Umwelt

Mantis Shrimp

Mantis Shrimp have 16 color receptor cones compared to our 3. (Photo credit: PacificKlaus)

Yesterday, I was reading This Will Make You Smarter and thought that the concept of umwelt could be enormously helpful for my social work students and Dawn Farm’s counseling staff:

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 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.

I find two things very attractive about the concept. First, are these ides of “limited knowledge”, “unobtainable information”, “unimagined possibilities” and “intellectual humility”. Second, it nudges us to consider the possibility that different clients may have different umwelt experiences. Clients with a history of trauma will pick up on environmental signals that others of us are blind to. Women or minorities will have different umwelt experiences and the fact that I can’t sense those signals doesn’t make them less real.

UPDATE: Maybe the concept of umwelt can help keep us out of the “expert” position and keep us in the role of curious fellow travelers.

Another couple important considerations came to mind. First, that, often, this isn’t simply a matter of attention and empathy. I may not be capable of detecting the signals someone else is experiencing, even if they’re pointed out to me. Second, we’re probably unaware of most of our umwelt experience. And, even if we’re aware of it, language will probably fail us–how do you describe a scent to someone who can’t smell?

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