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Why Are Octopuses So Smart?

Posted by Josh Rothman  October 27, 2011 08:44 AM

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Writing in the excellent nature magazine Orion, Sy Montgomery explores the world of octopus intelligence by spending quality time with Athena, a five-foot-long giant Pacific octopus at the New England Aquarium. "The moment the lid was off, we reached for each other.... Her eight arms boiled up, twisting, slippery, to meet mine. I plunged both my arms elbow deep into the fifty-seven-degree water.... As we gazed into each other’s eyes, Athena encircled my arms with hers, latching on with first dozens, then hundreds of her sensitive, dexterous suckers.... Athena’s suckers felt like an alien’s kiss—at once a probe and a caress." Wow.


An octopus eye, from Wikipedia.

Montgomery's article is full of amazing facts about octopuses. They can taste (and, possibly, see) with their skin; they regularly creep out of their tanks (one hides himself in a teapot) and infiltrate neighboring ones in search of fish; they can open childproof pill bottles and other complicated containers; three-fifths of their neurons are in their arms, which will seek prey on their own, even when separated from the octopus body. Basically, they are very, very smart, in a space-alien sort of way. People who study octopuses believe that they have consciousness, but that it's probably "distributed," and so very different from ours. As Jennifer Mather, a marine biologist, puts it: "I think consciousness comes in different flavors... Some [animals] have consciousness in a way we may not be able to imagine.”

Most interesting to me was this very fascinating explanation of why octopuses are so smart -- it's a bit of a mystery, given that they aren't social animals, and have a lifespan of only about three years:

Why is the octopus so intelligent? What is its mind for? Mather thinks she has the answer. She believes the event driving the octopus toward intelligence was the loss of the ancestral shell. Losing the shell freed the octopus for mobility. Now they didn’t need to wait for food to find them; they could hunt like tigers. And while most octopuses love crab best, they hunt and eat dozens of other species -- each of which demands a different hunting strategy. Each animal you hunt may demand a different skill set: Will you camouflage yourself for a stalk-and-ambush attack? Shoot through the sea for a fast chase? Or crawl out of the water to capture escaping prey?

Losing the protective shell was a trade-off. Just about anything big enough to eat an octopus will do so. Each species of predator also demands a different evasion strategy—from flashing warning coloration if your attacker is vulnerable to venom, to changing color and shape to camouflage, to fortifying the door to your home with rocks.... [I]n the wild, “the octopus is actively discovering his environment, not waiting for it to hit him. The animal makes the decision to go out and get information, figures out how to get the information, gathers it, uses it, stores it. This has a great deal to do with consciousness.”

What's most striking, to me, is that having intelligence in common is itself enough for humans and octopuses to get along, despite their obvious differences: Octopuses have particular human friends and nemeses, and respond to human moods. Read more at Orion magazine.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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