How the Freaky Octopus Can Help us Understand the Human Brain


The octopus is weird: eerily malleable body, sucker-studded arms, skin that can transform into a convincing facsimile of seaweed—or sand—in a flash. It can solve mazes, open jars, use tools. It even has what seems to be a sophisticated inner life. What’s confusing about all this is that the octopus has a brain unlike that of almost any creature we might think of as intelligent. In fact, the octopus brain is so different from ours—from most of the animals we’re accustomed to studying—that it holds a rare promise: If we can figure out how the octopus manages its complex feats of cognition, we might be closer to discovering some of the fundamental elements of thought—and to developing new ideas about how mental capacity evolved. “Part of the problem in working out what’s essential to intelligence in the brain is working out which are the features that, if you took them away, you would no longer have an intelligent system,” says Peter Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher at CUNY who studies animal minds. “What’s essential as opposed to an accident of history?” Think about it: Chimpanzees are, like us humans, primates. Dolphins are mammals. Even clever crows and ravens are at least vertebrates. But our last common ancestor with the octopus was probably some kind of wormlike creature with eye spots that lived as many as 750 million years ago; the octopus has a sophisticated intelligence that emerged from an almost entirely different genetic foundation. If you want to study an alien intelligence, Godfrey-Smith says, “octopuses are the closest thing we have.”

If you were to measure octopus smarts by the number of neurons the creatures have (500 million to our almost 100 billion), they’d come up pretty dull. But forget that metric. The octopus’s neurons aren’t even concentrated in its head; about two-thirds of its “brains” are distributed in its arms, dedicated to the fine operation of these limbs and each of their hundreds of suckers. The rest of the neurons are split between a central brain—surrounding the esophagus—and large optic lobes behind the eyes. Like we said: alien.

Written By: Katherine Harmon Courage
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  1. This lab photo sums it up well.

    After learning about their unique intelligence and (Elinor Glyn’s) “It” factor, no way would I eat one.

  2. I have often daydreamed (drempt?) about my life taking a different course and me going for a marine biology degree and studying these wondrous creatures for my entire life. They are among the most interesting things on the planet. Also, the article alludes to something that always strikes me about the octopus; it is my leading candidate for “alien walking amongst us”…

    The cartoon “Calvin and Hobbes” often features aliens that are octopus like…. So does The Fairly Oddparents….. they may be onto something!

  3. What a great photo. Have you seen the video of the octopus changing (un-camoing)?

    It is from a TED talk that is jaw dropping.

    I was showing my students this and the images from the Lake Natron piece and one of the god bothering, ghost believing students said “this is fake!” And I casually said “oh, now you are going to exercise your skepticism? THIS is the unbelievable thing? The thing with the video and pictures and PROOF?”
    He (I think) looked inward (at least for a moment).

    In reply to #1 by bluebird:

    This lab photo sums it up well.

    After learning about their unique intelligence and (Elinor Glyn’s) “It” factor, no way would I eat one.

  4. Another bizarre feature is their relatively short lifespan -max 5years in which they have their smarts on tap almost immediately and with out much conditioning apparently since not much parenting goes on in this species.

  5. In reply to #4 by crookedshoes:

    Have you seen the video of the octopus changing un-camoing

    Groovy! Cuttlefish, also, do amazing camo, and “light shows” for potential mates.

    Per the student – a spark was lit; good deal, sometimes that’s all it takes.

  6. Octopus and brethren live only about 8 years. That they become so clever so fast without the apparent benefit of a culture makes them all the more remarkable. As a child I was terrified of them, but now I find them endearing. The brain surrounding the esophagus sounds like one of those unfortunate dead ends of evolution that needs a complete redesign which evolution cannot offer.

  7. Zombie chow. No matter what part of an octopus you eat, you are eating brains.

  8. Octopuses probably thinks we humans are pretty weird looking.

    Gotta love the little guys.Brainy, sophisticated,irreverant,innovative,what’s not to like?!

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