Man versus Octopus

24 August 2014 by Graham Morehead, posted in Uncategorized

1091203_10151845484112463_683664223_o We cannot yet define consciousness without tautology or hand-waving, but we have learned enough to devise a few supportable statements about it:
1. it happens inside the brain
2. more than one neuron is involved at any given point

So, it's in one place (the brain), but it's not in one place (many neurons) ...

The unitaryness of consciousness is an illusion. That my consciousness feels singular is merely a manageable fiction. The prefrontal cortex demands it thus. The neocortex lives by the assumption that “me” is one thing. Planning cannot exist without identity. Identity cannot exist without disambiguation — the ability to discern that which is me, from that which is not me. One hundred billion neurons in polyphonic chaos all agree. They instinctively collude to lie to their corporeal host saying, “Yes, you exist, and yes, you are one.” Sorry, Descartes.

Consider the post-operative corpus-callosotomic, a patient whose brain hemispheres were surgically separated. The two hemispheres of the brain being severed, two brains now exist within a single corpus humanus. One side of the brain will make attempts to answer for the actions of the other, but these attempts will be feeble and inaccurate. Consider the cortically blind (due to lesions in the striate cortex), who respond to visual stimuli that they do not consciously see. Without "seeing", they avoid obstacles and step up on curbs. It's almost like there's a separate little decision maker living in their brain.


As a human, I share more with octopus consciousness than I’d prefer to believe. The neurons of a highly evolved cephalopod are not concentrated in the brain like ours. They do have brains, but two thirds of their neurons are in the arms. Complex motor skills are not organized in their brain using an internal somatotopic map of the body. Instead, octopus arms show a variety of complex behaviors even in the absence of input from the brain.

My consciousness emerges continuously from one hundred billion separate neurons. Why couldn’t octopus consciousness emerge from its separated parts? It takes a human to look at such a nervous system, and call it “distributed." We say it pejoratively. We condescendingly marvel at how it works, as if the human one were any different.

Octopi can be trained to distinguish different shapes and patterns. They practice observational learning. They discover, on their own, how to open a jar, and they remember how. Octopi play. In the UK, since 1986, the common octopus (Octopus vulgaris), is protected under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act. One cannot operate on them without anesthesia. In 2013, this legislation was extended to include all cephalopods.


My consciousness exists (or seems to exist) within an ecology of energy patterns that have bearing on the outside world (aka meaning) only via organized relationships with sensory and motor neurons. It’s all about context, isn’t it, Wittgenstein?

4 Responses to “Man versus Octopus”

  1. Jeanne Roberts Reply | Permalink

    And, in fact, if there is sentient life elsewhere in the universe, might not "distributed" intelligence be the typical model? It certainly seems the more logical, and the more preservatory of the body as a whole.

  2. Iden gray Reply | Permalink

    "My consciousness emerges continuously from one hundred billion separate neuron"
    Sometimes I play a thought game in witch I ponder the possibility that conciseness dose not have to be a communication between neurons, but any massive quantity of separate units, with thousands of connections to each unit. A country could be an example of a very foggy, primitive conciseness, with each person being a unit. With our definition of consciousness it is theoretically possible to to get a country big enough, and cooperative enough to make this work.

  3. Iden gray Reply | Permalink

    I just read your "Strong Theory of Artificial Stupidity" article in witch you talked about "strong AI". This is exactly what I was trying to describe in my earlier post, but you described it MUCH better. You also mentioned ants as an example because of their amazing ability to collaborate with such primitive brains. I think the problem with people acting as a unit won't work as well because each person is individually motivated, causing them to fight for a better position. Neurons and ants can't reproduce on their own, so they work for the good of the body, or colony, completely disregarding them selves.

  4. Iden gray Reply | Permalink

    Thanks for the wonderful, thought-provoking articles!

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