In the dog person/cat person debate, I’m definitely on the cheer squad for our slobbering, tail-wagging, friends.
So I was eager to read Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know. (I actually hoped that it could give me some insight into my own dog, who thinks she is more human than dog – but that’s another story).
This book introduced me to the concept of Umwelt, and provided a way to understand the perspectives of others (humans and non-humans alike!)
The concept of umwelt sounds simple, but is often overlooked
Different species in the same environment, will detect different things. What is on the radar for a dog, will be different for a fly, a bat and a human. Not only that, but each individual within a species has its own umwelt. It seems obvious when it is stated, but it is often overlooked in research design. The biologist, Jakob von Uexkull coined the term in 1909.
The umwelt of the tick – Uexkull’s example
The tick has three sensory prompts.
- Light : helps the tick climb onto a higher object, giving it a a better chance to latch onto a meal
- Smell of butyric acid: the body odour of the tick’s next meal
- Warmth: Indicates there is blood under the skin, and to start feeding
The tick is oblivious to anything else in its environment. Its umwelt is made up of those three sensory prompts (it can’t even taste its meal). What a different world from us humans!
Take on another’s umwelt
We are mostly unaware of the limitations of our own umwelt. It is easy to assume that our own umwelt is shared by others.
If you were challenged to evaluate the buildings in your local area with the umwelt of a wheelchair user, you would most likely see obstacles that weren’t there before (unless of course, you are a wheelchair user).
It reminds us of how limited our experience of the world is. By taking on another’s umwelt, whole new world’s can be opened up to you – even worlds you thought you knew so well.