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Octopus Intelligence: Untangling a Distributed Brain

by | Feb 12, 2020

Octopus Intelligence: Untangling a Distributed Brain

The octopus is a fascinating sea creature. But these animals now offer scientists a way to view how different forms of intelligence may evolve. Dr. David Gire, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington says these very fluid, invertebrate mollusks evolved about the same time as vertebrates.

“If we try to study how their cognition works we can perhaps get a better perspective on our own cognition,” he says. “So, we can see are there mechanisms in their brain that look similar to mechanisms in our own brain, although they evolved completely independently for the last 500 million years. If there are, maybe that is the best way for a brain to do those types of things.”

One of the most important things about the octopus that interests scientists is the way they move. It’s been the focus of research for many years but with today’s new tools, we’re now able to view them in a whole new light.

“We now have scanners that can basically scan the animal and reconstruct a lot of its movement semi-autonomously,” he says. “And so that lets us scan a lot more animals and get a lot more data as well as more precise data than people may have had in the past about how the octopuses are moving.”

The way they move is the single biggest focus of research, he says, because if we can understand how they move then we can build robots that move in a similar fashion. And yes, that does sound like something right out of a sci-fi movie. But these creatures that can move in multiple directions simultaneously make a great model for machines that could do the same, letting them go places more traditional robots can’t. Inside human blood vessels, for example.

Dominic Sivitilli is a graduate student in Gire’s department. He focuses on behavioral neuroscience and astrobiology. His interest in octopuses is more about finding life elsewhere in the universe. That’s right! These most flexible creatures with a brain and nervous system far different than our own may help us find different forms of life elsewhere. Listen to the podcast embedded below for more information.

If all of this fascinates you as it does us, then we invite you to join us Tuesday, February 18, 2020 at 7 p.m. as Pacific Science Center hosts a Science in The City event all about the octopus. There’s a whole lot more to the octopus than you might think. These new technologies are enabling researchers to rapidly expand our knowledge by investigating octopus behavior in greater detail than ever before.

This a free event for our members, just five dollars for everyone else.

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