The felt sense of some other

In German there is a word “Umwelt” which defines the environment around us, however it has been more specifically engaged by ethologists such as Frans de Waal to mean – and as it is defined in the Microsoft online dictionary – “the world as it is experienced by a particular organism.”

A lot of meaning for so few letters. Let’s unpack that a little.

We can look at a horse, a pig or any other animal and observe its response to external stimuli (the events in the world around them). Similarly, its interactions with its fellow beings. In so doing, we can reach conclusions based upon our interpretation, or parallels that we might draw from our own experience.

We might reasonably conclude that a purposeful walk towards a water trough by a horse reflects an experience of thirst and the desire to drink. The same way that a move away from an approaching human with a headcollar might express an unwillingness to be caught (or we might infer “to work”).

But that is all we can do. Period. That said, science increasingly acknowledges that there is more to behaviour than automatic output from an unknowable processing function within some living Skinner box.

Ethologists are increasingly exploring this understanding, acknowledging the individual agency in non-human beings that underlies their behaviour. This said we are still essentially observers. Our ability to interpret that comes from an empathetic connection or a “theory of mind” foundation. Interestingly these are also increasingly recognised as much more than solely human traits.

However, there is more …

And so to Umwelt

How many times when I am facilitating sessions does someone ask, “what does it mean when they do X”, whatever X is in the moment. As above, I can derive a degree of functional meaning, but how much deeper is possible?

I know that a horse might be uncomfortable exposed to a given situation. I can see that it might, given the choice, move away. I might see it move towards. But can I really know it’s experience of ease or dis-ease? I can’t. The felt sense of comfort or discomfort in an animal, is not for me to know.

I can never know what it is to be a horse, any more than I can know what it is to be a mature Oak tree. But that should not preclude the recognition that there is within them a felt sense of being something. That is their Umwelt. I can observe and watch them, give them the space to express themselves. In watching I might learn.

In context, the use of the word umwelt originates from a simple but almost impossible thought experiment “what does it feel like to be a bat?” Most of us really cannot know how it feels live by echo location, sensing and “seeing” the world around us through reflected sound. (Noting that it is now recognised that some congenitally blind humans actually do this).

Developing an understanding of relative umwelt helps us to view differently the skills and capabilities of others and of other beings. We learn that measuring an elephant’s intelligence and consciousness is not a measure of its capacity to ride a bike or perform complex trigonometry. Instead, we turn to considering meaningful problems that an animal's own life invites it to address, and how it might approach these.

And so it is for us

And so it is for each of us individually, and between ourselves. There is a learning parallel here for humans too. As social animals, I can see that you are experiencing something. I can have a good guess your emotional state from how you present yourself, or from your behaviour. I might see your suffering, but I do not know how that feels for you.

I cannot know what it is to be you. I cannot literally feel your pain, though I might see it, or understand it. I empathetically connect with that feeling, but I will only experience it within my own frame of reference.

I can share your joy, but not experience it as you do. There is only one expert on the experience of being ourselves, and that is each one of us. If we wish to understand each other’s felt experience of life then we need to ask.

What is it that is shaping that experience.

Direction and experience

Psycholinguist Benjamin Lee Whorf (d. 1941) asserted that “language determines the nature and context of out thought.” Quite simply the words that we know or use, shape our experience. More contemporarily Daniel Siegel promotes the importance of emotional literacy in the phrase “name it to tame it.” Quite simply we need the language to hand to define our emotional state, we we are to learn the ability to manage it or regulate ourselves. This is dependent on individual understanding of what a felt sense actually means, a "concept" as Lisa Feldman-Barrett calls it.

Stephen Pinker (1997) quotes Peter Gordon “There are some concepts that we cannot entertain because of the language we speak.” In English we do not have the word umwelt, but in adopting it, English speaking ethologists have concisely introduced the concept of other ways of being, and so opened our minds to the possibilities.

In her recent Ted-x talk Lera Borodivsky outlines how distance and space can be differently experienced between cultures based on their use of language. English tends to be ego-centric in its day-to-day definition of location as being relative to ourselves, generally expressed as left or right, whereas describes an aboriginal tribe that definition everything in terms of cardinal direction, i.e. North, South East or West. For this tribe the simple greeting “hello” is “in which direction are you travelling?” Just imagine the different experienced exchanges framed by these different phrases.

The cited aboriginal way of being creates a fundamentally different relation between self and environment, it has a significant effect on how different people locate and navigate themselves. In the different cultural learning processes it develops different neural areas and pathways, as often recognised in the greater size of spatial awareness processing space in the brains of London cab drivers.

That which we use gets stronger and that which is stronger neurally-speaking shapes experience and behaviour. These are not different innate capabilities but cultural strengths, skills developed and strengthened by culturally shaped practice.

So even in the rational and concise human view of structured language there are no common themes. Communication and interpretation is cultural, but actually it is also personal, do we really interpret things the same way? And can we guarantee common experience (see my blog “The Practice of Misunderstanding").

My experience of me is mine and yours’ yours. Quite simply understanding you (or some other) by reference to myself might represent a good starting point but it is not the answer.

The Umwelt of you and I

I can only approach the reality of the experience of being you by asking you.

As someone who trains Facilitators and Mental Health First Aiders, I am forever returning to the power of holding space for people be heard. To share their story and experience, not to insert or superimpose our own narrative. We are each the unique expert of our own experience, if you want to know about me, then please ask me. Do not project a guess upon me.

I can no more understand what it feels to be you, than I can a horse. But if I ask you perhaps I will gain some insight…..
Perhaps I will come closer to understanding your umwelt.

And then perhaps you, mine.


(I do not own the title image)

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