By: Shaina Matveev  | 

Octopuses: More Like Us Than They Appear

From the very beginning of human history, octopuses have been an object of fascination for mankind; this is no surprise. With their unique tentacles, uncanny flexibility and striking, color-changing capabilities, these members of the Cephalopoda class are truly captivating creatures. However, while these unusual physical attributes certainly make them unique, what truly sets them apart from their fellow invertebrates is their remarkable and surprisingly advanced minds. From demonstrating an exceptionally high level of intelligence, to utilizing complex systems of communication, to having extraordinarily well-developed memory storage and retrieval capabilities, the mind of the octopus is far more human-like than one would expect. Perhaps it is these similarities to the human mind, in a physical body so unlike our own, that makes studying octopuses so compelling.  

Among the numerous characteristics that make the mind of the octopus so remarkable, perhaps their single most extraordinary trait is their unusually high level of intelligence. Considered by many to be the most intelligent invertebrate, octopuses have been proven to be capable of solving complex mazes and tasks, opening child-proof pill bottles, using stones to secure the entrances to their dens and even using common marine objects as tools in ways that suggest advanced levels of planning and foresight, such as using coconut husks as portable shelters. These intelligent behaviors, together with their abnormally large brain-to-body ratio, have been used to support the view that octopuses are the most intelligent invertebrate, comparable to human’s place as being the most intelligent vertebrate.  

In addition to being exceptionally intelligent, octopuses are masters of communication. Through flickering and flashing colors across their skin, often in rhythmic bands and multidirectional displays, along with utilizing their skin texture and posturing, octopuses can communicate with fellow octopuses in an incredibly complex and nuanced way. In addition to being exceptional at communicating with others of their own kind, they are also very skilled at communicating with humans. For example, during experimentation, they have been known on a couple of accounts to toss subpar food through the outflow pipe of their tanks as a means of showing their researchers that they dislike specific foods, or sometimes even shooting jets of water at people, in an effort to communicate their dislike for them or to simply be playful. They are even capable of distinguishing between individual humans in order to communicate with them, a very rare ability among invertebrates and even among most vertebrates, as most animals cannot distinguish among individuals of a species that isn’t their own. Because octopuses are fairly asocial creatures, their uncanny ability to communicate with humans is perplexing and yet another attribute that makes studying them so fascinating.  

Not only are octopuses exceptional communicators and incredibly intelligent, they also have remarkably advanced systems for memory storage and retrieval for an animal of their kind. Dr. Benny Hochner, a leading researcher of octopus cognition and memory, examined the mechanism for memory in octopuses and found it to be strikingly similar to the one in vertebrates, with their mechanism utilizing long-term potentiation of glutamatergic synaptic field potentials, quite similar to vertebrates like us. In addition, they even have a form of both short-term and long-term memory, much like we do. Despite having evolved as intelligent creatures on a separate evolutionary path from vertebrates, including humans, the similarities between their memories and ours is quite mystifying.

From being the most intelligent invertebrate, much like humans are the most intelligent vertebrate, to having incredibly complex systems of communication, which include the ability to communicate with people, to even sharing a similar mechanism for memory as humans, octopuses are far more like us then they appear. Perhaps it is seeing a glimmer of ourselves, in a body that couldn’t be more different and foreign than our own, that draws us in and compels us to understand this captivating creature. Through the continued study of octopuses, driven by this desire to understand their mysteriously human-like minds, humans continue to not only learn more about the octopus itself, but surprisingly, also about ourselves, as well.


Photo Caption: Octopuses are more like us than we might think.  

Photo Credit: Pixabay