As a school teacher, kids often wonder if I have eyes in the back of my head. The extra peepers would allow me to see what the little rascals are doing. But it would also be a fundamental shift in my understanding of the world around me.
The world is so jammed packed with details and input, it can lead to information overload. Nature, it turns out, has designed our bodies to cope with this flood of data. The concept of Umwelt (originated by zoologist Jakob von Uexküll) states that the mind and the world are inexorably linked. Each organism has a unique way of viewing the world based on its sensory organs.
We Experience the World with our Senses
Humans taste with our tongues and we consider food to be things that can go into our mouths. Yet other organisms have vastly different ideas of taste and food.
For a catfish, the whole body is a taste organ and it is constantly “tasting” the environment, judging whether it’s worthy of being gobbled up.
Insects like butterflies and flies think of food as something they can land on. In fact, they have taste receptors in their feet. So the fly that’s skittering around the apple you’re about to bite is already tasting the fruit.
What We Sense Shapes Our Thoughts
It goes farther than just how we sense things. The way in which we experience the world molds the way we think.
Humans see with binocular vision and have a clear view of what’s ahead of us. This gives us an ability to predict what sorts of things might affect us in the future. Yet it hampers our ability to view the past. We’re constantly thinking about what will (or might) happen.
Kurt Vonnegut explores our limited scope of time in the book Slaughterhouse-5. The lead character, Billy Pilgrim, is described as having a very limited view of time. He (as are all humans) is encased in a steel sphere with a single eyehole with which to see the world. He sits on a flatcar of a train, but doesn’t realize this fact.
We are conditioned to see time as moving forward because our bodies are built this way.
Look with Other Eyes
We can’t actually graft more eyes to our head or grow taste receptors on our fingers. Yet with our capacity for imagination, we can empathize with other creatures and different ways of experiencing the world. In this fashion, we can transcend the limitations of our body.
The author Marcel Proust summed this idea nicely when he said in the book The Captive and the Fugitive:
The lesson here is to not limit your viewpoint to what you’ve been accustomed to. We can all expand our ideas and emphasize with others.