A Well-Frog’s View

“A frog in a well knows nothing of the ocean.”
─ Japanese Proverb

Hello, BloggingBrights Readers!

Like you, I am new to this blog site and am excited about exploring the possibilities it has to offer.

I blog from Saratoga Springs, Utah, a U.S. city of about 17,000 residents stretched across and beyond the northeast tip of Utah Lake.  Ever since my New York sister-in-law told me she had never noticed Utah on her map before I moved here, I have been careful to resist becoming the proverbial frog in the well that is content to see its little patch of blue sky while completely unaware of the vast ocean beyond.  Through travel, family and social activities, reading and such, I strive to maintain a perspective that extends beyond my geo-cultural boundaries.  But after spending twenty years here, I am a naturalized local now, so wherever my perspective might reach out to, it has its starting point in Utah.

Aren’t we all well-frogs in some way or another?  I learned about the biological notion of Umwelt in an animal behavior class in college.  An Umwelt (“OOM-velt”) is the world that is perceived and experienced by an organism.  A classic example used to explain this notion is the Umwelt of the tick.  In searching for its next blood meal, a tick perceives the world through a limited number of faculties:  light sensitivity through its skin; butyric acid sensitivity through its olfactory organ; heat sensitivity; and touch sensitivity.

Using its limited array of sensors, a tick blindly climbs a blade of grass or a stick toward a light source, and when it gets as far as it can go, waits till it smells butyric acid, which all mammals give off.  Sensing the smell, the tick lets go of its perch and falls onto the passing mammal below, then feels its way through its prey’s hairs to reach the skin.  The tick bores through the skin until it senses the warmth of blood and begins to suck.  In this very simplistic scenario, the Umwelt of the tick is defined—and confined—to a world of light and dark, the smell of butyric acid, the feel of hair and skin, and the temperature of blood.  Colors, sounds, emotions, knowledge—such things do not exist for the tick.

Humans can perceive a vastly more expansive world, but like ticks, our Umwelt is still confined to what we experience through our senses.  Other organisms have Umwelts that more or less overlap ours yet may extend in some areas far beyond our sense capacities.  So an Umwelt map of a German Shepherd would be smaller than ours in color perception while the world it hears would be about three times bigger, and its olfactory world would be 1,000 times bigger!

The notion of Umwelts reminds us of the limits of the world we perceive while also highlighting our capabilities:  perhaps uniquely among Earth’s organisms, humans can extend the range of our natural senses by the use of tools, and apply rational thought to interpret the new experiences gained through our enhanced sensors.  So we may indeed be well-frogs with confined Umwelts, but we have within us the ability to leap out and grasp much grander worlds.  I sincerely hope the BloggingBrights may be one of the tools that will help get us there.

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12 Responses to A Well-Frog’s View

  1. robert orr says:

    a world free from the supernatural is not a world of the rational only: the world of emotion is part of our umwelt too. To emphasise the rational is to minimise the emotional and delude ourselves that our choices are rational. The rational is not of itself better, it is one way among many of arriving at decisions about how to behave. Lots of decisions are made subconsciously before we think about choosing. Nothing to be ashamed of or aspire to fixing – it’s just the way the mind works and that’s wonderful and surprising

    • Umwelt Utahpia says:

      Robert Orr: Actually, I agree with you about the importance of emotion, but I do not see it necessarily as something separate from rationality. Using the Umwelt notion, what we call rational thought is the processing of sensory experiences by our brains, which comprise a multitude of processing machinery that sometimes (though not always) conflict with each other. Such machinery include emotions, memories, preprogrammed DNA (instinct), reflex, a subconscious (if it really exists), etc., all of which contribute to how we experience the world and engage in (or call it) rational thought. We often treat emotion as being opposed to rational thought–and some people do seem to act that way–but the same can be said for instinct, acting on memories (and not immediate facts), letting the subconscious “take control”, etc. Rather, I think all these aspects are a part of (or at least make some overlapping contribution to) rational thought and action, and therefore, are significant in defining one’s Umwelt. (My views on this are based on scientific studies of thought processes of animals, particularly non-human primates–turns out humans may not have a monopoly on rational thought and actions!)

    • Rolland Everitt says:

      I absolutely agree, Robert. Emotions/instincts are at the bottom of everything. We evolved them for good reason, and to ignore them is irrational.

  2. Jim Matkin says:

    I liked your biological metaphor of the confined “Umwelts” particularly as it may apply to growing up with your parents faith or religion. The result may be rather disruptive when you see the ocean and want to “leap out and grasp much grander worlds.” Tapes from the Umwelt parental pond interfere with this adventurous freedom.

  3. Dusan ( Dan ) Kustudic says:

    This item on Umwelt is very interesting for several reasons. One is that unfortunately, many humans live like ticks and well-frogs, and it is the urgent duty of
    any “rational human” – man or a woman – to lead these unfortunate many out of their confined Umwelt , created mainly by suffocating dogmas of various religions and “traditions”. into a much broader, universal reality which nature loving humanists are trying to experience and promote.
    So, keep up the good work of advancing this noble goal , and please try to get in touch with other “umwelt broadening” organisations, like Growth Busters, Post Growth movement, and Steady State Economists. Greetings from Dan Kustudic

  4. anne marie (France) says:

    Thank you for explaining so clearly the Umvelt concept!
    The frog has leaped over the ocean…

    a french “brightfriend”

    anne marie

  5. Jack Blair says:

    A frog in a well doesn’t need to know about the ocean. A tick burrowing into your skin doesn’t need to know any other environment. Humans are indeed unique among all the products of Nature. We need to know.

    This has especially been the case with Western civilization. From Ur, humanity needed to know: thus we leapt out grasped the grander worlds of Athens, Rome, London, and eventually, Philadelphia.

    I believe you when you claim to be sincere. However, your sincerity is 3500 years too late. We are already “there.”

  6. Barbra says:

    I lool forward to the growing umwelt of Utahpia!

  7. Rolland Everitt says:

    In a world where professional success depends on deep specialization, we all tend–to some degree–to stay narrow and go deep. That limits our worldview, even if it does make us more effective at what we do (or hope to do) for a living. This tendency is partly the result of an ever-increasing focus on professional studies in higher education, and the decline of undergraduate liberal education in favor of more and more credit hours focused on the major. The products of such an education are conditioned to pursue deeper knowledge in their field, but not to learn about other fields.

    This phenomenon makes us all frogs-in-wells. The result is that the more intelligent half of the population are commercially productive, but intellectually and emotionally hobbled. We deny ourselves the deeper insights into the human condition, which can come only from knowledge of art, science, and all aspects of human affairs. We make ourselves willing slaves in a corporatist society, while turning aside from the responsibilities which all humans instinctively feel for one another if we are able to overcome materialistic self-involvement and take a broader view. We are like the blind men examining the elephant in the famous Hindu fable–we each have intimate knowledge of some small part, but we are ignorant of the Big Picture.

    How, then, to broaden one’s intellectual scope? Personally, I try to do it by eclectic reading. I buy books at yard sales, library sales, and second-hand shops. I look mostly for non-fiction. I pick up a book and open it to a random page, and read a few paragraphs. If it seems that the author wrote in a style that I can read without falling asleep right away (this is a problem for me), then I buy it. It’s amazing the stuff one can learn in this way. Consequently, I am a dilettante in geology, chemistry, mathematics, aesthetics, history, philosophy, economics, several languages, nutrition, botany, and so on. I also read news media from as many countries as possible. As an anglophone, I have an advantage, because many international newspapers and broadcasters have English language versions of their web sites. I prefer to be a generalist rather than a specialist, and to swim in a shallow lake rather than a deep well.

  8. Brian Bannon says:

    Living in Utah you must encounter Mormons on a daily basis. Mitt Romney’s recent bid for the White House brought about more awareness of Mormonism and I expanded my knowledge about their beliefs. From what I learned I can only conclude that the Mormon religion is even more bizarre than most people realize.

    That being said, have you found that Mormons are more accepting of your naturalistic world view as compared to the average Christian?

    • Umwelt Utahpia says:

      To Brian Bannon: it’s a matter of degree and perspective. I grew up in southern California in a predominantly Latino and Filipino Catholic neighborhood, but I had little trouble being accepted there (I was elected student class president three times). In the Army, the members of the unit I led were mostly southern baptists, yet we won awards in brigade competition for not only our technical skills but our team cohesiveness. In Utah, I arrived as a single guy, and now after nearly 20 years, have about a dozen very close Mormon friends, and my wife and children are Mormon. (A common trait among my group of Mormon friends is that we’ve all lived abroad and speak a 2nd language!) I’ve read in the local newspaper comments section how some non-Mormon–and particularly atheist–Utahns feel ostracized or unaccepted by their Mormon neighbors, but I’ve never felt that way here, nor anywhere else I’ve lived, so it might just be a reflection of my attitudes than the local environment. While I don’t think I can run for office in Utah as a bright and expect to win easily, that’s probably a dilemma we face in most parts of the U.S.

      While some Mormons believe in things that you may consider bizarre, many such aspects of their religion are actually not doctrinal or are no longer part of modern practice (just as most Christians don’t observe many of the “laws” of the Old Testament while still believing in the Bible’s infallibilty). Much of what they do believe and practice have antecedents in the Bible, though most average Christians don’t realize that. And would an average Christian consider the Mormon religion to be so bizarre compared to the beliefs of a Buddhist or Hindu? My view is that all religions are bizarre in their reliance on faith over evidence!

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