For centuries consciousness was considered to be the purview of humans. Insects were considered to be little robots, lacking even basic self-awareness. Animals were farmed and put to labour without consideration for their feelings because they were thought not to have any. Now science supports a different view: consciousness apparently arises with the ability to sense and to learn, and awareness exists in surprising places. This leads to today's post: encounters with alien minds.
The octopus is an odd creature. There is even a long-running debate about its name - whether the plural form is octopuses, octopodes or octopi. For me though, it is the way that these creatures sense and interact with the world which amazes.
We all know that the octopus has no bones. It is spineless in a physical sense, amazingly muscular and flexible, and shows us a radial symmetry with eight arms around a bulbous body. The suckers on the arms respond to environmental stimuli and trigger responses in adjoining suckers, so that cascades of localised decision-making occur and do not need to involve a central (coordinating) brain. In other words, the mind here, in the octopus, is cooperative, rather than based on the human picture of a hierarchical corporation.
Can we even imagine what this is like?
In hospital years ago due to a bleed onto his brain, from a fall, I friend of mind found himself seeing mind through a different door. He would be talking to visitors, feeling in control, only to look around and find that his left arm had raised itself up all on its own. The blood clot was responsible, since it pressed into brain tissue, affecting messages sent regarding limb movement. The body was just following orders. This thing is, the instructions were not coming from that personalised observer that we think of as the 'us' inside our body. Weird.
This is the kind of life an octopus lives all the time. Instead of a centralised nervous system with a brain and nerves that spread out from this hub, there is a decentralised network of tiny brain-like clusters: 70 percent of its brain (350 of its 500 neurons) is found in its eight arms!
The suckers on an arm sense the world but instead of sending the data back to base control, they share it locally. They taste and feel, sense environmental conditions, and signal surrounding suckers, all without the need for a central brain or singular 'I am' to get involved. This represents a 'bottom-up' decision-making process. How might this feel?
We have similar trouble perceiving that way insects experience the world. Many of these small critters also have distributed mini brains in their bodies. Here, the nervous system is like a string of tiny beads up the middle, with each white hub a processing centre. These look after localised information and decision-making that may not even need to get to a collective centre point.
For example, moths that are chased by echo-locating bats escape because their ears, located under each wing, hear the bat sounds and talk directly to the wing muscles. They don't involve the chairman of the board. It is faster to have a local loop that changes the way the wings flap so that it moves away from the bat, or folds the wings so that the little critter to plunges into the grass below, when needed.
There are stranger minds too, based in awareness that exists in the absence of any animal-like nervous system. These appear able to sense, discern and learn. Pea plants, for example, can be tricked into a kind of Pavlovian conditioning. Here, airflow is presented along with a good source of light for the plant. By contrast, when it experiences a poor source of light there is no similar flow of air. After a while, when given the choice, the plant chooses to grow towards airflow, up a tube, and ignore the current light available, almost as if it is expecting the good light to appear at any moment. Science does not yet understand this mind in plants, but it exists.
Obviously, conscious awareness is not the only solution for success. Even within ourselves, the subconscious, which exists as mind below or outside of conscious control, has access to enormous amounts of information. And it is this aspect of mind that directs most of our bodily functions, even making action-based decisions, while the personified, intellectual, observer-aspect of consciousness takes credit. Strangely, this master controller seems to do more to limit our awareness than expand it.
We humans are very precious about central control. Perhaps so much so that the societal structure we generate and promote, one of patriarchy, hierarchy, and monopoly, may simply reflect this illusion. What might we achieve instead, what issues might we solve, by looking through the lens of alien minds?
Till next time – B.W. Cribb