Every year since 1998, the Edge.org website has asked a fundamental, heavy question and then sought responses from hundreds of great minds from all around the world.
In 2011 Edge.org asked “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”. There were 166 responses from luminaries such as Daniel Kahneman, Richard Dawkins, Vilayanur Ramachandran and Steven Pinker.
Neuroscientist David M Eagleman suggested the concept of the umwelt:
“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… 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.” 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.
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.”
In the strictest sense, the idea of the umwelt was used to consider an animal’s unique experience of the world at, roughly speaking, a species level. A useful tool when considering how the umwelt of a bat is going to differ from that of a human – a point that has had considerable thought given to it.
In a looser sense, I think the idea of an umwelt can also capture, in one elegant word, a whole range of vital clinical concepts- subjective experience, the lived world of an individual, the lived experience of pain, perception and experience as an active output; a construct, the very special, distinctive, personal story of every human animal that walks through the door.
In this sense, if a pain experience is part of your umwelt, who am I, or anyone for that matter, to question the veridicality of that experience?
If the concept and acceptance of a unique, first-person umwelt was used in this manner from the very beginning of neuroscience and pain science, would we be further down the road to understand the brain, mind and pain? Might we have avoided all the “if we can’t see it on x-ray then it mustn’t really be hurting” wrong turns and “pain is activity in nociceptors and nociceptive pathways” dead-ends?
In the first year of asking heavy questions, Edge.org asked Francisco Varela “What questions are you asking yourself?” Varela’s response links nicely with the idea of the umwelt:
“Why is our western civilization so reluctant to accept subjective, first-hand experience as fundamental data? In close association: why the reluctance to consider one’s experience as a realm to be explored with a discipline just as rigorous as the one invented by science for material phenomena?”
Varela’s question is still as relevant today as it was nearly two decades ago, but there are the beginnings of interest in and acceptance of first-person, phenomenological data in neuroscience – a domain that has historically been dominated by third person data collected with a microscope, and more recently, a fMRI machine1.
I think a deep appreciation of the idea of an umwelt could add value to a clinical encounter with a person in trouble. There might even be a time when a quick, simplified explanation of the idea is appropriate, followed up with the question, “So, how’s your umwelt today?”
1The field of neurology, which has at times sought to correlate first-person experience with observed changes/damage to the brain has some notable exceptions – the aforementioned VS Ramachandran being a standout for me with his self-described ‘low tech’ methods including cue tips, cotton balls and talking with patients.
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