A few months ago, I lost several days reading about the structure of octopus brains. A fascinating subject — they are incredibly intelligent creatures despite sharing little evolutionary history with any other intelligent species. And their minds are organized differently from our own.
Human minds are highly centralized — we can’t do much without our head being involved. Whereas octopus minds seem to be distributed throughout their bodies. It’s difficult to address how this might feel for an octopus, but researchers have studied the behavior of hacked-off octopus tentacles. An octopus tentacle can behave intelligently even when it’s not connected to the rest of the body. Each limb may have something akin to a mind of its own.
Which seems fascinating from the perspective of narrative. The way human minds seem to work is, first our subconscious makes a decision, then a signal is sent to our muscles. We speak, or press a button, or pull our hand away from something hot. And then, last, our conscious mind begins rationalizing why we made that choice.
The temporal sequencing is wacky, sure. But for the purpose of this essay, the important concept is that a centralized brain makes all the choices and constructs a coherent narrative for why each choice was made.
An octopus might find it more difficult to construct a single unifying narrative to explain its actions in a way that we humans would consider logical. There are hints that octopus tentacles have characteristics akin to personalities — some behave as though shy, some as though bold, some aggressive, some curious. If one tentacle is trying to hide while another is trying to attack, there might not be a single internal narrative that describes the creature’s self-sabotage.
From our perspective, octopus consciousness might be like trying to explain in one sweep the behavior of an entire rambunctious dysfunctional family. Sure, some calamities would affect them all together, but moment by moment each family member might have his or her own distinct interests. A daughter who wants to stay out late, a mother who wants her daughter home by nine, a father who wants somebody to play catch in the yard, a son who just wants to be left alone…
It’s not that the collective is inexplicable, it’s just that we humans are unaccustomed to thinking of collectives like that as representing a single consciousness. We look for logical motivations on a smaller scale — centralized minds — than an octopus might embrace as its worldview.
Anyway, I thought this might have a big impact on the way octopus literature would be structured. Once, you know, they develop a language, start spinning myths, etc.
(To the best of my knowledge, there is no octopus language. If they have one that’s chemical- or color-based, I’m not sure I would even notice. Someone else probably would’ve, though.)
While reading Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus, I learned that there would probably be another major difference between octopus literature and our own. Their literature might seem chaotic to human readers, yes. But also, our literature is often character-driven. Our brains evolved to gossip, and the books that most human readers love most feature charming, striking individuals. I love The Idiot largely because of the dynamic between Myshkin and Rogozhin, In Search of Lost Time for the vicarious misery of watching Marcel’s crumbling relationship with Albertine. Readers of Game of Thrones are immersed in a rich world of political intrigue, tracking everyone’s motives as they push against each other.
Octopus readers might not care about any of that. From Montgomery’s book:
Belonging to a group is one of humankind’s deepest desires. We’re a social species, like our primate ancestors. Evolutionary biologists suggest that keeping track of our many social relationships over our long lives was one of the factors driving the evolution of the human brain. In fact, intelligence itself is most often associated with similarly social and long-lived creatures, like chimps, elephants, parrots, and whales.
But octopuses represent the opposite end of this spectrum. They are famously short-lived, and most do not appear to be social. There are intriguing exceptions: Male and female lesser Pacific striped octopuses, for instance, sometimes cohabit in pairs, sharing a single den. Groups of these octopuses may live in associations of forty or more animals — a fact so unexpected that it was disbelieved and unpublished for thirty years, until Richard Ross of the Steinhart Aquarium recently raised the long-forgotten species in his home lab. But the giant Pacific, at least, is thought to seek company only at the end of its life, to mate. And even that is an iffy proposition, as one known outcome is the literal dinner date, when one octopus eats the other. If not to interact with fellow octopuses, what is their intelligence for? If octopuses don’t interact with each other, why would they want to interact with us?
Jennifer, the octopus psychologist, says, “The same thing that got them their smarts isn’t the same thing that got us our smarts.” Octopus and human intelligence evolved separately and for different reasons. She believes the event driving the octopus toward intelligence was the loss of the ancestral shell. Losing the shell freed the animal for mobility. An octopus, unlike a clam, does not have to wait for food to find it; the octopus can hunt like a tiger. And while most octopuses love crab best, a single octopus may hunt many dozens of different prey species, each of which demands a different hunting strategy, a different skill set, a different set of decisions to make and modify. Will you camouflage yourself for a stalk-and-ambush attack? Shoot through the sea with your siphon for a quick chase? Crawl out of the water to capture escaping prey?
All of which made me realize, an octopus reader would probably be indifferent to well-crafted characters with rich inner lives. An octopus would probably care more far more about the plot than the characters. My assumption is that an ideal octopus novel would be a thriller, crammed full of facts, action-packed, and weave together numerous barely-integrated narratives.
Indeed, octopus readers might not like Montgomery’s book, since she devotes so much space to the tangled lives and interactions of the humans who love and study them. The Soul of an Octopus is clearly intended for a human audience.
I’d be curious to read a book written specifically for an octopus someday… although it’s probable that, like music composed specifically for tamarin monkeys, octopus literature would seem awful to me.