Deep Intellect: Inside the mind of the octopus

Deep Intellect: Inside the mind of the octopus

Occasionally an octopus takes a dislike to someone. One of Athena's predecessors at the aquarium, Truman, felt this way about a female volunteer. Using his funnel, the siphon near the side of the head used to jet through the sea, Truman would shoot a soaking stream of salt water at this young woman whenever he got a chance. Later, she quit her volunteer position for college. But when she returned to visit several months later, Truman, who hadn't squirted anyone in the meanwhile, took one look at her and instantly soaked her again. [...]

The octopus mind and the human mind probably evolved for different reasons. Humans -- like other vertebrates whose intelligence we recognize (parrots, elephants, and whales) -- are long-lived, social beings. Most scientists agree that an important event that drove the flowering of our intelligence was when our ancestors began to live in social groups. Decoding and developing the many subtle relationships among our fellows, and keeping track of these changing relationships over the course of the many decades of a typical human lifespan, was surely a major force shaping our minds.

But octopuses are neither long-lived nor social. So 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?

Such intelligence is not always evident in the laboratory. "In the lab, you give the animals this situation, and they react," points out Mather. But in 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."



6 Responses:

  1. Lloyd says:

    How do they know that squirting at her every time he sees her isn't a sign of affection?

    • Catherine says:

      Seriously. These marine biologists must not listen to The Lonely Island much.

    • Landa says:

      There's a joke about drawn japanese porn in there but I'm not touching it with a ten foot tentacle :-D

    • David M.A. says:

      A serious answer: there's a range of responses an octopus can make when interacting with a human -- the gentle caress that the author of the piece received, for example -- and they likely occur in correlation with each other. "Squirting water at you" is correlated with "biting off your fingers when you stick them in the tank" or somesuch.

  2. Steve Nordquist says:

    In Soviet Antarctic Shelf, Animal Hoarders watch you!
    Take an octopus with you to your thesis defense; but wear a rubber pantsuit.
    Clearly the giant squid responsible for fixing gender inequality and correcting toddler octopus from biting each other in the ocean is slacking.
    Or maybe they had 'trap' (XG) octopus and adaptation broke; in bike clothes they start to all look alike.
    Save us Squid Girl!

  3. Jeff says:

    Now I know why a Tarvuist would want to speak to an octopus: swapping hunting tips!