Spending time as an octopus

A while back I was sitting with my friend James, and said, “Sometimes I wish I could be an octopus.”

He looked thoughtful for a moment. “Then be an octopus,” he suggested.

I like having friends who are so empowering.

Octopodes have fascinated me since I was a teenager. They are smart, and experiments show they can learn from observation, and may even have self-awareness. But they also aren’t as smart as some people expect, based on the sheer size of their brains. It turns out that it takes a lot of brain matter just to control eight separate limbs.

Octopuses are smart, but they rarely make it onto the posters that activists use when trying to encourage empathy for animals. And this is probably because they are ugly. Well, by mainstream cultural standards of animal beauty, anyway. Everyone wants to “save the dolphins” because they are smart… but also because they are cute.

Octopi, not so much.

And of course, the most entertaining thing about our friend the octopus: nobody has any fucking clue how to make it plural.

Somewhere in my readings about octopodes I learned about their solitary lifestyle. When they hatch, the dad has left and the mom is either dead or has left. They go on their individual paths, they hang out by themselves in little caves and alcoves, and they only come together once in a great while to mate. Then they die.

Now, it turns out that scientists have recently discovered that some species of octopus are social beings (#notalloctopuses). But still, I like the story of the loner octopus. It makes me want to be an octopus.


This is my reasoning: I get lonely sometimes. I yearn for connections with people. Much of the time I am self-sufficient and perfectly happy to be on my own, but there are some times when the desire to be seen, to be touched, to be loved feels overpowering. When I am in that mood, it can be distracting. It can make it tough for me to focus, and get things done.

Human beings vary a lot in how much social interaction they need to feel comfortable, but some degree of desire for company, companionship and interaction is very common. We evolved as a social species. As mammals, we are biologically wired to react emotionally to caregivers, and to those we are caregivers for. As primates, we are predisposed to live and work in groups and to cooperate with each other. When we long for the company of others, that is the biological manifestation of a tendency that has helped us on the evolutionary time-scale: hey, you humans…. stay together! Do stuff together! It helps!

Octopuses didn’t evolve that tendency. At all. Their evolutionary pathway hasn’t put any pressure on them that would make it beneficial for octopi to feel a desire to group together… so they don’t. Nothing in their evolutionary history has made it advantageous for octopodes to feel “anxious” when they are alone, as a trigger for getting them to group up. As a result… there is no reason to think they would be anxious. They are not mammals, they are not a “herd species”. Feelings of discontent with being alone are a symptom of those evolutionary pathways. For octopi… being completely isolated is the way life is supposed to be.

Damn, that must be relaxing.

So here I am, in the middle of a pandemic, in a city that I just moved to. I know very few people, and have very little opportunity to do things where I would meet new people. I spend most of my time all by myself, focusing on my projects and my work.

“It’s fine,” I think to myself. “Why would that be a problem? I’m an octopus, after all.”

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