Thursday, December 28, 2017

The mind of a creature this alien

I don't know how to review nonfiction. For that matter, I'm not sure I know how to read it very well. Plain old fact just doesn't interest me much.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness, by Sy Montgomery, is short on plain old fact, but deep in personal anecdote and light philosophical speculation.

Reading it doesn't feel like reading nonfiction at all, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Did I learn anything? Not much. I find octopuses fascinating; I've probably picked up a thing or two about them over the years, but I'm not an expert. This is not book to learn facts about octopuses. For that, see Wikipedia.

This book is for those people, like myself, who think octopuses are amazing but completely alien creatures.
Nagel concluded, like Wittgenstein before him, that it is impossible to know what it is like to be a bat. After all, a bat sees much of its world using echolocation, a sense we do not possess and can hardly imagine. How much further from our reach is the mind of an octopus?

Yet still I wondered: What is it like to be an octopus?

Isn't this what we want to know about those whom we care about? What is it like, we wonder at each meeting, in shared meals and secrets and silences, with each touch and glance, to be you?
Does this book answer those questions? No. But I think it knows at the outset that these are unanswerable things. It's not about consciousness per se. It's more about, as the subtitle suggests, glorying in the wonder of it all.

Octopuses are weird.

They taste with their skin. Can they taste our sadness, our pain?

Most of their neurons aren't in their brains, but in their arms. Is that what it takes for effective multitasking? Arms that can think independently?

Technically colorblind, how do they achieve camouflage? It's been suggested they see with their skin.
Assessing the mind of a creature this alien demands that we be extraordinary flexible in our own thinking. Marine biologist James Wood suggests our hubris gets in our way.
The book tours Jules Verne, Descartes, Antonio Damasio, Jane Goodall, Jacques Cousteau. Theory of mind and scuba diving lessons. It touches on the behaviour of animals of all kinds.

I may not have learned anything material, but I spent a few days in the excellent company of this naturalist and her engrossing stories of her several vertebrate and invertebrate friends.

"Deep Intellect," Orion Magazine.

Sy Montgomery: The Soul of an Octopus (59:25)
Do animals think and feel? (16:40)

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