Consciousness: a surprising encounter

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 27 April 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:1017
  1. John Spencer (john_spencer63{at}, consultant psychiatrist
  1. NSW Health Services, Kangaroo Valley, NSW, Australia

    Consciousness is an elusive phenomenon referring to the totality of one's thoughts, feelings, and impressions and to the concepts of will, volition, and mind.

    Last year, I was sailing with friends, and we moored overnight at the small Ionian island of Paxos, where we were invited to visit the local aquarium. Following a couple of old signs down a narrow street, I found a large wooden shed housing more than 40 elderly glass tanks of varying sizes, each containing a specimen of local marine life. The owner, a short, enthusiastic, unshaven man with a scanty knowledge of English, proudly led me to a larger tank in a corner of the gloomy room.

    As we approached, a translucent jelly-like mass in the rear of the tank quivered and reformed itself into a large energetic octopus, which clearly recognised the proprietor and gracefully slid to the front of the tank, glistening in the reflected light of a dim electric bulb. My avid guide filled an empty coffee jar with water into which he placed a large succulent shrimp and, after firmly screwing the lid on, tossed it into the tank.

    In a flash, twisting and turning, the octopus deftly caught the jar and, with apparent delight, held it tightly in its arms. Then, with obvious intention and purpose, it screwed off the cap, plucked out the tasty shrimp, and gleefully placed this in its pink, beak-like mouth.

    Not only did my estimation of octopuses, which I had previously considered a rather primitive life form, immediately escalate but I was also confronted by the complexity of life and the nature of volition and consciousness. This creature clearly showed anticipation, memory, and gratification—all aspects of consciousness.

    There is no universally agreed definition of consciousness, but my experience confirms that, whatever the phenomenon is, the octopus possessed it. Because other life forms do not have the faculty of speech, technology, or political systems, we assume they are fundamentally different, less evolved, primitive, or whatever euphemisms we care to use in order to cover our ignorance as to what is really going on.

    Microbiologists tell us that the potential for life lies within every cell. Insights from the human genome project indicate that almost all of our genes are also present in other life forms that we regard as being very different from ourselves. If we are not the only species endowed with consciousness, volition, and intelligence then perhaps we are not as unique as we think and the time has come when we should review our relationships not just with each other but with all other life forms. The enigma remains.

    View Abstract

    Sign in

    Log in through your institution

    Free trial

    Register for a free trial to to receive unlimited access to all content on for 14 days.
    Sign up for a free trial