Dov Zeller'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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really liked it
bookshelves: ecosystems, non-fiction, sciency-naturish, seas-and-skies

It was interesting reading other GR reviews about this book. Some folks complained it wasn't sciency enough, or that it claims to do things that it doesn't, finally, do.

I can understand folks' frustration with Montgomery's approach. For people looking for a hard-core science book, maybe this isn't the one. Montgomery is essentially telling the story of her journey of studying octopuses, which can't stop at the octopus, because they are part of a larger world. I think that's some of the message here. One cannot study an octopus in a vacuum (though an octopus may be able to occupy one with dazzling dexterity). There are a lot of things Montgomery learns and shares in this book while learning about the octopus, and they may seem extraneous, but I don't think they are.

Montgomery's first visit with an octopus at an aquarium excites her imagination. She learns that octopuses can be dangerous, but also that their curiosity and need for connection are not so unlike our own. Of course, the octopus can learn a lot about us by tasting our skin with their tentacles. We don't do that. Though I think sometimes we can use our senses to determine if someone is a serious coffee drinker or pack a day smoker. We just might not draw away from such a person as the octopus does after tasting of the not so delectable flavor.

Right away, according to the narrative, Montgomery experiences a sense affection and wonder for the octopus, and she tells us all about the octopuses she gets to know in captivity, and also there is a cast of human characters she gets to know while getting to know the octopuses. So, this book is about a person learning about octopuses, and a person spending time at an aquarium and getting to know other people who work there. Furthermore Montgomery decides to learn to scuba dive because she wants to see octopuses who aren't in captivity.

This is a book that wanders around a bit, and doesn't stay as zoomed in on science and octopuses per say, but I found it to be gripping and delightful. I agree with some reviewers that it is hard to read about animals being captured and kept in captivity. It is a practice I also dislike. But it would be happening whether or not Montgomery writes this book so I guess I'd like to and learn what I can.

The question of octopus consciousness doesn't of course get answered in here. Montgomery thinks they have souls. (Maybe even plural, given that each tentacle is a bit of creature of their own.) I think the concept of the soul is one that tries to separate planetary creatures into those whose lives are worth something and those whose lives are expendable. So, I prefer to ask different questions and leave the soul out of most things unless I'm feeling poetic. But I appreciate that Montgomery looks at her octopus friends as individuals with their own personalities, experiences, desires, etc. I don't think making a personal narrative about her emotional and social experiences with octopuses makes it less scientific. It just makes it more nuanced and rich.

The book is broken up into parts names after octopuses kept at the aquarium. There is Octavia, Kali, Karma. (I can't remember if there were other sections. Book is back at the library.) We get to see octopuses interact with each other, with people, with their environments. We see a mother lay and tend her unfertilized eggs, we see some octopuses die and some get released back into the ocean so that they can enjoy the end of their lives in their home-habitat.

We see octopuses push people away, pull them closer, tease people, lash out, weaken, die, expand and thrive. Octopuses change shape, change color, express pleasure and loneliness and longing.

And we see a community of people become more attuned to their environments and more sensitive to the lives of seemingly incomprehensible others, simply by connecting with the octopus. Being read (and tasted) by the octopus seems to bring people a sense of calm and peace. People who spend time with octopuses seem to believe in the intensity of intelligence of other beings, which can be a shock to them, particularly as relates to a creature which has probably not been thought of until recently as having the personality and intelligence more along the lines of mammals than cephalopods.

Of course, many people still like to believe humans are the only intelligent animal. Which is proof in itself that human intelligence can be a truly paradoxical pair of words. It makes sense that this book celebrates our relationships with each other, and with the many other intelligent beings in our midst, particularly, the octopus. I can only hope a heightened awareness of our interconnectivity might bring us to our senses some day.

Here are some quotes.


“I smell fish stress.” The scent is subtle—I cannot smell it at all—but the low-tide odor Scott detects, he explained at the time, is that of heat-shock proteins. These are intracellular proteins that were first discovered to be released, in both plants and animals, in response to heat, and are now known to be associated with other stresses as well. (73)


It might be more appealing to describe octopuses as slippery. But a banana peel is slippery; slime is a very specialized and essential substance, and there’s no denying that octopuses have slime in spades. Almost everyone who lives in the water does. ‘More of the ocean’s residents use, deploy, or are made up of slime than I ever expected,’ marine scientist Ellen Prager observes. ‘The undersea world is a seriously slimy place.’ Slime helps sea animals reduce drag while moving through the water, capture and eat food, keep their skin healthy, escape predators, protect their eggs. Tube worms like Bill’s feather dusters secrete slime to build a leathery tube, like a flower stalk, to protect their bodies and keep them attached to a rock or coral. For some fishes—Scott’s Amazon discus and cichlids among them—slime is the piscine equivalent of mother’s milk. The babies actually feed off the parents’ nutritious slime coat, an activity called ‘glancing.’ The brightly colored mandarin fish exudes bad-tasting slime to deflect its enemies; the deep-sea vampire squid, an octopus relative, produces glowing slime to startle predators. Bermuda fire worms signal with luminous slime to attract mates like fireflies flashing on a summer night. The female fire worms glow to attract the mass; the males then flash, after which the two please eggs and sperm in tandem.

“Kali’s and Octavia’s slime isn’t bad," I told Jody. "Anyway, they’re way less slimy than a hagfish."

A creature of the ocean bottom, a hagfish grows to about 17 inches long, and yet, in mere minutes, it can fill seven buckets with slime—so much slime it can slip from almost any predator’s grip. The hagfish would be in danger of suffocating on its own mucous, except it has learned, like a person with a cold, to blow it out its nose. But sometimes it produces too much slime for even a hagfish… (75)


From building shelters to shooting ink to changing color, the vulnerable octopus must be ready to outwit dozens of species of animals, some of which it pursues, others it must escape. How do you plan fro so many possibilities? Doing so demands, to some degree, anticipating the actions—in other words, imagining the minds—of other individuals

The ability to ascribe thoughts to others, thoughts that might differ from out own, is a sophisticated cognitive skill, known as ‘theory of mind.’ Once it was thought to be unique to humans. In typical children, theory of mind is believed to emerge around age three or four. The classic experiment goes like this: A toddler views a video of a girl who leaves a box of candy behind in her room. While she’s gone, an adult replaces the candy in the box with pencils. Now the child comes back to open up her box again. The experimenter asks the tot, what does the little girl expect to find in the box? The toddler will say: pencils. Only an older child will understand that the little girl would expect to find candy, even though that’s not what’s really there.

Theory of mind is considered an important component of consciousness, because it implies self-awareness. (83)

Of course, there are many other examples. The birds of prey with whom falconers hunt look to the falconer, or to her dogs, to flush game. African honey badgers follow certain birds (known as honey guides) to find bees’ nests. Both parties seem to realize that when badgers open up the nests to eat the honey, the birds can then feast on the bee larvae. (85)


It’s even possible that the octopuses have some shy arms and some bold arms. University of Vienna researcher Ruth Byrne reported that her captive octopuses always choose a favorite arm to explore new objects or mazes—even though all of their limbs are equally dexterous…Her team counted the octopuses using only forty-nine different combinations of one, two or three arms for manipulating objects, when, according to her calculations, 448 combinations were actually possible…(160)

“Octopus arms really are like separate creatures,” Scott agrees. Not only can they grow new arms when needed, there is evidence that, on occasion, an octopus chooses to detach its won arm, even in the absence of a predator….Is this like what happens when Siamese twins fight? (161)
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Reading Progress

March 1, 2016 – Started Reading
March 7, 2016 – Shelved
March 7, 2016 – Shelved as: ecosystems
March 7, 2016 – Shelved as: non-fiction
March 7, 2016 – Shelved as: sciency-naturish
March 7, 2016 – Shelved as: seas-and-skies
April 1, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-20 of 20 (20 new)

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message 1: by Violet (new)

Violet wells Can't say it would ever occur to me to read a book about octopuses, Dov but I really enjoyed all the detail in your review.

message 2: by Dov (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dov Zeller Thanks Violet! I love reading science and nature-related narrative non-fiction and found this book to be very compelling. if you like that kind of writing, you might like this book. If not, there are some great little videos. Here's a Ted Talk, it's about 5 minutes long but I've only watched the last 3 minutes. It shows some great images of cuttlefish and an octopus.

message 3: by Paul (new) - added it

Paul E. Morph Excellent review, Dov!

message 4: by Dov (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dov Zeller Thanks Paul! :)

message 5: by Amanda (new) - added it

Amanda Wonderful review, Dov! I may need to bump this up on my tbr list. I have become fascinated with jelly fish after reading about them, so now on to octopuses. I still can't imagine how people can deny animal intelligence. I recently read about the octopus that escaped from a New Zealand aquarium :)

message 6: by Dov (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dov Zeller Thanks Amanda!

Ooh. What did you read about jelly fish?

Yeah it was great to see that octopus broke out of the aquarium and got back into the ocean! (They are escape artists and when they escape a tank and can't find water they often die.)

Ugh. People denying the intelligence of other life forms is absurd. It pains me. But observing and reading about the fantastic-ness of other plants and are some of my beloved pastimes.

message 7: by Amanda (new) - added it

Amanda The book I read was The Thing About Jellyfish. It's a fictional middle grade book, but it has a lot of great facts about jellyfish in it (the author had originally written a nonfiction article on the topic but adapted it after it wasn't purchased).

Learning about animals and nature is one of my favorite pastimes too. It's intense to learn about their bonds within their groups and with other animals and their intricate ways of communicating, even communicating with us.

message 8: by Dov (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dov Zeller Yes yes yes -- intense and illuminating. Have you read "The Bonobo and the Atheist"? There's a lot of cool stuff in there about mammal communities and their structures, communication, etc. Or have you read any Robert Sapolsky or Jane Goodall?

I read "The Thing!..." Really cool stuff about jellyfish in there. Though now I am afraid that those tiny poisonous ones will fill our warming ocean waters. The intensity of its poison reminds me of those stories in which two creatures inhabiting the same ecosystem evolve together, one developing to become more and more poisonous as the other becomes more tolerant to their poison. And then when someone else comes into the picture, the poison is super intense... I wonder what the story is with that tiny jellyfish. Maybe there's another animal it co-evolved with? I guess climate change is going to really mix things up in terms of ecosystems...

message 9: by Amanda (new) - added it

Amanda I haven't read that book, but I'll have to check it out- thanks! I have one by Goodall that I've wanted to read but haven't gotten to yet. I'm fascinated most by elephants and especially primates! I've watched more documentaries than anything- Nim, Koko, and Chantek.

message 10: by Amanda (new) - added it

Amanda I'm just seeing the rest of your comment, Dov (phone app!). I remember your review now! Supposedly, those jellyfish have spread into new territory, even spotted in Florida. It's amazing how small temperature changes in the ocean create such dramatic imbalances.

message 11: by Dov (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dov Zeller I'm completely in love with elephants. Elephants, dolphins, whales, bonobos, octopuses, and on and on. I love watching nature videos. If there's any you recommend let me know. (Is there a particular documentary about Nm, Koko and Chantek?) I also read a fantastic book about elephants during WWII. Trying to remember what it's called.

It's crushing every day to think about how people are killing them. It is crushingly hard to watch the damage being done.

This is it.

message 12: by Amanda (new) - added it

Amanda A Conversation with Koko and The Ape Who Went to College aired on PBS and the other movie was Project Nim. They're kind of hard to watch because the outcomes were not great. Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story was a really good book too.

message 13: by Dov (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dov Zeller Thanks Amanda! I'll check them out.

Elyse (retired from reviewing/semi hiatus) Walters Great review, Dov....
Like Amanda...I enjoyed both the books she mentioned --
I loved the middle school book, too about Jellyfish --
and I loved the book about Elephants --so I sure 'can' see why you read this! :)

Laura I enjoyed this book. I wished there had been more to it but it was interesting

message 16: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Wonderfully informative review, Dov. Very much enjoyed running across and reading your thoughts on this one.

message 17: by Dov (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dov Zeller Thanks Elyse and Laura and Mike!

Elyse, I just got the elephant book from the library. But I haven't had time to look at it yet because "Middle C" has taken me so long to read. (I think I will finally finish it today.) I could have read a David Grossman book in the time it has taken me to read "Middle C." At least it has reminded me that taking a long time to read a book is not such a terrible thing. Which means I may just pick up "To the End of the Land" soon.

Jennifer Dov, such a good review. I'm in agreement with you about being torn about the octopus being taken from the wild but if it going to happen anyway at least they are going to people who love them. It's funny how I'm able to take that attitude now as opposed to when I was younger and more idealistic I suppose

Elyse (retired from reviewing/semi hiatus) Walters Dov.... how are you? The daily deal is available with this book today and audiobook and I thought of you and I’m going to get it and start listening to it when I have a little time so thank you and again your review was really terrific

message 20: by Dov (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dov Zeller Elyse!!!!

Thanks. Hope you enjoy the book! Look forward to hearing.

Been thinking of you so much. I'm hanging in there. How are you? <3<3<3

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