What would it be like if your arm had a mind of its own?

Even stranger, if you had 8 arms so ‘suffused with nervousness’ that they wander, explore and feel with their own goals, acting as ‘agents of their own’. This is the model offered for being an octopus in Peter Godfry-Smith’s wonderful book ‘Other Minds’, the octopus ‘lives outside the usual body/brain divide’.

This is an entrancing book on consciousness. The book covers a lot of territory on pain, movement, ageing and learning by contrasting the sentience of cephalopods (mostly octopus and cuttlefish) and humans. Chapter 4 ‘From White Noise to Consciousness’ is a very rich piece of writing.

Godfrey-Smith gently leads you to startling insights. The book is beautifully written in an inquisitive, non-dogmatic style. The author has written a number of philosophy books on consciousness, and is an active field researcher with decades of swimming with cephalopods in Australia.

‘There is it seems a kind of mental surplus in the octopus.’

Octopuses’ brains are distributed through out their bodies. Their arms have nearly double as many neurons as their central brain. Overall they have as many neurons as a mammal. These remarkably intelligent and curious animals only live for 2 years. One of the best passages of writing is a poignant description of a cuttlefish death as a ‘slow, spiraling ascent’.

Movement Brain

Godfrey-Smith makes a strong case for nervous systems evolving for two purposes. This may explain the independent agency of octopus arms. It may also help explain features of human pain and consciousness.

Nervous systems ‘originated twice in the same animals, at different places in the animal’s body. Imagine a jellyfish-like animal shaped like a dome, with a mouth underneath. One nervous system evolves on the top and tracks light, but not as a guide to action. Instead it uses light to control bodily rhythms and regulate hormones. Another nervous system evolves to control movement, initially just the moment of the mouth. And at some stage, the two systems begin to move within, coming into new relations with each other…… A part of the body controlling system moved up toward the top of the animal, where the light control system sat.’

He makes an important distinction between a sensing, responding nervous system (‘sensory-motor’, the traditional focus of consciousness researchers) and an action nervous system (‘action-shaping’). Intelligent processing and feedback loops are needed to coordinate muscle action. He uses an example of a boat with lots of rowers, it is complex to get the rowers to work together (‘action-shaping’), regardless of whether you are moving towards or away from something that is sensed (‘sensory-motor’).

‘The central idea is that rather than mediating between sensory input and behavioural output, the first nervous systems came to exist as solutions to a problem of pure coordination within the organism.’ ‘Neurons first multiply because of the demands of the body, and then sometime later, an octopus wakes up with a brain that can do more.’

‘The octopus may be in a sort of hybrid situation. For an octopus, its arms are partly self – they can be directed and used to manipulate things. But from the central brain’s perspective, they are partly non-self too, partly agents of their own.’

‘In the octopus, if the mixed-control interpretation is right, central guidance of the movements is never complete, and the peripheral system always has its say. To put it too anthropomorphically: you would send an arm out deliberately and hope the local fine-tuning goes right.’

This is a ground breaking model. It deeply chimes with my own experience of my body and my observation of working with clients with pain, trauma and anxiety. The radical shift is that I have always framed the experience of being an independent observer of my own body’s needs and actions as a kind of failure.

What if there are two types of mind, two types of sentience; feedback loops for movement and feedback loops for sensing?

What if not sensing body events is not due to the defence response of dissociation? Instead of not feeling being ultimately due to a lack of skill, there is a design quirk inherent to perception that is due to movement control evolving independently of sensing?

It is a skill to be embodied and connect mind and body. It is a hard skill to practice if the dominant construct is the Cartesian split between soul and flesh. But still my hope, with persistence and work, was that it is possible to have a unified experience of self, to achieve ‘embodied cognition’. After reading ‘Other Minds’ I can be softer in my relationship to the difficulty of achieving mind body unity.

‘To some degree, unity is inevitable in a living agent: an animal is a whole, a physical object keeping itself alive. But in other ways, unity is optional, an achievement, an invention. Bringing experience together – even the deliverances of the two eyes – is something that evolution may or may not do.’

By one of those happy coincidences, the day after finishing ‘Other Minds’ I was leafing through Scientific American (Jan 2019) in a hotel lobby and saw an article subtitled: ‘Individuals who have alien limb syndrome often report that their hand seems to act of its own volition.’

The disorder of alien limb syndrome is described as a loss of ‘volition and agency for movements’. For a nightmare version of this check out Peter Sellers uncontrollable fascist salutes in Dr Strangelove https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=A9ihKq34Ozc

This aspect of free will does not depend on one region of the brain. There are complex networks involved in feeling and acting. A disruption in any of the regions that need to work in tandem disrupts our perception of free will.

So, the experience of an octopus with ‘curiously divorced’ arms can help us understand that the unified feeling of being human is a difficult thing to achieve. In bodywork it is common to talk of a ‘belly brain’ and a ‘heart brain’, maybe now we can also say a ‘movement brain’.

We should not be surprised that sometimes disorder and pain emerge as we attempt to coordinate these internal agents with their own agendas. The fact that our body sometimes feels alien to us may have deeper roots and be more common than hitherto suspected.

Steve Haines 05 Jan 2019

Godfry-Smith P (2017) Other Minds. The octopus and the evolution of intelligent life. London: William Collins

Gradual Emergence of Consciousness

An important theme for Godfry-Smith is the gradual emergence and development of conscious experience. He states

‘there is a feel to much of what goes on in human life. Waking up, watching the sky, eating – these things all have a feel to them. That’s what has to be understood.’ 

‘Sentience comes before consciousness.’ Consciousness is a form of subjective experience but not equivalent to subjective experience. Godfry-Smith argues there are many types of subjective experience, human consciousness is a subset of subjective experience.

He is curious ‘How can the fact of feeling like something slowly creep into being?’ His contention is that the sentience developed in cephalopods along a different evolutionary pathway to invertebrates. This demonstrates how subjective experience can take different forms.

‘At some stage in evolution, extra capacities appear that do give rise to subjective experience: the sensory streams are brought together, an “internal model” of the world arises and there’s recognition of time and self.’

We are wrong to try and project our experience of consciousness and an inner world on to other life forms. However there are ‘intrusions’ of important bodily states and deficiencies, such as thirst or air hunger, that are ‘imperious’ and ‘press themselves into experience’. Animals feel these things without necessarily ‘having an “inner model” of the world, or sophisticated forms of memory.’

‘Sentience is brought into being somehow from the evolution of sensing and acting.’ Octopus are clearly very good at feeling and moving. ‘If there is a form of subjective experience that comes along with sensing and acting in a living system, an octopus has plenty of that.’

Steve Haines Gradual Emergence of Consciousness section added 7 Jan 2019

Godfry-Smith P (2017) Other Minds. The octopus and the evolution of intelligent life. London: William Collins