Book: The Soul of an Octopus
My favorite animal is a polar bear.
For some reason, I have always related to polar bears. When I’m reincarnated, I hope I come back as a polar bear.
I’ve always like octopuses but never thought much about why. After reading Sy Montgomery’s incredible book The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness, I now know why. It’s simple – we don’t understand how they think.
While a quick throwaway thought is, “Brad, we don’t really know how animals think” or some other assertion around that, there’s such an enormous gap between this question when applied to a dog versus an octopus. This lives in Sy’s subtitle: “A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness.”
I read the book over a week and had several incredibly complicated dreams, especially around processing stimuli. I had magic superpowers in my hands, arms, legs, and feet in one of them. I remember waking up thinking, “that would be so cool.” And then the dream slipped away.
One of my favorite movies of the last decade is Arrival. We’ve watched it a few times, and I think I’ll watch it again.
Time and language play key roles in the film. As humans, we have a very linear view of time and a constrained view of language. Sci-fi plays with time a lot, and Arrival plays with both time and language.
That leads me back to octopuses. Humans often anthropomorphize everything, where we apply our concept of time and language to other species. As I read The Soul of an Octopus, I kept flashing back to Arrival. The book itself is linear through time, but the octopuses in the book don’t feel like they are necessarily operating in a time-linear fashion. The protagonist (the author Sy) hints at this but doesn’t fully embrace it. I wonder what she would have written differently if she approached the experiences she had with octopuses as ones where the octopuses weren’t experiencing things in a time-linear fashion.
Sy embraced the difference in language processing more fully. The octopus brain has around 500 million neurons (similar to a dog) – the most of any invertebrate. However, two-thirds are in their arms. The eight arms appear to process information independently of each other, resulting in octopuses being incredible multi-taskers. Their non-verbal communication has many levels, and they seem to be taking input simultaneously in multiple dimensions.
Combining this with non-linear time is fascinating to me. Other than sci-fi, the only other non-linear time entity I consciously engage with is a computer. It also uses a different approach to language.
And then the rabbit hole gets deep, twisty, and really fun.
Octopuses are now my second favorite animal.