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New research explores the emotional mystery of octopuses

Octopuses, as well as other aquatic invertebrates, are not widely believed to have emotions or feel pain. But new research says it might be time to rethink that.

(CN) — Do octopuses have the same emotions we so often associate with mammals, our beloved pets and even our newborn babies? And if so, will that change how we treat them as a collective species? Experts are still not entirely sure how to answer these questions — but they say it’s high time we find out.

Few would argue that octopuses — and, despite what modern trends tell you, that is in fact the correct plural for the famed eight-limbed creatures — are incredibly intelligent. Even the most cursory glance through the history of octopuses reveal stories of the cephalopods memorizing human patterns to escape their handlers and make a break for the nearest ocean and learning how to open child-proof pill bottles. They’ve even shown they can prefer some humans over others, choosing to bond and stay close to people they’ve decided are their new friends.

But while most can agree that octopuses are some of the smartest creatures to dwell beneath the water, the same consensus cannot be said for their emotions. Whether or not they, or most other invertebrates like crabs or lobsters, have emotions and can feel pain is still intensely debated and definitive answers have proven hard to come by.

But according to a new paper published Thursday in Science, York University Professor Kristin Andrews and director of the Living Links Center at Emory University Frans de Waal say that in light of new developments, it may be time to start looking at these questions much more seriously.

While most nations around the world do not recognize invertebrates, octopuses included, as sentient creatures, lawmakers in the United Kingdom might be gearing up to make some changes. After a report by the London School of Economics revealed compelling findings that decapod crustaceans and cephalopod molluscs are likely sentient lifeforms, the U.K. government is considering amending their animal welfare laws to put invertebrates under the protections afforded to sentient animals.

With so many Western schools of thought being historically shy to expand our perceptions of who and what has sentience — pre-verbal human infants have just been widely thought of as being capable of experiencing pain in the past half century or so — Andrews says this change could be a huge breakthrough.

“It’s been a real struggle even to get fish and mammals recognized under welfare law as sentient,” Andrews said with the release of the paper. “So, it’s pretty cutting-edge what seems to be happening in the U.K. with invertebrates.”

For years, many have believed that animals weren’t exactly experiencing pain in the same way humans do, but instead were simply exhibiting an instinctive reaction to negative stimulation.

But that’s changed some recently, with new research showing that octopuses and mammals will go out of their way to avoid pain and sketchy situations where they think they could be in danger. Some have even shown an empathy for others in distress, such as cows that grow agitated and upset when they see their young in pain.

But even if mankind were to evolve our understanding on what creatures have emotions, where do exactly do we go from there? The question is tricky enough given the barriers of communication between octopuses and humans, but deciding how we change our behaviors towards them is a difficult and daunting dilemma.

To start, experts say we need even more research into these issues to fill in as many knowledge gaps as possible. But looking at these questions with a longer and wider lens, it may be time for humans take a hard look at not just how we perceive the world around us and those who inhabit it — but also what we are prepared to do with what we find.

“When we’re going about our normal lives, we try not to do harm to other beings,” Andrews said. “So, it’s really about retraining the way we see the world.”

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