We like to think that we humans, with our five marvelous senses, are in full receipt of what this world has to offer in all its glory. But in reality, like all creatures, we tap into but a tiny slice of its vast fullness. We each are trapped within our own perceptual bubble, or Umwelt, that part of our surroundings we can sense and experience.
When we watch a bird coursing through the air, we might try to imagine what it feels like to fly, to have a birds-eye view of the world as it does. And yet what a bird in flight actually experiences with its wraparound vision, seeing in all directions at once, surfing air currents that are as palpable to it as they are invisible to us, tapping into the Earth’s electromagnetic fields to guide its migrations, seeing colors we can’t see and hearing sounds we can’t detect—it’s full bubble of experience—is beyond anything we can experience, even if we could fly.
This is true for all the other creatures that inhabit our backyards and the world around us, as revealed in Ed Yong’s An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us. “Earth teems with sights and textures, sounds and vibrations, smells and tastes, electric and magnetic fields. But every animal can only tap into a small fraction of reality’s fullness,” he writes.
The thing is, while a mocking bird will never know what a bee sees, nor a cat know how a bat navigates, or a mosquito see a spider’s web even while caught within it, for all our sensory limitation, we humans are the only creature who can pierce to some degree beyond our own sense bubble. Through our curiosity and imagination and intellect we can create the tools and technologies to penetrate, at least to some degree, this more-than-human world. We can begin piecing together all these slivers of reality into a much fuller sense of the world in which we are embedded. The technologies we create are just crude tools for piercing that darkness. But they open up windows into the far reaches of reality where our minds and imagination can soar.
I wish I could experience the wraparound vision of a bird, or the 3-D hearing of a dolphin, or smell the smorgasbord of earthly delights wafting up the hill as my dog does. I can only imagine what it might be like to do so. And because of this—my imagination—I expand my sense of the world’s vast potential, and deepen my appreciation for all its marvels. It’s an amazing gift, to be able to tap into other creatures Umwelten. This is our greatest sensory skill, Yong tells us. It carries with it an enormous responsibility for cherishing and protecting all those life-forms that expand our understanding of reality. We must ensure they do not perish from this Earth through our own neglect or indifference or ignorance.
That is one of Yong’s main messages in his final chapter about noise and light pollution: “Save the Quiet, Preserve the Dark.” He reminds us that as “the species most responsible for destroying sensory realms, it falls on us to marshal all of our empathy and ingenuity to protect other creatures, and their unique ways of experiencing our shared world.”