Today we’ve got another “behind the paper” episode for you. In it, we’re talking about some of the most alien-seeming yet charismatic creatures around. I chatted with Dr. Alex Schnell, a Comparative Psychologist and Research Fellow at Cambridge University. We discuss a paper she recently published with a few colleagues titled, ‘How intelligent is a cephalopod?’
I’ve been charmed by cephalopods for awhile now—octopuses specifically. Maybe you have too. You’ve probably seen those videos of octopuses carrying coconut shells for protection, or pretending to be a hermit grab or a flounder. Maybe you saw the recent documentary My Octopus Teacher where the main octopus character gathers a bunch of shells into a kind of makeshift armor to protect herself against an imminent shark attack. This is all jaw-droppingly, head-scratchingly cool stuff. But you may have also wondered, as I have, what’s really going on—cognitively—behind these behaviors. What’s happening in the minds of these creatures when they pull off these fancy feats? Could the mechanisms involved actually be simpler than you might at first guess?
This really is the core issue in Alex’s paper and we circle around it for much of the conversation. But, in circling, we touch on a lot. We cover some Cephalopod 101 type stuff—when cephalopods split from vertebrates, what cephalopods brains are like, why octopuses tends to hog the limelight when squid and cuttlefish are pretty impressive, too. We talk about Alex’s studies of self-control in cuttlefish, styled on the classic marshmallow experiments. We talk about the cephalopod gift for disguise and whether this gift might suggest a form of bodily awareness or maybe even theory of mind. And we zoom out to talk about the evolution of cognitive sophistication generally and how cephalopods can help us understand the kinds of forces that drive it.
I’ve been excited about cephalopods for awhile now, but having this conversation made me that much more so. It’s convinced me that we still have a ton to learn about—and probably from—these brainy, shape-shifting creatures. So let’s get to it. Here’s my conversation with Dr. Alex Schnell. Enjoy!