Or more simply, how do octopuses think? I'm designing a race of intelligent-but-primitive cephalopod aliens and while I want them to exhibit some basic human traits such as fear, self-interest, a social hierarchy, language, zealotry and religion, I'd also like to avoid the pitfall of making them too human. So to that end, I thought I'd take time to consider how their evolution and physiology might affect their psychology, and then work in history on top of that. The problem is, I don't really have any understanding of how an octopus on Earth might think compared to a human. I'm aware that this is a question without any really good answers since scientists are still struggling with this line of inquiry themselves, but a rough idea or even conjecture about how a creature that's evolved distributed intelligence might think differently than a human would help a lot.

A few cliff-notes about this species: they're blind but communicate via bioluminescence using light-sensitive proteins in their skin (to compensate for the total darkness of Europa's oceans; fully-formed eyes would be relatively wasteful), they lack both the pigmentation and chromatophores present in most Earth species, they're about as large as a pacific giant octopus, possess a large quantity of cilia lining their arms around their suckers that they use for fine manipulation and to signal complex ideas requiring elaborate color displays, and their society is highly religious, revolving around the worship of a single omnipotent sea god (I can explain this in further detail if you think it's relevant, but I'm trying to focus on the purely biological aspects right now).


3 Answers 3


Process for developing octopoid psychology

The OP doesn't provide enough information about the octopoid's evolutionary history, so I'll describe a process for figuring it out. This process is based on the observation that a long evolutionary history will impart a great many survival traits to how a creature thinks and that these traits may persist for tens of millions of years.

  1. Figure out the most basic and primitive life form on this planet.
  2. Trace milestone species from this first life form to the current octopoid.
  3. Describe in as much detail as desired what physical and mental attributes each of these creatures possessed to thrive. These might be as simple as "can think in 3d", "has bones", "understands concept of in-group".
  4. For each milestone, you'll need to work out the creature's environment too since this is critical in deciding fitness.
  5. Each of these intermediate life forms will have something that makes them competitive in their environment. We see that decedents will share this attribute unless the attribute is counter-productive. While working through the evolutionary chain, sum up the mental traits that the creature has inherited plus any new attributes that make it more competitive.
  6. After summing up the mental characteristics, you should have a pretty good idea of how this octopoid came to be and why it might behave in a certain way.

You don't need to make an evolutionary tree as complicated as the one below but be aware that new species can pop up in as little as 100,000 years.

Evolutionary Tree

Photo Credit

  • $\begingroup$ Today I learned that we are more closely related to starfish than to squid. For some reason, I didn't see that coming. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Dec 29, 2016 at 0:38
  • $\begingroup$ You also share about 50% of your DNA with a Banana tree. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Dec 29, 2016 at 1:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Thucydides And that is not necessarily a bad thing. $\endgroup$ Dec 29, 2016 at 6:37
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, us and the starfish are the "first mouth becomes the asshole" variety. Everything else keeps the first mouth and the second hole punched becomes the asshole. $\endgroup$
    – Deipatrous
    Aug 2, 2022 at 9:28

It is my opinion that the answer to this (very good) question is yours to develop. This is an area where the science-fiction author is free to hypothesize and assert to explore what could be possible because we simply don't have science data to fill it in. This is akin to the 1800s trip-to-the-moon literature assuming an aether in space.

Dream something up and give your readers a new idea to ponder.


As senses change in priority (how much of the nervous system they take up; how much processing is devoted to them; e.g. how much the organism depends on them), so too will qualia associated with those senses rise to prominence in consciousness. This is discussed in Nagel's What Is It Like to Be a Bat? .

The distribution of intelligence is more difficult to discuss because we are uncertain about the level of disconnection occurring. The intelligence of a superorganism such as an ant colony obtains conscious expression nowhere obvious in the whole of the system that we can see. The octopus of earth, its appendages more autonomous than many other animals', no doubt experiences things quite differently from us, but we may say that its unitary conscious experience (or the impression thereof) probably derives from the processes in its central brain. Yet what of the arms' experiences? If they can be said to have them, perhaps these are related to the central brain in the form of a conversation of some sort - faster and more intimate than normal linguistic exchange between separate persons, but less unitary than the experience I have when I am told I am in pain by a receptor array in my leg. In short, we might dimly imagine the experience is something like two twins talking together.


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