June 19, 2019

What Octopuses on Ecstasy Teach Us About Humans

“The last week has been a notable one for our understanding of animal life, thanks to two very different research papers appearing within a couple of days of each other.

One continued a tradition of surprises from the octopus – and generated headlines around the world. Scientists Eric Edsinger and Gül Dölen gave octopuses the “party drug” MDMA, or ecstasy, and found that on the drug they were more inclined to approach other octopuses, and also interacted less cautiously, initiating more body contact.

The ecstasy experiment was small – using just four animals – and what resulted might have several different explanations. (The octopuses were always given their drugs after being tested without drugs in the same setting, and whenever experiences are ordered in time in this way, this can have its own effects. Some confusion resulting from the drug is possible, too, if the human case is any guide.) But it does seem that the octopuses, despite their vastly different brains, behaved in ways with surprising analogies to humans – especially in their willingness to initiate physical closeness, and general playfulness.

With the aid of genetic analysis, revealing a gene that probably affects these behaviours both in us and octopuses via the brain chemical serotonin, Edsinger and Dölen suggest that this research indicates that some mechanisms controlling social behaviour are very old in evolutionary terms – we last shared a common ancestor with octopuses well over 500m years ago. Whether those conclusions can be drawn about social life is unclear at this stage. This might be a situation where some ancient biological machinery can have a variety of roles in different organisms, sometimes helping to control social life, and sometimes doing other things, but perhaps often involving some form of exploration, evaluation and attraction.”

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