A Stroll into Unfamiliar Worlds
“Perhaps it should be called a stroll into unfamiliar worlds; worlds strange to us but known to other creatures, manifold and varied as the animals themselves.”
—Jakob von Uexküll, A Stroll through The Worlds of Animals and Men (1934)
Science fiction often asks us to imagine the inner states of beings most alien, be it artificial intelligences with sensory inputs and mind architectures like nothing we’ve seen yet, or actual aliens from other planets. But could we even begin to understand such creatures, let alone really put ourselves in their shoes (processors, tentacles . . . )?
That is actually an age-old question with regard to the only “aliens” we know so far—other species on Earth. Myths worldwide are rife with imaginings of senses, emotions, and thoughts of animals (albeit typically very anthropomorphized), something that has nearly seamlessly continued in speculative fiction. Modern philosophy and science recently began asking the same question, succinctly put in Thomas Nagel’s famous 1974 essay titled “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?,” making a case that we cannot fully comprehend the answer as humans, however closely we can analyze the bat’s behavior and brain.
But its underpinnings were present already in the early 20th century, in German natural philosopher Jakob von Uexküll’s concept of umwelt: basically, a creature’s sensed environment, its perceived world. Von Uexküll himself described it like this: “Around us is a protective wall of senses that gets denser and denser. Outward from the body, the senses of touch, smell, hearing, and sight enfold man like four envelopes of an increasingly sheer garment. This island of the senses, that wraps every man like a garment, we call his Umwelt.”
He often likened umwelt to a bubble surrounding every living creature, reaching as far as its respective senses do. It’s a useful analogy: another creature’s visual bubble may be very small or filled entirely with light/shadow instead of a well-resolved shape, while its scent bubble may reach farther than ours. Its perceived world would be nothing like ours. It would be a mistake to think that all creatures on Earth see the same sun. It is the same object, yet viewed and perceived in myriad ways.
How could we understand what it’s like to be a completely different species? Present-day naturalist Charles Foster tried living as a fox, a badger, an otter; adopting their foraging strategies, sleeping habits, daily rhythm . . . However impressive his insight into their lives is, though, he still sensed what a human can and processed it like a human can, albeit in remarkable circumstances. Nagel himself saw this problem: “In so far as I can imagine this [hanging upside down in an attic and echolocating] (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat.”
So, can we ever really know an animal’s umwelt?
Science fiction has long been asking us to imagine it. Sometimes we even get to experience the animal’s umwelt right through the senses of a character; in The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen, the titular heroine is able to use a neurological interface to project her consciousness into bioengineered animal bodies, be it a fox or a spider. However, even though she tries to portray experiences very alien to us, the narrative remains unmistakably human. This is, of course, understandable from the author-publisher-reader perspective (where everyone included wants a book to be accessible and enjoyable) as well as from the philosophical perspective of trying to convey the unconveyable.
But we would be mistaken, should we think that forays into the perceived worlds of other creatures are solely the domain of science fiction. In fact, some of the best portrayals of other umwelts come from fantasy. My favorite example is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, rife with vivid descriptions of different kinds of perceptions and modes of thinking. It’s delightful to view the city of Ankh-Morpork through the nostrils of Angua, a werewolf in the service of the City Watch. While fantasy literature abounds with werewolves, intimate portrayals of their modes of perception and shifts in thinking style upon reverting to another form are surprisingly rare.
Time is also an essential but often overlooked part of one’s umwelt. We need not evoke time-traveling beings, though they present a fascinating umwelt challenge for authors. Just think about the speed of thought and the frequency of capturing sensory data. Discworld’s counting pines are the longest-living non-deity creatures on the Disc—conscious and able to talk among themselves, but unable to discern any events taking place in less than a day, so “they never heard the sound of axes” as their neighbors suddenly disappeared mid-word. This calls to mind the trope of “fast-moving aliens/monsters one can’t see” (used most famously in Star Trek’s “Wink of An Eye”), but it’s of a more profound consequence. Even if we set aside the possibility of exotic life living under vastly different timescales (such as in Robert L. Forward’s Dragon’s Egg) and focus on Earth, it would be difficult for us to comprehend the umwelt of an animal capturing sensory data with a different speed. Similarly, we can only vaguely conceive of what it would be like to wait motionless and starving for years and years on end—as von Uexküll’s favorite model animal, the tick, seems capable of. He wrote with apparent fascination: “ . . . the ability to endure a never-changing world for eighteen years1 is beyond the realm of possibility.”
Finally, there is Borrowing, a skill learned by the Disc’s witches, whereupon they can send their minds to animals and perceive the world through their senses. However, it’s not without risk; being in another creature’s body means you at least partly take on its thinking style, the more so the longer you remain. Stay too long, and you may become too accustomed to being a rabbit or an owl, so much that you eventually forget that you’re human and are unable to return. You become an animal with some strange dreams and foggy memories. Pratchett’s descriptions of witches returning from Borrowing and struggling to remember that they walk on two legs, can talk, and don’t catch and eat raw mice, are at the same time funny, compassionate, and clever. Just remember how disoriented one can be when re-entering a light space from darkness, a quiet one from noise . . . and imagine stepping back into your body.
Granny Weatherwax, one of Discworld’s central characters, is particularly adept at Borrowing, at one point even able to enter the mind of a beehive (until then considered impossible by other witches), and able to sense the mood of a forest or even a country. In this fantastical setting, Discworld asks questions interesting for scientists today, such as what is the nature of an individual and what units can perceive their environment. While I do not think it would make much sense to consider the umwelt of a hive rather than a bee, what about a forest? The vast mycorrhizal network that allows most land plants to exist; would it be accurate to say that it has an umwelt, forests-spanning and near-neverending from our human perspective? Could we ever communicate with that—or even put ourselves in its hyphs?2 Could you ever understand the perceptions of something that doesn’t even have a brain to process them—not just a brain, but no nervous system at all?
Could we ever achieve something akin to Borrowing via technology? It’s not unthinkable; rudimentary brain-to-brain interfaces already exist and humans as well as animals have been the subjects of experiments trying to convey information from one brain to another. Many such experiments used noninvasive procedures, typically recording from the “sender” via electroencephalography (a brain activity-recording method using electrodes placed on the scalp) and then sending it to the “receiver’s” brain via transcranial magnetic or sometimes focused ultrasound stimulation—such as an experiment conveying stimuli from a human to a rat. In another (this time invasive) experiment, a rat was shown to be able to guide another rat’s behavior.
In a study from last year, neural recordings were made of guinea pigs listening to a short speech (recorded using electrodes inserted in the guinea pigs’ brains) and then conveyed to cochlear implants (hearing devices converting sounds to electrical signals and stimulating the cochlear nerve, which sends acoustic sensory data to the brain) of humans. The rate of understanding the spoken words was not very high (between a few percent to above 50%, depending on the specific word and type of implant), but it’s an interesting start nonetheless, showing that we can in principle understand the “thoughts” (hearing sensory data) of another mammal. One should also note that especially when receiving a cochlear implant later in life, speech perception using the implant varies a lot, so this result is definitely not bad.
However, it’s a long way from a relatively simple one-kind stimulus to receiving (and further, processing—experiencing) the full sensorium of another creature. It’s unlikely that non-invasive methods would suffice—especially for the collection of the stimuli. Here, we’re on very shaky ethical ground. The neurotechnology company Neuralink came under severe criticism this year for its treatment of rhesus monkey subjects in its experiments aimed at developing a brain-computer interface.
But for simpler experiments, we luckily need not resort to invasive and often harmful methods. The previous decade saw more widespread use of neurologgers, miniature wireless battery-powered devices that can non-invasively record the brain activity of wild animals—including birds in flight or swimming fish. While they remain relatively simple so far (the battery doesn’t last so long and the resolution of the recordings is not very high), they still enable groundbreaking research—how else could we study the brain activity of a bird mid-flight?
Even such “simple” devices could give us a vague glimpse of an animal’s umwelt. Back in late 2017, when I wrote my story “To See the Elephant,” where an animal psychologist is tasked with solving a young elephant’s problem by “getting inside its skin,” I was thinking of similar devices transmitting real-time data to implants in the psychologist’s brain (she did opt for her own invasive interface). An elephant is a large land mammal relying mainly on its vision and hearing—we could probably say with some confidence that it has an umwelt not that different from ours, and consequently that even low-resolution brain activity data could translate into comprehensible stimuli for us.
Where lies the future of interfacing with animals, then? Would it stay firmly in the domain of research? Overflow into pet psychology and pet-caretaker connection? Into military use? Crime?
We can imagine a future where you can “plug in” to various recorded or real-time animal experiences, losing yourself for an hour or two; almost or entirely forgetting that you are human, carried on the wave of alien sensors and thoughts your brain cannot quite parse, but an AI has done that job for you and “translated” them into something still extremely unfamiliar, but processable. Imagine people becoming addicted to such experiences, slowly reshaping their own brains to better accommodate unfamiliar stimuli.
Or, perhaps, we can imagine a future where we’ve found out that we simply cannot get sufficiently close to other creatures’ experiences without, as Nagel pointed out in his essay, “changing our fundamental structure” (or, for that matter, theirs). Science fiction has plenty of speculative answers to that: bioengineering, cybernetic modifications, high-bandwidth interfaces between different minds . . . We can imagine a place where an uplifted pig meets an augmented human, and they are far more similar to each other than to unmodified individuals of their own kind.
And maybe we’ll remain confined to knowing in intimate detail what nerve pathways fire upon what stimuli, how exactly the blood flow changes within the brain when one perceives something, and how many neurotransmitters are released between two neurons—in short, we’ll possess a map to another being’s states of existence, likely one with good predictive power, that might be of great help in achieving more effective communication—but there is a difference between “understanding from a distance” and “knowing what it’s like to be.” In the end, it might prove futile to strive for the latter, and the former might prove more than sufficient.
So far, we cannot be sure if we’ll ever be able to really experience what non-human creatures do. But the gaping chasm might eventually shrink into a crevice that we can almost step across. Thomas Nagel ended his essay by raising the challenge of developing concepts to narrow the gap between the subjective and the objective—for instance to relay the experience of colors to a person with congenital blindness. In his time, brain-machine or brain-to-brain interfaces were just a domain of science fiction, and not even very widespread in the genre (cyberpunk was yet to arrive on the scene). Now we can conceive of ways to stimulate the brain, which neuroscience studies increasingly show to remain highly plastic (capable of making new kinds of connections) in adulthood, to convey the previously unconveyable. One day, we might narrow this gap between us and animals, too, and joyfully embark on a stroll into unfamiliar worlds.
“No doubt it [conscious experience] occurs in countless forms totally unimaginable to us, on other planets in other solar systems throughout the universe.”
—Thomas Nagel, 1974
1 - Eighteen years is the record von Uexküll mentions; alas, I was unable to find the original study to corroborate it, and I would rather suspect some methodological oversight — but the previously linked study (Shepherd 2022) seems to indicate that at least some tick species can survive years of starvation. Looking forward to more studies trying to corroborate this (and, I must admit with a bit of shame, with little pity for those small critters).
2 - Actually, not just one, but two stories in the upcoming anthology Life Beyond Us (that I co-edited with Lucas K. Law and Susan Forest) deal with this question from two very different perspectives. Just look out for Simone Heller’s “Forever the Forest” and Peter Watts’ “Defective.”
Julie Nováková is a scientist, educator and award-winning Czech author, editor and translator of science fiction, fantasy and detective stories. She published seven novels, one anthology, one story collection and over thirty short pieces in Czech. Her work in English appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Analog, and elsewhere. Her works have been translated into eight languages so far, and she translates Czech stories into English (in Tor.com, Strange Horizons, F&SF, Clarkesworld, and Welkin Magazine). She edited or co-edited an anthology of Czech speculative fiction in translation, Dreams From Beyond, a book of European SF in Filipino translation, Haka, an outreach ebook of astrobiological SF, Strangest of All, and its more ambitious follow-up print and ebook anthology Life Beyond Us (Laksa Media, upcoming in late 2022). Julie’s newest book is a story collection titled The Ship Whisperer (Arbiter Press, 2020). She is a recipient of the European fandom’s Encouragement Award and multiple Czech genre awards. She’s active in science outreach, education and nonfiction writing, and co-leads the outreach group of the European Astrobiology Institute. She’s a member of the XPRIZE Sci-fi Advisory Council.