What I’m reading… “The Soul of an Octopus” by Sy Montgomery
Did you know that an octopus has multiple “brains” in each of its 8 legs? As it turns out, the nervous system of the octopus is quite complex, with many small lobes in the central brain, and a larger number of neurons located in its legs. This contrasts to the human brain with large complex lobes and a much smaller number of neurons in our bodies.
This highly engaging book attempts to show the reader how it feels to be an octopus, how to use its arms to multitask, taking in smells and tastes and touches all at the same time. With vivid descriptions, we see the personality, intelligence, and curiosity of each octopus. This contrasts to how it feels to be human – a never-ending stream of thoughts and feelings, paired with a limited sensory apparatus.
Is the contrast valid? I am not so sure. After years of working with patients, I think the human body might also have multiple “brains”. I have seen intelligent, hard-working, thoughtful people be controlled entirely by unexplained symptoms in their bodies. A young woman suffered so greatly from emotional turmoil that her legs stopped working one day. A successful, middle-aged businessman suffered from confusing symptoms in his digestive tract that rendered him completely nonfunctional at home and at work.
I used to think that the thoughts and emotions of the brain controlled the rest of the body, and that these patients had “psychosomatic” symptoms; i.e. their brain controlled their bodies. But it is more complicated. I have worked with a young father who had a strange neurological syndrome after a viral infection which affected his ability to control his arms. After being in the medical system for many months he was traumatized and suffered from severe anxiety which persisted for years. I have seen many patients who did not “trust their gut”, failing to escape dangerous situations. I have seen patients who have dramatic changes in their emotions and thought patterns after gaining or losing large amounts of weight – it is almost as if the fat cells were communicating with their brains.
So perhaps we humans are not so brain-dominant as we suppose. Perhaps, like the octopus, our body has various complex nervous systems which can control our thoughts and emotions. We know something in our heart to be true, we have a gut feeling about a situation. Maybe we should take a closer look at our own multiple “body-brains”, the way the author searched for the soul of an octopus.