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.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

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Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

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Brain study finds circuits that may help you keep your cool

Research by neuroscientists at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory helps explain how the brain regulates arousal.

Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP/ Getty Images
Mind & Brain

MIT News

The big day has come: You are taking your road test to get your driver's license. As you start your mom's car with a stern-faced evaluator in the passenger seat, you know you'll need to be alert but not so excited that you make mistakes. Even if you are simultaneously sleep-deprived and full of nervous energy, you need your brain to moderate your level of arousal so that you do your best.

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34 years ago, a KGB defector chillingly predicted modern America

A disturbing interview given by a KGB defector in 1984 describes America of today and outlines four stages of mass brainwashing used by the KGB.

Politics & Current Affairs
  • Bezmenov described this process as "a great brainwashing" which has four basic stages.
  • The first stage is called "demoralization" which takes from 15 to 20 years to achieve.
  • According to the former KGB agent, that is the minimum number of years it takes to re-educate one generation of students that is normally exposed to the ideology of its country.
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How pharmaceutical companies game the patent system

When these companies compete, in the current system, the people lose.

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  • When a company reaches the top of the ladder, they typically kick it away so that others cannot climb up on it. The aim? So that another company can't compete.
  • When this happens in the pharmaceutical world, certain companies stay at the top of the ladder, through broadly-protected patents, at the cost of everyday people benefitting from increased competition.
  • Since companies have worked out how to legally game the system, Amin argues we need to get rid of this "one size fits all" system, which treats product innovation — "tweaks" — the same as product invention.