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Animal minds

In this Wireless Philosophy video, we question what is possible for us to know about the mind and consciousness of an animal that has 9 brains: the octopus. View our Neuroscience and Philosophy learning module and other videos in this series here: https://www.wi-phi.com. Created by Gaurav Vazirani.

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Video transcript

What is it like to be an octopus? In this WiPhi video, we’ll ask how we can know about the minds of animals. Raamy grew up in the Maldives, a nation made up of a thousand or so islands in the Indian Ocean. When you grow up on a small island, the usual kinds of pets, like cats and dogs, aren’t always available, but he did once have a baby octopus. Whenever he would get bored, Raamy would dip a finger in the tank, and it would come up and wrap its arms and mouth around it. He thought the little octopus friend was being affectionate. But it was just as likely that it was trying to eat him. How can you tell what an octopus was thinking? How, more generally, can we tell what goes in the minds of our pets and other creatures we encounter? Neuroscience has taught us a lot about the mind. We have a rough idea of the various sorts of processes in the brain which are required for various kinds of mental activity. We know, for example, that much of our thinking involves processes in the neocortex. Likewise, we know that our visual experiences, that is, what we see, involves processes in the visual cortex. But notice that I have been talking about our thoughts, our visual experiences. Neuroscience has taught us a lot about our minds, where these minds in question are human minds. What about animal minds? Here's a good strategy. If the brain processes responsible for certain mental activities in us are also found in other creatures, we have good grounds to suppose that such creatures are also capable of those kinds of mental activities. In fact, much of experimental psychology is based on this strategy. For example, For example, a lot of psychologists try to study human minds by studying rats. But why is that? An obvious answer is that it’s much easier to get ethical clearance to do experiments on rats than on humans. But there is a deeper reason. Rats, and other mammals, are good test-subjects because they have similar brains to us. For example, the default mode network (DMN) in the brain, which is involved in daydreaming, is also found active in rats. This gives us reason to think that rats can also have daydreams. Which in turn means we can try to study the nature of human daydreaming by doing experiments on rats. This strategy makes sense when animals have very similar brains to us humans. But what about creatures that have very different kinds of brains? An octopus, for instance, is said to have nine brains. One central brain and one in each of its arms. This way of counting brains might be a bit simplistic, but octopuses, and their relatives like cuttlefish and squids, have a much more distributed nervous system. In fact, most of their neurons are found in their arms, not their ‘central’ brain. And octopuses can use their arms to do some pretty remarkable things like taste, touch and even move, without input from the central brain. So what goes on in the mind of an octopus? How can we tell? Well, it is true that octopuses have very different brains from us. But one picture that emerges is that they still have certain parts of their anatomy devoted to tasks that we perform. For example parts to do with short and long-term memory, recognising individuals and play. This suggests that octopuses most likely have rich mental lives, even if they have brains that are very different from ours However, what about octopus consciousness? What is it like to be an octopus? What is it like to have the kinds of experiences that an octopus has? The brain is often said to be the seat of consciousness. Of course, the brain takes information from the body, but it is the way the brain processes this information that gives rise to a conscious mind. If that’s right, it is not incredibly far-fetched to think that a creature with several brains might be capable of hosting several different minds. So what is it like to be an octopus? Maybe an octopus can have several distinct conscious experiences all at once. This, of course, is highly speculative. But here is the kicker. Since octopuses have such radically different brains from ours, we might never be able to know.