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Bizarre Facts: What Octo-pies an Octopus’s Thoughts?

TORONTO— A study titled, “Do octopuses, squid, and crabs have emotions,” conducted on March 24 by York University in Toronto, has expanded on the mental capabilities of octopuses. Our eight-armed friends can solve complex puzzles and show a preference for different individuals. There is a debate on whether animals and invertebrates have emotion. Still, the study indicates that octopuses can feel physical pain and react emotionally to it. 


Invertebrates, such as octopuses, crabs, lobsters, and crayfish, don’t typically come to mind when thinking about sentient beings that can feel pain. 


By using detailed measurements of spontaneous pain-associated behaviors and neural activity, researchers have identified evidence suggesting octopuses can feel negative emotional states when confronted with pain.


These are the same characteristics that mammals show, even though the octopus’s nervous system is organized differently from vertebrates.


Injured octopuses have shown they prefer an alternative housing chamber, where local anesthetic is available. This anesthetic muted the nerve activity between the injury site and the brain. Similar findings in mammals have been taken to indicate the subjective experience of pain.



According to York University Professor and philosopher Kristin Andrews, a London School of Economics (LSE) report commissioned by the U.K. government found strong enough evidence to conclude that decapod crustaceans and cephalopod mollusks are sentient. 


In addition to this study, Andrews also co-wrote an article published in March in the journal Science Daily called “The question of animal emotions” alongside Professor Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at Emory University. The study discusses the ethical issues around animals who are considered sentient. 


Andrews notes that Western culture traditionally believes other animals don’t feel pain or emotion. “It’s been a real struggle even to get fish and mammals recognized under welfare law as sentient,” said Andrews. “So, it’s pretty cutting-edge what seems to be happening in the U.K. with invertebrates.”


According to Andrews, pre-verbal human babies were considered not to feel pain until the 1980s. Many still think animals, including invertebrates, don’t feel pain and only have unconscious reactions to negative stimuli. However, research on mammals, fish, octopuses, and to a lesser extent, crabs have shown they avoid pain and dangerous locations. In addition, there are signs of empathy in some animals, such as cows — they become distressed when they see their calf in pain.


Recognizing the sentience of invertebrates opens a moral and ethical dilemma. Humans can say what they feel, but animals don’t have the same tools for describing their emotions. 


“However, the research so far strongly suggests their [emotions] existence,” said Andrews in the study.


 Andrews is currently working on a research project called Animals and Moral Practice.


“When we’re going about our normal lives, we try not to do harm to other beings,” said Andrews. 


“So, it’s really about retraining the way we see the world. How exactly to treat other animals remains an open research question. We don’t have sufficient science right now to know exactly what the proper treatment of certain species should be. To determine that, we need greater co-operation between scientists and ethicists. If they can no longer be considered immune to felt pain, invertebrate experiences will need to become part of our species’ moral landscape,” said Andrews. “But pain is just one morally relevant emotion. Invertebrates such as octopuses may experience other emotions such as curiosity in exploration, affection for individuals, or excitement in anticipation of a future reward.”


Check out My Octopus Teacher on Netflix for more insight into Octopuses displaying emotions. 

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