The last few weeks, Purple Roomers have been talking about their own unique perceptual experiences, sharing the kinds of smells, sounds, and tastes they like or dislike. Children have been telling each other about what makes them feel sad, glad, or angry, and sharing what they find comforting or calming. And, as we prepared to adopt a mischief of rats into the classroom, we also began to consider the way rats experience the world and what kinds of things they might like or dislike.
The German biologist Jakob von Uexküll created the concept of “Umwelt” to describe the way each individual subject experiences her environment and constructs a “subjective universe,” using her sensory organs.
As quoted in Neurobiology of “Umwelt”: How Living Beings Perceive the World (Berthoz, 2009), “Von Uexküll invites the reader to imagine an oak tree, with squirrels running and birds nested on its branches, a fox living between its roots, a bunch of beetles on its bark, each with their own Umwelt, and an ant. ‘Each Umwelt carves a specific section out of the oak….. In the ant’s world all the rest of the oak vanishes behind its gnarled bark, whose furrows and heights become the ant’s hunting ground’” (von Uexküll, 1934). This kind of detailed way of looking at the world through another’s senses promotes a sort of sensory empathy perfect for our Purple Roomers – thinking about Umwelt encourages children not only to notice others, but to try and imagine, quite literally, how they feel.
We’ve been reading a picture book, They All Saw a Cat, by Brendan Wenzel, which takes the reader through different perceptual experiences in the same way as von Uexküll’s prompt. Wenzel uses words and pictures to depict the way that a child, dog, mouse, bee, bird, bat, and other animals see a cat walking. Through Wenzel’s illustrations, the reader can imagine being in the body of a bee, perceiving the cat as a mosaic of colored dots, or as a bird, seeing the cat’s stripes weaving into a flattened landscape from above. The book ends with the cat’s own perceptual experience, as he gazes into his reflection on the rippled surface of a pond.
Before receiving our rats on Animal Day, the children in the Purple Room tried to imagine a rat’s Umwelt. They crawled around the edges of the classroom, becoming more aware of the ground surfaces and low-lying furniture. The teachers hid small yellow felt “cheese” wedges around the room, inviting the children to experience the room as a rat in search of its next meal. We squeezed our eyes shut, trying to focus our attention on the details of smells around the room, like fabric softener on our clothing. We cupped our hands around our ears, seeking out quiet noises, like water rushing through the pipes overhead.
According to J. von Uexküll, an animal doesn’t just passively perceive the world, but actively builds its Umwelt: “As the spider spins its threads, every subject spins his relations to certain characters of the things around him, and weaves them into a firm web which carries his existence” (von Uexküll, 1934). Animals are active illustrators of the worlds they experience.
Humans and rats both work to more deeply understand their environments, their sensory organs becoming tuned into specific pieces of their respective worlds, while other sensory information falls into the background. An animal’s sensory capacities are shaped by its way of life. For example, because rats are nocturnal mammals, they rely heavily on olfaction, which does not depend on bright sunlight the way vision does (Striedter, 2005). Primates, compared with rodents, do not depend as much on olfaction, which is of limited use in the trees, where the wind carries odors away. Primates have good depth perception for jumping from limb to limb, and good color vision for detecting ripe fruit (Weisfeld, 2009). We can imagine a rat hearing a rich tapestry of sounds too subtle for our ears, while mourning for the rat who will never see the exact hue of cerulean we know to be our sky at midday.
Now that all of the children have received their rats, they can keep the needs and wants of the rats in mind as they transform the classroom into a comfortable and interesting place for rats to inhabit. In turn, the rats will serve as a reflective mirror, allowing the children to continue down the path of self-discovery, being more aware of the way their unique sensory experiences color their worlds.
Berthoz, A. (2009). Neurobiology of Umwelt: How living beings perceive the world. Berlin: Springer.
Striedter, G. F. (2005). Principles of brain evolution. New York: Sinauer.
Uexküll J. von, (1934/1957). ‘A stroll through the worlds of animals and men. A picture book of invisible worlds’, in: C. Schiller (Ed.), Instinctive behavior: The development of a modern concept. New York: International Universities Press.
Weisfeld, G. (2009). ‘The Umwelt and emotional experience’, in: Chang, R, S. Relating to environments: A new look at Umwelt. Information Age Publishing.