top of page

Umwelt: The Hidden Sensory World of Animals - Ed Yong


Video from Big Think


"Catfish taste with their whole bodies - and that’s just one way animals sense the world totally differently than us. Every animal has its own thin slice of the fullness of reality that it can detect, known as "umwelt." Even though we all inhabit the same planet, each species experiences it very differently. No animal can sense everything. There is so much sensory information in the world, that detecting all of it would be overwhelming. It's also unnecessary for survival."

About Ed Yong: Ed Yong is a Pulitzer Prize–winning science writer on the staff of The Atlantic, where he also won the George Polk Award for science reporting, among other honors. His first book, I Contain Multitudes, was a New York Times bestseller and won numerous awards. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, National Geographic, Wired, The New York Times, Scientific American, and more. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Liz Neeley, and their corgi, Typo." from video introduction


Umwelt In the semiotic theories of Jakob von Uexküll and Thomas A. Sebeok, umwelt is the "biological foundations that lie at the very epicenter of the study of both communication and signification in the human [and non-human] animal." The term is usually translated as "self-centered world". Uexküll theorised that organisms can have different umwelten, even though they share the same environment.


This is a paraphrased definition of animal vs human consciousness.

Animal consciousness ( animal awareness), is the quality or state of self-awareness within a non-human animal. Human consciousness has been defined as: sentience, awareness, subjectivity, qualia, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood, and the executive control system of the mind.



Thinking the Way Animals Do: Unique Insights from a Person with a Singular Understanding - Dr. Temple Grandin

"Temple Grandin is an assistant professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She is the author of the book Thinking in Pictures. Television appearances include 20/20, CBS This Morning, and 48 Hours. Dr. Grandin has autism, and her experiences have helped her to understand animal behavior. She teaches a course in livestock handling at the university and consults on the design of livestock handling facilities.


As a person with autism, it is easy for me to understand how animals think because my thinking processes are like an animal's. Autism is a neurological disorder that some people are born with. Scientists who study autism believe that the disorder is caused by immature development of certain brain circuits, and over development of other brain circuits. Autism is a complex disorder that ranges in severity from a mild form (such as mine), to a very serious handicap where the child never learns to talk. The movie Rain Man depicts a man with a fairly severe form of the disorder.

I have no language-based thoughts at all. My thoughts are in pictures, like videotapes in my mind. When I recall something from my memory, I see only pictures. I used to think that everybody thought this way until I started talking to people on how they thought. I learned that there is a whole continuum of thinking styles, from totally visual thinkers like me, to the totally verbal thinkers. Artists, engineers, and good animal trainers are often highly visual thinkers, and accountants, bankers, and people who trade in the futures market tend to be highly verbal thinkers with few pictures in their minds.

Most people use a combination of both verbal and visual skills. Several years ago I devised a little test to find out what style of thinking people use: Access your memory on church steeples. Most people will see a picture in their mind of a generic "generalized" steeple. I only see specific steeples; there is no generalized one. Images of steeples flash through my mind like clicking quickly through a series of slides or pictures on a computer screen. On the other hand, highly verbal thinkers may "see" the words "church steeple," or will "see" just a simple stick-figure steeple.

A radio station person I talked to once said that she had no pictures at all in her mind. She thought in emotions and words. I have observed that highly verbal people in abstract professions, such as in trading stocks or in sales, often have difficulty understanding animals. Since they only think in words, it is difficult for them to imagine that an animal can think. I have found that really good animal trainers will see more detailed steeple pictures. It is clear to me that visual thinking skills are essential to horse training, but often the visual thinkers do not have the ability to verbalize and explain to other people what it is they "see."


Dr Temple Grandin with animal
Dr. Temple Grandin

Associative Thinking

A horse trainer once said to me, "Animals don't think, they just make associations." I responded to that by saying, "If making associations is not thinking, then I would have to conclude that I do not think." People with autism and animals both think by making visual associations. These associations are like snapshots of events and tend to be very specific. For example, a horse might fear bearded me n when it sees one in the barn, but bearded men might be tolerated in the riding arena. In this situation the horse may only fear bearded men in the barn because he may have had a bad past experience in the barn with a bearded man.

Animals also tend to make place-specific associations. This means that if a horse has bad prior experiences in a barn with skylights, he may fear all barns with skylights but will be fine in barns with solid roofs. This is why it is so important that an animal's first association with something new is a good first experience.

Years ago a scientist named N. Miller found that if a rat was shocked the first time it entered a new passageway in a maze, it would never enter that passageway again. The same may be true for horses. For example, if a horse falls down in a trailer the first time he loads, he may fear all trailers. However, if he falls down in a two-horse, side-by-side trailer the 25th time he is loaded, he may make a more specific association. Instead of associating all trailers with a painful or frightening experience, he is more likely to fear side-by-side trailers, or fear a certain person associated with the "bad" trailer. He has learned from previous experience that trailers are safe, so he is unlikely to form a generalized trailer fear.." from a paper written by Dr. Temple Grandin (1997) Thinking the Way Animals Do: Unique insights from a person with a singular understanding.


#extarordinarygod


12 views0 comments
bottom of page