What octopus camouflage tells us about the nature of reality and successful people

Octopus study

Biologist Roger Hanlon took a trip to the Caribbean a decade ago and ran into an octopus on the ocean floor. The thing is, the little eight-legged guy was able to make himself look exactly like the rocks and vegetation he clung to in order to hide from predators and nosy humans. Hanlon’s findings on cephalopod camouflage may make marine biologists giddy, but anyone interested in the nature of reality should take note as well. The lesson is simple: We are in the dark. Octopus ink dark. And 99% of the people out there who tell you otherwise are simply deluding themselves.

Here’s what Mr. Hanlon and Ms. Lichtman have to say about our cephalopod friends, those “masters of optical illusion.”

Roger Hanlon: “The are the animals best known to go anywhere and camouflage. No animal even comes close to the speed and diversity of appearances of this animal.”

Flora Lichtman: “And they have a few tricks at their disposal. Octopus and cuddlefish can change their skin texture.”

Roger Hanlon: “This is the only animal group that we know of that has fine control of its skin to create bumpiness.”

Flora Lichtman: “And they match their skin dimensionality on sight, not touch, which is…”

Roger Hanlon: “…a vexing visual perception question.”

Flora Lichtman: “And of course, they change color.” …

Roger Hanlon: “So the amazing thing is that these animals are colorblind, yet they are capable of creating color-match patterns, but we don’t know how.”

Flora Lichtman: “But of course Hanlon would like to. And one way he’s studying this is by looking closely at squid skin. …

Roger Hanlon: “[Super up-close] images of live, unanesthetized a squid [reveal interesting dots].”

Flora Lichtman: “And those dots of pigment are called chromatophores. They come in three colors.”

Roger Hanlon: “Yellow, red and brown. But there are reflectors under the pigments and the reflectors produce the short wavelengths. The blues and the greens.”

Flora Lichtman: “And as you can see the chromatophores can change shape to change the predominant skin color.”

Roger Hanlon: “Each one of those little spots can expand up to 15X its diameter.”

Flora Lichtman: “And these chromatophores seem to be twitching all the time.”

Roger Hanlon: “The camouflage all night long. They don’t sleep as far as we know.”

Squid skin close up

Flora Lichtman: “That’s because cephalopods with their squishy bodies, rely on camouflage as their main protection from predators. But of course camouflage is not just color; it’s also pattern. This is one on Hanlon’s major hypothesis.”

Roger Hanlon: “We found only three or four basic patters templates that they use to achieve all this camouflage.”

  • Uniform: Little or no contrast in the pattern.
  • Mottle: Small scale light and dark blotches.
  • Disruptive: To interfere with recognition of what the animal is.

Octopus skin texture

Flora Lichtman: “Based on lab studies, Hanlon says that the animals flash particular patterns based on a few visual cues they encounter in the environment. Hanlon wouldn’t call it a reflex because so much visual recognition is involved…”

Roger Hanlon: “But it is very fast.”

Octopus camo

Flora Lichtman: “The palate and pattern changes in less than a second. But just why these patters work is still kind of a mystery. Let’s take the octopus video again. Hanlon analyzed this video frame by frame, but he can’t tell you why you can’t see the animal.”

Roger Hanlon: “We can’t find any true statistical matches whether it’s brightness or color between the animal and the background, so camouflage is not looking exactly like the background.”

Flora Lichtman: “Camoflauge just means fooling whatever is looking at you, which suggests …

Roger Hanlon: We’re behind the eight ball as it were, if we think the world looks like how we see it. There’s much more information there, and other animals see it very differently.”


The level of hubris it takes to believe that through the human body’s five senses we could ever fully understand the universe would be hilarious if the consequences weren’t so destructive to the soul. As I said in June, your mind can not be trusted because you are not your mind.

‘The Incredible Shrinking Hand’ experiment seemed to highlight that nicely:

Last month, researchers at Oxford University announced the discovery of a powerful new painkiller: inverted binoculars. The scientists found that subjects who looked at a wounded hand through the wrong end of binoculars, making the hand appear smaller, felt significantly less pain and even experienced decreased swelling. According to the researchers, this demonstrates that even basic bodily sensations such as pain are modulated by what we see. So next time you stub your toe or cut your finger, do yourself a favor: look away.

What does all of this mean? It means that you should have an open mind. It means that you should reject anyone who tries to put you into a psychological prison cell as it pertains to what you can accomplish while you roam the earth. It means that you need to take off your mind-forged manacles and get to work doing what you know in your heart will make you truly happy.

The octopus can not see color, and yet it becomes that which it puts its eyes on. You can not see your future self, but you will become that which you focus on — so focus on success. Do so, and you will confound your critics just as the octopus confounds (while impressing) biologists.