Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Our Umwelt

I found the following bit to be an engaging and refreshing reminder, from David Eagleman:
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?…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 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.

1 comment:

  1. While Eagleman's comments about how unaware most of us are about all the external realities that our sensory organs aren't capable of processing, or that our brains aren't focused on at any given moment, the following statement is shocking to me:

    "The interesting part is that each organism presumably assumes its umwelt to be the entire objective reality 'out there.'"

    Certainly a human being is capable of having such a blind spot. But how does a tick or knifefish presume anything? How does it form an awareness of its own "objective reality" and compare that reality to what other organisms are or aren't capable of experiencing?