The octopus church of French Polynesia may have you rethink your next seafood dinner

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Marco Werman: Here in seafood-rich New England, the warmer weather makes me crave a nice, cool seafood salad. Maybe an Italian-style octopus salad, grilled tentacles and all, served with a little lettuce, some white beans. But I may have to rethink my dinner plans after talking with Sy Montgomery. She’s the author of a new book called “The Soul of an Octopus.”


Sy Montgomery: At the New England aquarium, I got to know several octopuses very well. So well that they would recognize me and turn color with emotion and come over, their eyes would lock into mine. And when I would plunge my hands and arms into the water, their suckers would come boiling out and embrace me.


Werman: What colors does it turn to represent what emotions?


Montgomery: Well, I mean, we don’t know for sure what’s going on, but we do know when they’re excited they turn red, at least the Giant Pacific turns red, and when the octopus relaxes, it turns white. And the first octopus I ever met, her name was Athena, I was the first person that they knew that wasn’t staff, that she’d let stroke her head, and she turned white beneath my touch, which showed me that she liked it as much as I did.


Werman: A very intelligent creature, it seems. What can you tell us about how smart it really is?


Montgomery: Oh, man. They’re fantastic escape artists. You have to design an octopus-proof lid for your octopus tank, or else the animal will figure out how to get out, usually into somebody else’s tank, and then you come in the morning, and whoever was in that tank is now in the octopus’ stomach. They also love puzzles, and there are octopus enrichment handbooks now so that your smart octopus doesn’t get bored.


Werman: So, if we talk the nervous system of the octopus, scientifically how advanced is it?


Montgomery: Oh, it’s so different from ours. It’s almost impossible to compare. Our brain sits like a walnut in a shell, right? I mean, you know what the human brain looks like. And it’s got these four lobes, which are dedicated to various different functions. The octopus brain, it’s a ring around the animal’s throat, and it has somewhere between 50 and 75 different lobes, but that depends on how you count the lobes. And more, which is just amazing to me, is that unlike the human brain, which has most of our neurons, the octopus brain only has 2/5ths of the animal’s neurons. Most of the neurons are in the arms, which means that the octopus kind of has minds of its own for each of its eight arms. And what’s funny is if an octopus loses an arm, it can go do stuff without the brain for a while--I mean, for many minutes--and it might even go hunting and catch something, I’ve heard.


Werman: And bring it back to the main body with the other seven arms?


Montgomery: Well, it doesn’t know where the main body is--


Werman: Yeah, I was going to say, that would be too much...


Montgomery: Which is kind of too bad. But happily, the octopus can grow another arm, so.


Werman: Wow. It sounds like some form of alien intelligence you’d design for a sci-fi movie.


Montgomery: I totally agree. Which is why it’s so amazing that you can find connection with someone that’s different, and that’s why I titled the book “The Soul of an Octopus,” because we look at someone that alien, someone with no bones at all, someone who tastes with all their skin, including their eyelids but mostly with their suckers, somebody who has their mouth in their armpits, and who has venom like a snake, and ink like an old-fashioned pen--someone that different, you wouldn’t think that you could make friends with someone like that. You wouldn’t think about them having a sort of presence that a human does. You wouldn’t think of them having, like we accord ourselves, a soul. But once you get to know them as individuals, you realize that if a human has a soul, they’ve got one as well.


Werman: Now, we’re not just talking you, a woman in New Hampshire who’s interested in the octopus. There are people all around the world who have major respect for the octopus, and not for its scientific brilliance. It’s really almost like a spiritual thing, right? Almost like revering them like a god?


Montgomery: Yes. In fact, that is true in coastal cultures all around the world. In the Gilbert Islands, for example, in the Pacific, there’s an octopus god called Na Kika, who was said to be the son of the first beings. And it’s lucky that he was born, because Na Kika was the one who shoved the Earth out from the bottom of the sea to create the islands. There’s all kinds of other stories about octopuses and beliefs in their powers. Like in British Columbia and Alaska, they revere the octopus as a medicine animal, and this is the create who wields power over the weather, and it’s able to restore health to the sick. And there’s myths in Hawaii about how our current world is really the remnant of a previous one, and the only survivor of that previous world is the octopus, who is able to slip through a crack between the worlds, which octopuses can do because they can just pour their bodies; they’re boneless, so they can just pour their bodies through an opening so tiny that you’d think only water could get through.


Werman: Alright, so I’ve got a whole new appreciation for the octopus now, and I guess the next time I’m thinking a seafood salad, I should probably not opt for grilled octopus.


Montgomery: No, I think maybe just the salad part.


Werman: Okay. Sy Montgomery, author of “The Soul of an Octopus.” Thanks so much.


Montgomery: Oh gosh, well that was wonderful. Thanks for having me on The World.