Why We Should Never Underestimate the Intelligence of an Octopus

Public Domain. sharonang

‘They truly are the closest things we have to aliens on this planet in terms of the way their brains are organized and work.’

If so many of us have a hard enough time feeling empathy for other humans from different demographics or cultures, our ability to empathize with entirely other kinds of organisms is really a lot to ask. We may have insight into other primates or creatures that we live with, say, dogs or cats ... but for the odder beings that are super “other”? It’s a stretch.

Maybe getting into the brains of other living things isn’t exactly the issue; but appreciating intelligence that doesn’t look like ours? So important. A complicated ecosystem depends on all of its contributors and to respect them is key to a good working environment. Just because humans have big brains in their heads and have figured out how to get to the moon doesn’t mean other creatures aren't smart in their own ways – and they should be valued as such.

When I think about this, the octopus always comes to mind as the poster child for underappreciated brilliance. (Well, slime mold too, but that's another story.) Octopuses may not have come up with E = mc2, but good lord are they incredible. Can we change our skin to look exactly like the background in a split second, virtually creating a mechanical invisibility cloak? Can we taste with our fingertips? Can our arms perform cognitive tasks when severed from our body, or even still attached? These are just some of the amazing things in the octopus toolset.

In a video made for Science Friday’s Cephalopod Week (this is like Christmas for weirdos like me) Frank Grasso of Brooklyn College tries to imagine what it might be like to be an octopus. In doing so, he reveals some of the biological and behavioral clues that researchers have discovered as they try to understand some of the profound mysteries these creatures have to offer. Like this little puzzler: Octopuses only have one visual pigment and thus don't really see color, but they can perfectly match their bodies to a colorful background almost instantly (see minute 3:35 on the video, whoa, right?) – nobody knows how they do this.

As Grusso says, “They truly are the closest things we have to aliens on this planet in terms of the way their brains are organized and work.” Watch the video and behold a whole lot of really wonderful, distinctly non-human intelligence. We may be cool, but octopuses are out of this world.