Octopus Learns How to Turn on a Light to Get a Treat

In a fascinating clip from the BBC Earth series Octopus in My House, Dr. David Scheel, a professor of marine biology at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, explains how Heidi, his resident cephalopod, is able to learn and retain information that would lead to a reward. In order to test his theory, Scheel placed jars full of treats into Heidi’s tank, all of which she easily opened through trial and error.

All kinds of intelligence require feedback. I think that’s why humans are intelligent is because we just know, you try and you learn from your errors. So trial and error is really the intelligent thing and octopuses make trial and error do more than you might expect.

Scheel also rigged up an orange ball to a light that was attached to a buzzer. Whenever Heidi pulled the ball, the light would go on and the buzzer would sound. When Scheel heard the buzzer, he would come into the room and give her a treat. Heidi soon learned, through trial and error, what to do if she wanted a treat. Scheel soon saw the flaw in this design.

It didn’t take her any time at all to learn that there was a cue over here …but the rest of it you know that was challenging. This idea was more fun in the concept than at any point in the execution. Heidi got fairly insistent and I decided to take this all apart.

Heidi the Octopus
Lori Dorn
Lori Dorn

Lori is a Laughing Squid Contributing Editor based in New York City who has been writing blog posts for over a decade. She also enjoys making jewelry, playing guitar, taking photos and mixing craft cocktails.