Empathy Lessons from the Octopus


Along the roadside, outside Loreto, Baja California Sur, 2011

One of the most interesting articles to slide across my virtual desk in a while is this piece in National Geographic regarding octopuses.  The cool thing about this piece is that it covers the intricacies of the octopus’ nervous system, which is one of the most complex in the Animal Kingdom.  Neuron-count-wise, it weighs in around 500 million, split about 35% between central executive function, and 65% spread out over the skin of the octopus, and in its tentacles.  Contrast that to a cat, at around 700 million, and it might give a glimpse on why, when you stare at an octopus, it stares back at you.  Fish don’t do that.

An octopus and its nervous system is an excellent analog for how empathy and duplex information transfer, as well as distributed agency works to create an extremely high performance system.  An octopus, as the article notes, is essentially a floating bag of meat, and as such, is highly attractive as food for predators.  In order to survive, it’s had to evolve extensive mirroring behavior with its environment — octopuses are masters of camouflage.  As well as problem-solving skills.  Octopuses have to not only be able to hide.  They also have to be able to crack clams and crabs, and occasionally open jars.

Every individual sucker on an octopus’ arm is independently controlled. And when an octopus conceives a thought, multiple tentacles coordinate with each other to accomplish the given task — and since the arms of an octopus are flexible, the problem solved is what engineers call an infinite degree-of-freedom problem.  And the arms themselves appear to have distributed intelligence. Research on severed octopus tentacles indicate that even after an hour of being separated from the main body, tentacles would act as if they were attempting to grab on objects and guide them back to the octopus’ now-phantom mouth.

Additionally, all those suckers/actuators are also sensors.  An octopus can also taste and touch with its suckers.  As such, it truly is a networked, duplex-exchange information creature.  And as this video shows — this massively networked creature is also sentient.  The octopus keeper at the Monterey Aquarium describes how an octopus can discriminate between different humans in its environment.  And it has ones that it’s more, well, attached to, than others.  You can learn about it here.  Score one more animal on the theory that sentience is sentience — we all just have a different starting position in the race toward higher development.

As we evolve our own meta-understanding of how we evolve our own understanding, maybe a better metaphor for creating the organization of the future might be an octopus.  Jim Collin’s Hedgehog notwithstanding, which emerges out of Performance-based v-Meme thinking of doing one thing, and doing it well, might need an upgrade.  How about an empathetic sensor network, capable of versatility and adaptation, with the ability to grasp new situations and pull information real-time, with a reasonable amount of executive function, while understanding when it’s important to both connect and adapt to its surroundings in order to survive?  That’s the lesson of the octopus.

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