“The Soul of an Octopus:  A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness” by Sy Montgomery – Published by Atria 2015 – Review


The Soul of an Octopus is a trip to the other side of animals – invertebrates.  Some invertebrates, such as clams don’t even have brains.  So how did the octopus develop consciousness?  Why are they able to carry on separate activities with their eight arms, processing different sensory input from each sucker or all?  How are they able to give and receive affection?

My only previous knowledge of octopuses was eating them—delicious basking in olive oil and grilled with little bits of crust on the skin.  And I will continue to do that.  But, after delving into their hidden world with naturalist Sy Montgomery, they will receive more respect.  We know so little about octopuses because theirs is a life of stealth and mystery.  They live alone, compressed safely into tiny spaces in the briny deep, venturing out only to kill and eat.  Eventually, near the end of the lives (usually five to eight years) they mate and die.  Not likely candidates for a best-selling book. 

Montgomery mostly experiences octopuses (pluralized with “es” not “I” because it is a Greek derivative, not Latin) at major aquariums, like the Cold Marine tank of the New England Aquarium in Boston.  Here they are exposed to the visitors, but mostly to the employees and volunteers who see this wild life through different eyes.  Employees and volunteers have relationships with fish and invertebrates; with tortoises and snakes; with all the aquarium inhabitants.

The Soul of an Octopus touches on all their stories both human and animal.  My most memorable take-away is Montgomery’s statement that Jane Goodall and her researchers did not reveal the most important findings of their work until 20 years after the first publications.  Though they found significant evidence of consciousness among apes and chimps , they did not reveal it for fear of their research being minimized as anthropomorphic.  Montgomery found it the same with the workers at the aquariums.  They rarely mention to outsiders the bonds they develop with their charges—not the bonds of an owner for a pet, but the bonds with other creatures capable of reciprocal feelings. 

Recommended for readers who enjoy quasi-scientific information combined with human interest stories.