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Octopus Intelligence Experiments: How Intelligent are Octopuses?

Updated on July 26, 2012
Just how intelligent is the octopus?
Just how intelligent is the octopus?

It is generally accepted that octopus are intelligent animals. But exactly how intelligent are octopus? What types of intelligence do they display? Biologists are currently trying to find the answers to these questions, through behavioral experiments and observations of octopus in their natural environment.

Octopus Nervous System

Octopuses have a very unusual and complex nervous system. An octopus brain contains around 130 million neurons – that’s 30 million more than the average human brain. But unlike humans, whose neurons are all located in the brain, octopuses also have an extra 200 million or so neurons in the nerve cords of their arms. This means that each arm has the ability to learn behaviors and carry them out without needing direction from the brain. If an octopus arm is cut off, it will continue to move and seek out food even though it is no longer receiving signals from the brain. The octopus will grow a new arm to replace the one that was lost.

Octopus Intelligence Experiments

Researchers have set octopuses a variety of problem-solving tasks in order to test how smart they really are. In an experiment carried out in the late 1950s by Oxford researchers, octopuses were shown two shapes and given a reward for touching one of them. The aim of the test was to see whether octopuses could learn to distinguish between different types of shapes, such as rectangles, triangles and circles. The octopuses excelled at this test, learning to recognize rectangles even when they appeared rotated or transformed in size.

Octopus Intelligence in the Wild

Octopuses in the wild also display remarkable feats of intelligence. They have been shown using tools, breaking into fishing boats to steal food, and building shelters out of coconut shells. In the laboratory, scientists sometimes have difficulty controlling the curious nature of octopuses, who come up with ever more ingenious ways of breaking out of their tanks.

What Does it Mean for an Animal to be Intelligent?

Octopuses are undeniably more intelligent than most invertebrates, but could they be even more intelligent than we currently think they are? Scientists are busy conducting more experiments on octopuses in order to find out. Their results could help us to better understand what it means to be intelligent.


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    • Nettlemere profile image

      Nettlemere 5 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      I'm intrigued by octopus intelligence, they seem to be comparable to African grey parrots (at least) in terms of what they can learn and how they work things out for themselves.