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The Mind of an Octopus

Eight smart limbs plus a big brain add up to a weird and wondrous kind of intelligence.

PC: Henrik Sorensen – Getty Images

PC: Getty Images

PC: Frank Stratton – Getty Images

With no hard body parts apart from a beak, an octopus can morph into a dazzling array of shapes and squeeze through openings only slightly bigger than one of its eyes.

PC: Andrey Nekrasov – Alamy

When you approach an octopus in the wild, it is not unusual for the animal to send out one of its arms to inspect you. The arm’s suckers—each of which may contain 10,000 neurons—latch on tightly, trying to pull you in closer and taste you at the same time.

PC: Tamar Gutnick

An octopus’s arm can taste, touch and move without oversight from the brain. To test if the brain also has centralized, top-down control over the limbs, scientists designed a transparent maze. To reach a treat in the upper left compartment (a and b), the animals had to send an arm out of the water (c), losing guidance from their chemical sensors. They then had to rely on their eyes to direct the arm (d). Most succeeded (e).