The dream of the octopus

Photo by Pia in Pexels

From the title, it might sound like a poetic narrative article, but it’s not. I’m talking about the study of how octopuses sleep, just that, although I find it very surprising. It is from a scientific team in Brazil and is published in Science Magazine. The group has several other works done on lizards, birds, and cuttlefish, but the one I find most striking is the one on the octopus, so here it is.

It turns out that octopuses, like humans, have two types of sleep, one passive and one active. As you well know, our active sleep is REM sleep, which we practice several times throughout the night, those of us who sleep only at night, of course! And this happens in several periods of about 45 minutes throughout the night.

Octopuses do too but in periods of one minute. Yet, the most significant difference is not that. The most significant difference is the risk taken.

Humans are not at extreme risk when sleeping deeply. Neither now in bed nor in the caves or treetops where our ancestors slept. Whether they were humans or even anthropomorphic tree-dwelling hominids.

The octopus does take risks beyond what is advisable.

Even if it is in much shorter periods, they are surprising from an evolutionary point of view.

The octopus bases its protection from predation on the color of its camouflage. Its color is that of the place where it is, of its environment. It is directly proportional to defense, mating, or nutritional actions if it changes color, and during active sleep, it does red, blue, white, or black. It transmits its mental state through the skin.

Giving the appearance of being fearsome in a fight while asleep or seductive in front of a lady when you’re really in front of a predator doesn’t seem the evolutionarily smartest thing to do.

I mean, by doing that, unprotected in a place of different color, makes you exaggeratedly vulnerable. It puts you in inadvisable danger. And there are still octopuses left, so that has kept it evolutionarily for about 33 million years. Even more, with its current appearance 15 million years ago, they came out of Antarctica.

It is just one minute because it occupies the equation and allows its survival concerning the extreme risk.

It is one minute calling the attention and asking “eat me” to all its predators with colors, enough to have been eaten by millions of octopuses.

But also enough for millions more to have survived to maintain the current number of 300 different types of octopuses. The result of the equation for the moment is favorable.

What is it that makes the need for active sleep so strong? What formidable evolutionary advantage must there be to overcome such extreme risk?

Humans also have extreme risk behaviors, but we have quantified that they produce an evolutionary counter-advantage. The 89% of human specimens that practice idiotic risk behaviors are male, the theory of the idiot male. However, their disappearance is advantageous for the rest of humans who are favored by improving the species.

Idiotic behaviors in the human species produce a negative Darwinism that favors the rest, but not in octopuses, as we know so far.

Complex nervous systems, both human and octopus, need to dream actively. Octopuses have several intercommunicating zones along with their limbs, us fifteen hundred cubic centimeters of nervous tissue. Active sleep allows communication between different regions of the brain to strengthen their neural connections, their synapses. It fixes the knowledge of everything that has happened throughout the day. Whether at the bottom of the sea or in the packing room. Failure to do so is lethal to our memory, our learning, and our mental development. So we share a biological home with the octopus and a particular evolutionary lineage with them. So lethal that “asking to eat me” is less dangerous than not actively sleeping.

So is remembering what we do during the day really that important? Well, it seems that not doing so makes us useless and predisposes us more to death than lighting up and telling our enemies, “look, here I am,” through a multicolored spectacle, for one minute.

And the fact is that no matter how much we believe in ourselves, there are evolutionary attitudes that, although contradictory to our personal situation,

obey the common good of the species, and what is why they can harm us personally.

Detecting emotions and so many apparently inappropriate reactions that occur to us can be pretty helpful.

Knowing that they are evolutionary processes that have no advantage for our personal situation can be rather practical.

To stop naively believing that everything that happens to us is good for us because it is good for our species, in general, can save us in situations of extreme risk.

If octopuses knew that, they wouldn’t take half a million hooks every year. Learning how far our feelings can take us if we do not know how to listen to them, interpret them, validate them and know what to do with them.

Even discard them when necessary is a lesson we can learn from our dear friend, the octopus.

Thanks for reading

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Rafa Areses

Rafa Areses

A mix of scientist and humanist, I work as a physician and in a software engineering company. How can we make it different? My real job is reading and writing.