In psychology, the centipede effect results when you ask someone how they do something that’s automatic or unconscious. As soon as they start thinking about it, they mess up. According to Wikipedia, the name of this effect comes from a 19th-century poem by Katherine Craster called “The Centipede’s Dilemma”:
A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg moves after which?”
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.
Aside from being a charming poem, it’s also an exercise in putting ourselves in the perspective of multipedal animals. It’s easy enough, as humans, to imagine quadripedal motion, and bipedal motion is the norm for most able-bodied individuals. But it’s really hard to imagine walking around with dozens of legs. How many of us would trip and fall if you asked how we walk with two legs?
“Octodad: Dadliest Catch” is a new video game coming out early this year that puts the player in the perspective of an octopus masquerading as a human. That may seem straightforward, but as Scientific American‘s Katherine Harmon Courage pointed out, moving around as an octopus is extremely difficult. It’s even harder to try to be an octopus trying to act like a human:
Octodad’s limbs are wily, bendy, strong and covered in suckers. Players must not only try to simultaneously coordinate each of the independent arms but also the sticky suckers. Which leads to plenty of silly mishaps (dragging furniture, flinging coffee beans, sucker-slugging your fiancé) and lots of awkward lurching. The simple goal is to act as human as possible and keep your suspicion score low.
Octopus fans know that these creatures have their own evolutionary advantage: their limbs literally have minds of their own. In an article in National Geographic, researcher Binyamin Hochner noted that in the hierarchical nervous system of the octopus, “the brain only has to send a command to the arm to do the action—the entire recipe of how to do it is embedded in the arm itself.”
The preview of the game available online reveals just how tricky it is. The whole point of the game is to keep the dad’s octopus identity in the closet while he battles his true nature and tries to act more human. He flips and flops around, attempting to do simple things like put on a bow tie, while his suckers stick to things inadvertently and his invertebrate body tries to masquerade as a skeleton with movable joints. One could read a metanarrative here about cultural assimilation and body normativity (sort of like the popular T-Rex Trying blog), but it also seems oddly educational. To extrapolate from the centipede’s dilemma, maybe in asking ourselves just how an octopus moves we can learn to appreciate what makes these creatures so compelling.