The Soul of an Octopus

Author: Sy Montgomery

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness

Published: 2015

I read it: June 2018

the soul of an octopus

I finally read the octopus book. I’ve had this one on my list for a few years, and it stayed in the back of my mind after I read a National Geographic story about the creatures. (Also due to the character of Hank in Finding Dory.) They are strange and enchanting, although I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen one. Maybe in an aquarium once but forgot about it? Not in recent years, anyway.

The book is about the author’s personal journey to understand octopuses, in so far as anyone can understand them. There’s a great passage that references another book:

In his classic The Outermost House, American naturalist Henry Beston writes that animals “are not brethren, they are not underlings” but beings “gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.” They are, he writes, “other nations, caught within ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.” To many people, an octopus is not just another nation; it’s an alien from a distant and menacing galaxy.

This struggle to classify animals and relate to them has probably been around ever since humans became able to self-reflect. Montgomery outlines how researchers, even modern ones, are very reluctant to hypothesize that animals other than humans have complex inner lives. One landmark came in 2012, when scientists signed the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, which states that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness” and that “nonhuman animals, including birds and mammals, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

As Montgomery gets deeper into the aquarium scene, spending time with a series of octopuses and their human caretakers, she becomes a temporary guide and often interacts with the public during viewing hours. At one point she describes the interaction she had with a group of teenage girls:

They don’t want to hear how [the octopus] Octavia is different from us. They want to know how we’re the same. They know what it’s like to have an itch. They can imagine what it’s like to be a mother. This brief encounter has changed them. Now they can identify with an octopus.

If anything, these passages clued me in to how we need more guides at zoos. People crave to connect to the animals, and while signage serves some of the need, a person standing right there telling the story of an animal, or simply giving facts, can go a long way.

I confess to enjoying the first half of the book more than the second. The author passes along the passion of her obsessive pursuit, and her initial observations of letting an octopus touch her are powerful. (“She grabs us again, more emphatically, as if to remind us: I am strong enough to pull you in. I am gentle because I choose to be.”) Toward the end, I wanted a little more science overlaid on top of the journey. Not that Montgomery doesn’t pepper the book with research and quotes from experts—she does—but I still felt that the two huge areas of evolution and consciousness were only partially explored.

I do remember the fact that octopuses have pretty short lives—sometimes only four or five years for the Giant Pacific Octopus, one of the species most commonly captured for viewing at aquariums. Then there’s the ethics of capturing the animals and putting them on display in the first place. Presumably, these intelligent creatures don’t appreciate being in unnatural environments. But I also wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to see one up close and personal in captivity. Such is the contradiction of being a human, and just not knowing quite how to interact with other beings. Especially the most alien ones.

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3 thoughts on “The Soul of an Octopus

  1. Oddly enough I read a very similar book about octopuses and consciousness not that long ago called ‘other minds’ by Peter Godfrey Smith – its great and there’s lots of stuff about consciousness and its evolution in different species if you’re interested in that !

      • Thanks for pointing out that book, I’m reading a little about it now. Looks pretty similar in a lot of ways, science combined with personal experience. Interesting! Yes, there must be something about the splayed octopus that just makes a compelling image. I like how the one on the Godfrey-Smith book looks like an old-timey depiction of the beast.

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