Platform-Independent Intelligence: Octopus Consciousness

"To understand ourselves, we must embrace the alien." - PZ Meyers

One difficulty in understanding consciousness is the fact that we know of only one species that certainly possesses it: humans. A new article by Jennifer Mather suggests that octopi may also possess consciousness, despite the vastly different architecture of their brain. If two very different neural architectures can both support forms of advanced cognition, then the similarities between them may help clarify the computational requirements for intelligent behavior.

Octopus brains are striking different from those in primates (for example, 3/5 of all their neurons are actually outside the brain). They also seem to have evolved a brain almost completely independently from those in mammals. Despite these differences, octopus brains also have ventricles, lobes, nuclei and in some cases regions that appear homologous in architecture to human learning and memory areas, such as the hippocampus.

Mather's article on cephalopod consciousness takes a more behavioral approach to understanding octopus intelligence. Although the physiology of octopi brains is increasingly well-understood, the relationship between octopus brains and their behaviors - indeed, even the breadth of their behavioral repertoire alone - is fairly unexplored. Mather reviews several interesting pieces of evidence relevant to this point:

- Cephalopod brains show bilateral symmetry, lateralization of function, and similar impairments as humans when the homologue of the corpus callosum is severed (the tissue connecting the two hemispheres). For example, octopi trained to make a choice with one eye can transfer this knowledge to making the same decision with the other eye, even if the corpus callosum homologue is severed after training. This ability is not present if the corpus callosum homologue is severed before training.

- Like humans, octopi seem to have a dominant eye, and dominant or preferred arms. Mather suggests this is indicative of a "central processor," thought to be important in some theories of consciousness (including "global workspace" theory).

- Octopi spend much of their time in a sleep-like state in which the pupils narrow and they are unresponsive to external stimulation. Sleep deprivation of octopi apparently leads to a simliar "sleep rebound" as in humans.

- Studies of octopus memory suggest at least a 2 cognitively distinct forms of memory, corresponding to short and long-term memory (a well-established division in the human literature). For example, Mather presents evidence that young cephalopods can remember for short periods of time (~5 minutes) but not longer periods of time until they are older, perhaps corresponding to the delayed development of the vertical lobe region (the same region thought to be homologous with the hippocampus in humans).

- Spatial and episodic memory also seems relatively well-developed in octopi, such that they do not need to retrace their outgoing path to return to their shelters (in contrast to many molluscs).

- Aging seems to have similar effects on cognitive capacity in cephalopods, such that older organisms demonstrate slower and more variable motor, sensory and learning performance.

- Octopi show surprising behavioral flexibility; for example, a "exhalant water jet" common to octopi and molluscs has been exapted by octopi for use in locomotion, the construction of shelters, and even what appears to be play. Note that dolphins, a cognitively advanced vertebrate, have also been observed to play and teach games with age-appropriate rules, although play behavior may be somewhat common among animals.

- Like mammals, octopi are better at discriminating vertically-oriented shapes than horizontally-oriented ones (although this likely reflects optimization for the sea floor, just as in mammals it may reflect optimization for upright walking). They can also be trained to discriminate mirror images from one another as well as generalize to images that are rotated 90 degrees, showing remarkable flexibility (generalization and discrimination are in some ways computationally opposed).

- Octopi also seem to suffer from proactive interference in training, just like humans, such that learning to attend to one feature of a stimulus impairs later learning about a second feature of the stimulus.

- Octopi show strategic and flexible organization of manual hunting behaviors, beginning with the least energy-expending methods for opening clams or snails and movinig on to more sophisticated techniques involving drilling through the shell, the injection of toxins, and flexible avoidance of novel man-made obstacles on the shells (such as dental cement and metal wiring). Contrary to some reports, octopi have also learned to open jars in order to access food inside, provided they are given chemical cues that the jar contains food. [Anecdotal reports also describe octopi climbing onto the decks of ships, opening containers of caught fish, and having a snack.]

- Octopus performance on traditional behavioral tests of theory of mind is difficult to evaluate, since octopi are primarily solitary animals. The classic "mirror test" of consciousness is also inconclusive since octopi seem relatively unreliant on vision. Squid, on the other hand, are more social animals and are apparently more reliant on vision (considering they have relatively sophisticated real-time control of the pigmentation of their skin. Some have proposed that these two feature might permit for the emergence of language among squid. Sure enough, patterns of skin pigmentation have been to have a lexical but not grammatical communicative structure (i.e., skin color seems to convey detailed information about current sexual or emotional states, without seeming to have a rule-like structure for how those signals can be combined).

These points demonstrate remarkable cognitive skills in a species with a profoundly different neural architecture than our own. Further exploration of the relationship of cephalopod and primate behavior, as well as the underlying physiology, may ultimately result in a platform-independent understanding of how the brain gives rise to advanced cognition.

Related Posts:
Mind Games: Humans, Dolphins and Computers
Correlating Brains, Bodies and Behaviors
Shared Intentionality in Human and Primate Cognition
Dolpins: Stupid or Smart? A Summary and Synthesis


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This was quite nice, thank you. I have to agree with Chris about the anecdotal approach these studies take. It's quite a shame that there isn't more widespread scientific analysis in the area.

It would seem that octopi may have an advanced neural net/modular neural architecture analogous to that of humans. Interesting. More interesting yet--what is the octopus brain capable of learning over time, given the right challenges?

The problem with judging "consciousness" in whales, dolphins, octopi, etc. is that we ourselves are so dimwitted, that we would need to train young animals from near birth in carefully controlled environments to develop a consciousness that we could even partially understand. We need to domesticate (in a special sense) these "intelligent" sea creatures to bring out as much "consciousness" as we are capable of recognising.

That is what we have done with apes, in primate centers--with provocative results. Perhaps we would be even luckier with the sea creatures?

Thanks for making the psychology digestable for me.

Glad I could help! :)

Agreed with Al fin, btw, that we may not be able to understand other consciousness without assuming it must be like our own. It's an interesting reason for doubting the whole comparative approach to intelligence.

|quote Al Fin|
we would need to train young animals from near birth in carefully controlled environments to develop a consciousness that we could even partially understand.
|end quote Al Fin|

Discussions of consciousness all too often ignore the most basic and primitive form of consciousness, and that is, a visuospatial awareness of the world around us. We see the world around us as a surrounding space containing volumetric objects bounded by colored surfaces. Surely all auto-mobile creatures, including the octopus, must have that kind of spatial awareness, even if their world of experience is painted in different color qualia, and at different resolution than our own.

See the Cartoon Epistemology:


> detailed information about current sexual or emotional
> states, without seeming to have a rule-like structure
> for how those signals can be combined ...

Um .... er .... these rule-like structures.
They are available somewhere for hominids?
I may have missed something as a teenager ....

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 12 Apr 2007 #permalink

Nice article, thanks. I do however find the apparent interchangeability of "intelligence" (and/or advanced cognition) and "consciousness" slightly disconcerting (a criticism of the paper, and not your review!). The bullet-pointed examples certainly show the octopus to be an "intelligent" creature, capable of complex and adaptive behaviour, but why the jump from that to consciousness? I think the main interest in the paper (and I can only speak for myself of course) is the fact that this intelligence comes from a brain, which, while still neural, has a vastly different architecture to our own (and that of other mammals). This is quite comforting from my point of view (cognitive modelling/robotics), as it provides a small piece of evidence for the view that intelligence is not necessarily structure-bound (although it doesn't say anything about functional requirements). Thanks again though :-)

Paul, thanks for the great comments (as usual).

I was also really bothered by the willy-nilly use of intelligence/consciousness.

My initial impressions are that these "comparative cognitive psych" fields have a lot of methodological catching-up to do. What little I've read is way more like 19th century biology (all observation-based; descriptive as opposed to mechanistic), or philosophy (highly speculative, & based on logic rather than evidence).

By Chris Chatham (not verified) on 13 Apr 2007 #permalink