Eight Legs, Three Hearts, and One Wonderful Book

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, by Sy Montgomery, (Atria Books, Simon & Schuster), 272 pages, release date 12 May, 2015.

Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus is a wonderful nonfiction read. The subject matter alone is compelling. If you’ve seen octopuses in an aquarium or on film, you know what beguiling creatures they are. They are completely foreign to us and yet oddly like us in their intelligence, affection, and problem-solving ability.

Montgomery has had the opportunity to interact with octopuses in a way a non-scientist rarely has. She’s volunteered behind the scenes at the New England Aquarium, watching and participating in the transitions among the different octopuses the aquarium has been home to. She learned to scuba dive specifically for the purpose of observing octopuses in the wild. The Soul of an Octopus is her attempt to understand the logical and emotional worlds of octopuses—at least of those she’s known well.

Physiologically, octopuses are every bit as unusual as the creations of the best writers of science fiction. They have, as Montgomery tells us, three hearts and a brain that wraps around its throat. Their blood is blue, not red like ours, because octopuses’ oxygen is carried by copper, not iron as in our bodies.

She explains that octopuses are “extreme multi-taskers,” required to simultaneously “coordinate all those arms; to change color and shape; to 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, as well as making sense of the cacophony of visual images offered by the well-developed, almost human-like eyes.”

Experiments have demonstrated that octopuses have what is called “theory of mind,” a trait, Montgomery tells us, that was once considered uniquely human. Theory of mind “implies self-awareness. (I think this, but you might think that.)” In fact, Montgomery argues that “of all the creatures on the planet who imagine what is in another creature’s mind, the one that might do so best might well be the octopus—because without this ability, the octopus could not perpetuate its many self-preserving deceptions,” which include altering its appearance to that of a rock or coral, using displays to unnerve prey animals and startle them into motion, and to rapidly alter its color, pattern, and shape, making it impossible for fish to perceive it as a single sort of image.

Along with the science, Montgomery offers plenty of speculation, but I don’t use the term speculation in any pejorative sense. Her reflections on how these creatures might perceive their worlds, including—for those in aquariums—all us bipeds, are fascinating. In other words, this is book that won’t just add to your knowledge base, it will stretch your mind and challenge your sense of self.

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