A bowl of dancing squid in Hokkaido, Japan (video)

[Video Link]. How does this work? The YouTube comments point to the basic idea being that the sodium in the soy sauce causes the legs to move, even though the squid is dead, by some definition of death, anyway... From the YouTube description:

There's still some question as to whether or not it's officially "dead" at the time of serving. The brain is probably still in the body, but a significant part of its nervous system, the giant axon, I believe extends into the mantle, which has been cut. I'm not an expert on squids so I can't really come to a definite conclusion about that.

As you can see in the beginning, it's not moving at all when it's brought out so I assume that signals around the body have stopped, whereas a fresh intact squid out of water would constantly move around. This doesn't necessarily mean that it's "dead" but it seems to me that it's at least incapacitated.

Paging Boing Boing science editor Maggie Koerth-Baker to the comments, please!

Over at G+, Dustin Hoffman described it as "a culinary seizure."

(thanks, Miles O'Brien)


  1. It makes a valiant last-ditch effort to crawl out of the bowl and walk back to its briny home, but the human stops it with its hand.

  2. Dead or not the display certainly evokes a sense of cruelty to the creature about to be consumed. This is not something that makes us better people. In short it’s pretty fucked-up…

  3. I think the video of the fish was more unsettling. I mean, this looks creepy, don’t get me wrong. But at least the squid looks like it could be alive. The headless skinned fish was far more unnerving.

  4. Setting aside the fact I’m not a big fan of seafood if you’re having to ask if it’s dead or if it’s just post-mortum twitching then you shouldn’t be eating it.

    1. Make life take the lemons back! You didn’t want any stinking lemons! DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM? I”M THE GUY THAT’S GOING TO BURN YOUR HOUSE DOWN; WITH LEMONS! I’M GOING TO MAKE MY BOYS INVENT /COMBUSTIBLE/ LEMONS!

  5. Very similar reactions occur with very dead fish and frogs when applying lemon juice and salt in preparation for cooking. Videos can be found all over the net. It’s likely some mild galvanic reaction causing muscle spasms. 

    And while I have no qualms about this squid being dead, how they prepare the dish is very cruel. Video of that is also available for those inclined.

  6. It’s clearly dead. Not only do squid die extremely quickly once removed from the ocean (even in sea water and appropriate containment vessels), the lack of any sort of movement and pale color let you know the squid is dead.

    As for the dance show: it’s not cruel. It’s not torture. It’s simply cooking the squid with a broth and the squid is wiggling because of chemistry. You are just like people claiming lobsters are screaming when they are cooked (and they are alive).

  7. Recent experiments show that plants send electrical signals through their bodies when parts are damaged – similar to our nerve responses but slower. So, if you are shocked and saddened by this, please do enjoy those “fresh” plant parts that were ripped off of the still living plant. It’s okay…its suffering doesn’t matter because it doesn’t have a face.

    1. Oh I’m very much a carnivore. I just don’t like my food quite so…. lively right before I eat it.

  8. From experience of catching many squid at sea I can tell you squids in general give up the spark of life very quickly once out of the water. It could be due the method of catchment- squid jigging may be life and death fight for them. On the other hand, it could just be that they are fragile creatures that survive for a very short time once out of water. I mean seconds. 

    Their chromatophores continue to expand and contract after death so nerve function could still be viable after death.

  9. i’m squarely in the “dead or not, this is uncool” camp.  i cannot relate to having my appetite piqued by watching a dead thing twitch, and watching a near-dead thing twich is just vile.

  10. “We weep for a bird’s cry, but not for the blood of a fish.  Blessed are those born with a voice.”

    (I believe that’s from Ghost in the Shell.)

  11. I’m not sure, but this could have to do with sodium ion potential across the cell membrane. If I was confronted with this in a restaurant(or anywhere else), I would be at least two blocks away, and accelerating, before it stopped wiggling.

  12. I think it’s dead and those are just chemical reactions.  But it still seems a little sadistic to me and I don’t like it.  Kind of like playing with a dead body after you’ve shot it in self-defense or whatever.  Just don’t seem right.

  13. I would try it. I likes me some fresh squid. I am more concerned for how to keep it on my chopsticks o-O

  14. ok, seems to me that if you cut out my gut (where most of our nerve endings exist outside our brain), then flayed my skin, then poured alcohol or citric acid or sodium into my wounds, I would likely have a similar “holy shit. I thought it was over, what is this fresh agony?!” sort of reaction as well.

    I can’t look at this and not think of cruel experiments carried out on the chinese during the “Rape of Nanking”, or perhaps more accurately, the shameless treatment of dolphins and whales by the Japanese. Our hubris as humans knows no bounds… 

  15. And to think I had considered eating something today. What’s next, a bowl of steaming, squirming puppies and kittens?

  16. The “dancing” salmon had no heads, so any movement could only be undirected spasms of the muscles.

    But what we see here is a squid that’s just recently had its mantle and guts removed. Its brain is probably still in there – here’s a video of squid sashimi preparation where you can see a live squid turned into a freshly severed head+tentacles which stands up and moves in a similar way to this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wkAqdh_kLbs

    Notice how that squid doesn’t seem to “die within seconds” as the commenters above describe, even though it’s out of the water and being cut up.

    I don’t see how cutting the giant axon would immediately end the squid’s awareness, any more than cutting someone’s spinal cord would necessarily make them pass out. In a mammal, cutting between the head and the heart ends consciousness within five seconds or so because blood isn’t be circulating through the brain any more and neurons run out of ATP. But a squid has a lower metabolic rate and lower blood pressure – when they cut up the squid in that video, it’s not squirting blood everywhere like a mammal would be after analagous treatment. So maybe the squid’s brain can probably function longer given that: (a) each neuron probably burns through energy more slowly (b) there’s a reservoir of oxygenated blood in the vessels in and around the brain.

    You can see the squid moving away from her hand slightly before the sauce goes onto it, and to me it looks like it’s moving under its own power rather than just settling in the bowl. I think we are seeing more than just a chemical reaction in the muscles here. I think this is a dying squid reacting to the stimulus of having stuff poured over it.

    A key experiment would be to watch the behaviour of a half-squid like this if you skewer its brain before pouring on the sauce. The squid has a complex nervous system throughout its tentacles, and they tend to writhe even if severed,  but if a brain-stabbed squid showed different movement patterns, that would be good evidence that there’s still some awareness here.

  17. I think this video should answer your questions quite well: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tEwuOAuI3Gc It is most definitely still alive.

  18. I just remembered – octopus’ have little mini-brains in their tentacles. They continue to be active even when severed. Perhaps squid have similar things.  I have little doubt the squid is ‘dead’ with no conscience.

    1. Seconding this. The tentacles will move about on their own but they are arguably not ‘alive’ any more than a headless chicken or a lizard’s tail. Even a human has reflexes that can be triggered after death. The movement looks complicated because squid have semi-autonomous tentacles, controlled by little bundles of nerves. They developed this because they have no proprioception and an awkwardly evolved nervous system.

  19. And finally – I found and explanation of what is going on here:

    To understand the science behind what exactly is going on here, you must
    think of the soy sauce as jolting the squid’s tentacles with very small
    amounts of electricity. The energy lies within ions contained in the
    sauce’s high sodium content. These ions are used in cells to create
    voltage differences. Because the squid is served fresh, the cells inside
    are still active and when the sodium is applied, the signals across the
    nerve cell membranes are temporarily reactivated causing the squid to

    1. Explanation, schmexplanation… If I put a chicken on a table and it’s legs started twitching like crazy after tossing some sauce on it I’d run for the hills!

  20. I guess Maggie wasn’t able to rescue this thread, so at the risk of feeding the trolls, here is a bit of science. 

    The squid giant axon can function perfectly well in isolation – no need for a central nervous system – and this was exactly what was studied by Loyd Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley in their nobel prize winning work on the ionic basis of the action potential.


    From an intro neurobiology class you would learn that adding potassium ions to the outside of neurons or axons will make them more likely to fire action potentials, resulting in muscle contractions like what you see here.  I suspect the soy sauce used in this video was made with potassium chloride instead of sodium chloride, which would taste awful, and cause animals with their heads chopped off to writhe like this.

    1. Nobody doubts that the giant axon can still conduct nerve impulses if it’s prepared in isolation – but that’s not relevant to this video, because the giant axon innervates the mantle and siphon, which have been cut off and discarded.

      The idea that it’s a special potassium chloride soy sauce is pretty silly.

  21. I do not like it in a bowl. I do not like it on a roll. I do not like Cthulu du Japan. I do not like it Xeni Jardin!

  22. It’s pretty popular in Korea to eat a squid so fresh it’s trying to crawl out of your mouth. There’s a trick to it, where the preparer does some stuff and the eater has to wrap the tentacles around the chopsticks and slurp them down fast, or (as happened to a friend) risk them reaching out and sticking to your cheeks like a cat refusing to be stuffed in a carrier.  

  23. Beware! Cthulu does not take kindly to you mocking his tiny minions! An Episode of 1000 Ways to Die covered a guy choking to death while eating a live octopus using the tentacle-wrap method from Korea. 
    Episode 32: Death Puts on a Dunce Cap, death #959 “Tenta-killed” (a.k.a. Eaten Alive)

  24. What if squid are never really alive, but just move and twitch because of the salt in the ocean. ;)

  25. All these oh-butch-up rationalizations and Mr. Science moments are trying to get around the ickiness at the center of this tape: it is _disrepectful_ to reanimate something we killed for our culinary amusement.  Split all the hairs you like: it is grotesque on levels beyond the visceral.

  26. One of the highest-rated television shows / book series is True Blood, where we are entertained by the idea of vampires sucking the life out of human beings.  And this little twitching bit of C’thulu bothers you?  Hmmn?

  27. Actually, you should rather chew them well before swallowing, or else they might cling to your esophagus.

  28. I had some squid tentacles in Korea. No condiments were added, we only dipped them in sesame oil and salt before eating. They were all wriggly when served and started to settle down a few minutes in. However, even about 30 minutes later the whole plate started wriggling again whenever I picked up a piece with my chopsticks.

  29. Well, the increased extracellular sodium level would effectively (by increasing the sodium Nernst potential) raise the resting potential of the nerve cells, which could take them above threshold potential for an action potential to be fired. But since soy sauce has sodium chloride, you’d also have to take the chloride ions into account — and increased extracellular chloride would have the opposite effect because it has the opposite charge, lowering the resting potential. The net effect would be actually less likely to fire an action potential. (Potassium chloride would have the same problem, BTW. With both NaCl and KCl, you have one chloride ion for each sodium or potassium ion.)

    So I don’t know what’s causing it. But I don’t think it’s the sodium in the soy sauce, at least not by raising the resting potential above threshold.

  30. P.S. That’s assuming there are still nerves there to fire action potentials, even after the giant axon has been removed. I don’t know much about squid innervation.

    1. As Maggie pointed out in the robot octopus post – http://boingboing.net/2011/07/27/scientists-build-robot-octopus-one-tentacle-at-a-time.html – cephalopod nervous systems are way more distributed. In fact, different tentacles in an octopus will often take conflicting actions.

      So there is definitely a lot of nervous tissue in the arms, and I’m pretty sure removing the mantle doesn’t interrupt the connection between the squid’s brain and the arms.

      Whether a dismembered squid is “alive” or not is probably a question of degree if most of its nervous system is in its arms. Anyway, it definitely seems like the “potassium soy sauce” theory is a crock.

  31. It looks to me like the squid has been “pithed”. That’s a technique by which the brain has been “scrambled” by inserting a sharp instrument like an icepick into the brain and destroying the more advanced parts of the brain with a swirling/rotating motion. This leaves the spinal cord and really basic parts of the central nervous system intact enough to show reflex reactions. (Human examples include that little kick your leg makes when someone taps you hard under the kneecap, or when you jump back after touching something hot. These responses happen before you actually feel anything; your nerve just signals the spine, and the neural node at the spine triggers the reflex response without waiting for an instruction all the way back from the brain.)

    In this case, the squid is brain-dead, like in a coma where the brain damage is too great for the animal ever to wake up again. But it could be called, er, “spectacularly fresh”.
    Pouring soy sauce, which is much saltier than seawater, on the squid’s moist membranes would make them try to get away from the stimulus. It’s the same movement as writhing in pain, except there’s no functioning brain to feel pain IN.

    Sure is creepy-looking, though. I dislike the notion of having to squelch my natural compassion-reaction in order to eat something!

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