This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as TED2009 on Technorati.
Dr. Jennifer Mather looks for intelligence in the oceans. She’s not studying the dolphin or the whale, but the octopus. They’re fascinating to her because octopuses are really different from us, related to clams and mollusks. If we can understand their intelligence, we can understand just how different intelligence can be and can manifest.
Cephalopods like the octopus took the mollusk body and lost the shell. As a result, they had to develop tricks: techniques, camouflage, and big brains. While Mather is fascinated by ways that octopuses can act as chameleons, her focus is on understanding octopus intelligence.
A definition of intelligence she offers involves reasoning, understanding and the capacity for learning. But she thinks the right way to understand these questions is to look at personality, play, and problem-solving.
Most people won’t consider animals to have personalities – but they’ll see it in their dogs, for instance. People who work at the Seattle aquarium began naming their octopuses – “Leisure suit Larry”, who enjoyed lots of human contact, or “Emily Dickinson”, who hid under rocks and wasn’t an appropriate aquarium exhibit.
To study personality, she added a threat to the environment – a test-tube brush that the octopuses didn’t like the feel of. Different animals responded to the threat differently – some were active, confronting it. Others reacted and jetted away when touched, while others were avoidant, hiding from the stimulus. She saw this variation track individuals, demonstrating the possibility of octopus personality.
Adding plaything to the tank- a neutrally-buoyant pill bottle – and she saw octopuses engage in play. Some, predictably, seized the bottle and tried it in their beaks. But one found a water jet where she could play “catch” – she’d use her siphon to send the bottle towards the jet, and it would bounce back to her, letting her “bounce the ball”.
To test problem-solving, Mather believes in framing “ecologically relevant problems”. This suggests studying clams, a creature in an “arms race” with octopi. As the octopuses get stronger, the clams develop stronger hinge muscles. She tested species of clams for the strength of their hinge and discovered that her research animals would choose the easier ones to open, even though they preferred the taste of the tougher ones. And they use a variety of techniques – ripping with arms, as well as drilling with their beaks – to open the different species.
Don’t worry about octopuses taking over the world – not only is their structure wrong for life outside the oceans, but they have very short memories, appropriate for their short lifespans. But they’re fascinating, especially because their intelligence isn’t centered – cut off an arm and it has a great deal of capacity to act on its own.