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Books for Lunch: A Review of “Soul of an Octopus”

Each year, the Seven Hills Books for Lunch committee brings leading authors and thinkers to its Hillsdale Campus to foster thought leadership on major issues facing society. This year’s guest author, Sy Montgomery, a nationally acclaimed naturalist and New York Times Best-selling author, writes on human’s relationship with the world’s creatures and how preconceived notions of intelligence are often stumbling blocks to the truth. Books for Lunch committee member Robin Kiley shared her thoughts on “Soul of an Octopus,” a National Book Award finalist.

Kiley’s review:

Sy Montgomery shows herself to be a brilliant storyteller as she introduces the reader to the mystery and beauty of one of the world’s most alien creatures–the octopus. To understand how different we are, Sy gives us a few fascinating facts:

  • Octopus skin can change to 177 different colors, patterns and textures in a single hour to camouflage itself. These changes occur in seven-tenths of a second, which is remarkably complex compared to most animals.
  • An octopus has “electric skin,” which allows it to access a wide range of colors and patterns that are tied to its nervous system. The color and texture of their skin reveals their emotions.
  • An octopus can taste with their entire bodies, but their most acutely developed sense of taste is in their suckers.
  • The arm muscles of an octopus resemble the musculature of a human tongue and are capable of resisting a pull 100 times its own body weight. A 40 lb. octopus would be able to resist 4,000 pounds of force.
  • An octopus brain has 300 million neurons, with 50 to 75 lobes, located in their arms, while a human brain has over 100 billion neurons and four lobes. Compared to other invertebrates, the brain of an octopus is enormous. Neuroscientist Cliff Ragsdale of University of Chicago said octopuses are “the only example outside of vertebrates of how to build a complex, clever brain.”

Sy shares humorous insights on the unique and striking personalities of each octopus she befriends and how they display their curiosity, affection and dislikes with the people they meet. She also shows us how we can learn more about ourselves by seeing the beauty in our differences with other creatures. Sy challenges us to think with empathy and abandon our biases. As Sy beautifully writes about Athena, one of her octopus friends, “She was leading me to a new way of thinking about thinking, of imagining what other minds  might be like. And she was enticing me to explore, in a way I never had before, my own planet–a world of mostly water, which I hardly knew.”

Sy Montgomery visits our Hillsdale Campus on Friday, Feb. 8, to talk with Seven Hills students and faculty in the morning and at 12 p.m. she will speak to Seven Hills parents and the Cincinnati community at the Upper School Parent Association’s Luncheon at Xavier University’s Cintas Center. Tickets are available online at I hope you will allow yourself the pleasure to explore the remarkable diversity of this world with a truly gifted author, thinker and poetic naturalist.