The Formidable Octopus Brain

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When most people think of intelligent non-human animals, they tend to focus on chimpanzees, dolphins, whales, elephants, dogs, and other mammals, as well as a few species of bird. But the multi-armed, otherworldly-looking octopus has increasingly drawn attention for apparent feats of cognitive ability.

Numerous experiments and anecdotal observations seem to suggest a complexity of perception and behavior on the part of octopuses, though the jury’s still out on the true nature of their intelligence. They famously can unscrew jars to access food inside—reflective not only of problem-solving ability but also the great dexterity of their tentacles. In other experiments, octopuses have shown promise in recognizing shapes and navigating mazes, and even engaged in routines similar to human play. Their brain size relative to body mass is substantial, the greatest of any invertebrate, and they boast half a billion neurons.

Even as scientists continue to explore the still-mysterious world of cephalopod cognition, we more and more accept that our definition of “intelligence” doesn’t apply to all creatures: The octopus, long removed from our evolutionary line and molded by a hugely different legacy of environmental pressures, has its own sort of craftiness that enables its survival. Many organisms we think of as brainy—from wolves and chimps to crows and cetaceans—are highly social, just like humans, and it’s long been thought that the special demands of social life result in more complex thinking. But octopuses seem to be mainly solitary.

In an interview with Scientific American, Jennifer Mather, a comparative psychologist with the University of Lethbridge in Alberta and a renowned octopus authority, suggests the intense complexity of the nearshore reef environments many octopuses favor likely has much to do with their impressive brains: In these worlds of convoluted nooks and crannies, rich in prowling predators and elusive prey, the vulnerable, modestly sized octopus seems to prosper with stealth and smarts.

References/Resources

Zimmer, Carl. “How Smart is the Octopus?” Slate 23 June 2008.

30 January 2012

http://www.slate.com/articles/health and science/science/2008/06/how smart is the octopus.single.html

Borrell, Brendan. “Are Octopuses Smart?” Scientific American 27

Feb. 2009. 30 January 2012

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=are-octopuses-smart

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