Empathy is a powerful tool. Empathetic understanding deepens emotional relationships with others. It can make you a better co-worker, partner, and friend. Yet despite the powers of empathetic thinking and action, our species treats the natural world with a disheartening lack of empathy, which hinders not only our conservation of the natural world, but our understanding of ecology and animal behavior.
In 1909, German biologist Jakob von Uexküll published a book where he coined the term “umwelt,” to describe the sensory world in which an organism exists and acts as a subject. This term is used to succinctly describe the total sensory experience of an individual. For a sensory ecologist, understanding the umwelt of the organisms you’re studying is imperative; if you use a human frame of reference to design experiments for a non-human animal, the results you record and inferences you make will likely be misleading.
To think about this in more detail, consider the example of a dog whistle. High pitched dog whistles are used to train dogs to perform certain tasks. The upper limit of human hearing is 17-20 kHz; a dog whistle emits its shrill tone at 23-54 kHz. To human ears, a dog whistle sounds like a quiet hissing, certainly nothing unpleasant. By comparison, your pet dog can hear up 45kHz. So that dog whistle, though benign to you, sounds worse than nails on a chalkboard for Fido. The reason a dog whistle is such an effective training tool is due to the difference in hearing capabilities (auditory umwelt) between humans and canines. And by employing the concept of umwelt to imagine how unpleasant a dog whistle sounds as a dog, you may be opposed to using one to train a dog in the future. Herein lies the connection of umwelt and empathy. Understanding the sensory world of another organism can help to understand its experience despite having never shared the same experience.
Umwelt not only differs between species, but between individuals within a species. Staying with the example of hearing, if I (a 28-year-old) go for a walk in the park with my 85-year-old grandmother, I will hear more bird song than she will because humans lose the ability to hear higher frequencies as they age. If I organize songbird surveys with retired volunteers, I need to be aware of and adjust for the volunteers' umwelt (perhaps using visual rather than auditory surveys). I can also empathize by accepting their limitations and abilities while describing the songs that are inaudible to them.
Despite living in the same world, we all inhabit different subjective realities – we interpret the world and our experiences differently. Harnessing the diversity of human experiences gives us collective strength. Applying the umwelt concept gives us a greater ability to understand the sensory world and experiences of non-human organisms. If we can grapple with these differences between people as well as between species, we can foster more supportive communities and better conserve the natural world.