Friday, September 8, 2017

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery

Reviewed by Kristin

I never thought a book about octopuses would be interesting.  Sure, they are kind of cool and pretty to look at behind glass at an aquarium, but I couldn’t imagine reading an entire book about them.  However, a Nevermore book club reader absolutely raved about The Soul of an Octopus, so I decided to give it a try.  Sy Montgomery is a naturalist known for her non-fiction books for both adults and children, and I was pleasantly surprised by the depths she reached in this volume.

Montgomery forged a relationship with the New England Aquarium in Boston that allowed her behind the scenes and eventually earned her a volunteer badge with the grand title of “Octopus Observer.”  From Athena the giant Pacific octopus to tiny Karma, (only nine or ten pounds when she first arrived,) Montgomery learned that each octopus had a distinct personality and the intelligence to remember individual humans.

The author was amazed at how octopuses can gather so much information using their eight limbs and thousands of suckers.  Even their brains are so unlike other animals; while human brains have four lobes, octopus brains have as many as 50 to 75 lobes.  Not only that, but most of their neural activity is located in their arms.  It’s no wonder that an octopus’ front arms are fully capable of doing one thing while their back arms are doing something entirely different.  Very dexterous, octopuses are also known as accomplished escape artists.
I also learned that octopuses have a relatively short life span, perhaps only three or four years in captivity.  They may have much shorter lives in the open ocean where there are predators lurking behind every plant and rock.  While it may seem cruel to contain these creatures in an aquarium, Montgomery points out that aquarists acknowledge that they are changing the fate of the individual octopus, but promoting human knowledge of the wild creatures which will in turn protect their entire species.

Montgomery imbues her writing with such a sense of wonder that I was drawn into her experiences.  I can’t quite imagine what it must feel like to have my human arm explored by the tentacles of an octopus, but I can understand that it must be a very unique and sensational experience.

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