Have you ever wondered if any animals have more than one brain? As strange as it sounds, several curious creatures actually do possess multiple brains or brain-like structures that allow them to sense and respond to their environments in unique ways.

If you want the quick answer – octopuses, squid, cuttlefish, leeches, and venomous box jellyfish are some animals with decentralized nervous systems and specialized nerve structures that function much like additional brains.

In this nearly 3,000 word article, we’ll provide an in-depth examination of various animals that have multiple brains or brain-like organs. We’ll explore how these specialized nerve structures evolved, what capabilities they give each animal, and why decentralized nervous systems can be beneficial.

Additionally, we’ll compare centralized versus decentralized nervous systems and walk through examples that showcase how multiple brains allow certain species to survive and thrive.

What Does It Mean for an Animal to Have Multiple Brains?

Decentralized Nervous Systems

Some animals like octopuses have decentralized nervous systems with no single centralized brain controlling the entire body. Instead they have neural clusters called ganglia located in each part of the body that can control functions independently.

This provides redundancy if one area gets damaged and allows complex parallel processing.

For example, an octopus has a sizable brain in its head but also has one in each of its arms that can coordinate movement. So even if an arm gets detached, it still wriggles with purpose for an extended time. The distributed system allows the octopus incredible flexibility to adapt to environments.

Brain-Like Structures and Ganglia

In addition to major brains, some creatures have smaller sub-brains or tight neural clusters that resemble brains. In some cases these brain-like structures handle specialized functions.

For instance, the Venus flytrap has sensitive hairs on its leaves that are connected to a small cluster of neurons. This allows the plant to sense the presence of prey and rapidly close its traps. So essentially the small neural structure works with stimuli performing a brain-like function for that specialized goal of catching food.

Independent Functions and Control

What’s unique about animals with multiple brains or neural centers is the ability of the different parts to operate independently to some degree while also coordinating activities.

Research on octopuses shows the distributed system allows the brain in the head to focus higher goals like hunting prey while the neural clusters in the arms execute movements to grasp the target. But if an arm gets damaged, it keeps trying to complete actions showing independent functionality apart from commands from the main brain.

So having multiple brains allows some creatures to multi-task in unique ways. Different neural areas handle their own processes while still working together as an integrated system to produce complex behaviors.

This provides extraordinary flexibility and adaptability that serves species well in order to thrive in environments. Truly mind-blowing capabilities!

Animals With Multiple Brains or Brain-Like Organs


The octopus is truly a unique creature in the animal kingdom. While most animals have just one brain, the octopus actually has nine brains! Yes, you read that correctly – nine separate brains. These are distributed throughout the octopus’ body, with the largest brain located between its eyes.

The octopus needs these multiple brains to coordinate all the complex functions of its eight long and flexible arms. Each arm has its own cluster of nerve cells that can operate semi-independently from the central brain.

This gives octopus arms the ability to problem-solve and react to stimuli on their own without input from the main brain.

For example, researchers have found that severed octopus arms can continue grabbing at and manipulating objects hours after being cut off! The arms can function for quite a while separately because they have their own neural networks controlling movement and reflexes. That’s some alien-like stuff!

Cuttlefish and Squid

Octopuses aren’t the only invertebrates with bizarre brains. Their cephalopod cousins, cuttlefish and squid, also have strange neurological setups. While they only have one main brain, both cuttlefish and squid have doughnut-shaped brains that wrap around their esophagus.

Additionally, cuttlefish have large neural clusters at the base of their arms that allow for some independent control and reflexes similar to an octopus arm. A cuttlefish can still swim if the connection between its arms and main brain is severed.

Squid also have radial nervous systems running along their arms, but squid arms are not as autonomous as the arms of octopuses and cuttlefish. Still, having a brain that surrounds their esophagus is pretty funky!


Leeches are an unusual type of worm. In addition to having a central nervous system often referred to as a “brain,” leeches also have 32 mini-brains located throughout their body. These mini-brains help control the leech’s movement, feeding responses, and bodily functions.

Each of the leech’s body segments contains a ganglion or cluster of nerve cells. These mini-brains allow the leech to coordinate complex swimming and crawling movements efficiently. For example, if a leech’s tail end senses a potential food source, it can steer its front end toward it without input from the main brain.

So while leech brains are much simpler than octopus or vertebrate brains, they exemplify the distributed intelligence and adaptability of invertebrate nervous systems.

Box Jellyfish

Jellyfish are very basic marine animals, but box jellyfish stand out for having complex eyes complete with retinas, corneas, and lenses. Their exceptional vision seems to require a lot of neural processing power for an invertebrate. How do they do it?

Researchers have discovered that box jellyfish have nerve clusters distributed throughout their bell that act as mini-brains. These neurite nets, along with four separate nerve bundles, coordinate the jellyfish’s vision and complex swimming maneuvers.

So while most jellyfish drift aimlessly, box jellyfish can actively hunt for food and evade threats.

This distributed neurological setup gives box jellyfish a competitive edge over other jellyfish species in their environment.

Sea Stars and Sea Urchins

Sea stars (starfish) and sea urchins are close evolutionary cousins. While you might think echinoderms like these wouldn’t have much going on in the brains department, they actually have some surprising neural capabilities.

Both sea stars and sea urchins have a simple radial nervous system. In sea stars, nerve cords extend along each arm from a central ring. This allows for coordination of movement between arms. Sea urchins have five similar radial nerves stretched over their inner organs.

Additionally, sea stars and sea urchins can both react to light signals without input from their main radial nerves. Photoreceptor cells in their outer layer connect to local nerve nets underneath their skin.

So these echinoderms have some basic sensory processing abilities even outside their main nervous systems.

Advantages Conferred by Multiple Brains

Enhanced Sensory Capabilities and Motor Controls

Animals with multiple brains or brain-like structures often have improved sensory capabilities and motor controls compared to organisms with a single central nervous system. For example, octopuses have complex eyes and a distributed nervous system that allows each arm to function somewhat autonomously.

This enables octopuses to simultaneously process visual information, coordinate movement, and perform cognitive tasks with their eight versatile arms (Hanlon and Messenger, 2018). Similarly, animals with multiple brains or ganglia may have enhanced abilities to detect smells, changes in water pressure, or other environmental stimuli.

Ability to Multitask

The distributed nature of multiple brains or ganglia facilitates multitasking. While animals with a single brain must share resources and attention between different sensory inputs and motor outputs, organisms with multiple processing centers can dedicate each unit to specific tasks.

For instance, starfish can continue moving the majority of their arms to capture prey even if one arm detects a threat and initiates an escape reflex (Moore and Lepper, 2020). Without dedicated neural bundles in each arm, the starfish would likely need to pause other actions to react, putting it at a disadvantage.

Backup if One Brain-Like Structure is Damaged

In some invertebrates with multiple ganglia or brains, if one neural structure is damaged, the remaining units can maintain functioning. For example, if certain nerve cords are severed in earthworms and leeches, impulses can still travel through other pathways allowing basic sensory and motion abilities to continue (Kandel et al., 2014).

This redundancy offers a survival advantage over organisms like humans that generally have devastating impacts from localized brain injuries. However, the backup is typically limited to basic functioning.

Moreover, research shows starfish begin struggling with coordination if multiple arms lose neural inputs (Moore and Lepper, 2020). So while multiple brains provide some backup capacity compared single central nervous systems in more complex species, they have vulnerabilities when multiple units sustain damage.

Species Number of Brains or Brain-Like Structures
Octopus 9 brains (1 central and 1 in each arm)
Starfish 5 ganglia (1 in each arm)
Humans 1 brain

As shown, the number of brains or ganglia in various species differs significantly. Both octopuses and starfish have distributed nervous systems that offer unique advantages but also vulnerabilities compared to more centralized organizations like the human brain.

To learn more about centralized versus distributed nervous systems, visit these informative comparative references from

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Centralized vs. Decentralized Nervous Systems

Centralized Systems in Humans and Other Vertebrates

Humans and most vertebrate animals have a centralized nervous system, with the brain and spinal cord comprising the central command center. Information from sense organs is sent to the brain where it is processed and appropriate responses are coordinated.

Having a centralized system allows for complex cognitive functions like reasoning, language, and abstract thought. Reaction times can also be very quick when immediate responses are needed. On the downside, damage to the brain or spinal cord can impair nervous system function.

Vertebrates cannot survive without their central brain.

Comparing Advantages and Disadvantages

In contrast to vertebrates, some invertebrate animals like octopuses have a decentralized nervous system with no brain. Instead they have clusters of neurons, called ganglia, distributed throughout their body. This provides some advantages:

  • Localized ganglia can control specific body parts, allowing basic functions to continue if other areas are damaged.
  • There is no bottleneck of information flow going to a central brain.
  • Some studies suggest decentralized systems may allow for greater resilience and flexibility.

However, decentralized systems also have drawbacks:

  • Lack of complex coordination and control from a central brain.
  • Slower reactions for survival behaviors.
  • No high-level cognition possible without a central processor.

Evolutionary Reasons for Multiple Brains

The decentralized nervous system seen in invertebrates evolved first and had some advantages for small, relatively simple organisms. As vertebrates evolved into larger, more complex animals interacting in challenging environments, an integrated central control center provided survival advantages.

For example, the human brain has around 86 billion neurons, which would be difficult to coordinate without centralization. However, some animals have benefits of both. Octopuses have evolved complex behaviors and problem-solving abilities despite having a decentralized system.

Their cluster of ~500 million neurons suggests that high intelligence may be possible, even without a single unified brain.

Why Multiple Brains Make Sense for Some Species

Suitability for Invertebrate Anatomy

Invertebrates like octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish have neurons spread throughout their body, which makes having multiple control centers advantageous. Their neurons are distributed across each arm, allowing for decentralized control and coordination.

This gives their arms a high degree of autonomy while still working together as a coherent whole. Having mini-brains in each arm enhances their motor skills and rapid response times for tasks like catching prey.

Their distributed nervous system architecture is well suited for their flexible bodies lacking an internal skeleton.

Enabling Specialized Capabilities

Multiple brains allow certain abilities to be offloaded across different brain regions. For example, octopuses have excellent eyesight and dedicate a sizable brain region to visual processing. Their large optic lobes give them keen observational skills for hunting and evading predators.

Squids also devote brainpower to vision with one brain managing each eye. Another key benefit is that localized brains prevent delays that would occur if all signals had to route through a single central hub. Reflexes and quick reactions are vital for many invertebrates’ survival.

Other Notable Examples and Behaviors

Beyond cephalopods, several arthropods like ants and spiders also leverage multiple control centers. Ants have minibrains in each body segment that handle locomotion without waiting for instructions from the primary brain.

Jumping spiders have incredible eyesight with a large visual processing region in addition to bodies coordinated by distributed ganglia. Even vertebrates like octopuses and some fish make strategic use of partitioned brains to enable parallel sensory processing and motor control.

Truly, multiple brains have evolved across many branches of the animal kingdom because they confer significant survival advantages!

Having different brains dedicated to specific functions allows various tasks to be handled simultaneously with greater efficiency. And decentralized systems reduce reliance on a single brain region, meaning damage is less likely to fully impair the animal.

So while it may seem alien at first, the ingenuity of partitioned brains has stood the test of time across different evolutionary lineages. Nature finds what works, and for some creatures, dividing the neural workloads is the optimal strategy!


In conclusion, while humans and most mammals have a single, centralized brain, several types of invertebrates have evolved decentralized nervous systems with multiple brain-like structures or ganglia.

These specialized nerve arrangements allow certain animals like octopuses and box jellyfish to perceive complex sensory information from their elaborate visual, chemical and tactile sensing systems. Having semi-independent brain regions also permits some behaviors like locomotion to happen in parallel rather than sequentially.

While multiple brains often develop in line with specific anatomical constraints, they confer many unique capabilities that enable these fascinating creatures to survive and thrive.

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