German biologist Jakob von Uexküll coined the term umwelt to refer to the phenomenon in which animals in the exact same environment pick up different signals and attend to different slices of reality. For example, dogs have acute senses of smell while bats have fine-tuned perception of the compression of air waves for echolocation. Bees can detect ultraviolet signals, while snakes can see infrared — but humans can see neither with our naked eyes.
The term umgebung refers to the larger, actual reality — beyond what our individual umwelts clue us into. The delta between our provincial little umwelts and the gigantic scale of the umgebung can be enormous — but even more dangerously, few people are even aware it exists.
The umwelt is humbling
If we had more appreciation for the humble reality of the umwelt, we could potentially curb the rampant rise of supremacy and collective narcissism swirling around in the modern world. We should cultivate gratitude and awe for our constraints; for the limited and precious abilities we have and take for granted sometimes in our relentless question for ambition and achievement. It behooves us to understand intimately the limits of our knowledge, and work together to cooperate on building resilient systems and problem-solving methodologies.
The universe is not totalitarian; the universe is multi-modal. None of us can see the big picture by ourselves — we need to take the perspectives of many others to composite together a reasonably accurate picture of the way things work. We need to use model thinking in our cognition, and make liberal use of our own individual toolkit of core mental models and concepts in understanding the world and making decisions.
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