This is an essay I published in John Brockman’s book “This Will Make You Smarter” (Harper Perennial, 2012). After my TED talk, the concept of the umwelt started gaining traction, prompting me to republish the essay here for easy access:
Neuroscientist, Baylor College of Medicine; Author, Incognito and Sum
In 1909, the biologist Jakob von Uexküll introduced the concept of the umwelt. He wanted a word to express a simple (but often overlooked) observation: different animals in the same ecosystem pick up on different environmental signals. In the blind and deaf world of the tick, the important signals are temperature and the odor of butyric acid. For the black ghost knifefish, it’s electrical fields. For the echolocating bat, it’s air-compression waves. The small subset of the world that an animal is able to detect is its umwelt. The bigger reality, whatever that might mean, is called the umgebung.
The interesting part is that each organism presumably assumes its umwelt to be the entire objective reality “out there.” Why would any of us stop to think that there is more beyond what we can sense? In the movie The Truman Show, the eponymous Truman lives in a world completely constructed around him by an intrepid television producer. At one point an interviewer asks the producer, “Why do you think Truman has never come close to discovering the true nature of his world?” The producer replies, “We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented.” We accept our umwelt and stop there.
To appreciate the amount that goes undetected in our lives, imagine you’re a bloodhound dog. Your long nose houses two hundred million scent receptors. On the outside, your wet nostrils attract and trap scent molecules. The slits at the corners of each nostril flare out to allow more air flow as you sniff. Even your floppy ears drag along the ground and kick up scent molecules. Your world is all about olfaction. One afternoon, as you’re following your master, you stop in your tracks with a revelation. What is it like to have the pitiful, impoverished nose of a human being? What can humans possibly detect when they take in a feeble little noseful of air? Do they suffer a hole where smell is supposed to be?
Obviously, we suffer no absence of smell because we accept reality as it’s presented to us. Without the olfactory capabilities of a bloodhound, it rarely strikes us that things could be different. Similarly, until a child learns in school that honeybees enjoy ultraviolet signals and rattlesnakes employ infrared, it does not strike her that plenty of information is riding on channels to which we have no natural access. From my informal surveys, it is very uncommon knowledge that the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to us is less than a ten-trillionth of it.
Our unawareness of the limits of our umwelt can be seen with color blind people: until they learn that others can see hues they cannot, the thought of extra colors does not hit their radar screen. And the same goes for the congenitally blind: being sightless is not like experiencing “blackness” or “a dark hole” where vision should be. As a human is to a bloodhound dog, a blind person does not miss vision. They do not conceive of it. Electromagnetic radiation is simply not part of their umwelt.
The more science taps into these hidden channels, the more it becomes clear that our brains are tuned to detect a shockingly small fraction of the surrounding reality. Our sensorium is enough to get by in our ecosystem, but is does not approximate the larger picture.
I think it would be useful if the concept of the umwelt were embedded in the public lexicon. It neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, and of unimagined possibilities. Consider the criticisms of policy, the assertions of dogma, the declarations of fact that you hear every day — and just imagine if all of these could be infused with the proper intellectual humility that comes from appreciating the amount unseen.
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