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Watch: Octopus changes colors while (possibly) dreaming

Octopuses are known to rapidly change colors during sleep, but it's still unclear whether they dream like humans do.

Image source: PBS
  • The clip is from an upcoming PBS TV show called "Octopus: Making Contact."
  • Octopuses have thousands of color-changing cells under their skin called chromatophores that can change colors almost instantly.
  • Scientists, however, still aren't sure exactly how octopuses coordinate all of these color-changing cells to form particular patterns.


Do octopuses dream? That's the main question raised in a new video showing a sleeping octopus rapidly changing color patterns, as if reacting to scenes in a dream — maybe one about catching a clam, camouflaging itself from a predator or, possibly, taking MDMA, as five octopuses did in one 2018 experiment.

The video is from an upcoming PBS TV show called "Octopus: Making Contact," in which Alaska Pacific University professor David Scheel raises and studies a "day" octopus in his home with his family. Why "making contact"? A clip from the show says octopuses are the closest thing on Earth to aliens, yet it remains unclear whether humans and octopuses could ever have a meaningful connection.

Scheel seems open to the possibility. "You look at them, and you feel like they're looking back," he says in a clip. "That's not an illusion. They are looking back."

In the video, Scheel speculates about whether the octopus — named Heidi — might be dreaming:

"She's asleep; she sees a crab and her color starts to change a little bit. Then she turns all dark. Octopuses will do that when they leave the bottom.

"This is a camouflage, like she's just subdued a crab and now she's going to sit there and eat it and she doesn't want anyone to notice her. It's a very unusual behavior, to see the color come and go on her mantle like that. I mean, just to be able to see all the different color patterns just flashing one after another — you don't usually see that when an animal's sleeping. This really is fascinating."

How do octopuses change colors? 

Just underneath the skin of these cephalopods lie thousands of color-changing cells called chromatophores that can change colors almost instantly, helping octopuses camouflage themselves in different situations.

"The center of each chromatophore contains an elastic sac full of pigment, rather like a tiny balloon, which may be colored black, brown, orange, red or yellow," writes Smithsonian Ocean. "If you stretched a dye-filled balloon, the color would gather in one spot, stretching out the surface and making the color appear brighter — and this is the same way chromatophores work. A complex array of nerves and muscles controls whether the sac is expanded or contracted and, when the sac expands, the color is more visible."

Still, it's unclear how exactly octopuses manage to coordinate color patterns. "The exact processes of how they match colors is still not fully understood, though it's being very thoroughly studied," Sara Stevens, an aquarist with Butterfly Pavilion, told Live Science. "But current research suggests that the actual cells themselves can match colors."

It's also unclear whether octopuses dream, especially in the same way that humans do.

"It's been hypothesized that octopus species can exhibit something very similar to REM cycles in humans — but the jury's still out on whether they're achieving REM sleep," Stevens added.

The new PBS video isn't the first to show what seems to be an octopus dreaming. In 2017, Rebecca Otey, a science and conservation intern for the Butterfly Pavilion, a nonprofit invertebrate zoo in Westminster, Colorado, shot a video of a Caribbean two-spot octopus changing colors as it slept.

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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Unhappy at work? How to find meaning and maintain your mental health

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