The Awesome Octopus

I wanted to devote today’s post to a wonderful presentation on cephalopods that Maggie Koerth-Baker, the Science Editor at BoingBoing.net, gave last January at the University of New Mexico’s annual conference on Integrating Nanotechnology with Cell Biology and Neuroscience.

There is also a 10-minute edited version of the presentation, which you can find here, but I highly recommend spending half an hour to take in the full video (below), since many of the really fascinating stories have been edited out of the shorter version.

There are parts of Koerth-Baker’s presentation that I just love, particularly how she addresses the question of how we define intelligence.  As she puts it (and this part isn’t contained in the edited version):

Intelligence is a loaded word.  What does intelligence mean to you? IQ tests, grade point average, the ability to communicate via spoken language?

One thing is certain: “intelligence” makes us think of human stuff, people things. And that’s not fair.

An octopus doesn’t need to be able to pass a written exam. It never has. To judge animals against human ideas of what intelligence means in humans is to miss the point of evolution. Our brains are not this private club that the rest of animal-kind is trying to be cool enough to get into. Every species has adapted over millions of years to have a brain that allows it to be smart for its particular niche.

Octopus brains can get octopus jobs done, and they don’t have to worry about whether they can tackle human issues. Your octopus will not do your homework, but that doesn’t mean it’s stupid.

Later, she adds:

It is absolutely true that there is something very different, and very exciting, going on in the cephalopod brain, especially when you consider its nearest relatives. Cephalopods are closely related to mollusks, and their family reunion would feature such dignitaries as snails and oysters.

A layman might go ahead and call it “intelligence.” I’m just going to call it “being awesome.”

These are not big brained creatures. They can’t navigate a maze like a cephalopod can. They can’t react quickly and change their behavior to reflect minute by minute changes in their environment. And, with a couple of notable exceptions, they don’t seem to be able to remember information and use it in the future.

In the nature and in the lab, invertebrate cephalopods act more like vertebrates. Researchers describe this special class of conduct as “behavior plasticity” or “behavioral flexibility.” A layman might go ahead and call it “intelligence.” I’m just going to call it “being awesome.”

The full presentation goes on to illustrate various “awesome” abilities of the cephalopods, including decision-making, arguable tool use, and communication with other cephalopods. Koerth-Baker also provides a vivid example of how an octopus will engage in highly sophisticated mental processes in executing tactics to escape predators. When faced by a researcher perceived to be attacking:

an octopus would swim backwards away from [the researcher] toward handy places where it could hide. When it got to one of these spots, the octopus would squirt out a jet of ink in one direction, and dive away in the opposite direction, immediately changing its camouflage to match its new hidey-hole. Basically, it was giving him the old dodge and feint routine.

Now, think about everything an octopus had to do to process that. While swimming for its life, it had to know where [the researcher] was and where the next hidey holes were. It had to think about the timing to trick [the researcher] with the ink squirt. And it had to know what color and texture to turn its skin as it dove away. All of that pretty much at the same time. That’s broad awareness and complex decision-making, done at high speeds by a creature with a mollusk brain.

Verdict: awesome.

Indeed.

It really is thought provoking to consider the concept of intelligence, particularly in animals that are so different than we are. The latter part of the video provides an overview of the octopus brain and neural anatomy – if you think you know how a brain generally looks and functions (or should look and function), you will find this segment to be eye opening.

So, how intelligent are the cephalopods? They can’t read or write, they can’t speak, they aren’t particularly social. Their brains, while larger than any other invertebrate’s (and comparable in size to the brains of dogs and cats), are nowhere near the size of human brains, and cephalopods don’t exhibit many of the higher cognitive functions that we test when we measure human intelligence. Their SAT scores would undoubtedly be unimpressive.

On the other hand, how would we humans do on an octopus intelligence test, one that required us to consciously change our shapes, colors, textures and brightness in order to adapt to threats and changing environmental conditions? Cephalopods have incredible mental abilities that we are totally lacking – what does this say about whether those mental abilities are, or are not, evidence of intelligence?

These are hard questions, but one point should be pretty clear. Octopuses are awesome.

Thank you, Maggie.

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