Transcript for Sy Montgomery uncut


Jim Fleming: You know, it's a funny way to start it, but I think for most people the very idea of an octopus is, well, it's alien. We're introduced to them in documentaries, uh science fiction, and they really are physically barely like us, aren't they?

Sy Montgomery: Yeah. They. There's nothing more alien, I think, on this planet. They. Their lineage diverged from ours about 500-700 million years ago and they're so different from us. They can taste with their skin. They have no bones. Um. They can squeeze through a tiny opening. Oozing almost like they are liquid themselves. A 100 pound giant pacific octopus can get through an opening the size of an orange and you can sever their arms and the arms will go off hunting by themselves. I mean, unbelievable. But what I think is even more unbelievable is the fact that these guys have developed intelligence and emotions and personalities that are enough like ours that we can recognize them as such.

Fleming: It's astonishing, though. When you approach the whole situation, because they are so different. Those things you described. The bonelessness first is probably the least easy for us to get used to. We are so…we are so accustomed to structured bodies, whatever they may be. That that this thing just doesn't look like it could be anything. So, so how do you approach an octopus because it doesn't seem to have any avenue to um to communicate?

Montgomery: Well, you know what, you look into their eyes and eyes evolved separately several different times. Their eyes are remarkably like ours and you can an octopus' eye swivel in its socket and meet yours and that's an immediate point of contact. I was just yesterday.

Fleming: You are obviously speaking from experience. Aren't you? You have done this.

Montgomery: Yes.

Fleming: This is.

Montgomery: Yes.

Fleming: This is not uh just an idea to you.

Montgomery: No, no. I I've always wanted to meet an octopus and many of us have seen them in aquaria and on the other side of the glass, you know, wondered who is this and what are they thinking if they're thinking? Well, I had the opportunity to meet, now I known, one two three. Three octopuses. Pretty well, because very generously the New England aquarium has given me access to them and will open the top of the tank and let me plunge my arms into the 47 degree water and touch them and let them touch, and interestingly, taste me. And for instance,

Fleming: In fact, you've written about the first encounter you had. I think it was the first, anyway. With an octopus we called Athena.

Montgomery: Yes. This was a piece that I did for Orion Magazine. And actually, now I'm going to be doing a book and this is why I've come to know other octopuses and Athena was great individual and we got on absolutely great the first we met. She looked me in the eye. I plunged my arms into the water. Hers started boiling up out of the water. She immediately attached her suckers to me. She covered my arms with her suckers. Each of her eight arms has about 200 suckers and each one of those suckers cannot just feel exquisitely, but they taste you and not just your skin. I think they can taste even beneath that. So she knows me in a way that no one else has ever known me before.

Fleming: That has to have been just a little bit odd. Wasn't it? I mean, you knew of course what you were going into, but again thinking about plunging your arms in and them having them immediately attached. If not attacked.

Montgomery: That. That's right. Well I wanted. I wanted that. I wanted to feel her slippery, soft head which felt like a custard underwater. I wanted to feel all of that. Um. You'd think, "Oh, ick." You know, here are you in this cold water and you're having suckers attach to you and there's slime involved, but then think of your first kiss. It doesn't sound too appealing if you describe it to someone who's never had one.

Fleming: That does. There are some similarities, aren't there?

Montgomery: This this. You know. I wrote that it felt like the kiss of an alien and it really did. Um. Here was someone who was curious about me. Um. Who, I mean. Did she like me? Well, I guess so. It's hard to imagine what she experienced. But the thing is, if an octopus doesn't like you, you know about it. They show this in several ways and they're unmistakable. One is they won't come near you, for one thing. Um. Or. If they really dislike you, it's well known that octopuses who dislike you will aim their funnel at you and shoot water at you and there's a number. Actually, one of the octopuses I've known, Octavia, uh did this to a student who was shadowing me one day. And all of a sudden, she was just soaking wet. And they have excellent aim with their funnels. There. There was an octopus named Truman who lived at the New England Aquarium and he was a pretty easygoing octopus, but there was this one woman that he just couldn't stand and she was a nice woman. She was a volunteer. Nice, college student and she worked there all summer and every time Truman saw her he aimed his funnel and he blasted her and she was soaking wet with salt water all the rest of the day. And, interestingly, she went away to college and then came back for a visit. Meanwhile, Truman had not soaked anyone, but when he set eyes on her again blam! He blasted her again. So, he remembered her and just didn't like her. And I think we've all had that experience, though. Of meeting somebody who you just, you know, it's love at first sight or else you just can't stand them.

Fleming: You know, that actually suggests more about intelligence than any other kind of behavior I can imagine. Because it does mean that Truman recognized one particular person and acted on it. It isn't just um. It isn't just observable behavior, is it? There's something very personal about that.

Montgomery: Right. Absolutely. And scientists, including Jennifer Mather and um a colleague out at the Seattle Aquarium Roland Anderson, have done experiments showing that octopuses do recognize individuals and change their behavior accordingly. Even when those individuals are dressed identically and that octopus only has access to looking at them through the water. And what they did was they asked some volunteers, dressed identically, to offer the octopus food and other volunteers touch the octopus with a bristle. I mean, it didn't hurt him but the octopus didn't like it. And after just a few times, the octopus would take one look at the volunteer who had touched them with a bristly brush and move away, or squirt them, or just aim the funnel as if they might need to squirt them. And the octopus also recognized the volunteers who'd consistently fed them and would move towards that individual.

Fleming: There is also another element to their behavior that you've written about that is a little scarier. They don't just move away. They don't just shoot water at you. They can actually attack. They can bite. They have beaks.

Montgomery: Yes. You wouldn't think that somebody like that would have a beak. They've got stuff. I mean, they have venom like a snake. They have a beak like a parrot. Um. They’re…they’re made out of this gelatinous material. I mean, they really do seem like out of space alien, but the venom um. They choose. You know, whether they envemonate you or not is under their conscious control and my friend, Bill Murphy, at the New England Aquarium has once been bitten by an octopus. Her name was Guinevere, but she did not envenomate him. She just kind of wanted to see, "Can I eat you? Oh, guess not.". But another octopus that I've heard of um who lived on the west coast. A volunteer kind of came in after hours and wanted to have his picture taken holding the octopus out of the water. Octopuses, they will come out of the water, and they'll explore, and they'll take stuff too, and they'll creep back to their tank, and then you'll wonder where your chotcka is that was on the shelf, and you'll notice it's in their tank. But um. They don't like being taken out of the water forcibly for a photo op. No one likes the paparazzi. And so this particular octopus bit that guy and envenomated him and they have flesh dissolving venom. It is not a joke to be envenomated by a giant pacific octopus and other species of octopus, and there's hundreds of them, uh can kill you with their venom. The blue ring octopus those animals frequently um kill you and they cause you to stop breathing.

Fleming Which makes it even scarier to think about plunging your arms into the tank that holds an unknown octopus. We. We've talked about uh their interaction with you. I'm curious, before we come back to that, what you know about their interaction with each other. Do we know much about octopus culture, if you will? Octopus society?

Montgomery: Boy. I. I think this is an area that really deserves further study. They're not that easy to to study and there's not a huge amount of money to do these studies, but um what's funny is. What we know suggests that they're not particularly social and that their interactions tend to be kind of limited to chasing each other away, mating, or eating each other. And that begs the question, what's this intelligence that they have for? Because when we look at intelligent species who we know: we look at animals like elephants or chimpanzees or whales and they are long lived, highly social species, as are we. But here is an animal who doesn't live very long. Alas, the giant pacific will only live about three years and they don't appear to be very social with other octopuses. So. What do they do with their intelligence?

Fleming: It does make you wonder. The situation you described. They chase each other. They mate. And they eat each other. That's not a prescription for uh an evolved society.

Montgomery: Well. Notice that human beings eat each other. I mean, people who eat people. Um. We. We don't all eat each other, but cannibalism is is well known in human populations.

Fleming: Do we. Oh, I beg your pardon.

Montgomery: What did you have for breakfast?

Fleming: I just ate someone. I beg your pardon.

Montgomery: I know. It doesn't sound like what we call highly, highly evolved.

Fleming: It. Well it doesn't seem, by our standards, but that of course is part of the question, isn't it? We are trying to communicate with and understand a species that is different. Not only physically different, but um intellectually different and we have only a few points in which we know there's an interface. You've talked about looking into Athena's eyes and seeing someone inside. But where do you go from there? How do you. How do you go from that to an investigation of personality? Of consciousness?

Montgomery: Well, interestingly. um. Dr. Jennifer Mather, who's up in Canada, has. She's a psychologist and she has done a number of experiments with octopuses and one of the things that she and Roland Anderson have both documented extremely well is that they play. And play is one of those things that we tend to associate with higher thought, right? Um. They definitely play. They play so much that now there's actually a handbook for enrichment of octopuses so that they aren't bored. They don't just like to play. They pretty much need to play or they'll go out of their minds. So…

Fleming: Give me an example. What. How do they play?

Montgomery: Well, a lot of people actually give them Mr. Potato Head and they put food inside Mr. Potato Head and they can take apart his ears, and his nose, and his eyes, and um. At the New England Aquarium, um my friend Will Sinmenache who helped develop cubic zirco zirconium designed a series or locking boxes, which are Plexiglas, and the octopus enjoys unlocking the different locks to get to a crab inside. Other aquaria use those kinds of balls that you can screw them together. Sometimes you put hamster in them so your hamster can run all over the house. Um. And interestingly, they'll unscrew it to get to the crab inside, but just for yucks they'll screw it back together.

Fleming: Well, then I've got to make it to make it more personal for a lot of people. I read in one of the articles, they can undo those aspirin bottles with the childproof caps.

Montgomery: Yes. I know. I know so many people in multiple PhD's that can't take off the childproof caps on those bottles, but an octopus can. So there there's a good argument for having an octopus as a friend, because they can always help you out in need.

Fleming: You talk about them playing. Is it. Is it um. I guess, because again we're talking about social behavior. It sounds like it's playing with. Playing on their own. Playing by themselves.

Montgomery: Yes. They like to play with objects. In fact, one octopus. A number of them, actually. They've now documented um was playing with one of these bottles by essentially bouncing the ball. What she would do, was she would let the um. Let the bottle go and it would be caught up in a stream of, you know, a a stream of water that the filter was causing to circulate and it would come back to her in that way. The same way that if you bounced a ball, it would bounce back to you. And she did this over and over and over just because it was interesting to watch. The same reason that you and I would bounce a ball against the wall and be entertained by catching it.

Fleming: So these kinds of things make us think that maybe our intelligences have some similarities.

Montgomery: Yeah. Yes. It's so interesting to me. I mean, it kind of takes one to know one. But I I love, I mean, I love seeing the similarities that we have with all of animate creation and in a way it shouldn't be surprising. We share 90% of our DNA with most mammals. 99% with chimpanzees. With. Who are so closely related to us, you could get a blood transfusion from a chimp. But we share 40% of our DNA with a daisy and that makes me feel like I'm part of a larger family. And that helps me, I think, to expand my compassion to all of animate creation and makes me feel bad for those of us who only pay attention to one species and who only think that human alone in the universe have intelligence or have um consciousness. When in fact..

Fleming: Do we share any of our DNA with the octopus?

Montgomery: Oh, yeah. We. We share. We certainly do. We certainly do. In fact, more than. More than we do with a daisy, because they are animals and daisies are plants. So, yes. We do. But, you know, the common ancestor that we share with the octopus may have lived 700 million years ago. But we still had an ancestor.

Fleming: What about their brains? Uh. Is there a similarity between their brains and ours?

Montgomery: Wow. The difference in their brains, and what excites me. I mean. They have pretty big brains. Um. Athena, Octavia, the other, Culley, the other octopus that I've known. Their brain's probably about the size of a walnut, which is as big as an African gray parrot's. And you might think, "Oh, bird brain." But I've known an African gray parrot who could speak a hundred words meaningfully, as well as do math. So size doesn't really matter, but what's strikes me so much about the octopus brain is that 3/5th of their neurons are not in the brain at all. They're in the arms. And it's almost as if, Dr. Godfrey Smith um a professor of philosophy uh in New York, has said it's as if each arm has a mind of its own. And octopuses can re-grow their arms. If you sever their arm or if, through some accident, an arm becomes severed that arm will go off and search for prey on its own. And find it. And then start passing the prey item back toward where the mouth ought to be, but no longer is anymore, in the center of the eight arms. Boy does that blow my mind.

Fleming: I read. Well, it would be startling to see certainly. I read that that in terms of neurons, they actually have more um what we would call brain neurons than we do. But as you say, they're not centered in the same way. That suggests that um that their brains really are spread out over that whole boneless mass.

Montgomery: Well, they are. Um. Actually, they have fewer than we do. Um. An octopus, the common octopus, is the only one who've they've actually counted um the neurons. They have about 130 million in the brain and we have 100 billion. So we do have more, but it's so different. I mean, can you imagine that kind of diffuse consciousness? I mean, maybe it's like multiple personality. Maybe it's. When  you think of what consciousness is, and I've been. I've been thinking about this a lot. To the point that I'll probably go crazy next week, but you know. Um. What is consciousness? You know, does it mean the self? Do we have an inner self? There's actually philosophers who say we don't, but if consciousness means the self and your neurons are nearly as more in your arms than in your head does that mean you have multiple selves? What does. You know. What does that. What does that mean? But this is their reality and animals are constantly leading us to recognize other realities that are just as real as ours. Because they have all these abilities that we have never had or can't touch without our technology. You know, um. Birds and insects can see polarized light. We know polarized light is a real phenomenon, but we can't see it. You know, um. Animals like whales and elephants can hear infrasound. Which we cannot, but we know it is real. It is a real part of our world they experience and we don't.

Fleming: I think part of what makes the octopus so interesting is that contrast between the other animals you just described. It's one thing to know that a bird can see things we can't. That a whale can hear things we can't. Those don't seem so startling. But to see an octopus feel and interact physically in so many different ways seems more alien to us, don't you think?

Montgomery: Yeah, it really does. And. And also I'm one of those people that likes to pick up and touch animals so that I'm not going to scare them, but boy having your arms immobilized by thousands of suckers. I mean, I've bent over that tank and had my arms covered with these suckers. It…it's just an amazing interaction. You're just not going to have that with anybody else, but an octopus. And realizing that each one of those suckers is tasting you, experiencing you, in a way that no one else ever will. That's. It's just great.

Fleming: There's a researcher you mentioned in your article, who described meeting an octopus as "like meeting an intelligent alien". Did. Did you have any of that sense in any of you interactions with the octopuses? Or did it did it feel more like. Did it begin to feel more normal, I guess, as time went on?

Montgomery: Well, I have a lot of friends from other species. So, I guess I have to say that that going into this I was eager to meet that alien. I was eager to recognize that intelligence. I was ready to see what this animal had to offer me and eager for that strangeness to be revealed. Um. I was thrilled to to Athena. And she was really interested in me, too. Her arms just came boiling up to meet me and most people aren't eager to plunge their arms into 47 degree water and be covered with suckers, but we just spontaneously threw ourselves into each other's arms. And the other wonderful thing was petting her head. Now, I had seen a video of Bill Murphy, the aquarist at the New England Aquarium, petting Truman on the head and so I immediately reached for her head and her skin went white beneath my touch. That's the other thing. They're so much more expressive than we are and I say that as a professional writer thinking that, you know, self-expression is very important and appreciating art and poetry but my goodness. They. They show so much with their skin. Not only turning all kinds of colors and patterns, but they can they can change the very shape and texture of their skin. So they're showing us so much of themselves. I mean, talk about wearing your heart on your sleeve. They don't wear it on their sleeve. They wear it on their skin. The problem is we can't always interpret it. But I do know that when she went white beneath my skin, it showed that she was calm.

Fleming: So. One of the things that this all teaches us is how much we need to broaden our own appreciation of other species, doesn't it? It's we're we are defining them by how little we know, when what we need to do is redefine ourselves with how to differently they achieve consciousness.

Montgomery: I could not say if better. That was a wonderful way to put it. I think that we expand and enrich our understanding of the world so much by coming to know other animals. And conversely, we shrink our pathetically when we only pay attention to one species. It. It would be like only seeing one color. Or only eating one food. Or only reading over and over the same one sentence. And when we start to appreciate the way the world is experienced by the rest of animate creation, we enlarge our own world. We enlarge our own heart. We enlarge our capacity for compassion. Which, you know, compassion means come with passion. Suffering. Being able to identify with the experience of others. And when we deny others the dignity of having experience, we shrink our own hearts. When. When we do the opposite, we expand our world, and expand our joy, and expand our own goodness.

Fleming: I wonder, too, in looking at your interaction with different um individuals in the octopus world whether we need to look differently at the way in which they live. You said they are mostly solitary. They don't have much interaction with each other except in ways that um that are very limiting and they don't live very long. It was very sad that Athena didn't live very long at all after your encounter. Does make you wonder whether we're not seeing something about uh octopus culture, if you will. Maybe there is something beyond the short individual life.

Montgomery: That's absolutely true and I think we really need to look at this. It's hard to study them. Um. Because, you know, they live in a world that we don't inhabit. Most of what we know about them, we know about from observing them in captivity. And observing them in captivity is is pretty fantastic. The opportunity to have them kind of living among us and yet in their element, but so much more needs to be done about seeing how they live in their watery world. One of the things I'm really looking forward to as I researched this book is learning to scuba dive and to meet them in their world.

Fleming: So is that your next step?

Montgomery: Yeah. Yep. That and I'm also getting to know a a new octopus. Her name is Kali. She is the new baby octopus who is going to replace Octavia. Octavia replaced Athena. Octavia um they could tell, you know, when an when an octopus enters senescence. It's much like a human. They show a lot of signs of senility. They slow down. They skin loses elasticity. Um. But you know what is so lovely is that Octavia actually has laid eggs and while they won't hatch. It's very moving to me that she gets to complete that part of the octopuses life cycle. Bill Murphy was saying that completion um. There's just something so good that she gets to do that. You think of, you know, feeling part of humanity. As if you were holding hands with your mother and your mother was holding hands with her mother and her mother was holding hands with her mother and it would stretch back far enough until you were holding the hairy hand of essentially a chimpanzee. When you think of the cycle that Octavia is enacting, she's enacting one that goes back, you know, hundreds of thousands of years and she's still holding the arm of another octopus. It's such an ancient cycle. So that's kind of the reason that the new little one that has just come in, that's name is Kali. Kali is the Hindu goddess of creative destruction. And she's going to occupy the big tank once Octavia dies, but she'll begin life anew and I will be able to follow her life for a long time. I'm looking forward to seeing what she teaches me. As well as meeting wild octopuses on their own. Well, I shouldn't say turf. I should say surf.

Fleming: Plenty more opportunities to plunge your arms into the water.

Montgomery: Yes. Absolutely. She's a great little octopus, by the way. Really sweet. Really playful and um. When she's. When you. She right now is living in a giant um pickle bin. A big, plastic pickle jar essential and uh there's holes in the pickle jar and she sticks her little tentacles out of there, hoping someone's going to undo the pickle jar. Which of course, you would then do and then you play with her and she has a really good time. So we know each other already and um I'm going to get to see her every week for the rest of her life, I expect.

Fleming: That sounds great.

Montgomery: Yeah, I can't wait.

Fleming: Thank you very much.

Montgomery: Oh, this was a blast.

Fleming: Thank you. That was terrific.

Montgomery: Boy. It's great talking to you. I mean, you know so much stuff about other creatures and that's rare. It's a delight to talk to you.

Fleming: Learned from you.

Montgomery: Oh, god.

Fleming: Hey, thanks. Um. What? That's a good question. Can I ask you that? We'll stick it on the…the virtual tape is still rolling.

Montgomery: Okay. Yeah.

Fleming: Sorry. I've been doing this for a while.

Montgomery: No.

Fleming: You talk about. You talk about Octavia's eggs. If they were to hatch, would she have any interaction with them?

Montgomery: Not much, because what happens is each egg is the size of a grain of rice and she lays. She could lay 100,000 of these. The babies hatch as what is called par larvae and they float off in the ocean. That's their job. It's. It's much like Charlotte in Charlotte's Web really. Although, Charlotte didn't get to live to see her eggs hatch. Um. Mother octopuses do get to see them hatch, but they don't need any interaction from them. The mother has already done everything she can by guarding those eggs, by aerating them, by keeping them clean, and she does that until the end of her life.

Fleming: Thanks. Great. Alright. Well, we'll be in touch. Um. I can't tell you when exactly.

Montgomery: Tell me when this runs. I cannot wait.

Fleming: We will.

Comments for this interview

Jim Fleming on The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (Shirley Hall, 12/10/2013 - 1:02am)

I don't know why, but your reading and discussion of this much loved poem brought tears to my eyes. Sometimes you hear something that touches your heart. It was great to hear the translation. I'd forgotten just how moving this poem could be. Thank you for the segment.