Essays

octopus brain


I’m currently kind of obsessed with octopuses.

I look at an octopus and see my brain. Tentacles all moving of their own accord, one head-brain plus eight arm-brains, suckered synapses touching and processing everything.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve self-diagnosed myself as both autistic and ADHD. I’ve kind of figured out how to make them both work. My ADHD brain wants to touch and do literally everything. My autistic brain wants to sit down and work on something and not be interrupted.

The ADHD brain runs the show most of the time. I train it by setting 10-15 minute timers so that I have time to touch everything and then a trigger to move me onto the next thing. When I find something that’s truly worthy of my full attention, I let the obsessive autistic brain take over and prod at the problem until it’s solved.

Octopuses are incredible problem solvers. They look like they’re meandering around, just your average sea creature searching for food, until you set them upon a problem. One video I watched from a research center who often put their octopus through challenges, said that he would poke and prod the puzzle first to get a feel for it, but then always take a few tentacle steps back to observe, process, and think for a few minutes. Then get back to work.


Ally Brennan Photo Illustration Author Website Essay Writing Octopus Drawing Blog Post Newsletter Comic 2023 Nevada
Drawing by me. September 1, 2023.

Ethan and I watched the documentary “My Octopus Teacher” earlier this year. I ate a mushroom chocolate before the viewing and was kind of freaking out at the underwater visuals, but I was still extremely emotional towards the connection the filmographer and the octopus shared over the course of one year.

I now know that anything involving an octopus main character is probably going to be a tearjerker. Because I also just finished reading a book where one of the main characters is an octopus in an aquarium, Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt. It’s tinged with sadness. It’s the kind of slow literary novel where there’s multiple perspective characters and you slowly see their stories tie together and you fear your heart is going to be shattered somehow by the end of it. It’s a slow, graceful train wreck of emotions.

The reason for sadness in octopus stories is because they have incredibly short lifespans. The Giant Pacific Octopus, the species featured in Remarkably Bright Creatures, can live up to five years (only if it doesn’t mate), but the Common Octopus, the species featured in “My Octopus Teacher,” has a lifespan of just 1-2 years. Octopuses are easy characters if you want a heartbreak story, easy money.

It seems like people associate octopuses with sadness or depth of emotion or ability to carry the weight of existence, because I looked up more octopus books to read, and the plots descriptions were all “death,” “cancer,” “for fans of the art of racing in the rain,” and “keep tissues on hand.”

Octopuses invoke a depth of soul, of emotions, of meaning. They invoke thoughts of death.

These are such incredible curious intelligent, even affectionate, otherworldly creatures, and it feels unfair that they live such short lives.

I saw glimpses during my rabbit hole octopus browsing that scientists are bewildered by their DNA. It’s like nothing they’ve seen before. “Aliens,” some of the articles whisper.

I’ve never before wished for the existence of aliens. Life on earth seemed too overwhelming and magical to think of anything outside the planet.

But now that I love octopuses, I wish it to be true.

I find myself hoping that they’re not just another wild and wacky animal species here on earth. The thought of them being aliens, sprouted from seeds of another planet, is comforting. “Tell me we’re not alone here,” I want to ask them.

I never believed in ghosts either, until after my brother died. But I’d see flickers of things, in the early weeks and months following his death. I felt like I could see him out of the corner of my eye, in certain places like the hallway that runs between our bedrooms. Our two closed bedrooms doors and that hallway were the only things separating us that day when he died.

Now, as almost two years have passed, I don’t really see him anymore, not when I’m awake. Maybe those types of hauntings are for the freshly bereaved. But he visits me in my dreams. He always seems physically solid, not like a ghost. But there’s always a look in his eye that feels ghostly, like he knows what’s coming. Or that it already happened and we’re just briefly hanging out in an alternate timeline.

They don’t feel like dreams. They feel like visits.

And it’s comforting to be with him. Because he has this energy of like, “Yeah yeah, we both know I died and it really sucked. But can we please just get on with hanging out?” We both already have this knowledge and heartbreak of what happened, so there’s no blustering and blubbering. And it’s nice.

It’s like hanging out with someone who has been on a life altering journey, and they come back wiser and more assured. Or being with someone like the Doctor from Doctor Who. He’s been everywhere in time and space. He’s the person you want with you on a journey. People like that, they get confronted with new experiences and new ideas, and they don’t shut down or turn into sheep and look away. They face the gritty reality, they open up and expand.

I suppose this is why I’ve started obsessing over octopuses. Because they remind me of death and they make me think there’s more out there. It brings me comfort in ways that I never needed before.


She drifts into a strange world. A dream, it must be, but she’s not entirely sure, for it feels so mundane. In the dream she’s lying right here on her firm bed cradled in her own arms, then the arms start to grow, weaving around her like a baby’s swaddle. The arms have suckers, a million tiny suckers, each one pulling at her skin, and the tentacles grow longer until they’ve created a cocoon and everything is dark and silent. A powerful feeling washes over her, and after a moment Tova recognizes the feeling as relief. The cocoon is warm and soft, and she is alone, blissfully alone. Finally, she succumbs to sleep.

—Shelby Van Pelt, Remarkably Bright Creatures • (bookshop + amazon)


Part of me wishes there was something tangible and wise guiding us bumbling humans. I believe in God and souls and intuition and higher selves guiding us. But the thought of a real being standing in front of me hits different.

I used to daydream about the Doctor showing up in his TARDIS and rescuing me from a meaningless life. It was during a time in my life where I felt very lost, where I couldn’t make anything stick. I felt very powerless and panicked, like if I didn’t figure life out, I would be slowly, excruciatingly shuttled into one of those cardboard cutout Life Scripts that most people seemed to end up in. So I wasn’t just daydreaming about the Doctor. I was crying and praying for something to happen.

My sister didn’t know about my ongoing prayers to the Doctor when she sent me this email in 2017:


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Most of me has begrudgingly come to accept that the Doctor isn’t coming to get me, but I still find myself wanting to be worthy of being his companion. Because it’s not just that.

It’s because now I understand when people ask with concern or even fear in their voices, “Are we really alone in the universe?”

I want to keep my mind expanded. I want to be on the lookout for wondrous new perspectives. Because I feel like the more someone expands their soul, the less alone people feel around them.

And until we find out for sure if time lords will come visit or if octopuses are aliens, or other proof of intelligent life outside of earth, we need to make sure we grow into people who make others feel less alone.


Humans. For the most part, you are dull and blundering. But occasionally, you can be remarkably bright creatures.

—Shelby Van Pelt, Remarkably Bright Creatures • (bookshop + amazon)


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2 Comments

  • Elisabeth

    Amazingly, I was browsing through old emails this week and also reread that one. #hivemind

    P.S. You seem to identify with “O” animals (owl, octopus). What will the next one be? Orangutan? Ocelot? Otter?

  • Ally Brennan

    Wait you still have that actual email?! Amazing. I just have this graphic I made a few years ago for instagram that I never ended up using. Glad I kept it. <3 I still remember the moment of receiving that email though, and it made me so happy.

    Don't tell anyone, but I'm thinking about starting up a semi-autobiographical comic strip again and featuring an owl and octopus as my companions.

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