Octopus Brain & Intelligence: How Smart Are Octopuses?

Smart octopus exploring a camera underwater

It is common knowledge to everyone that octopuses are intelligent and masters of disguise and escape. However, just how smart could octopuses be? Do they have the same cognitive abilities as us humans?

If you are one of the many who wonders about the brain power of octopuses, stick around and keep reading. We’ve got everything you need to know about the brains and intelligence of these eight-armed creatures!

How Many Brains Does an Octopus Have?

Big octopus with a large head and brain

Octopuses, known for their intelligence and adaptability, possess a unique and complex nervous system divided into nine brains.

They have one central brain that functions as the command center, overseeing higher cognitive processes and decision-making. This brain is uniquely doughnut-shaped, encircling the esophagus.

The remaining eight brains are smaller, distributed in each of the octopus’s arms, and responsible for more localized control and coordination.

These mini-brains, or ganglia, contain a dense network of neurons, with each arm hosting about 40 million neurons.

This arrangement allows each arm to perform tasks autonomously, directed by the central brain for activities like exploration or hunting.

Think of it like your arms and legs moving on their own, doing things without you having to decide to move them. This is similar to how each octopus’s arms can act independently.

How Smart Are Octopuses?

Octopus playing with a big coconut shell

Octopuses are incredibly intelligent, particularly for invertebrates. This intelligence is evident in their problem-solving skills, learning abilities, and complex interactions with their environment and other species.

Their unique brain structure, with a large central brain and additional neural networks in their arms, enables them to perform intricate tasks and exhibit behaviors often associated with higher mammals.

Octopuses demonstrate their intelligence in various ways. They are known for solving complex puzzles, including navigating mazes and opening containers, which requires understanding and memory.

Their ability to use tools, such as rocks and shells, for shelter or defense is a notable sign of cognitive ability.

Additionally, octopuses show adaptability and learning skills, as they can remember solutions to problems and modify their behavior based on experience.

Their impressive intelligence allows them to escape danger through camouflage and mimicry effectively.

I witnessed this firsthand when I scuba-dived in the Great Barrier Reef. I encountered a Mimic Octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) burying itself into a nearby hole and letting its two arms stick out when a few damselfish approached.

Researching this behavior, I realized that the Mimic Octopus was trying to copy the movement of sea snakes with its tentacles to scare the damselfish away.

Social interactions also highlight octopus intelligence. They have been observed cooperating with other species during hunting, indicating an understanding of teamwork and strategy.

Furthermore, their playful behavior, linked to exploration and learning, showcases their curiosity and capacity for complex mental processes.

Octopuses are also famous for their escapology. They can escape from secure enclosures, showing problem-solving skills. You should be aware of this if you plan to have an octopus as a pet.

Such behaviors require spatial awareness, memory, and the ability to learn from previous experiences.

Watch this video to see how clever octopuses can be in navigating mazes:

Octopus vs Underwater Maze

What’s Special About the Octopus Brain? 10 Interesting Facts

Smart octopus touches and explores underwater camera

The octopus brain is a marvel of evolution and exhibits remarkable intelligence. This unique organ sets octopuses apart in the animal kingdom and contributes to their fascinating behaviors.

Let’s explore 10 interesting facts about octopus brain and intelligence:

1. They have a decentralized nervous system

The octopus’s nervous system is partially decentralized. While their central brain contains one-third of their neurons, much of octopuses’ brain power is delegated to each arm’s smaller, independent brains.

This structure allows for complex, coordinated movements and behaviors​.

2. They have impressive neuronal counts and brain-to-body ratio

Octopuses possess around half a billion neurons, a count that is quite significant compared to other invertebrates. This is comparable to the neuron count of dogs!

Their brain-to-body ratio is also the largest among all invertebrates, indicating a highly developed nervous system capable of advanced cognitive functions.

3. Brain structure varies between octopus species

The structure of an octopus’s brain can vary significantly based on its environmental needs.

Some species have brains adapted for complex visual tasks and social interactions, while others, like deep-sea octopuses, possess simpler brain structures suited for less interactive lifestyles​.

4. Octopuses are masters of mimicry and camouflage

Octopuses are masters of disguise, capable of changing their color and texture for camouflage.

This skill reflects their brain’s ability to control and adapt their physical appearance to various environments, a complex task involving sensory input and motor coordination.

5. They can solve complex problems and use tools

Octopuses exhibit remarkable problem-solving abilities and have been known to use tools. They can solve puzzles, navigate mazes, and open containers, showcasing intelligence that rivals some vertebrates.

6. They interact and cooperate with other species

Octopuses also participate in collaborative hunting with other species and can interpret and respond to gestures, demonstrating advanced social intelligence and communication skills​.

7. They have impressive memory and recognition

Interestingly, a research study found that octopuses can remember individuals and modify their behavior based on past experiences.

In the study, one person (a nice tester) fed the octopuses, and another (a mean tester) touched them with a bristly stick. After weeks, it was observed that the octopuses behaved and reacted differently when encountering the testers.

This ability to distinguish between different people and react accordingly suggests a sophisticated memory and cognitive processing level.

8. They exhibit playful and mischievous behaviors

In captivity, octopuses have been known to engage in playful and mischievous activities. They often interact with their environment cleverly, indicating curiosity and intelligence comparable to higher mammals​.

Such behaviors often involve problem-solving, experimentation, and understanding cause and effect, which are key components of intelligent behavior.

9. Their hearts and brains have a unique connection

Unlike many animals, the octopus heart is not directly controlled by the central nervous system.

Instead, it operates under its control system called a pacemaker, allowing the octopus to adjust its cardiovascular response to various situations, such as rest or active hunting​.

10. They evolved and developed intelligence differently from other intelligent animals

The intelligence of octopuses results from convergent evolution, where they develop advanced cognitive abilities independently from vertebrates like mammals and birds.

Their brains evolved distinctly, separate from the evolutionary path of other intelligent animals. Hence, they have a distinct nervous system.

Differences in Brain and Intelligence Across Octopus Species

Reef octopus hunting in the ocean

Octopuses are known for their intelligence, but this varies across different octopus species.

A study conducted by the Queensland Brain Institute using MRI techniques revealed significant differences in brain structures among four octopus species.

These variations correlate with the environments in which they live and their behavioral patterns.

For instance, deep-sea octopuses, which lead a relatively solitary and less interactive life, have a brain structure similar to that of marsupials and rodents, characterized by their simplicity and smoothness.

This contrasts with the brains of reef-dwelling octopuses, which are larger and more complex, resembling those of primates.

This complexity is thought to be an adaptation to their vibrant and socially interactive reef habitats, requiring advanced visual processing and social skills.

The study also highlighted that the octopus brain’s size and complexity depend on whether the species is nocturnal or diurnal.

This affects the octopuses’ visual processing abilities, with diurnal octopuses exhibiting brain structures that support more complex visual tasks.

These variations in brain structure are closely linked to the differing cognitive abilities and behaviors observed among these species.

For example, reef octopuses show advanced behaviors like collaborative hunting with fish, indicating higher cognition and social intelligence, which are less prevalent in octopuses from solitary or less interactive environments.

An Overview of the Octopus Brain

The octopus brain is distinct and complex. Unlike many animals with centralized nervous systems, octopuses have a large portion of their neurons distributed across their eight arms.

This unique setup allows each arm to operate independently from the central brain.

Octopuses may possess about 500 million neurons, significantly more than many other invertebrates, with about 40 million neurons in each tentacle.

The central brain, located between the eyes, contains approximately 180 million neurons and is responsible for higher-order functions and decision-making.

This brain sends commands to the tentacles and receives sensory feedback, facilitating complex behaviors like searching for food or exploring the environment.

The central brain of octopuses is spherical or donut-shaped and consists of several lobes, each with specialized functions. Interestingly, their esophagus passes through their brain!

Their ability to learn, navigate mazes, solve puzzles, and use tools like coconut husks as shelters demonstrate their cognitive abilities.

Watch this video to learn more about octopuses’ brains and intelligence:

Why the octopus brain is so extraordinary - Cláudio L. Guerra

Octopus Brain vs. Human Brain

Comparing the brains of octopuses and humans is like looking at two very different worlds of intelligence.

The human brain is known for its complexity and high cognitive abilities, while the octopus brain showcases a unique form of intelligence in the animal kingdom. Both have evolved differently but are fascinating in their ways.

The human brain, with billions of neurons, is known for its large size and complex structure. It’s divided into different areas, each responsible for specific functions like thought, memory, emotion, and sensory processing.

Social interactions and language drive our brain’s development, shaping our ability to communicate and collaborate. This complexity allows for advanced skills like abstract thinking and problem-solving.

In contrast, the octopus brain is smaller, with about 500 million neurons, yet incredibly advanced for an invertebrate. Unlike humans, most of an octopus’s neurons are located in its arms.

This decentralized nervous system enables the octopus to perform complex tasks, like manipulating objects and solving puzzles, without the direct involvement of the central brain.

Octopus brains are also structured differently, with several lobes and a large optic lobe for visual processing. They don’t have the same division into left and right hemispheres as human brains.

While human brains excel in abstract thought, language, and complex social interactions, octopus brains are masters of sensory processing, motor skills, and environmental adaptation.

Frequently Asked Questions

Octopus hiding in a coconut shell

Why Does an Octopus Have 9 Brains?

Octopuses developed their unique nervous system, with a central brain and eight mini-brains, to adapt to their environment.

This decentralized system allows each arm to operate independently, which is crucial for an animal that lives in a complex and changing ocean environment.

How Are Octopuses So Smart?

Octopuses are considered smart due to their complex nervous system and unique behaviors. Their brain, one of the largest among invertebrates, enables advanced problem-solving, learning, and memory.

Their intelligence is also evident in their ability to camouflage, use tools, and change color and texture to blend into their surroundings, which is essential for survival and hunting in the ocean.

Are Octopuses Smarter Than Humans?

Octopuses are not smarter than humans, but they do exhibit a remarkable level of intelligence for invertebrates. While skilled in problem-solving, using tools, and adapting to their environment, their cognitive abilities differ from humans.

Do Octopuses Have a High IQ?

In the context of animal intelligence, octopuses are considered to have a high level of intelligence. They display advanced cognitive abilities that are rare among invertebrates.

These abilities include problem-solving, learning from experience, adapting to new situations, and even using tools — behaviors often associated with higher intelligence in animals.

However, it is impossible to test octopuses’ IQ since IQ tests are designed for humans and based on human intelligence standards.

Can Octopuses Learn and Remember Things?

Yes, octopuses can learn and remember things. They exhibit impressive learning abilities, such as solving puzzles, recognizing objects, and finding their way through mazes.

They can also remember past experiences, which helps them make decisions and adapt to their environment.

With their unique anatomy, behavior, and superb intelligence, no one can argue that octopuses are true marvels of the oceans. If you have other questions about octopuses, just let us know in the comments!

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