Peter Watts has this short short story about a brain interface technology that allows people to merge their consciousness with other organisms — and in this one, “Colony Creature”, someone experiences what it is like to be an octopus, and is horrified by it.
“Those arms.” His Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. “Those fucking crawly arms. You know, that thing they call the brain— it’s nothing, really. Ring of neurons around the esophagus, basically just a router. Most of the nervous system’s in the arms, and those arms… every one of them is awake…”
It’s a good story, and I’m not knocking it. I think it’s also important to recognize that the experience of being a non-human organism is probably fundamentally different than being a human.
However, while it’s true that 2/3 of the neurons in an octopus are found in the arms, not the brain, I doubt that the experience of being an octopus is quite so distributed, or that it consists of eight independent conscious entities.
For example, your eyes are actually complex outpocketings of your brain — each one contains at least half a billion neurons interconnected with some very intricate circuitry. Likewise, your enteric nervous system — the neurons that drive the activity of your gut — consist of about a half billion cells, too. These things are bigger and more complex than the nervous system of my larval zebrafish, which can swim and learn and eat and carry out goal-oriented behavior.
If a Vulcan mind-melded with a human, do you think that they would report that the human experience is all about these creepy autonomous orbs on their face, darting about and collecting photons, and that we’ve all got this colossal slimy worm hanging from our heads, writhing and squirming and demanding to be fed? It would make a good creepy story, but it’s not an accurate picture of our conscious experience.
I’m not sure what consciousness is, but it’s almost certainly got to be a synthetic process that integrates complex information from multiple sources, guts and sensory organs and spinal cord and multiple modalities, and is also built up from different processing centers within the brain. I would expect the same is true of the octopus.
Although…a talented writer could probably put together a good horrifying story of a person with a fractured brain, where they became aware of all the separate components of the inputs to the human experience as if they were independent intelligent agents with limited and specific needs having conversations with a central ‘self’ (another problem with the Watts story: what is the octopus ‘self’ that the story-teller has become?). What do my eyeballs want? What is my amygdala muttering to itself? I know what my gonads want, and they better behave.