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Light on consciousness, and octopus souls

I’ve always thought of octopuses as kind of awesome. Blame it on a misspent youth reading about the misadventures of Doc Ock in Spiderman compounded by the delicious, existential terror of the tentacle-armed elder god Cthulu, courtesy of H.P. Lovecraft.

But with age came a deeper understanding of how truly remarkable cephalopods really are: eight arms that can function independently (for context, consider a human using each arm for different tasks simultaneously … times four), sentient chameleon skin that gives them insane camouflage skills, shape-shifting abilities that let them squeeze a ten pound body through a key hole, suckers strong enough to open jars, brains that understand tool use and a maternal instinct so strong, it is basically self-defeating (but species saving).

Octopuses aren’t just awesome, they are truly special — magical even ¬— possessing a sense of self awareness, and perhaps even playfulness, that puts them right up there with ravens in terms of science-befuddling consciousness.

That’s why, on a recent vacation to Molokai, I was particularly excited to read The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery. Perhaps those high expectations unfairly colored the experience, but I was disappointed.

I was expecting more cognitive science — using the octopus as a springboard to examine what consciousness is, even, and how it works in cephalopods and humans. There was some science and behavioral issues, lots of travelogue style vignettes at the local aquarium and some dives into octopus habitat, and ruminations on how her life and the lives of a variety of characters that crossed her path were enriched by knowing several octopuses at the aquarium. That doesn’t make it bad, but by the end I felt I knew far more about the souls of the people visiting the octopuses than the actual octopuses.

She’s a fine writer with clear knowledge related to the octopus, and obviously enamored with them. But I expected — in fact, was promised as per the second part of the title — an exploration into the wonder of consciousness related to octopuses (as was provided in the Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich). Had this book been titled The Souls of Humans: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Our Consciousness as Revealed by Our Interactions with Octopuses, I might not have found my attention wandering so often.

It was enjoyable enough, but after speaking so glowingly of the octopus, how smart and personable they are and how they made such a huge impact on the lives of those who interacted with them, I found the whole backdrop of the aquarium — showing off these majestic, thoughtful, amazing creatures like sideshow curios — distressing, especially when it so clearly resulted in the death of one.

As I was still trying to process that troubling bit of dissonance — that these magical creatures deserve respect but are stuck like prisoners in exhibits — I walked out of our little condo on Molokai to hit the beach only to find a rack of about eight octopuses drying in the sun. That sort of deepened by melancholy and further soured the experience.

It was worth the read, but for a much more octopus-centric book on octopuses, check out Octopus: The Ocean's Intelligent Invertebrate by Jennifer A. Mather, Roland C. Anderson, James B. Wood.