The Umwelt

A new concept (for me) from an amazing blog called Brain Pickings.

“Neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of the excellent Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, explores the concept of “the umwelt” coined by biologist Jakob von Uexküll in 1909 — the idea that different animals in the same ecosystem pick up on different elements of their environment and thus live in different micro-realities based on the subset of the world they’re able to detect. Eagleman stresses the importance of recognizing our own umwelt — our unawareness of the limits of our awareness:


‘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. 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.’”

The people we most heartily disagree with, the ones who seem stupid and almost perversely narrow, live in a different micro-reality. Their worlds, and ours, are limited by what we don’t know—not by facts we refuse to see, but by elements we are not able to see.


6 responses »

  1. So wise, Norma, so hard to do, though!

  2. Malty Gribbletum

    I haven’t done my homework on this yet, however, it might be a good idea to thoroughly find out what the biologist Jakob von Uexküll meant by “the umwelt” in 1909 before we extend it to interactions between people (i.e., members of a single highly social species). No doubt “different animals in the same ecosystem pick up on different elements of their environment and thus live in different micro-realities based on the subset of the world they’re able to detect.” I suspect “different animals” means different SPECIES, not different individuals. When I’m in the water, I perceive quite a different set of impressions than does a fish. I sense, want, need, and can do quite different things in that situation than the fish does.

    If we alter and extend the idea of umwelt to mean different cognitive or social realities inhabited by different humans, that’s…a different kettle of fish. It’s not impossible to try. You can experience the world of a homeless person by being dropped off in another town with nothing but the clothes on your back – no wallet, no cell phone, nada. You perceive the world of an off-the-grid villager by turning off the gas, electricity and water at your house for 24 hours. As Vicki points out, it’s hard to actually do such a thing.

    • Hey, Malty. I thought Norma was using the concept of umwalt for humans as a metaphor. On the other hand, taking what Gloria says above into account, perhaps there could be a more concrete reality to it.

      As a person with ADD, I know I perceive the world differently than others. I can look right at something, study it even, and still miss important details that others see on a casual glance, or I can look at some other something and immediately see details that many others have missed. This must partly be what a metaphorical umwalt is like.

      As an aside, your experiment of feeling “homeless” might work, but people living off the grid are not necessarily without power. They may be generating electricity with solar or wind technology and getting water from their own well; hence, the only way to feel what it might be like to be off the grid is to leave your tablet PC and your iPhone behind, drive well in country, and stay in such a place.

  3. I really like this concept, but I wonder if, in human terms, the “elements we are not able to see” are often the ” facts we refuse to see”.

    For instance, I listen to conservative politicians often and wonder, “What planet do they live on? How can they perceive the world so differently? [This one or that one] isn’t stupid or lacking of an education. How is it they miss acquiring information that is broadly available?”

    With a person who is simply a progressive or a conservative and also a person of good will, I am perfectly willing to believe that umwelt describes the different environments each perceives. In terms of ideologues, however, I think it is more a reality each insists upon despite and in denial of contrary perceptions.

    Is this right?

  4. Gloria Jorgensen

    When I was going through Montessori teacher training we learned about children and their “sensitive periods” for certain subjects; language, math, art,. They could pick those concepts up effortlessly at specific times whereas they became very difficult at others. They also had the ability, at certain times in their development to grasp the gestalt of a thing instead of having to learn it piece by piece. This reminds me of the umwelt concept. Sometimes if a child had missed their sensitive period, say for sound, they may have lost the opportunity to hear certain pitches. Once that time was passed, they never got it back. Their umwelt has become defined in terms of sound.


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