A humbling inquiry into a tentacled intelligence so wonderfully different from our own.
By Maria Popova
“While stroking an octopus, it is easy to fall into reverie,” Sy Montgomery wrote in her breathtaking inquiry into how Earth’s most alien creature illuminates the wonders of consciousness. “To share such a moment of deep tranquility with another being, especially one as different from us as the octopus, is a humbling privilege… an uplink to universal consciousness.” And, as this little boy so touchingly reminds us, feeling empathy for a creature so vastly different from us is a supreme hallmark of our humanity. But what, exactly makes the octopus so extraordinary and enthralling?
Studying how intelligence can arise along such a divergent evolutionary path can help us understand more about intelligence and consciousness in general — who knows what other forms of intelligent life are possible, or how they process the world around them.
For more on the singular scintillation of this marvelous creature and its consciousness, do treat yourself to Sy Montgomery’s bewitching The Soul of an Octopus.
“The world is full of signs and wonders that come, and go, and if you are lucky you might be alive to see them.”
By Maria Popova
Every once in a while — perhaps thrice a lifetime, if one is lucky — a book comes along so immensely and intricately insightful, so overwhelming in beauty, that it renders one incapable of articulating what it’s about without contracting its expansive complexity, flattening its dimensional richness, and stripping it of its splendor. Because it is, of course, about everything — it might take a specific something as its subject, but its object is nothing less than the whole of the human spirit, mirrored back to itself.
H Is for Hawk (public library) by Helen Macdonald is one such book — the kind one devours voraciously, then picks up and puts down repeatedly, unsure how to channel its aboutness in a way that isn’t woefully inadequate.
For a necessary starting point, here’s an inadequate summation: After her father’s sudden and soul-splitting death, Macdonald, a seasoned falconer, decides to wade through the devastation by learning to train a goshawk — the fiercest of raptors, “things of death and difficulty: spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths,” capable of inflicting absolute gore with absolute grace. Over the course of that trying experience — which she chronicles by weaving together personal memory, natural history (the memory of our planet), and literary history (the memory of our culture) — she learns about love and loss, beauty and terror, control and surrender, and the myriad other dualities reconciling which is the game of life.
Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.’ Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.
Out of that aloneness a singular and paradoxical madness is born:
I knew I wasn’t mad mad because I’d seen people in the grip of psychosis before, and that was madness as obvious as the taste of blood in the mouth. The kind of madness I had was different. It was quiet, and very, very dangerous. It was a madness designed to keep me sane. My mind struggled to build across the gap, make a new and inhabitable world… Time didn’t run forwards any more. It was a solid thing you could press yourself against and feel it push back; a thick fluid, half-air, half-glass, that flowed both ways and sent ripples of recollection forwards and new events backwards so that new things I encountered, then, seemed souvenirs from the distant past.
Rippling through Macdonald’s fluid, mesmerizingly immersive prose are piercing, short, perfectly placed deliverances, in both senses of the word: there is the dark (“What happens to the mind after bereavement makes no sense until later.”), the luminous (“I’d halfway forgotten how kind and warm the world could be.”), the immediate (“Time passed. The wavelength of the light around me shortened. The day built itself.”), the timeless (“Those old ghostly intuitions that have tied sinew and soul together for millennia.”), and the irrepressibly sublime (“Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.”).
Choosing a goshawk, a creature notoriously difficult to tame, became Macdonald’s way of learning to let grace come unbidden, a letting that demanded a letting go — of compulsive problem-solving, of the various control strategies by which we try to bend life to our will, of the countless self-contortion and self-flagellation techniques driving the machinery of our striving. Recounting the frustration of failing to get her goshawk, Mabel, to obey her commands — frustration familiar to anyone who has ever anguished over any form of unrequited intentionality — Macdonald writes:
I flew her later in the day. I flew her earlier. I fed her rabbit with fur and rabbit without. I fed her chicks that I’d gutted and skinned and rinsed in water. I reduced her weight. I raised it. I reduced it again. I wore different clothes. I tried everything to fix the problem, certain that the problem couldn’t be fixed because the problem was me. Sometimes she flew straight to my fist, sometimes straight over it, and there was no way of knowing which it would be. Every flight was a monstrous game of chance, a coin-toss, and what was at stake felt something very like my soul. I began to think that what made the hawk flinch from me was the same thing that had driven away the man I’d fallen for after my father’s death. Think that there was something deeply wrong about me, something vile that only he and the hawk could see.
Macdonald peers directly into the black hole of fury, a familiar rage directed as much at the rebuffer as at the rebuffed self:
The anger was vast and it came out of nowhere. It was the rage of something not fitting; the frustration of trying to put something in a box that is slightly too small. You try moving the shape around in the hope that some angle will make it fit in the box. Slowly comes an apprehension that this might not, after all, be possible. And finally you know it won’t fit, know there is no way it can fit, but this doesn’t stop you using brute force to try to crush it in, punishing the bloody thing for not fitting properly. That was what it was like: but I was the box, I was the thing that didn’t fit, and I was the person smashing it, over and over again, with bruised and bleeding hands.
And yet somehow, Macdonald unboxes herself as she trains Mabel into control and Mabel trains her into the grace of surrender, of resting into life exactly as it is rather than striving for some continually unsatisfying and anguishing version of how it ought to be. She captures this beautifully in the closing vignette — an earthquake, quite an uncommon occurrence in England, rattles her house and sends her panic-stricken into Mabel’s quarters, terrified at the thought that earthquakes alarm wildlife and often cause animals to flee. Macdonald writes:
I race downstairs, three steps at a time, burst through the door and turn on the light in her room. She is asleep. She wakes, pulls her head from her mantle-feathers and looks at me with clear eyes. She’s surprised to see me. She yawns, showing her pink mouth like a cat’s and its arrowhead tongue with its black tip. Her creamy underparts are draped right down over her feet, so only one lemony toe and one carbon-black talon are exposed. Her other foot is drawn high up at her chest. She felt the tremors. And then she went back to sleep, entirely unmoved by the moving earth. The quake brought no panic, no fear, no sense of wrongness to her at all. She’s at home in the world. She’s here. She ducks her head upside down, pleased to see me, shakes her feathers into a fluffy mop of contentment, and then, as I sit with her, she slowly closes her eyes, tucks her head back into her feathers, and sleeps. She is not a duke, a cardinal, a hieroglyph or a mythological beast, but right now Mabel is more than a hawk. She feels like a protecting spirit. My little household god. Some things happen only once, twice in a lifetime. The world is full of signs and wonders that come, and go, and if you are lucky you might be alive to see them. I had thought the world was ending, but my hawk had saved me again, and all the terror was gone.
“A great deal depends, perhaps our humanity depends, on our sensing and acknowledging that quality in our kind we call the soul.”
By Maria Popova
“It’s so foolish to live (which is always trouble enough) and not to save your soul,” Willa Cather wrote as she turned her life around to become a writer. But what is the soul, really, and dare we talk of saving it? Over the past century, the effort to salvage the soul from its religious connotations and reclaim it as a useful humanistic concept in a secular context has only rendered it a polarizing term of equal parts aversion and allure. The more we enlist our tools of inquiry in solving the perennial puzzles of consciousness and the self, the more disquieted we are by how the soul continues to feed us mystery as we hunger for knowledge and certainty.
Virginia Woolf captured this paradoxical pull perfectly when she observed: “One can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.” And yet look we do, pointing our keenest probes in its direction, hoping to localize it and dissect its nature. We fail and stumble and try again, our powers and our limitations locked in an abiding tango.
In the opening essay, titled “Humanism,” Robinson laments how the “joyless urgency” of our time has dehumanized the spirit by sidelining the humanities. She points to a counterintuitive remedy:
The antidote to our gloom is to be found in contemporary science. This may seem an improbable stance from which to defend the humanities, and I do not wish to undervalue contemporary art or literature or music or philosophy. But it is difficult to recognize the genius of a period until it has passed. Milton, Bach, Mozart all suffered long periods of eclipse, beginning before their lives had ended. Our politics may appear in the light of history to have been filled with triumphs of statecraft, unlikely as this seems to us now. Science, on the other hand, can assert credible achievements and insights, however tentative, in present time.
But science, Robinson cautions, is susceptible to the same delusion of omniscience that has traditionally bedeviled religious dogma. Half a century after Henry Beston’s exquisite meditation on the limits of science, Robinson calls out one particularly prominent area where our voraciousness for knowledge is blinding us to the many dimensions of the unknowable:
Neuroscience has, as its primary resource, technology that captures images of processes within the living brain. Fear lights up a certain area, therefore fear is a function of that area, which developed for the purposes of maintaining homeostasis. It prepares the organism to fight or flee. Well and good. But fear is rarely without context. People can be terrified of spiders, dentists, the Last Judgment, germs, the need to speak in public, thirteen, extraterrestrials, mathematics, hoodies, the discovery of a fraud in their past. All of these fears are the creatures of circumstance, of the history and state of health of a specific brain. They identify threat, interpreting an environment in highly individual terms. They, not threat in the abstract, trigger alarm, and they are the products of parts of the brain that do not light up under technological scrutiny and would elude interpretation if they did. If they are not taken into account, the mere evidence of an excitation has little descriptive and no predictive value. A fearful person might take a pill, faint, or commit mayhem. The assumptions behind the notion that the nature of fear and the impulses it triggers could be made legible or generalizable for the purposes of imaging would have to exclude complexity—the factor that introduces individuality with all its attendant mysteries…
This all appears to be a straightforward instance of scientists taking as the whole of reality that part of it their methods can report. These methods are as much a matter of vocabulary as of technology, though the two interact and reinforce each other.
On scrutiny the physical is as elusive as anything to which a name can be given. The physical as we have come to know it frays away into dark matter, antimatter, and by implication on beyond them and beyond our present powers of inference.
The real assertion being made in all this (neuroscience is remarkable among sciences for its tendency to bypass hypothesis and even theory and to go directly to assertion) is that there is no soul. Only the soul is ever claimed to be nonphysical, therefore immortal, therefore sacred and sanctifying as an aspect of human being. It is the self but stands apart from the self. It suffers injuries of a moral kind, when the self it is and is not lies or steals or murders, but it is untouched by the accidents that maim the self or kill it. Obviously this intuition—it is much richer and deeper than anything conveyed by the word “belief” — cannot be dispelled by proving the soul’s physicality, from which it is aloof by definition. And on these same grounds its nonphysicality is no proof of its nonexistence…
I find the soul a valuable concept, a statement of the dignity of a human life and of the unutterable gravity of human action and experience.
By attempting to localize the nonphysical in the physical, Robinson argues, neuroscience makes a false claim to freedom from bias — in reality, its tools of inquiry and perception greatly shape the results perceived. (As Krista Tippett aptly put it, “how we ask our questions affects the answers we arrive at.”)
There could be no more naive anthropocentricity than is reflected in the certainty and insistence that what we can know about the nature of things at this moment makes us capable of definitive judgments about much of anything…
This kind of criticism is conventionally made of religion. I am not attempting some sort of rhetorical tae kwon do, to turn the attack against the attacker. My point is simply that neuroscience, at least in its dominant forms, greatly overreaches the implications of its evidence and is tendentious.
She contrasts this with more humanistic views of the mind and its locus of genius:
If Shakespeare had undergone an MRI there is no reason to believe there would be any more evidence of extraordinary brilliance in him than there would be of a self or a soul. He left a formidable body of evidence that he was both brilliant and singular, but it has fallen under the rubric of Renaissance drama and is somehow not germane, perhaps because this places the mind so squarely at the center of the humanities. From the neuroscientific point of view, this only obscures the question. After all, where did our high sense of ourselves come from? From what we have done and what we do. And where is this awareness preserved and enhanced? In the arts and the humane disciplines. I am sure there are any number of neuroscientists who know and love Mozart better than I do, and who find his music uplifting. The inconsistency is for them to explain.
Science may never find a way to confirm or reject the idea of multiple universes, or arrive at a satisfactory definition of time or gravity. We know things in the ways we encounter them. Our encounters, and our methods and assumptions, are determined by our senses, our techniques, our intuitions.. To have arrived at this point is not a failure of science but a spectacular achievement.
That said, it might be time to pause and reflect. Holding to the old faith that everything is in principle knowable or comprehensible by us is a little like assuming that every human structure or artifact must be based on yards, feet, and inches. The notion that the universe is constructed, or we are evolved, so that reality must finally answer in every case to the questions we bring to it, is entirely as anthropocentric as the notion that the universe was designed to make us possible.
The impulse toward generalization that would claim to make the brain solvable should on these grounds be rejected, certainly until we have some grasp of the deeper sources of this complexity and order, the causal factors that lie behind this infinitesimal nuancing. The brain is certainly more profoundly individuated than its form or condition can reveal.
In another essay, titled “Experience,” Robinson revisits the usefulness of the soul as a sensemaking mechanism:
The concept “soul” allows us to acknowledge the richness and variety of the experience of the self.
[Starfish] were thought to have no eyes. Then it was discovered that they were all eyes, that their bodies were entirely covered with visual receptors, and that the simple-looking creature somehow integrates a mass of sensation. A more considered understanding of the soul, as an experience that I think we do share, would put an end to these mystifications about its physical locus.
What we experience as physical reality is profoundly untypical of physical reality. Human experience is the central factor here. We can know that we are part and parcel of the universe at large, that great storm of energy. From the soles of our feet to our worst idea, from a Beethoven sonata to Yankee Stadium, nothing can be accounted for in any other terms…
I have called it a storm, but there is a profound order or predictability in the whole fabric of it. Whatever atoms are, certain of their properties and combinations can be described. There are other constancies, which we call laws and forces. I take the Jamesian view, that what we know about anything is determined by the way we encounter it, and therefore we should never assume that our knowledge of anything is more than partial. If this principle applies to reality at the smallest scales that are so far accessible to us, it most emphatically applies to the stratum of reality that we consider familiar.
Proper acknowledgement of these limitations and of the inherent partiality of our knowledge, Robinson suggests, welcomes the notion of the soul as a haven for the unknown and possibly unknowable, so essential to the very fabric of being:
A great deal depends, perhaps our humanity depends, on our sensing and acknowledging that quality in our kind we call the soul.
“While stroking an octopus, it is easy to fall into reverie. To share such a moment of deep tranquility with another being, especially one as different from us as the octopus, is a humbling privilege… an uplink to universal consciousness.”
By Maria Popova
“Despite centuries of investigation by everyone from natural historians, psychologists, and psychiatrists, to ethicists, neuroscientists, and philosophers, there is still no universal definition of emotion or consciousness,” Laurel Braitman wrote in her terrific exploration of the mental lives of animals. Virginia Woolf defined consciousness as “a wave in the mind,” but even if we’re able to ride the wave, we hardly know the ocean out of which it arises.
Montgomery begins with a seemingly simple premise. The octopus is a creature magnificently dissimilar to us — it can change shape and color, tastes with its skin, has its mouth in its armpit, and is capable of squeezing its entire body through a hole the size of an apple. And since we humans experience reality in profoundly different ways from one another, based on our individual consciousnesses, then the octopus must be inhabiting an altogether different version of what we call reality.
The constellation of complexities comprising this difference, Montgomery reveals over the course of this miraculously insightful and enchanting book, expands our understanding of consciousness and sheds light on the very notion of what we call a “soul.”
More than half a billion years ago, the lineage that would lead to octopuses and the one leading to humans separated. Was it possible, I wondered, to reach another mind on the other side of that divide? Octopuses represent the great mystery of the Other.
Among the pitfalls of the human condition is our tendency to see otherness as a source of dread rather than an invitation to friendly curiosity. The octopus, as the ultimate Other, has a long history of epitomizing this inclination and sparking our primal fear of the unknown. Montgomery cites one particularly emblematic depiction from Victor Hugo’s novel Toilers of the Sea:
The spectre lies upon you; the tiger can only devour you; the devil-fish, horrible, sucks your life-blood away… The muscles swell, the fibres of the body are contorted, the skin cracks under the loathsome oppression, the blood spurts out and mingles horribly with the lymph of the monster, which clings to the victim with innumerable hideous mouths…
Setting out to “defend the octopus against centuries of character assassination,” Montgomery notes that octopuses have highly individual personalities and can exhibit marked curiosity — faculties we tend to think of as singularly human. Even their motives for friendliness and unfriendliness, far from the baseless brutality of depictions like Hugo’s, parallel our own:
In one study, Seattle Aquarium biologist Roland Anderson exposed eight giant Pacific octopuses to two unfamiliar humans, dressed identically in blue aquarium uniforms. One person consistently fed a particular octopus, and another always touched it with a bristly stick. Within a week, at first sight of the people — looking up at them through the water, without even touching or tasting them — most of the octopuses moved toward the feeder and away from the irritator. Sometimes the octopus would aim its water-shooting funnel, the siphon near the side of the head with which an octopus jets through the sea, at the person who had touched it with the bristly stick.
Surely, a skeptic might argue that this is more instinct than “consciousness.” But Montgomery goes on to outline a number of strikingly specific and context-considered behaviors indicating that octopuses are animated by complex conscious experiences — things we tend to term “thoughts” and “feelings” in the human realm — that upend our delusions of exceptionalism. Lest we forget, we have a long history of bolstering those delusions by putting other species down, much like petty egotists try to make themselves feel big by making other people feel small — even Jane Goodall contended with dismissal and ridicule when she first suggested that chimpanzees have consciousness.
But beyond intellectual considerations of this weird and wonderful creature’s inner life, Montgomery points to the physical, bodily presence with an octopus as a transcendent experience in its own right — one that pulls into question our most basic assumptions about consciousness:
While stroking an octopus, it is easy to fall into reverie. To share such a moment of deep tranquility with another being, especially one as different from us as the octopus, is a humbling privilege. It’s a shared sweetness, a gentle miracle, an uplink to universal consciousness.
Indeed, the book’s greatest reward isn’t the fascinating science — although that is riveting and ablaze with rigor — but Montgomery’s bewitching prose, pouring from the soul of a literary naturalist who paints the marvels of the ocean’s depths like Thoreau did the marvels of the New England woods. Finding herself “drunk with strange splendors” as she beholds the marine world’s “parade of wonders,” Montgomery writes:
A splendid toadfish hides beneath a rock. Once thought to live only in Cozumel, it’s pancake flat, with thin, wavy, horizontal blue and white stripes, Day-Glo yellow fins, and whiskery barbels. A four-foot nurse shark sleeps beneath a coral shelf, peaceful as a prayer. A trumpet fish, yellow with dark stripes, floats with its long, tubular snout down, trying to blend in with some branching coral… A school of iridescent pink and yellow fish slide by inches from our masks, then wheel in unison like birds in the sky.
I have known no natural state more like a dream than this. I feel elation cresting into ecstasy and experience bizarre sensations: my own breath resonates in my skull, faraway sounds thump in my chest, objects appear closer and larger than they really are. Like in a dream, the impossible unfolds before me, and yet I accept it unquestioningly. Beneath the water, I find myself in an altered state of consciousness, where the focus, range, and clarity of perception are dramatically changed.
Suddenly acutely aware that the octopuses she has met and come to love on her expeditions experience this dizzying otherworldliness as their basic backdrop of existence, she considers the limited array of sensations and perceptions that we’ve come to accept as the whole or reality:
The ocean, for me, is what LSD was to Timothy Leary. He claimed the hallucinogen is to reality what a microscope is to biology, affording a perception of reality that was not before accessible. Shamans and seekers eat mushrooms, drink potions, lick toads, inhale smoke, and snort snuff to transport their minds to realms they cannot normally experience.
In my scuba-induced altered state, I’m not in the grip of a drug: I am lucid in my immersion, voluntarily becoming part of what feels like the ocean’s own dream.
Out of this perspective-shifting consideration arises Montgomery’s most profound inquiry. Sitting in a Tahitian temple dedicated to the spirit of the octopus, where one of her expeditions has taken her, she wonders:
What is the soul? Some say it is the self, the “I” that inhabits the body; without the soul, the body is like a lightbulb with no electricity. But it is more than the engine of life, say others; it is what gives life meaning and purpose. Soul is the fingerprint of God.
Others say that soul is our innermost being, the thing that gives us our senses, our intelligence, our emotions, our desires, our will, our personality, and identity. One calls soul “the indwelling consciousness that watches the mind come and go, that watches the world pass.” Perhaps none of these definitions is true. Perhaps all of them are. But I am certain of one thing as I sit in my pew: If I have a soul — and I think I do — an octopus has a soul, too.