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Understanding Realities Beyond Our Own Through the Hidden World of Animal Senses

What we perceive as ‘reality’ is really an illusion – our eyes and ears are only able to sense a tiny fragment of the electromagnetic and audio spectrum respectively, we don’t smell all the odours that a dog easily picks up, and we can’t navigate (through natural means) by using the magnetic field of the Earth in the way that birds and turtles appear to be able to.

As award-winning science writer Ed Yong explains in his recently released book, An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us, every creature on Earth has its own limited sensorium, particularly suited to its own survival in the environment in which it lives, casting an illusion as to how the world is. Yong notes that:

Our senses provide us with an experience of the world that feels complete, it feels total, it feels like we’re perceiving all there is to perceive. It doesn’t feel like there are gaps in our experience of the world to be filled, but those gaps absolutely exist. All of us, whether a human or a dog, have an incomplete understanding of the space around us. We could all be in the same physical environment and have radically different experiences of it.

It’s a topic that we have long found fascinating, and have posted about previously (see for example this story from almost 10 years ago: “Our Tiny Slice of Reality“) – how the vast majority of reality is actually hidden from us (‘occult realms’ literally surround us). But as Yong points out in his book, by understanding what other animals perceive we can not only expand our own understanding of some of the sensory information we are missing, but we can also better understand how our own actions are impacting the creatures we share the planet with.

As he notes in the Royal Institution lecture embedded below:

We have filled the world with light and with sound in places and at times where it doesn’t belong. Light at night is now a huge problem for the planet and for many of the animals around us. We don’t think of light as a pollutant,we don’t think of it in the same way as like chemicals billowing out from a smoke stack or plastic gathering on a beach, but it can be just as harmful.

Turtle hatchlings that hatch next to a brightly lit beachfront will often head towards that beachfront instead of into the sea. They’ll often do that with fatal results. They’ll get hit by traffic, they’ll wander into buildings, they’ll die under artificial lamps. Pollinating insects will often be lured away from the plants that they’re meant to service by artificial lights at night.

And we humans gain a much reduced appreciation for the world around us. Many people, perhaps many of you in this room, have never really experienced genuine night because so many of us live under light polluted skies. What we can think of as darkness isn’t really that dark.

(If this talk whets your appetite to learn more on the topic, be sure to check out Yong’s article in The AtlanticHow Animals Perceive the World“, or better yet grab a copy of his book.)

The German biologist Jakob von Uexküll used the word umwelt to describe the limited sensory bubble of a particular creature. Neuroscientist David Eagleman explains it thusly:

Each organism presumably assumes its umwelt to be the entirety of objective reality. Until a child learns that honeybees enjoy ultraviolet signals and rattlesnakes see infrared, it is not obvious that plenty of information is riding on channels to which we have no natural access. In fact, the part of the electromagnetic spectrum visible to us is less than a ten-trillionth of it. Our sensorium is enough to get by in our ecosystem, but no better.

However, as Yong notes in the video above, we modern humans have been given the gift – through previous centuries of philosophy and experimentation – of not living in ignorance, of not incorrectly believing our umwelt is ‘all there is’. We are able to understand and dip into the sensory worlds of other creatures, even though we might not have the natural ability to perceive them directly ourselves. This knowledge of what we don’t perceive is our ‘super sense’.

“It is a gift and one that we must cherish,” Yong says. “When we interact with animals, I can think about what this owl is sensing and the owl probably doesn’t care. But in doing this, in thinking about, in trying to take the perspective of another creature, in trying to perform this radical act of empathy, I feel my understanding for other creatures grow, [and] I feel my understanding of the world around me grow and broaden and deepen.”

And, beyond this understanding of other modes of perception, in the modern world we also now have the ability to augment ourselves with technology that will allow us to ‘expand our reality’. As David Eagleman has pointed out, a particular beauty of our brains is that they are effectively a ‘universal translator’ of signals from the outside world, and will adapt (over time) to new types of input. Our brains learn to assimilate new inputs to the point of us being able to quickly understand them ‘naturally’. So by using technology that can sense things beyond our natural abilities, and translate these signals into modes that we do understand, we can essentially ‘translate’ these other sensory realities into our own umwelt.

What might the augmented humans of a thousand years in the future be perceiving as their umwelt? How much more of actual ‘reality’ will be contained within it?

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