Octopi are like Americans: They enjoy HDTV and lack personalities

They are compelling to look at, and I’ve always heard that they were smart. Now, a researcher at Macquarie University in Australia named Renata Pronk has demonstrated that they can interpret and respond appropriately to images on a television screen–as long as they are rendered in high-definition form. Pronk also determined that octopi, for all their smarts, lack individual personalities.

[Pronk] collected 32 common Sydney, or gloomy, octopuses from Chowder Bay, near Mosman, and showed them a series of three-minute videos screened on a monitor in front of their tank.
One video featured a crab, an octopus delicacy.
A second starred another octopus, while a third had a “novel object” they would not have seen: a plastic bottle swinging on a string.
Miss Pronk then watched each octopus for any consistent response pattern, such as boldness or aggression.
When the crab movie was screened “they jetted straight over to the monitor and tried to attack it”, she said, adding that was strong evidence they knew they were watching food.
When the octopus movie was screened some became aggressive while others changed their skin camouflage or “would go and hide in a corner, moving as far away as possible”.
On viewing the swinging bottle, some puffed themselves up, just in case the object was a threat, while others paid no attention.
But significantly, when the experiment was repeated over several days, she found no consistent response from any octopus. Such random responses implied octopuses have no individual personalities.
She suspected previous efforts to show movies to octopuses failed because their sophisticated eyes were too fast for the 24-frame per second format of standard-definition video.
“They would have seen it as a series of still pictures,” said Miss Pronk, who had success using high-definition, operating at 50 frames per second.

Pronk admits that she has a difficult time eating octopi now that she knows how intelligent they are. Personally I wouldn’t eat the most abject octotard–I’m not one for marine delicacies.

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  1. #1 by Hank Roberts on December 22, 2008 - 4:05 pm

    > repeated over several days, ….
    > no consistent response from any octopus.
    > Such random responses implied octopuses have
    > no individual personalities.
    Betcha they learned quickly that they were watching the same stupid movie over and over.
    If they need HDTV to bother at all, surely they can tell the same filmstrip seen day after day.
    After one response on one day got no interesting result, do something different the next time the bipods run the same damned film.
    Somewhere, there’s a key to get back to the sea.

  2. #2 by JimFiore on December 22, 2008 - 5:03 pm

    Something confuses me about this. It says they used video and not film. So that means it’s being presented using RGB emitting technology. That works great for humans (because those three wavelengths align with the three colors humans directly sense) but my understanding is that an octopus has sensitivity to eight distinct wavelengths across the spectrum, so it seems to me that what it sees would not be what we think it sees. I would think that the colors would be completely wacked out to the octopus, to the point that some things would simply not be recognizable to it.

  3. #3 by The Science Pundit on December 22, 2008 - 7:16 pm

    but my understanding is that an octopus has sensitivity to eight distinct wavelengths across the spectrum, so it seems to me that what it sees would not be what we think it sees. I would think that the colors would be completely wacked out to the octopus, to the point that some things would simply not be recognizable to it.

    Don’t forget P-vision.

    Pronk admits that she has a difficult time eating octopi now that she knows how intelligent they are.

    I’ve never understood the rationale of not eating something due to its intelligence. Would ability to feel pain or something along those lines be a better criteria? Is there some sort of strong correlation between intelligence and suffering capability that I’m unaware of?
    Besides, I’m not even sure that that’s all that great of a rationale. I think Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma) put it best in his TED Talks video when he said “Whenever you begin to think that consciousness is something special, remember that it’s your consciousness that’s telling you that.”

  4. #4 by Kevin Beck on December 22, 2008 - 7:30 pm

    Well, I’m sure people are less apt to perpetrate a given inhumane act on an animal that seems to possess human qualities as compared to one they can regard as lowly across the board. Because humans consider themselves intelligent (especially the stupid ones), they don’t like to see harm or indignity visited on intelligent animals.
    Nevertheless, I would bet that at least a third of the U.S, population would rather see an adult, obviously sentient chimp killed slowly than watch the first-trimester abortion of a non-sentient zygote. But don’t get me started on these fuckheads.

  5. #5 by Bill from Dover on December 23, 2008 - 12:37 am


    I would think that the colors would be completely wacked out to the octopus, to the point that some things would simply not be recognizable to it.

    Only the ones named Timothy.

  6. #6 by Anonymous on December 23, 2008 - 3:14 am

    “It says they used video and not film. So that means it’s being presented using RGB emitting technology.”
    Film uses RGB as well…

  7. #7 by Anonymous on December 23, 2008 - 3:14 am

    “It says they used video and not film. So that means it’s being presented using RGB emitting technology.”
    Film uses RGB as well…

  8. #8 by Anonymous on December 23, 2008 - 3:14 am

    “It says they used video and not film. So that means it’s being presented using RGB emitting technology.”
    Film uses RGB as well…

  9. #9 by The Science Pundit on December 23, 2008 - 2:04 pm

    Film uses RGB as well…

    Um, only if the projector lamp is made up of RGB LED’s. And even then the projected image can have potentially more color subtlety than the emitted image.

  10. #10 by Daz on March 1, 2009 - 9:09 pm

    #2: it is incorrect to say that the R,G, and B colors used by RGB displays are in any sense “aligned with the three colors humans directly sense” — for a couple of reasons.
    One is that there are no such colors that humans “directly sense” — our three types of cones are each sensitive to a wide range of wavelengths, though some wavelengths more than others.
    The other is that the R, G, and B colors emitted by electronic displays are nowhere near the colors that our cones have the greatest sensitivity to. Rather, the perceptual colors reproducible by an RGB display for a triangular region in the horseshoe-shaped gamut of all perceptual colors. It is just a big triangle inside a horseshoe-shaped region, that is all.

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