The Soul of an Octopus, by Sy Montgomery

I have known no natural state more like a dream than this. I feel elation cresting into ecstasy and experience bizarre sensations: my own breath resonates in my skull, faraway sounds thump in my chest, objets appear closer and larger than they really are. Like in a dream, the impossible unfolds before me, and yet I accept it unquestioningly. Beneath the water, I find myself in an altered state of consciousness, where the focus, range, and clarity of perception are dramatically changed. Is this what Kali and Octavia feel like all the time?

Rating: 4/5
Author: Sy Montgomery
Genre: non-fiction, nature writing
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

The Soul of an Octopus“What is it like to be an octopus?” In The Soul of an Octopus, naturalist Sy Montgomery looks for answers while delving into the mysteries that encompass these odd ocean-dwellers. This book is not only a study of octopuses’ physical attributes and behaviors but also a chronicle of the emotional impact that the author went through while learning about them along the workers and volunteers at the New England Aquarium.

At first glance, the strangeness of these molluscs is distinctly apparent— yet, we both share the same world. Unlike humans, octopuses are comprised of body, head, and limbs, in that order. Their circular suckers not only account for their capacity to manipulate objects but also act as extraordinary sensory receptors. Imagine being able to taste food with your arms before taking it to your mouth, oddly located between them (what we would regard as ‘armpits’). Following this unusual anatomy, the head holds two eyes, one brain, and three hearts.

In her quest for knowledge, Montgomery becomes an observer of these species at the New England Aquarium. Her experiences with these octopuses tell of very different and remarkable personalities: tame, assertive, bossy, curious, bold, cheerful. As such, these specimens ought to be considered unique individuals; however, interpreting these behaviors through our limited human prism poses a significant problem. Given such disparity, how can we even begin to grasp the enigma that these creatures entail? Should we reject the concept of a single consciousness when talking about an octopus with a nervous system and sense reception so different than our own?

Montgomery decides to take her investigation a step further and expand her experiences beyond the aquarium in hopes of reaching a better understanding of their lives and natural environment. Despite her initial struggles, she ends up getting the required certification to practice scuba diving. From that point on, Montgomery’s delightful depictions of her underwater adventures make her enthusiasm almost contagious. Again, one cannot help but wonder about our lack of awareness about the vast ocean, which makes up 71% of the surface of the Earth.

Although Montgomery’s story leaves many issues about octopuses unresolved, she successfully manages to portray these species for what they are, rejecting all forms of previous prejudice and perhaps fading part of their ill-reputation as “monsters.” Differences draw forth rejection, while similarities -however fleeting- inevitably appeal to us (i.e., Octavia is no longer considered “disgusting” after being regarded as a creature with maternal instincts). Through unexpected encounters with these alien species, Montgomery not only satisfies our curiosity but also reveals surprising sensibility in a story that emphasizes the importance of community and human relationships.


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