Posted by: Nancy | April 9, 2015

A more colorful world

Ever since David Eagleman made me aware of my umwelt, I wanted to expand it.

“Umwelt” is one of those strange and appealing words that sounds slightly unsavory, a bit dangerous. It describes the surrounding world, or as Dr. Eagleman explains it, the bubble of the world that each of us is capable of sensing.

Our umwelts vary. bloodhoundFor example, humans and animals have different experiences of the world. He notes that bloodhounds have a superior sense of smell; the bloodhound umwelt is much richer in its olfactory experience than the human umwelt.  The bloodhounds might feel sorry for us with our inferior sense of smell; but as humans, we don’t know what we are missing. It’s not an absence we notice.

In the same way, Eagleman explains, humans can only perceive a small fragment of the energy spectrum. We can see a rainbow of colors, but we don’t perceive ultraviolet light or x-rays or other wavelengths. We don’t even know what all is out there because we don’t have senses to detect it. Our umwelt is limited to what we can experience; we don’t miss these other experiences because we don’t even know that they are there.

But maybe not for long.

Eagleman and others are now experimenting with ways to expand our senses. The work is fascinating and a bit mind-blowing, pulling on new monitoring devices, data feeds, and wearable sensor technology. Eagleman’s work involves using wearable sensors as a new interface — electromagnetic sensors on human skin. The skin feels the impulse and relays the sense — data — to the brain, which learns how to process it.

An unrelated study in Japan, researchers gave blind rats a neuroprosthesis that fed geomagnetic data into the rats’ brains. Within three days, the blind rats were able to navigate mazes as well as normal sighted rats. “We were surprised that rats can comprehend a new sense that had never been experienced or ‘explained by anybody’ and can learn to use it in behavioral tasks within only two to three days,” the researcher said.

expanded umweltEagleman postulates that interfaces could take vast data feeds — like from the cockpit of jet or from a systems operations center. One could learn to discern abnormalities and detect issues that arise from the patterns in the data flow. It could be that you hear the data, or you feel it on your skin, or you taste it… you sense the health of the operation.

Bring it on! I want to try this. What are the other colors? What are the other feelings? What are the other dimensions? Will this lead us to understanding the spiritual world better? Will we experience the multitude of parallel worlds postulated in string theory? What are the other experiences that are just waiting for us?

Sadly, like the human who can’t conceive of the richness of the bloodhound’s olfactory senses, I can’t imagine what I’m missing.

Sum cover

Thanks to TEDxKC for the simulcast from Vancouver. I first encountered Eagleman through his book, Sum, Forty Tales from the Afterlives

More on Eagleman at his website:

More of his discussion of the Umwelt in an earlier piece on The Edge


  1. […] will confess to being a bit obsessed with understanding other umwelts. For example, I found this beautiful description of a goshawk umwelt in the wonderful book H is for […]

  2. […] and process all this this information; we’ll need new ways as humans to absorb the data. (See the umwelt story.) I imagine that “data empathy” will become a desired skill; we’ll study how some people just […]

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