Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Aliens!

Here is an interesting article about octopuses and weird brain architecture:

How the octopus got its smarts.

A mammalian brain is a centralised processor that sends and receives signals via the spinal cord. But for the octopus, only 10% of its brain is centralised in a highly folded, 30-lobed donut-shaped structure arranged around its oesophagus (really). Two optic lobes account for another 30%, and 60% lies in the arms. “It’s a weird way to construct a complex brain,” says Hanlon. “Everything about this animal is goofy and weird.”

Take the arms: they’re considered to have their own ‘mini-brain’ not just because they are so packed with neurons but because they also have independent processing power. For instance, an octopus escaping a predator can detach an arm that will happily continue crawling around for up to 10 minutes.

Indeed, until an experiment by Kuba and colleagues in 2011, some suspected the arms’ movements were independentof their central brain. They aren’t. Rather it appears that the brain gives a high-level command that a staff of eight arms execute autonomously.

Very, very neat. How many SF authors have ever designed an alien species as weird and neat as this? Though to be fair, authors rarely sit down and describe the actual brain architecture of their aliens.

But wait, octopuses are actually even weirder than that!

A complex brain needs a way to store complex information. Startlingly, the octopus may have achieved this complexity by playing fast and free with its genetic code.

To build a living organism, the decoding of the DNA blueprint normally proceeds with extreme fidelity. … A tiny section of the vast blueprint is copied, rather like photocopying a single page from a tome. That copy, called messenger RNA (mRNA), then instructs the production of a particular protein….

But … the octopus … modifies copies of the recipe on the fly. …

This recipe tweaking is known as ‘RNA editing’. In humans only a handful of brain protein recipes are edited. In the octopus, the majority get this treatment.

“It introduces a level of sophistication and complexity we never thought of. Perhaps it’s related to their memory,” says Eli Eisenberg, a computational biologist at the University of Tel Aviv. Though he quickly adds, “I must stress this is complete speculation”.

There’s much more at the link. One suggestion, awkward if you were designing an alien species, is that messing around with their genes all the time may be one big reason octopuses have such short lifespans (one year, three years, five years, it depends on the species, but they all short-lived.)

That would be either a difficulty to ignore if you were writing a fictional species, or a source of pathos in the story if you created a species with a very, very short lifespan. If you did that, it might be almost impossible to end in any way that did not involve the death of an important character. Very sad! But you could probably create a species where this was not necessarily quite so tragic. Remember the ending of Charlotte’s Web? That is one way I might handle this kind of intrinsically short lifespan.

Neat article. Click through if you have a moment.

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3 Comments Aliens!

  1. Megan

    The dragons in the Song of the Summer King series by Jess E Owen live their entire lifespan in the space of a single year. It makes for an interesting dynamic when the main character is trying to find some historical information, as some 300 GENERATIONS have gone by since then, and the information has long since passed into myth. (And the cute little dragon grows up insanely fast, which drives Shard nuts trying to keep up with him.)

  2. Pete Mack

    Elizabeth Bear had octopus based aliens in Grail (book 3 of Jacobs Ladder trilogy, when the generation ship finally makes landfall.) Weird creatures, but apparently not as weird as real octopi.

  3. Rachel

    It’s saying something when fictionalized aliens can’t be made as weird as real octopuses.

    That sounds really neat, Megan. Come to think of it, the griffins in Nick O’Donohoe’s The Magic and the Healing trilogy also grow up very fast, with a similar challenge for the protagonist who’s trying to keep up with one of them.

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