Octopus Time

# philosophy

How does an octopus tell time?

A junkyard car buried in diry with a license plate that says time.

At Aeon, David Borkenhagen has an essay speculating on an octopus’s experience of time. The essay is completely speculative, but it’s still very thoughtful.

Consider this. As humans, our experience of time is determined by our shape — our geometry. I have a face that points forward. I can look and walk in the same direction — forward. I can’t gracefully move or look backward. So it follows that my understanding of time is defined by linear forward motion. All of the metaphors for time I’ve ever heard are linear. Sometimes we think of time as cyclical, but still a line — a line that forms a circle or a spiral. More often, we think of time as a march of progress from the past into the future. As time progresses, we advance, from monkeys to hunter-gatherers to farmers to bankers to space monkeys. We move in a line.

We understand time based on our changing relationship with our environment. If nothing changes, it feels like time isn’t passing. Time measures change. Our relationship to that change defines our experience of time. We think of time as passing. Sometimes we sit still and time moves around us, like a passenger on a train watching the world pass by. Sometimes we make time move, like a runner sprinting through the forest. Sometimes we feel more comfortable looking into the past, which is knowable and familiar. Other times we feel more comfortable looking into the future, which is moldable and promising. But always we are moving in a line through time.

But the octopus doesn’t move in a line. The octopus can see almost 360 degrees. With her eight arms, she can move in any direction, including up and down. Free of one-dimension movement, how does an octopus understand timespace?

To get into the octopus’s head, I try to step outside of the mind of linear progress. In the natural world, things are constantly repeating and renewing. Things change and then change back. In that sense, time doesn’t neatly move forward. It doesn’t even necessarily move in a circle. It moves like seaweed, in waves.

Borkenhagen explains that we can see both the past and the future as workable. Most people believe that we can create our future. But psychologists and historians understand that we can also create the past. Modern rationalists prefer to see the past as fixed, but in truth it is very murky. Trauma therapists help their patients reframe the past by re-understanding traumatic situations. Without changing any historical fact, the patient can develop a different experience of a past situation. Historians, on the other hand, will constantly unearth and debate historical evidence to reframe the past. So the past and the future are both shifting. But what about the present? If anything seems fixed, it’s the present moment. And yet. You can change the present moment by changing your perspective. This is the truism of half-empty and half-full. If time is defined by an individual’s experience of change relative to their environment, there is remarkable capacity to shift the present moment while time stands still. We can change our present position without moving in time.

      Good Memory◄──►Bad Memory
            │            │
        ▼         ▼          ▼
Half Empty◄───►Present◄───►Half Full
       │          │          │
           ▼            ▼
         Hope          Fear

If we try to forget the linear concept of advancing through time (which, Borkenhagen points out might also demand that we loosen our obsession with our own mortality in favor of a perceiving generations of life that transcend individuals) then maybe we can see time as something shifting, moving backwards and forwards, turning around, shifting from side to side.

We often see ourselves as trapped in time. But, in this view, we break open a world of possibility. The moment is expansive.

© Sam Littlefair, 2023