The Soul of an Octopus


  • Media: #Books #Books 2020
    • Author: Sy Montgomery
    • Status: #abandoned
    • Date: 2020-11-06
    • Tags: #nature #nonfiction #memoir
    • Rating: DNF
    • Idea richness: ★★☆☆☆
    • Links: Goodreads, Highlights


Did not finish @ 20%. There’s only so many ways you can describe an octopus feeling your arms.

Okay, so there’s nothing strictly wrong with this book. What’s wrong is the title. After reading amazing books on animal intelligence like The Genius of Birds, I was anticipating a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of the cephalopod mind and plenty of experiments and musings on consciousness. Given the book’s daring subtitle, this did not seem an unreasonable expectation.

Two chapters in, it was plain The Soul of an Octopus was not, in fact, about exploring the wonders of consciousness so much as exploring the author’s feelings while wondering about octopuses and generally talking about her trips to see several. Interspersed was the occasional factoid or tempting question but most of these were from other people and rhetorical musings on ‘can octopus feel like us, etc’ with little answers or science.

That’s not to say the book is bad for what it is, but I did feel mislead by the title and description. I love digging into interesting facts and learning about various animals when I read natural history. Drawn out, narrative accounts which focus on a person’s relationship to an animal (or even just the author themselves) are not really my jam. Nevertheless, I tried to persevere. Ultimately, however, as my hopes of a scientific exploration of octopus consciousness continued to be snuffed out, I gave up. I might have stuck at it had it not been part of a free kindle unlimited trial but, since it was, I opted not to waste anymore time.

Those looking for a narrative encounter of a woman learning about octopuses and befriending a cast of aquarium staff may find better luck. Just don’t be fooled by the title if you’re after a book on octopus intelligence and consciousness.


  • ==“There’s always an effort to minimize emotion and intelligence in other species,”==
  • " octopus is put together completely differently, with three hearts, a brain that wraps around its throat, and a covering of slime instead of hair. Even their blood is a different color from ours; it’s blue, because copper, not iron, carries its oxygen."
  • ==“If a lion could talk, we couldn’t understand him.”==
  • beings “gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”
  • "==Feelings of awe are known to expand the human experience of time availability. So does “flow,” the state of being fully immersed in focus, involvement, and enjoyment. Meditation and prayer, too, alter time perception."== --> Transportive experiences can change how we perceive time
  • "“What is it like to be a bat?” the American philosopher Thomas Nagel famously asked in his 1974 essay on the subjective nature of consciousness"

Are octopus conscious?

  • “Just about every animal,” Scott says—not just mammals and birds—“can learn, recognize individuals, and respond to empathy. See: Animal consciousness
  • "If not to interact with fellow octopuses, what is their intelligence for? If octopuses don’t interact with each other, why would they want to interact with us?"
  • "The ability to ascribe thoughts to others, thoughts that might differ from our own, is a sophisticated cognitive skill, known as “Theory of Mind.”"
  • "Theory of mind is considered an important component of consciousness, because it implies self-awareness. (I think this, but you might think that.)"

Scrapbook Concepts

  • ==It can taste with its skin== #fragments #creatures
  • The devil-fish, horrible, sucks your life-blood away --> Vampiric octopus using suckers on tentacles #creatures
  • An octopus with an arm span of more than 150 feet may have once existed. --> ==Imagine a giant land octopus== #creatures
  • “If a lion could talk, we couldn’t understand him.”
  • Three fifths of octopuses’ neurons are not in the brain but in the arms. If an arm is severed from an octopus’s body, the arm will often carry on as if nothing has happened for several hours. #creatures
  • Ancient chimera, or ghost shark—a deepwater species with ==grinding, instead of sharp, teeth== #creatures
  • "Perhaps, as we stroked her in the water, we entered into Athena’s experience of time—liquid, slippery, and ancient, flowing at a different pace than any clock." --> creature brings you into their experience of time #creatures #fragments
  • ==Hyena, a species that has been known to bite off the noses of sleeping people== #creatures
  • ==“From where you are,” he promises, “you can hear their dreams.”== #fragments
  • Octopus can voluntarily control its skin texture—raising and lowering fleshy projections called papillae—as well as change its overall shape and posture.
  • New evidence suggests cephalopods might be able to see with their skin. #creatures
  • ==An octopus Braille system.== #fragments
  • Feather duster worms #creatures
  • "The front limbs have star-shaped tactile organs on the fingertips to help the animals detect food." #creatures
  • Hagfish --> what if their slime left a trail of gelatinous cubes? #creatures