The first observations of octopus brain waves revealed how alien their minds truly are

For the first time, researchers inserted sensors into an octopus's cranium. It only generated more inquiries.

Octopuses are among the most adored marine life due to their peculiar bodies, blobby form, and exceptional intellect. The 2020 documentary "My Octopus Teacher" won numerous awards for its moving account of a filmmaker's close bond with an octopus. The paradoxical nature of the octopus contributes to its allure; despite having an eerily extraterrestrial appearance, they exhibit an incredible capacity for inquiry and problem-solving, which are unquestionably human qualities. In the intellect of cephalopods, humans perceive something familiar but distorted, like a funhouse reflection of self-awareness.

Those recognizable, pliable tendrils are packed with neurons as well, which enables octopus limbs to act as though they have free will. But because they aren't structured in the same way that monkey minds are, their brains are particularly bizarre. Many believe that because of how differently their sophisticated neuroscience developed from our own, humans will never actually come into contact with sentient extraterrestrial life.

Consequently, animal neuroscientists research octopus brains, and lesioning experiments are one of the primary ways we've learned about octopus brains. At this point, scientists deliberately harm the creature's brain by selectively killing neural networks to observe what stops functioning. In reality, ablative brain surgery—which involved carefully excising specific regions of animal brains and noting which appendages or body parts stopped working—is primarily how early neuroscientists got their footing when they first mapped the brain.

However, since brains are so intricate, this crude method of severing neuronal links oversimplifies how they function. Luckily, we now have more effective tools for understanding how brain works, particularly the fMRI machine. These devices, also known as fMRIs (for functional magnetic resonance imaging), enable researchers to observe in real-time and in three dimensions how synapses activate when a person is thinking or moving their body. They are incredibly effective instruments for expanding human knowledge of cognition in both people and creatures. Dogs, for example, can be taught to remain still in the obtrusive fMRI machine long enough for researchers to record their brain activity in reaction to various stimuli.

However, it is difficult to examine the brain in real time of wild creatures like octopuses. It would be ideal if we could measure electrical impulses while observing a related behavior to capture octopus brain activity, similar to when we place humans or canines in fMRI scanners. But when tampering with the minds of slippery, cunning mollusks like octopuses, it is easier said than done. (Yes, octopuses share a number of similarities with snails and clams in addition to being linked to squids and cuttlefish.)

Thanks to the efforts of a multinational team from Germany, Italy, Japan, Switzerland, and Ukraine, scientists have now for the first time discovered a method to record the brain activity of free-moving octopuses. Their research describes a novel technique for recording cephalopod brain activity for up to 12 hours, which was just published in the journal Current Biology. Despite the fact that this exercise was ground-breaking, it is still unclear precisely what these signals signify.

"Octopuses are the ideal species to research in order to compare to mammals in order to comprehend how the brain functions. They have a large brain, an incredibly distinctive body, and highly developed cognitive abilities that have evolved entirely differently from those of vertebrates "In a statement, the study's lead author, Dr. Tamar Gutnick, a former postdoctoral researcher in the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology's Physics and Biology Unit, said.

Three large blue octopuses (octopus cyanea), which frequently look mottled brown but have excellent camouflage and the ability to rapidly change their color and skin texture, were chosen by the experts for this experiment. These equatorial cephalopods are sometimes referred to as "day octopuses" because they forage during the day. Amazingly, octopuses lack a sense of hue. So how do they know when to change into a coral fragment or a pinkish fuchsia hue? They are able to detect the polarization, or the various ways that light waves move. Even their most fundamental perspective differs greatly from ours.

It was difficult to imagine what was going on in their brains. Octopuses don't have skulls, so their brains are enclosed in a tiny chitin shell. On an object without a cranium where electrical lines can be fixed, installing an electrode implant is difficult. Octopuses (not octopi, which is the proper word) are bony invertebrates that can fit into even the smallest of crevices, earning them the reputation of being excellent escape artists.

The fact that an octopus can readily pull something off of its body with one of its eight limbs adds to the difficulty of the situation. Therefore, it has not been feasible to capture the electrical activity of octopuses to this point.

However, the researchers came up with an interesting solution by implanting a data logger (originally intended to monitor avian movement) and a few electrodes to measure brain activity. The devices were glued onto a plastic card and first introduced after the researchers made a tiny incision between the animal's eyes. They were inserted into the vertical lobe and middle superior frontal lobe of the octopus's brain. This region is thought to be involved in recollection and learning as well as the formation of new brain cells.

The octopuses were then put back in their aquariums and left to rest while being recorded. They awoke shortly after, acting ordinarily while they slept, groomed, or explored their tanks. Some people examined their wounds with their limbs, but they made no effort to take the logger or the electrodes out.

Clear signs of brain activity were detected by Gutnick and his team, but it is still difficult to interpret these patterns. While some of the octopus brain waves had characteristics of human brain activity, other signals from their neurons were utterly strange. There was comparatively significant electrical activity present because these oscillations were slow, long-lasting, and had big amplitudes. These have not previously been documented.

Sadly, the scientists were unable to establish a direct link between this action and the octopuses' behavior. Despite abrupt changes in motion or staying still, the octopuses were unable to detect any apparent changes in signal even when they were moving around. Although there are still many unanswered questions, this proof of concept could be used to learn more about many other octopuses, including other varieties. We may soon discover a lot more about how octopuses communicate, acquire knowledge, and manipulate their limbs.

It might have been simpler to tease out connections between brain activity and behavior if the researchers had given these octopuses more focused duties as opposed to just allowing them goof off. Gutnick insisted, "With the octopuses, we really need to practice repeated memorization exercises. We hope to accomplish that very shortly!"

Because they are such strange and unusual animals, octopuses have a lot to teach us about human thought and evolution. Research in artificial intelligence and neuroplasticity, or the capacity for the brain to reorganize, heal, and reinforce links, could benefit from the application of the principles learned from cephalopod neurobiology. However, it is evident that our knowledge of what occurs inside an octopus brain is still limited.