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  • Writer's pictureIsaac yelchin

The intellect and Mischief of an Octopus

I had a truly inspiring teacher in college who changed the way I think. He is a written arts professor, who writes nonfiction novels and short stories. His name is Benjamin Hale, I recommend you read some of his books, it will put you in a similar state of obsession that I am in now. The question he raised is “what is it like to be an animal?” We have a vague understanding of what it is like to be human, but only to each his own. I only know what it is like to be me, and you only know what it is like to be you. You can imagine what it might be like to be me, and I, the converse, however we cannot truly know. At least we humans are all mostly the same physiologically, and some raised in very similar environments, so we can maybe get close to this understanding. However, at the end of the day it is impossible, we can only see through our own perspective.

This question becomes more diluted, yet more interesting, when you ask it about nonhuman animals. What is it like to be, say a dog, a hawk, an oak tree? This question is critical to understanding how we became who we are, and how we should view the rest of life on earth. Since we all evolved from the same single celled organism, yet branched off so much in shape, where do the commonalities of existence stem from? An octopus is incredibly smart, in our terms of the word smart, yet we have been evolving on different lines since a flatworm, 750 million years ago. Does that mean this flatworm had the beginnings of the consciousness we and the octopus seem to possess?

There was once an octopus kept in an aquarium, and it showed quite humorously how incredibly aware it was. There was a zookeeper that did the rounds and fed the fish, cleaned tanks, and all the regular. He had a tough relationship with this octopus, as every time he approached the octopus's tank, a powerful jet of water would hit him directly in between the eyes. He would be stunned and have to wipe away the salty water. The tanks in the aquarium have no lid, so that they can be easily accessed, and the octopus took advantage by spraying jets of water through its siphons at the zookeeper. Not just the zookeeper, but every volunteer or guest, would receive the same jet of water to the face when they came near the octopus.

First we must investigate this part of the story before we continue with the rest of the eight legged shenanigans. The octopus would spray people with water when they came near, for what reason is not exactly clear, however, what is clear are two things. This was intended by the octopus, it wasn’t spraying randomly all the time, it was specifically hitting people. This confirms the octopus has some idea of a person and that they react to being sprayed. Also, the octopus hit the people directly in the face, which adds another level of cunning and specificity to the action. Detailing further how complex the motives behind this careful action were for the octopus.

Now suddenly the zookeeper noticed a strange phenomenon. He came into the aquarium early in the morning and turned on the lights. However, the lights did not come on. So he took his flashlight, climbed the ladder and changed the bulb, and then everything was fine. The next morning the zookeeper came in and turned on the lights to find the same problem had occurred. Maybe a problem with the electrical wiring thought the zookeeper and phoned an electrician. The electrician came, and was duly sprayed in the face by the octopus, and took a look at the light. He noticed that there seemed to be nothing wrong with the wiring. So they changed the bulb again.

The next day the light wouldn’t turn on again. The zookeeper was exceptionally frustrated. He changed the bulb for a fourth time so he could finish his work for the day. However, he decided to get to the bottom of this problem and stay the night in the aquarium. He waited patiently watching the light and saw suddenly a stream of water hit the light and zap it went out. AH! It was the octopus. This mischievous beast had figured out that spraying the light would make it go out. The zookeeper was enthralled in figuring out the mystery and ran over to the octopus to boast that he had solved the case, only to receive another jet of water to the face.

Again we must stop and inspect the octopus. This creature so far from man, 750 million years apart in evolution, yet has so finely tuned into the zookeeper and his environment. It is unclear if the octopus really wanted to annoy the zookeeper, or show its frustration for being in the aquarium, or if it was just doing all this for some form of pleasure. Whatever the reason, there certainly was something on its mind.

The final act of mischief involved a far riskier act. Yet again the zookeeper entered in the morning and conducted the rounds. Everything was fine until he noticed that one of his fish tanks seemed a bit empty. He had sworn there were ten fish yesterday and he only counted five today. He was a bit confused and looked around on the floor near the tank to see if the fish had jumped out but there was nothing. He blamed this on lack of sleep from staying up late to catch the octopus and thought no more of it.

The next day, the same fish tank certainly had less fish. Only three swam around, and they looked a bit frightened. The zookeeper was in shambles. He knew that ahead of him was another late night. So again he set up camp huddled in the corner long after closing. He of course had his suspects, but couldn’t piece it together. The octopus, who clearly had a streak of bad behavior, was on the other side of the aquarium from the fish. He couldn't reach a tentacle over to grab them.

Well of course that didn’t stop this octopus. While nodding off, watching this fish tank, the zookeeper suddenly saw a large eight limbed creature sliding across the row of tanks in front of him. The octopus hoisted itself from one tank to the next all the way over to splash in and make quick work of the two remaining fish. The zookeeper then watched wide eyed as the octopus finished his meal and carefully slid back over to his original tank.

The next day the octopus was deemed too much of a cost to the aquarium and set free into the wild. This story teaches much about the potential for nonhuman life to have similar cleverness and thought process humans. While it is very foreign from our own, genetically, physiologically, where it dwells, what it eats, how it lives its entire life, the octopus seems to have some very similar traits. It interacts with us, causes mischief, and gets hungry for late night snacks. It has motives and wants, and ultimately outsmarted us humans. I cannot make a definitive statement on what it is like to be an octopus, but I can say that we should really think deeply about what the experiences of other animals on this earth may be.

I must quickly mention that this story is all true, however, it was not told to me firsthand and I may have over dramatized or mistold small portions of it. This story and many others can be found online and in this book that I recommend reading: Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. By Peter Godfrey Smith. This book was part of the course I took with Benjamin Hale and was truly inspiring. If this read gets you thinking about your dog, cat, an octopus, or the fly on your pasta in a different light, then take a look at this book.

Photo by Alex Havasi and cartoons by author, see below.

Isaac Yelchin is foremost a herpetologist. He studies lizards, frogs, newts, and the like. Specifically, he spends all day and night thinking about what it is like to be an animal. What are the animals thinking about? What is their perspective? When he should be working, he sits and stares at his pet lizard asking himself these questions.

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