The Distributed Mind: Octopus Neurology

The Distributed Mind: Octopus Neurology

the only kinds of intelligence. But it’s important to
consider the diverse forms the mind can take on Earth
and in the universe beyond. DAVID GIRE: I think
we need to understand how brains evolved to work. So what we’re looking at
is a completely different neural architecture. DOMINIC SIVITILLI: I
first gained interest in the mind of
the octopus when I was in a lab full of
marine invertebrates. There was one of
those animals that seemed to be studying me as
much as I was studying it. I am Dominic Sivitilli. I am a graduate student
in behavioral neuroscience and astrobiology at the
University of Washington. DAVID GIRE: The octopus fits
into our research program because they stand out as an
extreme example of intelligence that has evolved along a
completely different trajectory than that of the vertebrates. Yet, the octopus is solving
many of the same problems that you or I would solve. My name is David Gire. I’m an Assistant Professor in
the Department of Psychology at the University of
Washington, and my lab studies comparative
systems neuroscience. That means we study how
different kinds of brains process information. In the broad sense, octopus
nerves do function like ours. They have physiological
properties that are very similar. And yet, they’re
forming networks that are completely different
from the networks we see in our brains. DOMINIC SIVITILLI:
So it takes more time for information in the
octopus’ nervous system to get from point A to point B
compared to vertebrates whose neurons can fire a lot faster. Because it takes so long, how
these systems are designed plays a much bigger role
in how they can compute. DAVID GIRE: The octopus’
brain is distributed with 2/3 of its neurons in its arms. There is actually
this dense network of neural clusters or
ganglia that are locally controlling the muscles. So you can have a bunch of
little individual decisions being made along the arm
which don’t necessarily agree with each other. This creates a unique
form of movement that the octopus
is able to possess. If we’re watching a rodent
look for some food pellets, we’re seeing some
nice rhythmic motion. But when we watch
an octopus, it’s almost like watching the
fluid environment itself moving across the
surface of the rocks. There’s an extreme
density of chemoreceptors in the suckers of the octopus. They literally can smell
and taste with their arms. So it seems like the
way the octopus deals with having eight
independent arms and having to process all that
sensory information is that it has located a lot of
the sensory processing as close as possible
to the external world. DOMINIC SIVITILLI:
In a way, the octopus has sent its mind out into the
environment to meet it halfway. The key to understanding
their intelligence is to understand how this
distributed network is sharing information with itself. DAVID GIRE: LEGOs are
a form of enrichment in the lab, much
the same way they are for my four-year-old kid. We try to give them a variety
of these kinds of textures so that this extensive
peripheral nervous system they have is always kept
occupied and active. DOMINIC SIVITILLI: No matter how
hard one can work in that lab, we’ll all still spend a few
minutes playing with them. This is really
important to them, because they’re
very exploratory, they’re very curious animals. And at the same time
as enriching them, we can also study how their
arm is processing information and how their suckers are
processing information. DAVID GIRE: In designing puzzles
that these animals will solve, we’re looking to
challenge different parts of the nervous system and to see
how information is going to be integrated across the arms. DOMINIC SIVITILLI:
Where we began a two-dimensional
tracking, now our methods are more sophisticated. We now use three-dimensional
tracking cameras, which are stereo cameras. And this is helping us
understand the strategies that the octopus is using to
control its distributed mind. And we can interface that
with virtual reality. This will help us
pick out patterns that we may not
have seen before. It gives us an entirely
different perspective on our data and the
movement of our animals. DAVID GIRE: So we
can infer what might be going on in their brains
by using puzzles and motion tracking. But to really test
that we need to move towards electrophysiology
and make recordings from the nervous system
while the animals are making decisions. You can imagine trying to
fit electronic hardware onto an animal like that is
probably nearly impossible. Yet, we’re at a really
exciting point now in the lab. We’re using techniques that have
been pioneered by Josh Smith’s lab in computer
science and engineering to use a wireless
battery-free system to implant tiny electronics
into large octopuses. So once we do a small
incision, implant the device, the animal will never have
to think about it again. And we as researchers can stream
the data and power the device without ever
disturbing the animal. In some ways, this
is a watershed moment in general for science. If we understand how
a neural structure like the octopus nervous system
can solve difficult problems, we might be able to
design better ways to solve similar
problems artificially. DOMINIC SIVITILLI:
We reach out to them across the evolutionary divide
out of curiosity to understand this unknown as they are. So it’s like we’re
meeting each other halfway through our mutual interest
in novelty in the unknown. [MUSIC PLAYING]


  1. I wonder if they found a significance of the beak's shape and size towards the brain's function of the octopus. Their brain is where their mouth is.

  2. Mad props to those scientists. I wouldn't even know where to begin to analyze these fascinating creatures!

  3. I've loved cephalopods since Ursula. I had no idea there was a cephalopod week! I can't wait to do these experiments with my daughter!!!

  4. This is so fascinating! I was so excited about this video I kept it on my tab bar for days because I was to busy to watch it but did not want to forget!. Love #Cephalpodweek

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