Can I Really Get My Arms Around This Animal?

Unknown-11

It’s time we talked about octopuses. I hear you saying: “Annie-the-English-major: Don’t you mean octopi?” That’s the first misconception we must clarify right away. All those years we’ve been talking about octopi? We’ve been wrong. Well, not everyone agrees, but here’s what the Oxford Dictionaries say:

“The standard plural in English of octopus is octopuses. However, the word octopus comes from the Greek, and the Greek plural octopodes is still occasionally used. The plural form octopi, formed according to rules for some Latin plurals, is incorrect.”

So I’m taking the strictly classical position; I dare not intermingle Greek and Latin grammar.

It’s possible, of course, that your more pressing question is: Why is it time we talked about octopuses? I shall explain.

A few months ago, I was at a dinner party where the host had made paella. I’d never eaten scungilli or squid—they simply didn’t appeal to me. But there I was, faced with a plate in which the tell-tale rings were abundant. I generously transferred them from my plate to that of a friend who was eager for this gift.

Shortly before that dinner party, I’d heard a discussion about octopuses—how incredibly intelligent and social they are—how those in aquariums form bonds with their trainers and wend their way to that side of the tank. Not squid, of course, but a relative thereof.

In fact, when a naturalist named Sy Montgomery, author of The Soul of an Octopus, was interviewed on WBGH Boston radio, her interviewer began his intro by saying:

“If you’re someone who likes to eat octopus, those days are over.”

He said he’d refrained from eating octopuses just since reading her book. You can disagree with that sentiment, and I’m sure many of you will, but it’s been attributed to enough people to make me think there’s a bit of mystery here.

Why all the fuss? Because these strange creatures—shape-shifting, color-changing invertebrates with 3 hearts and brains wrapped around their esophaguses—are highly intelligent beings that seem to form attractions with humans. Montgomery says her love for Athena, the octopus, began when Athena first sidled up to her in an aquarium. The intro to the interview with her described their first meeting:

“Athena, an octopus toddler living in the New England Aquarium, locked eyes with the New Hampshire native, and without hesitation, Sy plunged her hand into an ice cold marine tank to allow the curious cephalopod to taste her skin. Octopuses, it turns out, taste with their suckers, and as Athena carefully explored Montgomery’s outstretched arms with her own, the writer felt they were both seeking, and connecting, alien skin to alien skin. Or, as we discovered, brain to brain.”

Keep that last thought in mind, as we’ll return to it.

Let’s explore the intelligence aspect a little further. A 2015 article in Nature, reporting on the sequencing of the octopus genome, began:

“With its eight prehensile arms lined with suckers, camera-like eyes, elaborate repertoire of camouflage tricks and spooky intelligence, the octopus is like no other creature on Earth. Added to those distinctions is an unusually large genome…that helps to explain how a mere mollusk evolved into an otherworldly being.” 

We’re talking about real brain power here. The Nature article quotes Benny Hochner, an Israeli neurobiologist who’s been studying octopuses for decades. “It’s important for us to know the genome, because it gives us insights into how the sophisticated cognitive skills of octopuses evolved.” 

What have they learned? That the genome of an octopus is nearly as large as ours, and actually has more protein-coding genes than we do: about 33,000, while we have fewer than 25,000. And the gene groups include one (called the protocadherins) involved in the development of neurons and their interactions. 

Octopuses also have specific, highly expressed genes in certain tissues. The genes in their suckers, for example, appear comparable to those related to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and apparently give those suckers their exquisite ability to taste.images-28

This intelligence is associated with the octopuses’ roughly 500,000 neurons, of which as many as two-thirds are located in their arms, particularly their upper arms. Talk about multi-tasking!  They can be doing one thing while an arm or two move around exploring their environment. And their neurons seem to act without being attached to anything via long-range fibers, Nature observes—such as the spinal cord we vertebrates have. And…

“The genome contains systems that can allow tissues to rapidly modify proteins to change their function. Electrophysiologists had predicted that this could explain how octopuses adapt their neural-network properties to enable such extraordinary learning and memory capabilities.”

How does this intelligence manifest itself? For one thing, octopuses are veritable Houdinis. Aquarium personnel know you never turn your back on an octopus in a pail because the next time you look, he’ll be quietly walking down the hall.

They are strong enough to push open the lids of their tanks, and one reportedly took off and made his way from the aquarium back to the sea he’d once called home.  And because of their shape-shifting and lack of bones, a 100-pound octopus can squeeze through a hole the size of an orange, says Montgomery.

They seem to welcome what can only be called mental stimulation. Montgomery speaks of an “Enrichment Manual” that advises aquarium personnel to give them Mr. Potato Heads, Legos, and the like. One inventor created a series of cubes made of plexiglass containing a crab. Each of the three cubes had a different lock; the third had 2 different locks. The octopus opened them all.

They appear to be playful. Philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith became fascinated by them when he was scuba diving off the coast of Australia. He has written a book  describing how octopuses have led him to explore the nature of consciousness. 

In an interview, Tentacled Alien From Under the Sea, he discusses octopuses in captivity turning out the lights in the lab by squirting water on the fixtures. And they demonstrably behave differently to people who treat them kindly than to those who aren’t as nice, perhaps even forming likes and dislikes for reasons that aren’t evident. 

The interviewer asked Godfrey-Smith whether when an octopus grabs your hand and sucks on you, is it tasting you? Godfrey-Smith responded:

“That’s what they are doing…so octopuses will reach out an arm and their suckers  will attach and touch you. All of those suckers contain a variety of sensory organs but in particular they can taste everything they touch.”

“If you’re in an aquarium and you’ve used particular soaps or deodorants, those are extremely strong stimuli when an octopus touches you and will make a big difference as to how you come across to them. This is one of several ways in which their sensory world is just completely extraordinary.”

Montgomery reported about one octopus, Truman, that sprayed a young aquarium worker in the face with water whenever she came into view—the only one who got that treatment. And when she’d been gone for months, and then returned, Truman greeted her with the same tactic—clearly remembering who she was. images-30

Montgomery has reportedly expressed her “surprise that octopuses have personalities and even consciousness—and some of the same cognitive and emotional capacities that we do and maybe a whole bunch we don’t.”

An octopus in a New Zealand aquarium takes pictures of the people who come to see him. In only three tries, he figured out how to work the camera, and he springs to action when he sees people positioned against a white backdrop, placing one of his arms into a tube and  snapping the photo.

The octopus learns in the wild that it’s kill or be killed, and it has a panoply of options when faced with a potentially dangerous situation.  Montgomery mentioned its weaponry:  Eat the predator using its sharp beak? Envelop it?  Turn colors, either to confuse it or blend into the environment?  Pour its “baggy boneless body down a little crack?” Shoot out ink to give it time to escape? 

The octopus meets up with diverse animals with different brains, she says, and outwits them all.

For additional videos, see “Octopuses keep surprising us—here are eight examples how.”

Now we come to the somewhat hypothethetical and, to me, most fascinating part. Because they are so clever, so resourceful, and so very odd, more than one scientist studying octopuses has said some variation of the following:

“This is probably the closest we’ll come to meeting an intelligent alien.“

How did it all happen? No one knows for sure, of course, but one “big idea” (in Godfrey-Smith’s phrase) is that there was a common ancestor between the octopus and vertebrates about 600 million years ago, and two individual evolutionary experiments occurred involving large neuron systems and complex brains.

If octopuses are so intelligent and always eager to escape, the question then arises: is it fair for us to keep them in aquariums? Montgomery thinks it’s fair, because most octopus species in the wild spend the preponderance of their time in tight dens, but they need things to keep them interested and to stimulate their brains. She wouldn’t, she says, think such environment suitable to dolphins, for example.

In addition, octopuses are the subject of study for soft robotics, among other things.

But to our point today, octopuses and individual humans have definitely formed bonds. Montgomery says of her experience:

“I wanted to see if I could reach across the evolutionary chasm to touch an invertebrate from 1/2 billion years ago. It changed my way of thinking about thinking. Their brains evolved from an utterly different route. They’re each individuals.”

Did Athena trust you?, she was asked of her first encounter with an octopus. “There’s no telling–with people either. Maybe she could taste that I wasn’t afraid of her. Maybe she could taste emotions—through neurotransmitters or hormones.”

“Either way, we liked each other very much.”

What do you think? If you’re an octopus connoisseur, are you rethinking your position? How eager would you be to be “hugged and kissed” by an octopus? Do you agree with Montgomery that they’re OK in captivity–or not? Do you find octopuses as fascinating as I do?

As always, I welcome your thoughts, opinions, and stories in the comment box below—as well as your feedback in the form of stars (from the one on the left for “awful” to the one on the right for “excellent”) and the “likes” from WordPress folks.  Thanks so much.

Annie

Mister Rogers: Where Are You When We Need You?

Unknown

I see a direct line between two recent bits of news. Here’s the first: “America Really Is in the Midst of a Rising Anxiety Epidemic,” headlines a Science Alert published in May. Reporting on the findings of an American Psychiatric Association (APA) Public Opinion Poll, the author writes: “If you’re feeling stressed, uncertain about what the future holds, or even physically unsafe, try not to panic—you’re definitely not alone.” https://www.sciencealert.com/americans-are-in-the-midst-of-an-anxiety-epidemic-stress-increase. Anxiety about health, safety, and personal finances topped the list of those responding to the APA poll—with percentages in the high 60s for each—while 56% cited the impact of politics on their daily lives. Nearly 40% said they felt more anxious now than they did in 2017. https://www.psychiatry.org/newsroom/apa-public-opinion-poll-annual-meeting-2018.

And here’s the second: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the lovely, gentle film about Fred Rogers, a soft-spoken Presbyterian minister whose Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood series on PBS uplifted and reassured a generation of children and their parents, has raked in more than $20 million since its June 8 opening. That figure makes it the highest grossing biographical documentary—and one of the top 15 nonfiction films—of all time. PBS plans to show it early next year.

In addition, Tom Hanks (who else?) will star in a film titled You Are My Friend, reportedly based on a real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and a tough-minded journalist who, obligated to do a profile of Mister Rogers, found the experience transformative. The extraordinary profile by Tom Junod appeared in Esquire in 1998 and was reprinted last year. https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a27134/can-you-say-hero-esq1198/

I’m not suggesting that Mister Rogers, even in his persona as the benevolent despot King Friday, could perform miracles in these troubled times, serving as a balm for all that ails us. One of the most difficult parts of the film for me was the noisy picketing of his memorial service by anti-gay activists enraged by his tolerance of gay people. And he clearly suffered a sense of inadequacy in trying to explain events such as 9/11 and Bobby Kennedy’s assassination to his young viewers.

But I wonder how he would deal with some of the sources of Americans’ anxiety today. One finding of the APA poll was that 36% of respondents are “extremely anxious” about “keeping myself or my family safe.” Of great interest to me is that when all participants in the poll were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “Gun violence, including violence from mass shootings, is a public health threat,” 87% either strongly or somewhat agreed. Similarly, 85% strongly or somewhat agreed that “Congress should do more to address the issue of gun violence, including violence from mass shootings.”

How would Mister Rogers talk to children about school shootings? I’m sure he would have found a way, perhaps including his oft-quoted guidance: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” (In the Esquire profile, Junod does describe Mister Rogers’ reactions following a school shooting in West Paducah, Kentucky, in 1997, pre-Columbine, when such a horror was an isolated case.)

And would he have felt compelled to take a public position on the matter? Thinking of the extraordinary moment when, through the force of his quiet personality, he persuaded a skeptical Senator John Pastore of Rhode Island to agree to a $20 million grant to fund public television, I wonder how Mister Rogers might have been received if he’d requested permission to testify before Congress about ways to prevent gun violence.

Would he have been permitted to testify? Would his words have broken through the partisan divide and moved legislators to action? So much of his testimony before Pastore’s Senate subcommittee resonates today that it’s worth viewing and re-viewing. This is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKy7ljRr0AA.

Here’s where I see the two items I began with converging. It’s true the APA survey was just one poll, a representative sample of 1004 US adults, but 33% identified themselves as either Republican or leans Republican, 41% as Democrat or leans Democrat, and 23% as Independents.

Numerous other sources also attest to both our nation’s heightening anxiety and broad public interest in government’s role in combatting gun violence. So in our highly polarized society, I derive some comfort from seeing that in at least some circumstances, we Americans have more in common than we tend to believe is the case.

That brings me to the remarkable success of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I’m not sure if there’s any way to find out the demographics of those who are flocking to see it, but I do know that its director, Morgan Neville, has been traveling around the world in an effort to discern why his film has affected people so deeply, “and it’s not just the usual liberal arthouse crowd,” writes Anne Thompson in IndieWire. https://indiewire.com/2018/07/wont-you-be-my-neighbor-documentary-fred-rogers-morgan-neville-oscars-1201978654/.

Neville told Thompson that he was prompted to make the film about Mister Rogers when he thought about his childhood and wondered “Where are the grownups in our culture? He was the consummate voice I’d been craving…He was empathetic, he was looking out for our long-term well-being. It was more: ‘How can we have a cultural conversation with his voice in it?’ It was not about the man, but about his ideas.”

When the APA President, Anita Everett, MD, presented her organization’s findings about our anxious nation, she said the poll “highlights the need to help reduce the effects of stress with regular exercise, relaxation, healthy eating, and time with family and friends.” I’m sure that’s sound guidance, but I also think it’s incomplete.

And what’s missing is what makes me feel encouraged by the responses to Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and the APA poll’s questions about gun violence. They both show what seems to have been misplaced these days and, I believe, we would do well to emphasize: the commonality of our needs as human beings.

I say this while readily acknowledging that there are, and always have been, some among us who are beyond the reach of this concept. But I believe their voices have been amplified beyond their numbers.

“Rogers understood that on some level all any of us wants is to know that we’re okay,” writes Todd VanDerWerff in “9 times Mister Rogers said exactly the right thing,” published in Vox. “And because he was so good at seeming to believe everybody was, indeed, okay, he could connect with our need for empathy and hope.” https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/5/23/15681060/mr-rogers-quotes-mister-rogers.

In the IndieWire interview, Morgan Neville says: “I wanted to make a film to remind people about the value of radical kindness…It’s this idea that kindness is not a naive notion like believing in unicorns and rainbows or something. It’s like oxygen: it is vital, and needs to be nurtured.”

Mister Rogers has shown us the way. Without him, I believe, while it’s fine to search for the new “grownups in our culture,” I can imagine Mister Rogers handing out lots and lots of mirrors, so that we can accept, and act upon, the knowledge that the responsibility falls on each of us.

Your thoughts?

Annie

Backstage in My Blog World: An Explanation and an Apology

The title of this post might also be “Blogging While Aging Ain’t for Sissies!” It is directed at those of you who—with astonishing alacrity—sped to my site last evening immediately after receiving the WordPress email announcing the publication of “Should We Get Smarter With Our Smartphones?” and found…nothing—no content. I don’t know who you are, but I know there were many viewers (I’ll tell you how I know shortly), and I regret any annoyance or frustration you may have experienced. So I thought I’d tell you what happened—and what I was doing while you were gazing at the blog equivalence of radio silence.

As I may have/probably have mentioned before, I am not a techie. I knew I was venturing well beyond my comfort zone when my older daughter, who works for a tech firm and has been encouraging me to start a blog for some time, suggested I begin by buying the book Blogging for Dummies. Some may have taken it as a portent that I found that book nearly completely incomprehensible. But I was determined to see this project through—somehow.

So my venture into the blogosphere is taking some effort. I’m not whining here; nor am I suggesting the effort isn’t worthwhile. I’m committed to building a blogging community because a) I love to write; b) The New York Times doesn’t seem to think all the letters I send them are fit to print; c) there are so many issues that I want to learn more about, and this format allows me to delve into them and share what I’ve learned; and d) most importantly, I am deeply committed to the idea that dialogue undertaken with respect for opposing views is an essential component to our democratic process—and its rarity is one of the many serious problems we now face as a nation.

Little by little, the blog has come together—largely with the help of the WordPress “Happiness Engineers,” a group of people who come to my assistance with considerable knowledge and extraordinary patience whenever I’m stuck. I’ll subsequently refer to them as the HEs, which you should regard as a gender-neutral term. They do so via online chats, so if they’re rolling their eyes, I have no way of knowing. But they are invariably polite, and at the end of each of our sessions together, when I’m imagining they’re about to say, “Enough already! Figure it out yourself, dammit!,” they actually say, “Come back and visit any time. We’re here to help!”

Last night was supposed to be a “big reveal” for my developing blog. I’d pulled together a home page using copyright-free images (I really wanted the Dialogue image to picture Dorothy Parker and friends at their Algonquin Hotel roundtable, but that would have been too costly.) This page is still a work in progress, as limitations in the software’s flexibility require some workarounds that I haven’t yet mastered, but I felt it was ready for viewing. I planned to release it in conjunction with the Smartphone posting, which I expect to arouse some controversy but I believe is worth the effort. I pressed “Publish” on my computer and went to my phone to check, and found: no home page, no updated menu, and no Smartphone content. We were just about to sit down to dinner…

So my spouse-who-sometimes-borders-on-saintliness brought the salmon, sweet potato, and salad he’d prepared up the stairs to my desk, while I explained to the HE of the evening what had happened. At the same time, I was watching the metrics of my blog that WordPress provides: a graph showing the number of viewers and the number of views that occur each day. And damn, those numbers were soaring! It was simultaneously lovely to see so much interest—and mortifying to think what the viewers were seeing—rather, not seeing.

The mindfulness relaxation breathing that has become a part of my life wafted away from me, and in its absence I scrunched my shoulders as I tried to follow the HE’s instructions. Even worse, the process of filling my hungry stomach by means of using a fork became too distracting, and I began using my fingers to shovel the food into my mouth between the stages of our chat. Worse still, without a napkin to remove the food from my fingers, I—a normally fastidious person—wiped my sticky fingers on my pants. I remember thinking, fleetingly, “Oh well, I wore these to the gym today anyway.”

Pondering this totally out of character behavior later, I envisioned a clash between my reptilian brain (the part that governs fight/flight/freeze, as well as hunger) and my prefrontal cortex (the part that governs complex thinking and behavior). Last night, the ole lizard ran rampant across my computer.

But step-by-step, the HE led me out of the morass. I’m not sure why, but I had to create a page called BLOG to enable my home page to link to the blogs. OK, Done. But what had happened to the content?

“Annie,” the HE wrote, “you had two files with the same name: one had the text; the other didn’t. You chose the wrong one.” I then deleted the empty file from the menu, clicked on the appropriate choice, clicked on “Publish,” and sighed with relief to see on my phone that the intact version was now available, home page and all. I cleaned off the sticky dinner residue from my keyboard and desk, and so ended this saga.

So, once again, I apologize. I hope that those of you who were frustrated by the nothingness on my blog last night will return at your convenience to read “Should We Get Smarter With Our Smartphones?” And I really, really hope you’ll let me know your thoughts. I’ve added the following words to my profile, which appears in “Published by annieasksyou”: “These postings depend for their enrichment on your participation: your ideas, insights, knowledge, opinions, and personal stories.” I’ll spare you the Tinkerbell analogy, but I am so very eager for this blog to be characterized by meaningful dialogue.

Cheers!

Annie