Animal Allies: The Octopus as an Unlikely Candidate
What happens when an octopus takes MDMA, and how can we use this information medically to begin to push the boundaries of our understanding of human consciousness?
With the end of #CepholopodAwarenessDays last week (8-12 October), I am reminded of a brilliant book – The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. It details her quest to try and understand these complex creatures. At the risk of anthropomorphising, she discovers these animals to be highly intelligent, capable of tenderness, playfulness, happiness and friendship. It’s a book that questions the idea of ‘consciousness’; a level of intelligence that allows an awareness and responsiveness to your surroundings. Consciousness has been considered a very human quality, with dogs, birds and chimpanzees only recently being accepted as having this ‘intelligence’ … something she advocates for in these invertebrates.
The human and octopus lineages separated over 500 million years ago, yet, researchers are constantly finding evidence to suggest that both vertebrates and invertebrates respond to the same brain chemicals in the same way. For example: Serotonin is a molecule that regulates our social behaviours. When we have feelings of fulfilment and happiness, this is a response to a release of serotonin. This molecule is widespread across the animal kingdom with numerous examples in both invertebrate (e.g., bees, ants, termites, and shrimps) and vertebrate (e.g., fishes, birds, rodents, and primates) lineages.
Drugs, such as MDMA (methylendioxymethamphetamine) increase the production of Seratonin, and other neurotransmitters, that contribute to the feeling of ecstasy when we ingest the drug. The drug is known to increase our feeling of ‘closeness’ with people and that is a response to these neurotransmitters doing their job. So, what if we were to give MDMA to an organism that is so far removed from us, like the octopus? To clarify, an octopus is a solitary animal and considered asocial. It also has a very different nervous system setup, with a central brain and neural tissue in each of its arms... Very different to our very social tendencies and ‘centralized’ nervous system.
Researchers recently gave MDMA in a controlled experiment to see if an octopus has the same reaction to MDMA that humans do. Once the octopus was exposed to the drug, it was moved to a tank with 3 chambers. A central room, with one room containing a toy, and the other room containing a male octopus. They wanted to see if the drug would initiate the ‘closeness’ feeling we get when humans take MDMA. Before MDMA exposure, the octopus avoided the male octopus. But after exposure, the test octopus interacted with the male octopus, even touching the male octopus in an ‘exploratory’ manner.
These results show that at a molecular, DNA level, molecules control our social behaviour. Even with vastly different nervous system organizations, the octopus and the human respond in exactly the same way to a drug that tricks the system into being more sociable.
So why is this research useful? As psychoactive drugs, such as cannabis, are being investigated for their medicinal purposes, by showing that similar chemicals are part of our very DNA allows for researchers to delve deeper into our understanding of how these drugs impact our lives, and in the end, use them to benefit us medically.
MDMA has been shown to assist people experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and assist in relationship counselling. Researchers have also been pushing the use of psychoactive drugs to assist in answering questions surrounding, what has been termed, ‘the final frontier’ – our very consciousness. With these substances, we can explore our imagination and potentially contribute to the evolution of our species by providing unique insight into our lives.
It seems the octopus has become an unlikely ally in this quest for betterment.