I stopped in at the bookstore the other day looking for a book I could take on a plane trip and was fascinated by a book with the title: “The Soul of an Octopus” by Sy Montgomery. The cover read: “A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness”.
Since I am currently in my “animal phase” (don’t worry, I’m still interested in humans), l couldn’t resist it.
I began the book knowing very little about octopuses (the correct term the author assures us). I only knew that they were weird looking and could squeeze themselves through unimaginably small spaces to get where they wanted to go. I obviously had a lot to learn.
From the first page, I was absolutely fascinated by the book. The author describes the relationship that she developed with several octopuses at the New England Aquarium in Boston and her brief encounters with those she spotted while scuba diving. That anyone could even use the term “relationship” to describe a connection between a human and an octopus is hard enough to imagine but Ms. Montgomery is absolutely convincing that not only can one have a relationship with an octopus but that it can be extremely rewarding and meaningful for both parties.
The author describes her first meetings with an octopus named Athena as a life-changing experience. The octopus reached out to touch her as she reached towards the tank and she suddenly found herself engulfed by tentacles and suctions which are using the sense of taste, located in that part of the octopus body, to identify and get to know the person who is standing near them. She felt the octopus was pulling her into the tank with her and she felt she would have loved to have gone.
She then goes on to describe so many aspects of the octopus that are astounding: their ability to change color almost instantaneously not just for camouflage but also to indicate mood. She details their dexterity and problem solving ability which enable them to open jars in order to get at food. And, she points out in great detail that this ability can also spell trouble as octopuses often escape their tanks in aquariums and zoos and end up on the other side of a room or occasionally in the tank of another, and in this case, very unfortunate species.
But, it is the sense of “consciousness” that is most intriguing. Anyone who has a dog in their family knows that dogs “read” the behavior of the humans with whom they live. When I look into the eyes of the apes at the Toledo Zoo, I feel they are not only looking back at me but understanding that I am another species who is trying to make some meaningful contact with them.
But can this describe an octopus?
Ms. Montgomery makes it clear that the answer is yes. She claims that an octopus is able “to ascribe thoughts to others” and by doing so can avoid attacks by predators by understanding exactly what the predator intends to do. She writes: “Of all the creatures on the planet who imagine what is in another creature’s mind, the one that must do so best might well be the octopus- because without this ability, the octopus could not perpetrate its many self-preserving deceptions (through camouflage)… The octopus must assess whether the other animal believes its ruse or not, and, if not, try something different.”
There is so much more to the octopus than this aspect of consciousness. In addition, the author says, that the octopuses she has developed a relationship with remember her even if months go by between visits. She so beautifully and tenderly describes the dying days of an octopus named Karma who seemingly willed herself back to health for a brief time to greet her when she comes back to visit for one last time.
The book made me want to meet an octopus as she did and hopefully that day will come. But, the book made a greater impression on me than just a plan for a future octopean interaction . (I looked that word up by the way.)
Reading the book taught me once again about the surprises that the animal world, and our world in general, hold for us. It was another look into the unexpected places where we can find proof of the beauty and meaning of life itself. It’s easy to look into the eyes of a dog or a cat or a horse or an ape and feel a connection. But, an octopus? For those fortunate enough to experience it, the answer is yes. And, for all of us, therein lies the encouragement to continue to walk through this world with eyes open for new understandings and new miracles.