Reflecting on our environment from the perspective of other Umwelt helps us take fresh eyes not only on other creatures, but also on the world we share. With the nose of an albatross, a calm ocean becomes a vibrant landscape of aromas, full of scented ridges and valleys that communicate the presence of certain foods. For a seal’s whiskers, a seemingly monotonous whirlpool of water churns with the turbulent currents left behind by fish as they swim, invisible footprints that the seal can follow. To a bee, a simple yellow sunflower has an ultraviolet target in the center and a characteristic electric field around the petals. To the sensitive eyes of a purple sphinx moth, the night is not black, but full of colors.
Even the most familiar environments can seem unfamiliar if perceived through the senses of other creatures. I walk my dog—Typo, a corgi—three times a day through the same streets and buildings I’ve seen a thousand times. But although this urban landscape seems dull and inactive to me, the changing olfactory landscape always seems fascinating to Typo’s nose. He does not stop sniffing and his nasal anatomy allows him to continuously identify odors, even while he exhales. He sniffs every leaf of the budding spring plants with the utmost delicacy. He sniffs the dried urine stains left by the neighborhood dogs like a human being checks his social media posts. On every ride, Typo stops at least once and excitedly explores a section of the sidewalk that seems bland, but is sure to be full of enticing smells. I observe it and perceive my own life as less usual, I become more aware that my environment is constantly changing. That awareness is the gift that Typo gives me on a daily basis.
It is difficult, and even in some cases impossible, to capture these sensory worlds in a nature documentary (although some, such as the production the land at night Netflix, they make a valiant effort). In reality, no special effect can convey the immersive nature of a bird’s vision to the eyes of a forward-facing human viewer or translate the broad spectrum of colors that a bird can see into the much smaller array that our humans can see. eyes. It is even more difficult for a visual medium to capture the non-visual senses. We can play recordings of a whale’s song, but there is no way to show what it means for whales to hear another whale across oceanic distances. We can represent the magnetic field that surrounds the planet, but it is nothing compared to the experience of a robin that uses that field to fly across an entire continent.
In his classic 1974 essay entitled How does it feel to be a bat?, the philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote that the conscious experiences of other animals are inherently subjective and difficult to describe. We could visualize ourselves with interdigital membranes on our arms or insects in our mouths, but that image would still be a mental caricature of ourselves as a bat. “I want to know how a bat feels about being a bat,” Nagel wrote. Most bat species perceive the world through sonar, listening to the echo of their ultrasonic calls and thus knowing their surroundings. “But if I try to imagine it, I am limited to the resources of my own mind, and these are inadequate for the task,” he explained.
Our own senses limit us, they create a permanent division between our Umwelt and that of other animals. Technology can help bridge that chasm, but there will always be a gap. To cross it, we need what psychologist Alexandra Horowitz calls “an informed imaginative leap.” No one can show me what another Umwelt is like; I have to work to imagine it.
I could almost say that it has now become too easy to watch modern nature documentaries, it’s like being passively swept away by a torrent of vivid images, eyes open, jaw agape, but brain relaxed. In contrast, when I think of other Umwelt, I feel my mind flex, and I feel joy that I have attempted at least one impossible task. In these small acts of empathy, I further understand other animals, not as feathered or furry prototypes of my life, but as wonderful and unique beings in their own right, and as keys to understanding the true vastness of the world.
Pulitzer Prize-winning Ed Yong is a writer for The Atlantic and the author of An Immense World, I contain multitudesamong other books.