By Sy Montgomery – The New York Times has called naturalist Sy Montgomery “equal parts poet and scientist” and the Boston Globe says she’s “part Indiana Jones and part Emily Dickinson.” Maybe, with all those parts, it’s fitting that this 2015 book—National Book Award finalist The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness—is also about a creature with many parts.
The first thing that’s hard to grasp about octopusus is that almost two-thirds of their neurons are not in their brains, but in their arms. In one early encounter with the octopus Athena, Montgomery says, “Unconstrained by joints, her arms were constantly questing, coiling, stretching, reaching, unfurling, all in different directions at once. Each arm seemed like a separate creature, with a mind of its own. In fact, this is almost literally true.”
She speculates that this “distributed intelligence” enables the octopus to multitask. It reduces the burden on the brain to coordinate all those arms, which can change color and surface texture in an instant, camouflaging themselves from predators or potential prey and indicating mood, from calm to distress to happy red (as pictured). The arms, she says, “learn, think, decide, and remember—while at the same time processing the flood of taste and touch information pouring in from every inch of skin.”
That the information they receive by touch is remembered is evident from another powerful theme of Montgomery’s book. Octopuses are not just smart—as she demonstrates in describing their many tricks—they have something akin to an emotional life, evidenced by their relationships with the people around them. (No, they’re not just food-seeking.)
They can recognize individual people and other animals because of their extraordinary senses. An octopus’s chemoreceptors can detect another’s “scent” from at least thirty yards away, and research suggests their suckers are a hundred times more sensitive than the chemical receptors on your own tongue.
At Boston’s New England Aquarium where Montgomery interacted with several octopuses over a period of years, one—Octavia—was very friendly. As Octavia’s life was coming to a close, she laid thousands of eggs, which she obsessively guarded night and day. For many months Montgomery and the caretakers had no physical contact with her. When she was weakening fast, they moved her to a simpler environment without her eggs. Freed from that duty, Octavia’s behavior made it clear she remembered her friends, embracing them as before.