Preeti's Reviews > The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
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Dec 05, 2014

it was amazing
bookshelves: animals

Update April 2016: This awesome book is now available in paperback!

Where do I begin with this? Well, first off to chide myself on not having read enough Sy Montgomery books. She’s one of my favorite authors so what’s my problem?

I’d been looking forward to this book since I first heard about it last year. Sy Montgomery has written some excellent books and pieces on animals and the natural world – one of which was in Orion Magazine a few years ago: Deep Intellect. This piece chronicled her experiences with a particular octopus and touched upon their intelligence. Orion Magazine even hosted a chat on the subject shortly after the article was published – probably because it proved to be so popular!

This book is basically an extension of that article – Montgomery meets more octopuses, both in aquariums and in the wild. She explores their world, taking the reader on both a scientific, but largely philosophical journey through the octopus’ intellect and on the concept of their consciousness, if such a thing exists.

A large part of the book is spent at the New England Aquarium in Boston, where Montgomery meets and gets to know a few octopuses as well as their keepers, and other employees and volunteers. She even gets to know some of the other animals there and explores a bit of their worlds as well. For example, on a sea star that shared a tank with one of the octopuses:
I wonder: Can a brainless animal feel curiosity? Does it want to play? Or does it only "want" toys or food the way a plant "wants" the sun? Does a sea star experience consciousness? If it does, what does consciousness feel like to a sea star? (p20)
The concept of animals being smart is fairly new to science. Just a decade or two ago, it was unfathomable to most people. And the idea of a “lower” group of animals like octopuses displaying intelligence? Crazy talk! But over time, the idea has become more accepted and it’s hard to imagine a world in which it wasn’t.

There are some amazing videos on YouTube and elsewhere, showing the things octopuses are capable of doing. But the thing that strikes me is how different an octopus is compared to us. They have three hearts! They have multiple brains! They can sense and taste with their tentacles! They can change into a kaleidoscope of colors, while being color blind (or having monochromatic vision – I need to learn more about this)! They have eight arms! So what does that mean for our understanding of their world, much less their intellect?
Assessing the mind of a creature this alien demands that we be extraordinarily flexible in our own thinking. Marine biologist James Wood suggests our hubris gets in our way. (p50)
And what else is out there that we haven’t even explored, thought about, considered in a different way?
"So if an octopus is this smart," Steve asked Bill, "what other animals are out there that could be this smart—that we don't think of as being sentient and having personality and memories and all these things?" (p48)
Beyond smarts, what about personality? It’s quite clear that many people who have pets that they have personalities. They’re not automatons that respond in the same way to stimuli. And that’s the case not only for octopus, but for so many other animals that people are lucky enough to get close to, whether in the wild or elsewhere. Montgomery talks about some of these stories as well, as she explores the world of the octopus.

But what I like the most is that through her writing, you feel like you are there with her, hanging out with octopuses and getting to know them. At the end of the book, when one of the octopuses Montgomery got to know very well was close to death, Montgomery felt it as if she were losing a friend – which she was. And I felt it too. I read that particular section with tears in my eyes, as if I, too, were losing a friend.

Now I’m on a quest of my own to try to get to know an octopus too – or at least see one in the wild. Just getting a tiny taste of their world would be such an amazing experience, and such a great way to bring all the feelings in this book to life.

Day octopus at Cal Academy
An amazing Day octopus I watched for a while at the California Academy of Sciences.
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Reading Progress

December 5, 2014 – Shelved
December 5, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
December 5, 2014 – Shelved as: animals
June 7, 2015 – Started Reading
June 8, 2015 –
page 38
14.56% "Love this book so far, as expected!"
June 16, 2015 –
page 81
31.03% "So many hearts for this book!"
June 29, 2015 –
page 138
July 2, 2015 –
page 160
61.3% "<3"
July 4, 2015 –
page 160
July 4, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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Debbie "DJ" Wonderful review Preeti! I've actually been waiting for it! Yes, have had my eye on this ever since you added. No doubt about it, am going to buy this one. Thanks. :)

Preeti Debbie "DJ" wrote: "Wonderful review Preeti! I've actually been waiting for it! Yes, have had my eye on this ever since you added. No doubt about it, am going to buy this one. Thanks. :)"

Thanks, Debbie! I think you'll definitely enjoy this one - at least, I hope you do!

Debbie "DJ" Oh, that's great to hear. Have no doubt I'll love it!

Debbie "DJ" Ha! I forgot to "like!" Bought on Audible, really looking forward to this one! Thanks again.

Preeti Debbie "DJ" wrote: "Ha! I forgot to "like!" Bought on Audible, really looking forward to this one! Thanks again."

Great! Would love to see what you think of it.

Debbie "DJ" Can't wait to half way through another, so it's next. :)

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