A wonderful friend and former colleague recommended a book to me that I found fascinating. It’s called An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us, by Ed Yong. It speaks to so many issues and concerns of our world today.
We both live the truth, and an illusion. The world we perceive can be so clear, immediate, and vital to us. Yet it sits imbedded in innumerable other worlds, universes, though we don’t and can’t perceive almost any of them. We mistake what we see for all that is there. What we perceive is not the world but one our human brain and body have evolved to perceive.
For example, Yong points out that we humans “cannot sense the faint electric fields that sharks and platypuses can…[nor] the magnetic fields that robins and sea turtles detect.” Our ears can’t hear the ultrasonic calls of hummingbirds or the infrasonic speech of elephants and whales. We can’t perceive the infrared radiation that is the heart of what snakes detect or the ultraviolet light birds and bees sense every moment.
Each species has what Yong, borrowing from Baltic-German zoologist Jakob von Uexkull, called an umwelt or perceptual world. A tick does not perceive a tree, green leaves, blue skies. It doesn’t ignore them. It simply is incapable of sensing or knowing them; they are outside its umwelt. Likewise, we can’t sense the tick’s world.
Too often we ignore, or are ignorant of these co-existing realties, and we harm other species by imposing our perceptual system bias on them. For example, our submarines use underwater noises that confuse whales and drown out their calls. The glass panes in our homes appear as bodies of water to a bat’s sonar. We hurt our cats and dogs by interfering in their use of their primary sense activity, sniffing, and unknowingly impose our human visual bias on them.
If we can’t understand what the other worlds are like to live in, Yong points out maybe we can use our reason and imagination to honor and recognize them. For example, we can imaginatively enter the world of a dog, or even more so, an elephant. Scents, unlike light, do not move in straight lines. They go around corners, up and down, swirl, and twist in all directions. Humans have fine noses. But a dog not only has more sense receptors, a larger olfactory bulb and scent-brain than we do, but a more complicated nasal structure.
When we humans exhale, we purge odors from our nose. But each nostril of a dog is divided in two so it can exhale carbon dioxide while inhaling more aromas. This is one reason they can detect low blood sugar levels or tumors in humans or discern a single fingerprint on a microscopic slide even after it was outdoors for a week. They can smell in the air an oncoming storm.
For dogs, everything around them includes the scent not only of what’s here, now, but the past and future. And smell has the most direct link to the brain of any sense. And since that link goes right to the brain’s emotional center, I imagine their world is dominated by emotions. Some might doubt the rich emotional lives of many animals but this science argues otherwise….
*To read the whole article, please click on this link to The Good Men Project.