For those of you who have read The Secret Life of Lobsters, the word umwelt will be a familiar one. It’s a biological term (German, of course – all the great descriptive words are, aren’t they?) introduced by Jakob von UexkÃ¼ll that literally means the surrounding world, or environment, and practically means the sensory experience that gives an organism its subjective experience of the universe.
To put it in terms that the philosophers in the room might understand, it’s the biological take of Nagel’s phenomenal, subjective question of "what is it like to be a bat?"
In The Secret Life of Lobsters, umwelt is brought up when discussing how it is a lobster sees in the water – specifically, the fact that a lobster actually sees scent. (It’s a fascinating book, and I highly recommend it – especially to those of you who enjoy books on food and food origins). Where I didn’t expect to see umwelt so immediately was on MSNBC; yet after finishing the book and watching football, I turned to do my nightly crawl of news and found just that.
This narrative on MSNBC is titled "Anorexia nearly killed my wife", subtitled "To better understand a loved one’s illness, Tom Cramer stopped eating, too". And that’s precisely what the story is – a narrative of a husband’s perception of his wife as she developed anorexia, his reaction to her not eating (a very typical attempt to bribe and pressure her into eating), and then finally, his decision to mimic her behaviour and severely limit his calories. He did this out of desperation, as an effort to understand just what being anorexic was like, to understand the hold it could have on his wife – something, anything, that could allow him the small break he needed into her psyche so that he could help her, and help their family.
It’s a small but fascinating glimpse into umwelt, as he himself moves from what we would consider ordered to disordered thinking, from being hungry and fatigued to feeling challenged and buoyed by his control and the lack of eating. Although he stopped his experiment after a week, it was enough time with another perspective, a different subjective experience, umwelt, that he has been able to support his wife on her journey towards wellness since.
An example of why an ability to shift umwelt is necessary becomes clear in the recent UCSF missteps over MRSA USA300, the new strain of community acquired staff that had been widely reported as a new gay disease – not necessarily because of malicious intent on the part of the media (although the sensationalism is hard to deny), but because in their effort to be precisely clear to fellow researchers who would be peer reviewing their work, the UCSF scientists used language that has precise meaning within the public health community, but has a much broader meaning to the general public. When the media read the report, what they say, the meaning they interpreted, was clear – and utterly incorrect, because their umwelt was wrong, and although they were both using English to communicate, they weren’t using the same specialized form of the language.
Many years ago, in my former life in the computer industry, there was a very small group of people who had a highly valued and rare skill. They were able to interact with both the computer programmers and the lay person, shifting their language to be appropriate to who they were talking to. They could talk tech with the best of them, and then turn around and translate that tech-speak into something the general public could easily understand. (And anyone who has ever tried to follow a stereo installation manual or computer guide knows how valuable someone who speaks both languages is.) In Marvelous Possessions, Stephen Greenblatt calls these people the Go-Betweens, who can navigate and translate across multiple worlds.
We tend to see and think of ourselves as all the same, and discount the fact that even within our human sameness, the range of subjective experience is so vast, so different, that at times we need to step out of our own way of thinking and try to see the world in a new light. At my alma mater, we called this parallel thinking, in biology it’s umwelt – and it strikes me that the medical humanities, especially those of us working in applied, clinical or bioethics, would do well to either adopt the term or come up with our own for it, as it seems to me something that is at the very heart of what it is we do.
Originally posted at the Medical Humanities blog