Department of Non-Human Minds: Soft Power

If you want to speculate about an alternate-universe world without intelligent primates (and who doesn't?), then your thoughts must turn to the octopus. Because the octopus has a large and structured brain (the ratio of brain matter to body size in octopuses is similar to that of mammals and birds, rather than lobsters and clams). And anybody who works with these animals will testify to their intelligence. Some have even proposed that they're conscious in the same way that dogs and cats are.

Years ago at a neuroscience lab, the guy who ran the aquarium told me a story. They were keeping various fish and other sea creatures for experiments, so of course they tracked which species were in which tanks. So it was a problem when a few fish started disappearing every night. Obviously they didn't keep anything in the same tank with a species that liked to have it for dinner, so this was a mystery. They only solved it by setting up video surveillance overnight. The camera showed that an octopus was heaving himself out of his tank after hours. He'd wriggle across the corridor, climb up into another tank, eat a couple of fish, and then go back to his own lockup. (A 19th-century version of the same M.O. is here.)


As Carl Zimmer has pointed out, it's hard to grasp the intelligence of a creature that evolved to solve problems so different from those that confronted our land-dwelling, fruit-eating, lion-avoiding bipedal ancestors. But that's precisely what's exciting about finding common ground in the way we and they use our large brains--if you want to define aspects of intelligence in the abstract, a good place to look is in the traits it shares when applied by us and by water-dwelling, seafood-eating, lamprey-avoiding eight-armed creatures.

Today's case in point: Tool use. In the journal Current Biology, a new paper reports that veined octopuses off the coast of Indonesia dig up sunken coconut shells, move them to new locations, and then use the shells as shelters. See for yourself here. The article is the first proposal that science formally recognize tool use by an invertebrate, but at least one diver (and probably others) have noticed similar behavior.

A couple of different turns in evolutionary history, and you come to a vacation spot on the shore, where members of the dominant species are enjoying their trip to the beach. And, then, as the sun starts to rise, packing up their things, stiffening their eight arms into temporary legs, and walking back home, back into the sea.

Big Think Edge
  • The meaning of the word 'confidence' seems obvious. But it's not the same as self-esteem.
  • Confidence isn't just a feeling on your inside. It comes from taking action in the world.
  • Join Big Think Edge today and learn how to achieve more confidence when and where it really matters.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

Keep reading Show less

Futuristic inventions and emerging technologies that will change the world

What do the inventions of the future look like?

(Photo Credit: Rick Guidice/NASA)
Technology & Innovation
  • Self-sustaining space colonies and unlimited fusion energy would bring humanity to a new point in our evolution.
  • Flying cars and robot butlers could be the next paradigm shift in our tech appetite for change.
  • Death and consensus reality might soon become obsolete.
Keep reading Show less

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
Keep reading Show less