Originally appeared in Planet Jackson Hole

Imagining, staying open to what’s out there and what comes next

What would it be like to interact with beings whose form of intelligence and physical appearance are actually alien to us?

Indigenous peoples living close to nature have long been consciously interacting with the intelligences of animals, plants and planetary creatures.

Scientists have researched the interface between human consciousness and vastly different forms of earthly intelligence. Here are some outstanding recent examples of explorations into the wonder of consciousness and the inherent intelligence present in all living things.

Slime Molds

Heather Barnett has a wonderful TED talk on slime mold, which includes taking them home to interact with them. This yellow single-cell organism has no brain and no central nervous system. It can grow to several square meters in size and lives in dark, cool and moist areas of temperate forests, where it spreads out to search its environment like an amoeba, extending slimy tendrils along the forest floor in search of its food.

This yellow blob is remarkably intelligent. Scientists have been studying this mold’s amazing problem-solving abilities. In recent experiments, physarum quickly solved labyrinth mazes, made complicated trade-offs, anticipated periodic events, remembered where they had been, constructed transport networks that have similar efficiency to those designed by human engineers and even recognized themselves.

Terrific Tentacles

Octopuses might as well be aliens to us. These marine dwellers are highly intelligent and are totally unlike us in where they live, how they look and how they function. Naturalist Sy Montgomery has written a prize-winning book, The Soul of an Octopus, documenting her research and “consciousness to consciousness” interactions with the intelligence of octopuses.

Octopuses have no vertebrae; they breathe water, their mouths are in their armpits, and they have three hearts. An octopus can change color and shape depending on what it is experiencing and what it wants to convey. Their cognition is distributed over eight independently operated arms which can touch, smell and taste via their skin. Octopuses can escape their aquarium tanks and find their way back to the ocean. If they need protection, they can build stone defenses, and they make tools out of coconuts and shells. They can also recognize people, remember them and know who among them are their friends.

Montgomery befriended a handful of octopuses in her research. Her first ever meeting with a giant Pacific octopus named Athena was at the New England Aquarium.

“Holding to the corner of her 560-gallon tank with two arms, the octopus unfurls the other six, her whole body red with excitement… her twisting gelatinous arms reach for mine and both my hands and forearms are engulfed by dozens of soft, questing suckers,” she wrote. “Her suction is gentle, though insistent. Her melon-sized head pops to the surface and her dominant left eye swivels in its socket to look directly at me and deeply into me. All I could say afterwards as she gently ended our connection was, “Wow.”

Montgomery’s relationships with the octopuses deepened over time. Here is her profound take-away: “I can’t know exactly what I mean to them. But I know what they have meant to me. They have changed my life forever. I loved them and always will. They have given me a great gift, a deeper understanding of what it means to think, to feel and to know.”

Open Minds

We can prepare ourselves to interact as galactic citizens by developing a practice of interspecies communication right here and right now. That includes practicing curiosity, discernment, wonder and respect.

As we further improve our respectful interface with all life forms on Earth, I suspect that knowing how to interact with and discern who’s who in the ET world will likely come naturally, without unwarranted fear.

Instead, it will come with possibilities for advancement beyond our wildest imagination.