Deep Intellect, a Sy Montgomery piece at Orion, is one of the best things I’ve read in a while:
The moment the lid was off, we reached for each other. She had already oozed from the far corner of her lair, where she had been hiding, to the top of the tank to investigate her visitor. Her eight arms boiled up, twisting, slippery, to meet mine. I plunged both my arms elbow deep into the fifty-seven-degree water. Athena’s melon-sized head bobbed to the surface. Her left eye (octopuses have one dominant eye like humans have a dominant hand) swiveled in its socket to meet mine. “She’s looking at you,” Dowd said.
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. Each arm has more than two hundred of them. The famous naturalist and explorer William Beebe found the touch of the octopus repulsive. “I have always a struggle before I can make my hands do their duty and seize a tentacle,” he confessed. But to me, Athena’s suckers felt like an alien’s kiss—at once a probe and a caress. Although an octopus can taste with all of its skin, in the suckers both taste and touch are exquisitely developed. Athena was tasting me and feeling me at once, knowing my skin, and possibly the blood and bone beneath, in a way I could never fatho,.
This piece is a tour de force, showing the intelligence, close observation and engagement, sensual detail, and fine tuned sensibility that make Montgomery one of our best, albeit most overlooked, science writers. She evokes well the animal’s sheer physical weirdness. But her more serious obsession is with the animal’s singular mind and behavior.
seemed to Warburton that some of the octopuses were purposely uncooperative.… They would hide. They would squeeze into a corner where they couldn’t be pried out. They would hold on to some object with their arms and not let go.
Some would let themselves be captured, only to use the net as a trampoline. They’d leap off the mesh and onto the floor—and then run for it. Yes, run. “You’d chase them under the tank, back and forth, like you were chasing a cat,” Warburton said. “It’s so weird!”
From what sort of brain does such behavior arise? Funny you should ask:
MEASURING THE MINDS OF OTHER creatures is a perplexing problem. One yardstick scientists use is brain size, since humans have big brains. But size doesn’t always match smarts. As is well known in electronics, anything can be miniaturized. Small brain size was the evidence once used to argue that birds were stupid—before some birds were proven intelligent enough to compose music, invent dance steps, ask questions, and do math.
Octopuses have the largest brains of any invertebrate. Athena’s is the size of a walnut—as big as the brain of the famous African gray parrot, Alex, who learned to use more than one hundred spoken words meaningfully. That’s proportionally bigger than the brains of most of the largest dinosaurs.
Another measure of intelligence: you can count neurons. The common octopus has about 130 million of them in its brain. A human has 100 billion. But this is where things get weird. Three-fifths of an octopus’s neurons are not in the brain; they’re in its arms.
“It is as if each arm has a mind of its own,” says Peter Godfrey-Smith, a diver, professor of philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and an admirer of octopuses. For example, researchers who cut off an octopus’s arm (which the octopus can regrow) discovered that not only does the arm crawl away on its own, but if the arm meets a food item, it seizes it—and tries to pass it to where the mouth would be if the arm were still connected to its body.
It just gets better. Read the whole thing. And if you want more Montgomery, check out her website or one of her several books (some for adults, some for kids) on subjects ranging from pink dolphins and man-eating tigers to Walking with the Great Apes — which subject she’ll be addressing at our local library next Wednesday.
Below, vid from the BBC. Forgive the schmaltzy narrative and soundtrack:
Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/laszlo-photo/, via Creative Commons
H/t to Steve Silberman for calling this one to my attention.