an octopus is in an unfamiliar tank with food in the middle, some arms seem to crowd into the corner seeking safety while others seem to pull the animal toward the food.” (Prof. Peter Godfrey-Smith)
This consciousness is quite different from the layers and levels we see in our own consciousness and that of the most intelligent mammals. It makes us realise that our own brand of mammalian individual and cohesive consciousness is not necessarily nature’s default mode for advanced species.
A further layer is added by mimetic ability. An octopus can imitate both color and texture, e.g. look and feel like a stone, to hurl itself, undetected, over a victim or fool a predatory seal. If this ability is somehow orchestrated at a cognitive level, it suggests that the octopus has the ability to act both as one unit and to divide off into multiple personae…
“Octopuses let us ask which features of our minds can we expect to be universal whenever intelligence arises in the universe, and which are unique to us,” Godfrey-Smith said. “They really are an isolated outpost among invertebrates. … From the point of view of the philosophy of the mind, they are a big deal.” (Professor Godfrey-Smith’s pioneering research)
As Valentine’s Day approaches – see how octopuses show tentacular affection.
A note on plurals:
‘Octopus’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘eight foot’. The word’s Greek roots mean it’s pluralised as a Greek word, which means adding -es and not ‘i’ or ‘ies’.