Books and articles

Other minds: The octopus and the evolution of intelligent life by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Octopuses, and cephalopods in general, are fascinating creatures. If you haven’t read about giant squid, you should, right now. Seriously, I’ll wait.

That’s before we even get to octopus escapes.

Given such an intriguing topic, I was excited to read Other minds. What was disappointing was that Peter Godfrey-Smith did so little with the topic. The book is largely a recap of evolutionary theory. Which is interesting and important, but doesn’t say much that’s new, and was probably covered in too much depth. The most interesting part here for me, was that he recaps briefly some of the evolutionary theory on ageing, which I hadn’t come across before.

There’s a little bit of a recap here on consciousness, and different theories (see the quote below that references a theory that’s very reminiscent of the ideas put forth in The Ego Tunnel).

But for the most part, the only thing that Godfrey-Smith talks about that’s new is Octopolis, a fascinating site where octopuses display much more social behaviour than had previously been spotted. But Godfrey-Smith doesn’t tell a fascinating story, and for the most part is cautious about drawing out deep conclusions from the research at Octopolis.

All in all, it’s a useful overview, but Other minds ultimately is an uninteresting book on a fascinating topic. If you’re out to read about theory of mind and cephalopods, I’d wait for the next book.

… an octopus has three hearts, not one. Their hearts pump blood that is blue-green, using copper as the oxygen-carrying molecules instead of the iron which makes our blood red …

In birds like pigeons, each retina has two different “fields,” the yellow field and the red field. The red field sees a small area in front of the bird where there is binocular vision, and the yellow field sees a larger area that the other eye cannot access. Pigeons not only failed to transfer information between eyes; they also did quite badly at transfer between different regions of the same eye. This might explain some distinctive bird behaviors … hens approached … an object in a weaving way that seemed designed to give the different parts of each eye access to it. That, apparently, is the way the whole bird gets access to the object. The weaving gaze of a bird is a technique designed to slosh the incoming information around …

What we experience, in this view, is the internal model of the world that complex activities in us produce and sustain …

The emotional arcs of stories are dominated by six basic shapes

This is a paper by Reagan, Mitchell, Kiley, Danforth and Sheridan Dodds.  It’s based on their ‘hedonometer’, the guts of which is:

… the 5,000 most frequent words from a collection of four corpora: Google Books, New York Times articles, Music Lyrics, and Twitter messages, resulting in a composite set of roughly 10,000 unique words. Using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, we had each of these words scored on a nine point scale of happiness: (1) sad to (9) happy …

They then ran a large body of stories through their hedonometer:

We extracted and analyzed the emotional arcs of 1,722 novels from the Project Gutenberg corpus using sentiment analysis, and found six common shapes …

There’s more detail in the paper, but they argue that there are six basic shapes that emerge consistently:

  • Rise (‘rags to riches’)
  • Fall (tragedy)
  • Fall-rise (‘man in a hole’)
  • Rise-fall (‘Icarus’)
  • Rise-fall-rise (‘Cinderella’)
  • Fall-rise-fall (‘Oedipus’)

Intriguing stuff.


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