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Cuttlefish Dream

by Bill Meacham on May 11th, 2017

CuttlefishThree and a half meters below the surface of the sea off the east coast of Australia a giant cuttlefish, about a meter in length, lurks in its den.(1) A human floats quietly nearby in his scuba gear, observing in silence and making no disturbance. The cuttlefish shows no signs of alarm at the human’s presence, and there are no others of its kind around. As usual, a restless display of colors ranges across its “face,” the area between its eyes and down its top pair of tentacles. Reds, browns, greens, blues and yellows cascade in ever-changing patterns, punctuated by veins of silver.

ChromatophoresCuttlefish, like octopuses and other cephalopods, have special pigment cells called chromatophores in their skin. A giant cuttlefish has about ten million of them; we can think of its skin as, roughly, a ten-megapixel screen. By controlling the size of the cells the animal can quite rapidly vary its color and create changing patterns. The static photo shown here does not do it justice; the colors constantly change and shift. Moving patterns and shapes — stripes, clouds and other shapes — play over its entire body. Here is a video of a smaller cuttlefish changing color.

Having no internal skeleton, cuttlefish and octopuses can change shape as well. Octopuses are well known for being able to mimic the shape of rocks and sea-plants around them, and they can squeeze through very small holes. This video shows an octopus escaping through a small hole.

Cuttlefish have a bone-like shell under their skin, so they can’t squeeze as small as an octopus can, but they can change their shape by extruding and retracting portions of skin and elongating their tentacles.

The abilities to change color and shape are thought to have evolved for camouflage, to protect the animal from predators, and for signaling, to communicate with other animals. But according to philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith, who has studied the animals in depth, the colors go way beyond such biological functions.

Many patterns seem to be anything but camouflage, and are also produced when no obvious “receiver” of the signal is around. Some cuttlefish … go through an almost continual, kaleidoscopic process of color change that appears disconnected from anything going on outside them, and appears instead to be an inadvertent expression of the electrochemical tumult inside them. … [The changes seem to be] an inadvertent expression of the animal’s inner processes, … a kind of ongoing chromatic chatter.(2)

Down by the cuttlefish den, the human, Godfrey-Smith, continues to observe:

As I watched, I realized that these colors were changing in a concerted way …. It reminded me of music, of chords changing amid and over each other. He would shift several colors in sequence or together … and end up with a new pattern, a new combination, which might stay still for a time or immediately start shifting into another. … What was he doing? It was slowly getting darker in the water, and under his ledge it was already quite dark. …

It occurred to me that he was paying so little attention to me that all of this might have been going on going on while he was asleep, or half-asleep in a state of deep rest. Perhaps the part of his brain that controls the skin was turning over a sequence of colors of its own accord. I wondered if this was a cuttlefish dream. He made almost no movement, except small adjustments of siphon and fin that kept him hovering in the same place. …

Then things began to change. He seemed to stiffen or pull together and began going through a long series of displays. It was the strangest series I have ever seen, especially as it seemed to have no target or object. … He pulled in his arms and exposed his beak. He tucked his arms below him in a missile-like pose, then produced a yellow flare. I kept glancing out to see if he was looking at someone—another cuttlefish or some other intruder. There was never anyone there. … Then he pulled himself into the most extraordinarily contorted shape, his skin suddenly white, with arms pulled back both above and below his head. This sequence then quieted down. … And then, instantly, he seized into a wild aggressive pose, with arms straight out, sharp like thin swords, and his whole body a bright yellow-orange. It was as if the orchestra had suddenly hit a wild clashing chord. The arms ended in needles, his body became covered with jagged papillae like armor. … I wondered again if this was all directed at me, but if it was a display, it seemed to be aimed in directions all around. And I had been back from the den when this sequence started, when he exploded into yellow-orange and the needle-arm pose.

Still facing away, he began to ease back from this fortissimo. Though he moved through a few more permutations and poses, they were subsiding. And then he was still—his arms hanging down, his skin a quietly shifting mixture of the reds, rusts and greens that he had been producing when I arrived. Turning, he looked at me.(3)

The human, by now rather cold, swims away, wondering what it was all about. Was it the exterior of a dream? Was it some kind of communication with the human, as if to say “Look what I can do?” Or, as long as we are anthropomorphizing here, maybe its aggressive display expressed irritation, as if to say “Get the hell out of here! Go away and leave me alone!”

Here is a speculation: It was a bit of ecstasy in the Mind of God expressing itself through this strange animal.

The mystics say that every individual mind is known from the “inside,” as if by telepathy, by an overarching and unifying mind, the Mind of God. In Hindu yoga philosophy this mind is called Paramatman, Supreme Self. More precisely, it is the mind of God conceived pantheistically as the entirety of the universe. Sufi mystic Inayat Khan explains it this way:

The whole universe is nothing but particles of God’s life and the Absolute is one Being. God therefore is all, and all is God.(4)

The One Being is, in this view, something like a person whose body is all the physical matter of the universe and whose mind is the combined mentality of all that physical matter. This view entails panpsychism, the idea that every element of physical matter has also a mental aspect. Additionally, it entails the notion that the mentality of all the various elements combine to form one mentality, one interior, subjective reality, which we can call the Supreme Self. As Inayat Khan puts it,

The infinite God is the Self of God, and all that has been manifested with name and form is the outward aspect of God.(5)

If that is true, then the cuttlefish is one of the outward aspects of God. And if Godfrey-Smith’s conjecture is true that the animal’s colors are an expression of its inner state, then they are the expressions of the Mind of God individuated into a single animal.

The cuttlefish, a solitary creature having little interaction with others of its kind, floats alone in its world. Perhaps it senses a large, mobile creature nearby, perhaps not. If so, it detects neither food nor predator and ignores it. Lost in its thoughts, it amuses itself by putting on a light show. It hums to itself, as it were, in colors rather than sounds. Tripping out in its fantasy, it finds delight in the sheer exuberance of color and movement. God, in this instance conscious of the light show both from the point of view of the cuttlefish and of the human, finds dual delight. That delight is felt, however dimly, in the emotional background of the experience of every sentient being in the universe.

The mystic finds bliss in union with the One. The One finds delight, not only in the mystic’s union, but in the delight of every one of the creatures that make up its being. Every time we experience love, harmony and beauty we contribute to the love, harmony and beauty felt by God. In so doing, we contribute to the well-being of every sentient entity. Every time we experience anger and discord, though, we contribute to ill-being.

God is looking through your eyes, hearing through your ears, and feeling what you feel. What does God experience? How does God feel?


(1) All accounts of cuttlefish and other cephalopod behavior and physiology in this essay are taken from Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds.

(2) Ibid., pp. 126 – 128.

(3) Ibid., pp. 133 – 135.

(4) Khan, The Unity of Religious Ideals, p. 58.

(5) Ibid., p. 101.


Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. New York: Farrar, Stauss and Giroux, 2016.

Khan, Inayat. The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan Volume IX: The Unity of Religious Ideals. London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1963.

Photo of cephalopod: as of 1 May 2017.

Photo of cuttlefish: as of 2 May 2017.

Video of cuttlefish display: as of 4 May 2017.

Video of octopus escaping: as of 4 May 2017.

From → Philosophy

One Comment
  1. David Waddington permalink

    THANKS for brightening a grey, rainy Saturday in July!

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