What’s in a word?

The German’s have a word “Umwelt” which according to the Microsoft online dictionary means “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 watch as it responds to external stimuli. Or interacts with its fellow beings, or the world around them. In so doing, we can draw 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 reflects an experience of thirst. The same way that a move away from an approaching human with a headcollar might express an unwillingness to be caught.

But that is all we can do. Project. Yet science acknowledges now that there is more to behaviour than Skinner’s box. Ethologists in particularly are beginning to open up this understanding, but its research is still based upon external observations of behaviour. Even as we increasingly understand the social wiring of the brain, and so the extended experience of mind, we still sit outside.

And so to Umwelt

How many times at when I am working 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 a choice, move away. 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.

Empathy helps me to read and understand, and at best connect in the moment. But the best I can achieve in practice is to act from a place of compassion. To recognise the signs and respond accordingly. Perhaps to set a goal which endeavours to make a situation at best, no worse. Or if the gift is mine, create a space which is one of ease or comfort.

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 a felt sense of being anything. That there is Umwelt.

And so it is for us

I think there is a learning parallel here for us as humans too. As social animals.

I can see what you are experiencing something – I can guess your emotional state from how you present yourself, or from your behaviour. But I cannot know what it is to be you. I cannot literally feel your pain, though I might see it, or understand it. I can similarly 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 of us.

And so it is for us. And so it is for us before others. 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 herd. To share their story and experience, not to insert or superimpose our own narrative.
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 perhaps you, mine.


(I do not own the title image)

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