Happiness, Octopuses and Hard-core Drugs

Few creatures are as odd as the octopus.

From their alien-like tentacles to their bulbous heads, they truly are out of this world. Their insides are pretty weird as well.

Octopuses actually have blue blood thanks to the copper that’s inside of it. Whereas we, and most creatures, have iron in our blood which gives it the distinct red colour.

Pumping this blue blood though are not one, not two, but three hearts. All three of which are controlled by nine different brains. One for every tentacle, and another for that big head of theirs.

Like I said, they’re basically aliens.

As you may also know, most of them can change their appearance. Just like chameleons, octopuses can change their skin colouration to suit their needs. Most of the time to hide from threats. And if that doesn’t work they can still always shoot out a blast of ink.

They truly are the masters of escape. Which helps explain why they’re so antisocial…

See, octopuses have long been thought of as solitary creatures. The lone wolf of the sea kind of type. And for the most, that’s fairly true.

Most octopus will only interact with another for the purpose of mating or fighting. Sometimes it could even be both. It isn’t uncommon for a female octopus to attack and kill her male counterpart once they’ve finished mating.

Furthermore, some species are even cannibals. So, starting a fight could wind up getting them eaten. That’s why the few times octopuses are actually seen interacting, it’s usually in an aggressive manner.

If someone picked a fight with you every time you passed them in the street, you might be a little reclusive as well.

Nevertheless, it isn’t easy to get an octopus to be sociable. That is, unless you give them some MDMA.

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Drugs and friends

What do you get when you bring a neuroscientist and an octopus expert together? A whole lot of weird experiments, apparently.

Gül Dölen (neuroscientist) and Eric Edsinger (octopus expert) have been giving octopuses baths. Not just any type of bath, a bath mixed with drugs.

The two scientists wanted to see how octopuses would react when given MDMA. A drug that is well-known for its recreational use among partygoers.

MDMA (3, 4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine) is more commonly known as ecstasy. A psychoactive drug that makes people feel euphoric and super sociable. Even more than usual.

Naturally, Dölen and Edsinger wanted to see whether the same effects would be seen in an octopus. One of the grouchiest and most antisocial species on the planets. 

Here’s how Gizmodo surmised it,

After hanging out in a bath containing ecstasy, the animals moved to a chamber with three rooms to pick from: a central room, one containing a male octopus and another containing a toy. This is a setup frequently used in mice studies. Before MDMA, the octopuses avoided the male octopus. But after the MDMA bath, they spent more time with the other octopus, according to the studypublished in Current Biology. They also touched the other octopus in what seemed to be an exploratory, rather than aggressive, manner.

These traditionally reclusive creatures suddenly became a whole lot more touchy-feely. They wanted to socialise while on MDMA.

More than that, the creatures started acting differently. One reportedly ‘…looked like it was doing water ballet’, another ‘…spent part of the time doing flips’ while a third octopus was ‘…interested in minor sounds and smells.

Extrapolate from that whatever you want, the fact is MDMA clearly affected them. And that could be the key to finding out how to make us — people — happier.

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500 million years between us

As you can probably guess, we’re a little different to octopuses. Not just in how we look, but how we’re made.

500 million years ago our ancestors split. Evolution took the octopus one way, and humans went a completely different direction. And over those years we’ve developed and grown further and further apart. That’s why today an octopuses brain (the main one) looks completely different to ours.

However, what this MDMA study shows is that we still have some similarities. One that goes beyond our evolutionary differences. Gizmodo reports:

The scientists took this to mean that despite our vastly different brains, social behaviour is built into the very molecules coded by our DNA,

“An octopus doesn’t have a cortex, and doesn’t have a reward circuit,” Dölen, assistant professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, told Gizmodo. “And yet it’s able to respond to MDMA and produce the same effects, in an animal with a totally different brain organisation. To me, that means we really need to appreciate that the business end of these things is at the level of the molecule.”’

The early consensus is that MDMA is basically flipping a neurological switch inside the animals. When it’s on, they become more sociable. An effect that is also seen in humans.

With this information, researchers may now be able to isolate how to target that switch. Not so people can get an even better high, but so people who are suffering can feel good.

Early studies in humans has already shown that MDMA may be able to treat or at least alleviate PTSD. The higher levels of trust and compassion could help sufferers open up and confront their mental hurdles.

We could find a way to help people feel more social. Something that is incredibly important for both our mental and physical health.

As always, more research is needed. And thankfully more research is being done.

Soon we may be hearing about people, not octopuses, getting more touchy-feely. Not because they want to get high, but because they just want to be happy.


Ryan Clarkson-Ledward,
Editor, Tech Insider

Editor’s Note: The above article was originally published in Tech Insider, our technology investing-focused e-letter.

Ryan Clarkson-Ledward is a junior analyst for Markets & Money. Ryan has degrees in both communication and international business. His priority is bringing you the latest price updates on stocks through ASX updates, as well as supporting Sam Volkering with background research. As part of the team at Markets & Money his aim is to provide unbiased and relevant news for readers. Ryan’s work with Sam is designed to provide research that complements Sam’s analysis for small-cap and technology stocks. Together, their objective is to break through all the jargon and give you the hard facts to inform your investment decision-making. Ryan writes for:

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