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What is it like to be a dolphin? Human bias can never be escaped

What do dolphins feel? (Getty Images)


August 31, 2022   5 mins

Imagine you are at the seaside. Sunlight is hitting the surface of the ocean. Some wavelengths of light pass into the water, while others bounce off it, scattering in all directions. A tiny fraction of reflected light happens to reach receptors at the back of your eyeball, triggering electrical impulses that cause your brain to register the colour turquoise. Other rays from the sun fall directly on your skin, where receptors detect a sensation of warmth. A pulse of pressurised air from the lungs of a gull flying overhead sets up a wave of ripples in the air around it. As the wave travels outward, it bends sensitive hair cells in your inner ear, triggering an electrical signal creating the experience of sound.

We assume the information our senses feed us is objective — of course we do, because what else do we have to go on? There is something almost vertiginous, then, about Ed Yong’s new book, An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us, which confronts exactly how we perceive what we perceive. “Light is just electromagnetic radiation,” he says. “Sound is just waves of pressure. Smells are just small molecules. It’s not obvious that we should be able to detect any of these,” let alone that they should produce the particular subjective experiences that they do.

Your experience of a beach — the turquoise sea, the warmth of the sun, the screeching gull — isn’t what the beach is. The “real” beach is giving off all sorts of stimuli, only some of which a human brain uses to form a mental representation of its surroundings. There are many, many more stimuli that we cannot sense or even imagine sensing. But other species can.

Take the seabirds on the beach, for instance. Many seabird species are finely attuned to the scent of chemicals that give away the presence of the krill they eat, meaning that far from a flat, featureless expanse, the ocean’s surface has “a secret topography” of “odorous mountains and unscented valleys
 invisible to the eye but evident to the nose”. Others are able to sense the Earth’s magnetic field, which guides them during migrations. And almost all birds can discriminate between “millions” of colours that humans are unable to imagine — to them, we are colourblind.

Some of the senses Yong details are delightfully surreal. A dolphin is effectively a “living medical scanner”: echolocation allows them to “perceive your lungs and skeleton… shrapnel in war veterans and foetuses in pregnant women”. Incredibly, beaked whales, which also echolocate, have “a strange assortment of crests, ridges, and bumps” on their skulls, which might be a form of “internal antlers” that could allow them to signal to others while retaining a sleek, hydrodynamic form.

What these alien senses might feel like, we can only guess. Philosophers have long grappled with this problem of subjectivity. Thomas Nagel, in his 1974 essay What Is It Like to Be A Bat?, argued that it is impossible to capture the experience of one sense by analogy to another: for example, “red is like the sound of a trumpet”. “That should be clear to anyone who has both heard a trumpet and seen red,” he wrote. It may be tempting to talk about dolphins “seeing” the inside of each others’ bodies, but in reality, it’s possible that what they experience via their sonar sense may be so different that trying to imagine it as a kind of “seeing” is as futile as describing the colour red in terms of its musical qualities.

Similarly, images meant to show us how ultraviolet looks to the many animals that can see it often render it as a kind of glowing purple. But to birds and bees, ultraviolet is an entirely different colour, one that no human eye has ever seen. These images are chasing the same impossible dream of children who try to invent a new colour by mixing their felt-tips. The only way for humans to see an entirely new colour, as different to our existing palette as red is from blue, would be to evolve a new colour receptor.

The biological term for these unique perceptual landscapes belonging to different species is Umwelten — German for “environments” — in this case meaning not just an animal’s physical environment but the environment as it appears to that animal. The Earth’s magnetic field is not part of our Umwelt as humans — it’s there, but we don’t sense it. A barnacle might exist on the same beach as us, but is oblivious to the peachy clouds in the sky as the sun sets: it lacks the capacity to perceive them. They are not part of its Umwelt.

The German zoologist Jakob von UexkĂŒll, Yong tells us, coined this usage of Umwelt in 1909, comparing an animal’s body to a house “with a number of windows… a light window, a sound window, an olfactory window, a taste window, and a great number of tactile windows”. It is totally impossible for a mind inside the house to gain information about the outside world except via its windows; from vantage points in different houses, with windows made from different materials or placed at different angles, the same view would appear totally different.

Except, of course, we cannot switch vantage points. Every conscious being is permanently and inevitably stuck inside its own lonely house, through which all experience of the outside world is filtered; all communication with other minds must pass through the windows of their own houses before it can reach them. Our windows aren’t just limited by our bodies and physical senses, but also by our culture and past experiences. I can guess but I can never know what it would be like to have been born blind instead of sighted, or male instead of female, or in Tokyo instead of in London.

I am moderately high in neuroticism: one of the “big five” personality traits that describes a person’s tendency to worry and ruminate. Speaking to (mostly male) friends who are much lower in neuroticism (women are significantly more neurotic than men, on average), I am struck by how alien both ways of thinking are to each other: to have an inner monologue that points out hundreds of possible but unlikely hazards every day, or to be someone to whom these thoughts would never occur. How many more features of our temperaments and histories must there be that give each individual an inescapably different perspective on the same experience?

Nowhere is this more apparent than in today’s culture wars, when political opponents seem to inhabit entirely separate realities. Despite living through the same pandemic, those who think face masks in schools are a form of child abuse appear to be living on another planet from those who don’t allow their teenagers to leave the house for fear of long Covid. This is true, in a sense: we are all living in our own private Umwelten, with a slightly different view of the world filtering in through our unique windows. Perhaps the surprising thing, in a way, is that there’s so much agreement.

A century ago, we knew far less about the sensory capabilities of animals. Bat echolocation, dolphin sonar, and bird magnetoreception were all unknown — barely even guessed at — before the 20th century. These discoveries are testament to the awe-inspiring power of science, but they are also a much-needed dose of humility, reminding us of how much is out there beyond our perceptions. We hear a lot about the need to understand and defeat our “cognitive biases” — but in reality, our biases can never be escaped. They are our only window to the Immense World outside our own minds, whose full form remains permanently and tantalisingly out of our grasp.


Ellen Pasternack is a PhD student in evolutionary biology at Oxford University.

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Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago

We need more writers on Unherd who can write well and have sufficient scientific education and intelligence to illuminate our perception of things in the world like Ellen Pasternak and fewer writers ruminating on their own obscure, tedious and limited obsessions.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jeremy Bray
J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Agreed. I’d like to see more articles on science and technology written by people with the necessary scientific qualifications. Many of the cultural trends given so much space on Unherd are driven, or at least enabled, by technological advances. Where is technology going? What will be its effects?

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Too true. There’s lot’s of finger pointing about which ideological group is most to blame for the cultural/political chaos in the West. But really it’s technological change which is the precipitant, just as the printing press and the fossil fueled industrial revolution were in earlier times.

Jim R
Jim R
1 year ago

Great piece. Plato’s cave allegory made essentially the same point 2500 years ago.

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
1 year ago

Great piece indeed Ellen. Would you mind bringing it to attention of your colleague Julie Bindel?

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

A very well-written and thought-provoking piece. All the better, i believe, for being relatively brief in a way that many scientific essays aren’t, but Ellen has found a way of encapsulating so much, and with some style.
I’m particularly fascinated, as an artist, by many aspects of what she writes. In both my practice and through studying the work of other artists, it seems to me that what’s being presented is an attempt to escape the boundaries of our own individual perceptions. Ellen is correct when she maintains that actually escaping our internal boundaries is impossible – but what’s more important is that we’re trying to do so, and trying to convey that attempt.
That may well sound like a fools errand on first reading it, but wait… don’t we try to do the very same thing every time we hold a conversation? Or watch a film, read a book, listen to music and visit a gallery? Or occasionally, when we’re reading Unherd!!
So much more i could say about that, but like Ellen, I’ll leave that thought there.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Jason Highley
Jason Highley
1 year ago

Man, this and Bambi – 2 for 2 on Unherd today. Really great stuff!

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
1 year ago

Fascinating – and an excellent read.

Thank you

N T
N T
1 year ago

That was a surprising, satisfying read.

Phil Mac
Phil Mac
1 year ago

Excellent, thought provoking.
I arrived at the realisation that it is unimaginably difficult to appreciate what a bat truly perceives, or a pangolin wakes up to each day, but these are obvious and straightforward compared to grasping why anyone would be enthused about masks & lockdowns, or what the attraction is to having one’s life’s limits defined by others.
One thing it did tell me though; how can so-called transgender people know they are really the other gender when they can’t prove that they grasp how that gender sees the World? The best they can do is think the way they are corresponds to what they believe the other gender is, but since they can only do so from their birth body they can’t prove it. I guess this explains why transgender is just 2022-speak for “behaves like the gender stereotypes of the others”.

R Wright
R Wright
1 year ago

Very interesting.

Kurt Keefner
Kurt Keefner
1 year ago

There are two underlying premises here: 1. Unless we perceive the objective world “as it really is” – wavelengths of light, vibrations in the air, etc. – our perception is not objective. But this ignores what objectivity really means. Color is the form in which wavelengths of light are perceived by a being with our cognitive set-up. There’s nothing non-objective about this unless you demand that valid consciousness has to be a God’s-eye-view and that consciousness has to magical rather than involving natural processes. That animals with different cognitive set-ups perceive wavelengths of light in a different way does not invalidate the perception of either them or us. It’s important to recognize that perception does not consist of just limitations (biases, as the author would have it), but rather opportunities.
Secondly, Pasternack makes the common assumption that unless we perceive everything in our environment, we are, once again, not perceiving objectively. But why should this be so? If I am looking at a house from 20 meters away and only see one side of it, that doesn’t mean that I don’t see the house. It just means that I would have to explore the house to get a fuller understanding of it.
For more exploration of these topics I recommend the works of David Kelley, J.J. Gibson, and Maurizio Ferraris.

Last edited 1 year ago by Kurt Keefner
Lee Patterson
Lee Patterson
1 year ago
Reply to  Kurt Keefner

Surely “objectivity” must reduce to theory. This is no less the case with respect to truth-claims regarding the relationships between brain activity and events external to the observer. In other words, our understanding of the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity is itself the product of scientific inquiry and theorizing. Subjectivity, or the first-person point-of-view is a quality of human cognition and is the context within which all human experience occurs.
That fact about subjectivity neither grants nor precludes the subjective context (i.e., the observer’s first-person experience) a privileged access to truth. By this analysis, it’s meaningless to assert that subjective experience is inherently more valid than any “objective” theory regarding the events external to the organism that precipitated the experience. Subjectivity is a peculiar and very limited window onto “reality,” which can only be a necessarily imprecise model – a complex and dynamic set of theories – that itself is only available to us by means of that same window.
Following this path leads me to conclude that our “objective” abstract representations, our theories, or maps of “reality” can gradually become more and more reliable as they are forced to collide with other models, which are not only filtered by individual subjectivity, but might also change the filter itself, by modifying the models that constitute subjective reference points (i.e., one’s “knowledge”).
After sufficient cycles of such collisions (generally known as “scientific progress”), the models which we refer to as “objective” knowledge do become much more reliable than any individual’s subjective experience. This is the basis for believing that “objectivity” can have epistemic priority over “subjectivity.” Of course, this depends on the reliability of the methodologies, veracity, and goodwill of the community of scientists participating in this massive, ongoing conceptual particle accelerator that we refer to as science, in which theories are propelled to collide with one another and expel hidden assumptions and unexpected results.
We can theorize with growing accuracy about what it is like to be ourselves under various circumstances (e.g., after a few shots of single malt or some other psychoactive substance) as a result of recording and analyzing sufficient data points (i.e., experiences).
Similarly, we can theorize with growing accuracy about what it is like to be somebody else, including non-human organisms, after recording and analyzing sufficient data points, including comprehensive investigations of their neurophysiological sensory equipment.
In sum, our “objective” knowledge provides a substantially more reliable frame of reference than our “subjective” experience. But, as Pasternack so eloquently says, “our biases can never be escaped. They are our only window to the Immense World outside our own minds, whose full form remains permanently and tantalizingly out of our grasp.”
In spite of this unbridgeable gulf, we can be reassured that our theories are improving, by observing results and comparing them with our predictions, which are based on prior theories. If the approximation of those theories to external reality were no closer than chance would have it, the predicted results would also be no better than chance. In other words, if our theories did not actually model reality, then any scientific success would always be simply a miracle.
While conceivable, that seems less likely to me than the hypothesis that the external world exists independently of human experience and that we are gradually getting better at understanding what it is. Objective knowledge doesn’t require a “God’s-eye view.”

Last edited 1 year ago by Lee Patterson
Kurt Keefner
Kurt Keefner
1 year ago
Reply to  Lee Patterson

I am not sure whether we’re agreeing or disagreeing. My point is that some thinkers (Kant might serve as an example) believe that only a God’s-eye-view would count as objective, that everything that involves processing by the senses and brain is inherently subjective in the pernicious sense of the term and that the necessity of processing renders “ultimate reality” unknowable. I would reply that cognitive processing at a perceptual level is what makes objective knowledge possible. Such knowledge is limited but that doesn’t make it “biased,” and as you point out, we can use reason to explore our environment and gain deeper knowledge of how the world works.

J M
J M
1 year ago

Really enjoyable and insightful read, thank you.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 year ago

Fascinating and quite luminously written: thank you. I look forward to reading more from you in future.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 year ago

This piece reads like poetic prose. J.R.R. Tolkien would be proud of you.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

So would Boris Pasternak.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

A great essay, but I wonder how the phrase “women are significantly more neurotic than men on average)” will go down with the ‘Sisterhood/Coven?

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

“women are significantly more neurotic than men, on average”
Are you allowed to say that in these barbarian times?