Insights from ‘The Soul of an Octopus’ (Sy Montgomery)

It would suffice to say that this book was an eye-opener. It forced me into recognising octopuses as sentient and heterogenous beings. Some hints were even made, quite convincingly, to suggest that they are smarter than us. In short, I don’t often encounter instances wherein humankind’s intellectual credibility is questioned. Montgomery’s striking language further elucidates upon the emotions, facts and narratives she conveys. Some of these are mesmerising by themselves, such as her emphasis on how octopuses, like humans, savour food before consuming it. Another fact, more daunting than inspiring, is that humans are like twigs to octopuses. Mere dolls in the face of the monstrous forces these marine beings can generate. All in all, The Soul of An Octopus is both frightening and revealing. Frightening in that it makes octopuses seem to be creatures favoured by evolution. Revealing in that it removes the veil that makes us humans believe ourselves to be godly with respect to the planet.

To not see how cunning octopuses, one would have to be more than blind. For example, the tale of Octavia. Octavia managed to simultaneously greet five people with five limbs, while using her remaining three limbs to steal a bucket of fish. Genius. Accompanying such stories is some delightful language. Montgomery, like any good author, makes us feel as if the events are happening right in front of our eyes! She gives every tale a real-world link. The loss of a beloved one – the demise of an octopus. The horror of Alzheimer’s – the nightmare of Octopus’s senescence. Humans solving riddles – Octopuses pening boxes and operating levers to get to their food.

On the downside, the palpable sense of magic turned into boredom and frustration due to how the author attempted to force the readers into mirroring her feelings, especially towards the latter stages of the book. For example, near the end, Montgomery, chose to dedicate 20 odd pages to an octopus blind date. This made no sense to me. As the book approached its end, it became evident that Montgomery wasn’t trying to broach a topic, but wanted to transform the reader into octopus-fanatic overnight. Dull.

Having conflicted good and bad, let’s move on.

After I finished reading, there was one thing pertinently nagging at me – consciousness. The idea of consciousness, in broadly speaking all animals, was evoked again and again. Luckily, this paid off. Do correct me if I’m wrong, but the very idea, or rather concept of consciousness is rather ubiquitous. We don’t understand what it is. Not by any means. As exhibited in The Soul of an Octopus, even organisms lacking neural systems have displayed individualistic behaviours (I’m talking about the starfish). This idea of ‘consciousness bereft of a brain’ may seem absurd, but it is true. We have always thought ourselves to be distinct based on consciousness. Turns out, we’re not that different when it comes to being sentient.

Research teams around the globe have found evidence of both thought and curiosity in many different types of organisms. The octopus is one of many. Not only have octopuses exhibited traits of intelligence, but have shown curiosity by exploring new areas (eg. new aquarium tanks), using various types of solids as armour (eg. coconut shells) and interacting with humans. The most understandable of these examples is that of Octavia, who remembered her handler’s warming presence not by sight, but by touch! And then proceeded to envelop him in octopus slime, while ignoring her food.

It is hard to say if we will ever understand what consciousness is. Despite this, one thing is certain, we aren’t the only sentient organisms on this pale blue dot.