The Mysterious Encounter: Of Consciousness & the Octopus

In spite of the momentous advances in neuroscience, one of the roadblocks that continue to trouble researchers of consciousness is explaining the ‘qualia’ or the way it feels to be a conscious being. One possible way to approach this problem is by looking into the mechanisms of sentience in beings very different from us. And what creature can be more different from us than the cephalopods! 
In Other Minds, Peter Godfrey-Smith dives deep into the ocean in search of the origins of consciousness. Siddhartha Dey reads…

Any talk on this book has to begin with its author. Peter Godfrey-Smith is a professor of Philosophy (Philosophy of Science, to be specific) in two universities, one in the US and another in Australia; is a scuba diver; an author of four books and an octopus researcher whose works have featured in the ‘National Geographic’ and ‘New Scientist’. And if these distinctions of the author raise great expectations about the book, do pick it up as early as possible, for it lives up to every bit of the promise.

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Book cover from Amazon

Perhaps the best thing about the book is its style, which remains limpid all throughout, without over-simplifying things. The author doesn’t presume any amount of foreknowledge into the subject on the part of his reader. He writes in a lucid prose and explains with clarity. While reading the book one feels like a rapt listener attending a series of engaging lectures. Like a true philosopher, Smith is careful and meticulous about his choice of words. He makes precise distinctions (like that between ‘consciousness’ and ‘subjective experience’); but never takes recourse to jargons to embody them. As a wonderful teacher, Smith uses anecdotes and analogies to bring the subject within the grasp of the students/readers and serves them with regular doses of humour and shock to keep them glued.

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Artwork by Trinamoy Das

The octopus, according to the ancient Roman writer Claudius Aelianus, is an animal full of ‘mischief and craft’. Its smartness and elusiveness have enthralled observers for long and as a result, it has been at the centre of much recent study on animal intelligence. Only last year I had read Sy Montgomery’s brilliant book The Soul of an Octopus which was an eye-opener as far as my knowledge of animal intelligence is concerned. It is through that book that I became aware of many of the striking features of Octopodean intelligence. For the uninitiated, Smith’s book is also replete with such accounts. The octopus body, for example, is protean and full of possibilities. No matter how closely you guard its tank, it will just take a hole the size of its eye for it to escape. The octopus can engage playfully and meaningfully with objects around them (even those which are not edible). They are highly individual in nature and can also distinguish between individual human observers, often forming inexplicable enmity/fondness towards some of them. Octopuses in captivity throwing jets of water towards particular aquarium keepers are already well-known. Smith’s account of a young octopus holding the scuba-diver Matthew Lawrence by his arm, leading him gently to its lair on the ocean bed and then showing him around only reaffirms the rich and complex sentience of the cephalopod. 

But Smith’s book is much more than just a collection of such intriguing and fascinating facts and anecdotes. Instead, it is a quest towards an understanding of the origin and nature of consciousness itself. Before focusing extensively on the unique case of the octopus, Godfrey-Smith dives deep into the ocean of history and takes the reader to the pre-Cambrian period where sentience might have stirred into being for the first time among lowly zoophytes. He goes on to explain the evolutionary processes through which nerves and brains were formed and analyzes the forces of the environment that led to such developments. He then arrives at the branching where the three major kinds of complex active bodies were formed — the cephalopods, arthropods, and mammals — and shows how each took its different evolutionary path. He points out key differences in the ways in which the different branches of the animal kingdom engage and interact with their surroundings. The octopus, for example, has no central nervous system in spite of showing signs of high intelligence. Its arms in themselves are highly ‘intelligent’ and have dense neural concentrations to allow them to function as autonomous and conscious organs. The cephalopod, therefore, is the closest that we can come to experiencing ‘alien intelligence’ on the earth. “If we want to understand other minds, the minds of cephalopods are the most other of all”, Smith observes.

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‘Animal Brain’ by Suman Mukherjee

The sense of wonder that this encounter creates is the most important takeaway from this book, which merges history and evolutionary biology, and in the process achieves something unique and rare. It takes the reader very close to actually experiencing the world as an octopus does and gives him at least a glimpse of ‘what it is like’ to be an octopus.

Title art by Prapti Roy

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