The Octopus Dilemma What is “consciousness”… really?

“Alrighty, I’m out!” said Jackson as he walked out the door, “Otto, Molly, have a great night! I’ll see you two tomorrow. Lots of work to do!”

Dr. Jackson Hawthorn’s Cephalopod Consciousness Lab was now officially closed for the night. The blinds snapped shut and the lights flicked off in the hallway outside the door. Most of the researchers had gone home for dinner hours ago or out for an after hours drink or three. Everyone was stressed about the upcoming journal submission deadlines and some steam was definitely in need of being let off!

But two scientists were still in the lab, working late, arguing quietly away in the dim lighting from the many humming computer terminals.

“We need to figure this out now, Molly,” said Otto, “the deadline is in less than a week and we still don’t have a conclusion!”

“No, Otto,” she replied, testily, “YOU still don’t have a conclusion. I’ve been certain for weeks now that they aren’t “conscious”…hell, they are barely even sentient!”

“Oh, come on, Molly!”

“I wasn’t finished,” she said, icily, “their nervous systems are completely different than ours, for starters! They obviously have a complex system of communication but that only proves high cognitive ability. You just can’t see the forest for the trees in all this data collection and analysis! I’m telling you, I am BEYOND done with those phases of this study!”

“I’m getting sick of arguing about it, too,” Otto sighed in frustration, “but I think we’ve really seen some definite signs of potential consciousness in our subjects over the last few days! Can we please just go over it once more? I think if you just open your mind a bit and listen then you might see it my way…please?”

Molly didn’t answer for nearly a minute. Otto started to feel nervous again…she always made him feel a bit queasy though. She was just so beautiful, with her mesmerizing eyes, her dewy skin, her sensual curves…her elegant arms and legs…her….well, everything.

Otto shivered and tried to focus back on the (currently) more important matter at hand. Molly turned away from the computer terminal she had been sitting in front of and narrowed her eyes at him.

“Alright, let’s start with our agreed upon definition then, shall we?”

Molly began to recite the definition of consciousness from their (still very much in-progress) research study.

“Consciousness requires that the organism has the ability to feel pain and complex emotions, an awareness of the surrounding environment, and the ability to recognize self,” she glared at him again, “Now, I agree with you that the subjects have been more alert recently and that one did certainly show a response to pain when we shocked him…but none of them have proven that they are actually truly aware of their environments and they certainly don’t have a sense of -“

“That’s not true!” Otto interrupted, “They ARE aware of their environments! Just this afternoon even! Didn’t you see how the male noticed that we’d altered the water level in the tank? And remember when the female exhibited a startle response and self preservation instincts when that lightbulb over the tank exploded? AND that was obviously a complex emotional state she was in afterward!”

“Ohhhh was it? Alright then, Otto,” Molly rolled her eyes and laid on the sarcasm, “do go on… come up with an example of those animals exhibiting a sense of ‘self’… please…I’m still waiting.”

Otto sighed again. She was relentless in her disdain for the beautiful, highly intelligent creatures. He wished she weren’t his research partner but it was too late for that now. He gathered his strength and tried to reason with her once again.

“Molly, please don’t call them animals. I know you hate them and that you think they taste delicious but”

“WHY do you have to bring that up again? I’ve told you a million times that I am capable of being completely impartial in this experiment and I am SICK of you bringing up the eating them thing… Jesus, Otto, it was only ONE BITE that ONE TIME and I didn’t even know what it was! How DARE you!?”

Oh dear. Now he had done it. There was going to be no reasoning with Molly tonight. The debate would have to wait until tomorrow night. He tried to shrink himself down as her angry rant continued, attempting to become less of a target. She was so cute when she was angry though, he couldn’t help but notice.

Otto was eventually able to slink away from the desk he had been sitting at and back into his tank. He reached out a long, tentacled arm and pulled the heavy lid securely closed behind him. Then Otto the Octopus changed his skin texture and color to blend in perfectly with the purple, pebbly décor of his tank, closed his eyes, and tried to drown out Molly’s still-continuing tirade.

He had hoped that Molly Mollusk would be the one who would help him in his quest to prove his theory but he knew now in his hearts that she would never agree that the human subjects who came to the lab each day had achieved true consciousness. That was alright though. There had to be other cephalopods out there who did believe in human consciousness and somehow, someday… Otto would find them.

*** Author’s Note***

This was written for the Vocal “Tall Tail” Short Story Challenge about an animal that can talk. Was it Otto Octopus or Molly Mollusk though? Maybe it was Dr. Jackson Hawthorn who was the animal?

If you’d like to read (much more accurate info) about cephalopod sentience or consciousness here is a really interesting article.

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