Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles I'd like to tell you about someone I met in March, 2011. Her name was Athena. If she stood up, she would have been about five feet tall, but she weighed only forty pounds. She had a beak like a parrot, and venom like a snake, and ink like an old-fashioned pen. She could change color and shape, and pour her boneless body through an opening the size of a walnut. Athena was a giant Pacific octopus. I met her at the New England Aquarium, and her keeper pulled off the lid to her tank. She turned red with excitement, and slid over to meet me, and her eye swiveled in its socket and locked into mine. I plunged my hands and arms into the 47-degree water, and her eight arms came boiling up to meet mine. Now, an octopus can taste with all its skin, including the eyelids, but this sense is most exquisitely developed in the suckers. And so, soon, I had the pleasure of having the skin of my hands and arms covered with dozens of her beautiful, wide, strong suckers, tasting me all at once. Later, I realized that not everyone would like this. (Laughter) If a person had begun tasting me so early in our relationship, I would have been alarmed. (Laughter) And, boy, it was cold! And yes, it was slimy. And then, there was the matter of all those hickeys to explain to my husband when I got home. (Laughter) But never was I for a moment afraid, and neither was Athena. How did I know? Because she'd let me touch her head, and she hadn't let a stranger touch her head before. And beneath my touch, her skin turned white, the color, I later learned, of a relaxed octopus. Well, I was elated, because, despite all of the millions of years of evolution that separated our lineage, despite the fact that she was a marine invertebrate, I felt very strongly that Athena was just as curious about me as I was about her. Somehow, across half a billion years of evolution, we had had a meeting of the minds. Now, speaking about animals of any kind having a mind makes some philosophers and scientists nervous. But that's exactly what I want to talk with you about, the overwhelming evidence that animals across a wide variety of species do think, and feel, and experience consciousness. Now, I'm not a scientist or philosopher. I'm a writer. And I know what I've learned from interviews and from reading and from fieldwork with animals, both captive and wild. My first book talks a little about Jane Goodall's work. She's very famous for her studies of chimpanzees at Gombe, and today she's the most well-known scientist in the world. But when she started out, no one wanted to publish her work, because she named her study animals, instead of numbering them like rocks. But her findings were too important to be ignored, and she found that chimpanzees not only have minds, but that their minds are so like ours. Chimpanzees solve problems. They develop friendships. They use and make tools. They even fashion little sticks with which to fish out termites from termite mounds. They create sponges from leaves which they crumple, and they can jam it into holes and withdraw liquids that they want to get. They even make clubs with which to hit other chimpanzees. The fact that they use and make tools shows also that chimps aren't just living in the eternal present. They imagine a future, and they also imagine the minds of other chimpanzees. They form coalitions, they deceive one another, they even sneak off for illicit sex. The fact that their minds are so like ours shouldn't really surprise us, because we share 99% of our genetic material with a chimpanzee. You can get a blood transfusion from a chimpanzee. In fact, even look at chimpanzees and they might remind you, every once in a while, of that guy you dated in college. (Laughter) But what about animals that aren't so like us? Why can't they have minds too? Because their brains are too small? Well, anything can be miniaturized. Look at computers. They used to take up a whole room, and now they fit in your pocket. Because they don't have language? Well, you don't need language to think. Despite what some linguists might tell you, there are people out there thinking very, very well without words. And one of them is my friend Temple Grandin. I wrote a book about her for young readers. She's quite famous. You may have heard of her. She creates humane designs, including pens and even slaughterhouses that are meant to ease the pain and fear of farm animals that we use for milk, meat, and eggs. She has authored a dozen books, she has written hundreds of articles, she's a college professor, but because she has autism, words did not come easily to her. In fact, she didn't speak until she was aged six, and to this day, she does not think in words. She'll tell you, she thinks entirely in pictures. So, you do not need language to think. What about tool use? That was a Rubicon that supposedly animals couldn't cross. Well, we know that Jane Goodall's chimps crossed that easily, but in fact, lots of animals use tools. My favorite is a kind of baboon called a mandrill. He creates little q-tips from twigs, which he uses to cleanse ears and toenails. I think that's great. But let's leave our fellow mammals aside for a moment. Let's talk about birds. They're more closely related to dinosaurs than they are to human beings, and yet, they are champion tool users. There are some crows in Japan that you may have heard about. They love to open nuts and get the tasty meats, but sometimes, the nuts are too hard to crack. So, here's what they're doing in Japan: they fly to a traffic intersection, they wait till the light turns red, and then, they put the nut down in front of the cars. When the light turns green, they open the nuts for them. And they're so smart that they actually wait till the light again turns red, so they go pick up the nutmeats. How smart is that? Every yardstick that we have tried to use to show that, "Oh, animals can't think and we can" has come up short. One is the mirror test. This is supposed to test for self-awareness, an important component of consciousness. So, you look at the mirror, you recognize your reflexion, and a chimp does too. And we know this because, if you put a dot of paint on that chimp's head, she'll look in the mirror and touch her own finger to her face, but a gorilla won't. And why is that? Not because they don't have self-awareness. It's because for a gorilla to look into someone's face directly, that's a threat. It's not that they don't have self-awareness. It's because the gorilla is being polite. Another Rubicon, of course, was language. People said only people have language. Well, that's not really true. Just ask a parrot. They might respond in plain English. Now, it's true that parrots love to mimic sounds, including the human voice. There's one parrot I heard about, who liked to watch TV, and all of a sudden, began incessantly asking: "Does Hammacher Schlemmer have a toll-free number?" (Laughter) But there are other parrots who know and mean what they're saying, and one of them was Alex, the African grey. He lived with Dr. Irene Pepperberg, who was his trainer, and researcher. She taught him more than 100 words, but she did this not to prove that animals could use language, but to use those words as a probe to look inside the mind of a bird, see what he understood. One thing he understood quite well was concepts of color and shape. She would ask him, holding out a tray of objects, "What color, Alex?" And he'd say, "Gr-een", or red, or whatever color it was. She also learned that parrots can count, and add. But some of the most exciting insights came when he spontaneously voiced what was in his little birdy mind. And one of those moments happened when she brought him home from the laboratory for the first time to her house. It was night, and he looked out her picture window, and saw for the first time in his life an owl. And he began to scream, "Wanna go back! Wanna go back!" He wanted to go back to the lab because he knew, thanks to instincts as old as the ancestors of parrots and the ancestors of owls, that owls were dangerous predators. And he was telling us about this ancient instinct in the English language, which he had learned at a 21st-century university laboratory. Pretty amazing stuff. Well, what about those animals that don't speak to us in English? I want to talk to you about how I got an insight into the mind of a creature that most people don't even think of as having a mind: an electric eel. Now, I've met electric eels in the Amazon, where they live wild, they're fish. But the one I want to talk to you about today lives at the New England Aquarium. You should go. You would love this exhibit.