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The Soul of an Octopus: How One of Earth’s Most Alien Creatures Illuminates the Wonders of 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… an uplink to universal consciousness.”

The Soul of an Octopus: How One of Earth’s Most Alien Creatures Illuminates the Wonders of Consciousness

“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.

During my annual visit to NPR’s Science Friday to discuss my choices for the year’s best science books, my co-guest — science writer extraordinaire Deborah Blum — mentioned a fascinating book that had slipped my readerly tentacles, one that addresses this abiding question of consciousness with unparalleled rigor and grace: The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness (public library) by naturalist, writer, and documentary filmmaker Sy Montgomery.

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.”

North Pacific Giant Octopus by photographer Mark Laita from his project Sea

She writes:

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.

Pacific giant octopus by photographer Susan Middleton from her project Spineless

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.

This, no doubt, is what Alan Watts meant when he asserted that “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others.”

The Soul of an Octopus is an astoundingly beautiful read in its entirety, at once scientifically illuminating and deeply poetic, and is indeed a worthy addition to the best science books of the year.

You can listen to the complete Science Friday segment below:

BP

Consider the Octopus: A Little Boy’s Moving Case Against Eating Animals

Disarming wisdom from a tiny-bodied, huge-hearted human animal.

Several months ago, a stirring New Yorker article by Sylvia Killingsworth stopped me dead in my bipedal tracks and made me — a longtime pescaterian aglow with the self-satisfied illusion of siding with “sustainable” seafood — suddenly consider the octopus. What does it really means to sustain creaturely empathy for a being so different from us? More than one of our planet’s most breathtaking creatures, it is a life form a biologist quoted in Killingsworth’s piece believes is “probably the closest we’ll get to meeting an intelligent alien” — and yet, as Killingsworth makes clear, one we murder with such devastating inhumanity that I couldn’t help but cringe at the very thought of having once considered it a favorite food. A food — this exquisite masterwork of evolution, this intelligent alien with an order of consciousness so beyond ours that we can barely begin to grasp its extent with the clumsy and insensitive tentacles of our moral imagination.

But no journalist or biologist or ethicist can hold a candle to a little boy named Luiz and his earnest consideration of the octopus. With incredible clarity and simplicity, this tiny-bodied, huge-hearted human animal makes his case — the very best case there is — against eating other animals:

For a grownup take on expanding our circle of empathy, see Laurel Braitman’s excellent Animal Madness and Jon Mooallem’s Wild Ones, a very different kind of masterwork at the intersection of parenting and interspecies empathy.

UPDATE: Offered with the utmost endorsement as a masterpiece of science and humanity, Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus.

BP

Eating the Sun: A Lovely Illustrated Celebration of Wonder, the Science of How the Universe Works, and the Existential Mystery of Being Human

“When one is considering the universe, unseen matter, our small backyard of the stuff, I think it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.”

Eating the Sun: A Lovely Illustrated Celebration of Wonder, the Science of How the Universe Works, and the Existential Mystery of Being Human

“I’m stricken by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” poet Diane Ackerman wrote in her Cosmic Pastoral, which so enchanted Carl Sagan — her doctoral advisor — that he sent a copy of the book to Timothy Leary in prison. “Wonder,” Ackerman observed nearly half a century later in her succulent performance at The Universe in Verse, “is the heaviest element in the periodic table of the heart. Even a tiny piece of it can stop time.”

That ricochet wonder, in its myriad kaleidoscopic manifestations diffracted by various scientific phenomena, reflected by various facets of this splendidly interconnected universe, and hungrily absorbed by the human heart, is at the center of Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe (public library) by Ella Frances Sanders — the boundlessly curious writer and artist who gave us Lost in Translation, that lovely illustrated dictionary of untranslatable words from around the world.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Sanders writes in the preface to this lyrical and luminous celebration of science and our consanguinity with the universe:

A sense of wonder can find you in many forms, sometimes loudly, sometimes as a whispering, sometimes even hiding inside other feelings — being in love, or unbalanced, or blue.

For me, it is looking at the night for so long that my eyes ache and I’m stuck seeing stars for hours afterwards, watching the way the ocean sways itself to sleep, or as the sky washes itself in colors for which I know I will never have the words — a world made from layers of rock and fossil and glittered imaginings that keeps tripping me up, demanding I pay attention to one leaf at a time, ensuring I can never pick up quite where I left off.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

With an eye to the miraculous absurdity of our existence — we only exist by chance, after all, in a universe governed by chaos and predicated on impermanence — Sanders writes:

When one is considering the universe, unseen matter, our small backyard of the stuff, I think it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.

Cry because we cannot even begin to understand how beautiful it is, cry because we are terribly flawed as a species, cry because it all seems so shockingly improbable that maybe our existence could be nothing but a dreamscape — celestial elephants in rooms without walls. But then? Surely, we can laugh.

Laugh because being riddled head-to-toe with human emotions while trying to come to terms with just how indisputably tiny we are in the grand scheme of things, makes absolutely everything and everyone seem quite ridiculous, entirely farcical. We have heads? Ridiculous! There are arguments about who is in charge here? Ridiculous! The universe is expanding? Ridiculous! We feel it necessary to keep secrets? Ridiculous.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

In fifty-one miniature essays, each accompanied by one of her playful and poignant ink-and-watercolor drawings, Sanders goes on to explore a pleasingly wide array of scientific mysteries and facts — evolution, chaos theory, clouds, the color blue, the nature of light, the wondrousness of octopuses, the measurement of time, Richard Feynman’s famous cataclysm sentence, the clockwork mesmerism of planetary motion, our microbiome, the puzzlement of why we dream. What emerges is something sweetly consonant with Nabokov’s exultation at our “capacity to wonder at trifles” — except, of course, even the smallest and most invisible of these processes, phenomena, and laws are not trifles but condensed miracles that make the everythingness of everything we know.

It is tempting, then — and Sanders succumbs to the temptation in a most delicious way — to seek the existential in the scientific, even if the thread between the two is slender and human-made, rather than woven by this vast unfeeling universe in which we warm ourselves with wonder. In a chapter on our organic composition, so memorably captured in Carl Sagan’s assertion that “we too are made of starstuff,” Sanders shines a sidewise gleam on the illusion of the solid and separate self:

Depending on where you look, what you touch, you are changing all the time. The carbon inside you, accounting for about 18 percent of your being, could have existed in any number of creatures or natural disasters before finding you. That particular atom residing somewhere above your left eyebrow? It could well have been a smooth, riverbed pebble before deciding to call you home.

You see, you are not so soft after all; you are rock and wave and the peeling bark of trees, you are ladybirds and the smell of a garden after the rain. When you put your best foot forward, you are taking the north side of a mountain with you.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Sanders revisits the subject through the lens of the physics beneath the chemistry in a chapter on the structure and discovery of the atom. In a passage evocative of physicist Alan Lightman’s wonderful explanation of why we are mostly restlessness and empty space, she writes:

Such a beautiful (and until recently invisible) idea, the importance and unavoidable nature of atoms, one that seems to put everyone and everything on a satisfyingly level playing field. Your good and bad decisions, your wingspan, your wholeness as a person — these are all possible because of your own 7 billion billion billion atoms, each one made up of (roughly speaking) a positive nucleus in the middle, and the negative electron cloud surrounding it — a cloud that sort of dances from side to side, alternately enchanting other atoms and pushing them away (the really complicated magic can be left to quantum mechanics). Without atoms, nothing would be here; not the book in your hands, not the pen that leaked into your pocket this morning, not those buildings that are enough to make you scared of heights, nothing. If it weren’t for atoms, there wouldn’t be mass, or molecules, or matter, or me, or you.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

The irrepressible human inquiry that magnetizes our imagination and draws us to the inner workings of the universe is the same inquiry Tolstoy scrawled into the diaries of his youth: “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” Sanders weaves these elemental questions — what are we made of and what does that make us? — into nearly every scientific curiosity she picks up, but she addresses them directly in a chapter devoted to our strangely continuous sense of self, devoid of a physical basis of continuity. She writes:

The idea of an unchanging “you” or “self” is inherently fraught with confusion and conflict, and if you consider the topic for too long it can begin to feel clammy, almost suspect. An apparent string running through all the previous versions of you — the one five minutes ago, a few hours ago, several years — the idea of “self” inevitably gets tangled up in things like the physical body and appearance, like memory. It’s clear that you cannot pin yourself down as any one particular “thing” but rather that you resemble a story line, an endless progression, variations on a theme, something that enables you to relate your present “self” to the past and future ones.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Echoing the great neurologist Oliver Sacks’s recognition of narrative as the cognitive pillar of personhood, she adds:

We do seem to make sense of ourselves and the world as a part of a narrative — we think in terms of main characters, those we speak and interact with, and where the beginnings, the middles, and the endings are.

Radiating from the book is lucid, lyrical consolation for the elemental disquietude of existence — the fact that haunting the fundamental laws of the universe and the sturdy certitude of their mathematics is the daily chaos of uncertainty with which we must somehow live, keeping one eye on our greatest loves and greatest losses, on the trifling urgencies of the mundane, and the other, wincing, on the only certainty there is: that one day we shall cease to exist. Sanders writes:

A lot of our time is spent trying to tie up loose ends, trying to shape disorder into something recognizably smooth, trying to escape the very limits that hold us close, happily ignoring rough edges and the inevitable. We separate ourselves out into past, present, and future, if only to show that we have changed, that we know better, that we have understood something inherent; if only to draw neat lines from start to finish without looking back.

The problem is that chaos is always only ever sitting just across the table, frequently glancing up from its newspaper, from its coffee cup filled with discolored and imploding stars. Because chaos too waits. Waits for you to notice it, for you to realize it’s the most dazzling thing you’ve ever seen, for all of your atoms to collectively shriek in belated recognition and stare, mouth open, at how exquisitely embedded it is in everything. Because we are not designed to be more orderly than anything else; seams have a tendency to come apart with time — you and the universe are the same in this way, which makes for a delicately overwhelming struggle.

So, then, if you can’t ever end things neatly, can’t ever put them back quite the way you found them, surely the alternative is to remain stubbornly carbonated with possibility, to never rest from your rotation. To keep assembling stories between us, stories about how everything was everything, about how much we loved.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Complement Eating the Sun with The Edge of the Sky — a poetic, unusual primer on the universe, written with the 1,000 most common words in the English language — and Carl Sagan on how to live with mystery, then revisit the great nineteenth-century naturalist John Muir on the universe as an infinite storm of beauty.

BP

Ecologist and Philosopher David Abram on the Language of Nature and the Secret Wisdom of the More-Than-Human World

“We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.”

Ecologist and Philosopher David Abram on the Language of Nature and the Secret Wisdom of the More-Than-Human World

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” the great nature writer Henry Beston wrote in 1928 as he contemplated belonging and the web of life. “In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.” The geologist Hans Cloos, a contemporary of Beston’s, complemented the sentiment beautifully in reflecting on our conversations with the planet: “We translate the earth’s language into our own, and enrich the already bright and colorful surface of the present with the knowledge of the inexhaustible abundance of the past.”

As we learn to translate the language of nature, there is more than mere astonishment at what we uncover; at the knowledge — nascent to science, ancient to native cultures the world over — of what trees feel and how they communicate, or of how other animal consciousnesses experience the world. There is magic — the realest, rawest form of magic we can access in an unsuperstitious world grounded in science but willing to soar beyond it, into other, non-materialist modes of perception.

That is what ecologist and philosopher David Abram explores with equal parts scientific curiosity and reverence for native wisdom in The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (public library).

Art by Jackie Morris from The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane — a visual dictionary of poetic spells reclaiming nature’s language

Abram writes:

Magic… in its perhaps most primordial sense, is the experience of existing in a world made up of multiple intelligences, the intuition that every form one perceives — from the swallow swooping overhead to the fly on a blade of grass, and indeed the blade of grass itself — is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations, albeit sensations that are very different from our own.

[…]

Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth — our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. (Art available as a print.)

And yet a defining feature of what makes us human — our imagination — is predicated on a recognition of this sensorial interrelation. Two centuries after William Blake wrote in his searing defense of the imagination that “the tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way, [for] as a man is, so he sees,” Abram writes:

That which we call imagination is from the first an attribute of the senses themselves; imagination is not a separate mental faculty (as we so often assume) but is rather the way the senses themselves have of throwing themselves beyond what is immediately given, in order to make tentative contact with the other sides of things that we do not sense directly, with the hidden or invisible aspects of the sensible.

Echoing naturalist John Muir’s poetic observation that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” and philosopher Alan Watts’s admonition that “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” Abram considers the relationship between perception, sensation, and reality beyond our isolated experience:

The “real world” in which we find ourselves, then — the very world our sciences strive to fathom — is not a sheer “object,” not a fixed and finished “datum” from which all subjects and subjective qualities could be pared away, but is rather an intertwined matrix of sensations and perceptions, a collective field of experience lived through from many different angles. The mutual inscription of others in my experience, and (as I must assume) of myself in their experiences, effects the interweaving of our individual phenomenal fields into a single, ever-shifting fabric, a single phenomenal world or “reality.”

And yet, as we know from our everyday experience, the phenomenal world is remarkably stable and solid; we are able to count on it in so many ways, and we take for granted much of its structure and character. This experienced solidity is precisely sustained by the continual encounter with others, with other embodied subjects, other centers of experience. The encounter with other perceivers continually assures me that there is more to any thing, or to the world, than I myself can perceive at any moment. Besides that which I directly see of a particular oak tree or building, I know or intuit that there are also those facets of the oak or building that are visible to the other perceivers that I see. I sense that that tree is much more than what I directly see of it, since it is also what the others whom I see perceive of it; I sense that as a perceivable presence it already existed before I came to look at it, and indeed that it will not dissipate when I turn away from it, since it remains an experience for others — not just for other persons, but… for other sentient organisms, for the birds that nest in its branches and for the insects that move along its bark, and even, finally, for the sensitive cells and tissues of the oak itself, quietly drinking sunlight through its leaves. It is this informing of my perceptions by the evident perceptions and sensations of other bodily entities that establishes, for me, the relative solidity and stability of the world.

Illustration by Matthew Forsythe from The Golden Leaf

This recognition of the reality of other experiences calls to mind the distinction philosopher Martin Buber drew nearly a century earlier between the I-It and I-Thou orientations toward what is other than oneself. And this recognition, Abram argues, is the key to redeeming our connection to the rest of nature and the more-than-human world, so artificially severed in modern Western culture. “We call it ‘Nature’; only reluctantly admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too,” Denise Levertov captured this modern hijacking of our essence in her exquisite poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World.” Abram considers what it takes for us to heal the artificial severance into parallels and re-intersect our own experience with the manifold realities of that “other” world:

Direct, prereflective perception is inherently synaesthetic, participatory, and animistic, disclosing the things and elements that surround us not as inert objects but as expressive subjects, entities, powers, potencies. And yet most of us seem, today, very far from such experience. Trees rarely, if ever, speak to us; animals no longer approach us as emissaries from alien zones of intelligence; the sun and the moon no longer draw prayers from us but seem to arc blindly across the sky.

[…]

We may acknowledge, intellectually, our body’s reliance upon those plants and animals that we consume as nourishment, yet the civilized mind still feels itself somehow separate, autonomous, independent of the body and of bodily nature in general. Only as we begin to notice and to experience, once again, our immersion in the invisible air do we start to recall what it is to be fully a part of this world… This breathing landscape is no longer just a passive backdrop against which human history unfolds, but a potentized field of intelligence in which our actions participate.

In the remainder of the altogether enchanting The Spell of the Sensuous, Abrams visits with various native cultures to learn from their wisdom and mirror it back through the lens of a more-than-scientific understanding of the world. Complement it with a lovely illustrated dictionary of poetic spells reclaiming the language of nature, then revisit the great marine biologist and poetic science writer Rachel Carson, who awakened the modern ecological conscience, on science and our spiritual bond with nature.

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