What Does It Feel Like to Be an Octopus?

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©. Vladimir Wrangel

"Stories of octopuses’ remarkable ability to solve puzzles, open bottles, and interact with aquarium caretakers, suggest an affinity between their intelligence and our own," writes Regan Penaluna for the science magazine Nautilus.

Penaluna was musing upon the philosophy of cephalopods after considering an octopus at a local Italian market.

“To eat the tentacle would be, in a way, like eating a brain – the eight arms of an octopus contain two-thirds of its half billion neurons," she writes. "Delicious for some, yes – but for others, a jumping off point for the philosophical question of other minds.”

And so she did what any curious science writer would do, she interviewed a philosopher. Enter Peter Godfrey-Smith, a professor of philosophy at CUNY Graduate Center, who for years has been fascinated by what goes on in the brains of cephalopods.

“I do think it feels like something to be an octopus,” Godfrey-Smith says.

And indeed, why not? Cephalopods have the largest nervous systems of all invertebrates, aside from that fact that they are clearly magicians.

Exhibit A:

Like I wrote last year when musing on how badass octopuses are:

"We humans think we’re so fancy with our opposable thumbs and capacity for complex thought. But imagine life as an octopus ... camera-like eyes, camouflage tricks worthy of Harry Potter, and not two but eight arms – that happen to be decked out with suckers that possess the sense of taste. And not only that, but those arms? They can execute cognitive tasks even when dismembered. And on top of all that razzmatazz, octocpuses have brains clever enough to navigate super complicated mazes and open jars filled with treats."

So Penaluna and Godfrey-Smith got down to business and had a fascinating conversation about what it feels like to be an octopus, in which things like this are revealed:

  • Octopuses are genuinely interested in what people are up to.
  • Octopuses can remember individual people and can distinguish between people they like and don't like.
  • Octopuses seem to learn by trial and error, a more sophisticated method than classical conditioning.

And so much more! It's a great read and I will now send you away from TreeHugger to enjoy the whole interview at Nautilus: What It Feels Like to Be an Octopus.

And if you're a cephalopod lover like I am, know that Godfrey-Smith has a book coming out titled Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness.

“I think cephalopods have a special kind of otherness, because they are organized so differently from us and diverged evolutionarily from our line so long ago,” Godfrey-Smith says. “If they do have minds, theirs are the most other minds of all.”