On an episode of the “Art of Charm” podcast, neuroscientist David Eagleman invited host Jordan Harbinger to imagine a world in which everyone — except Harbinger — was born blind.
“So you had vision, and you could see things at a distance and say, ‘Oh, look, there’s something coming over the hill.’
“And everybody in the world would be absolutely blown away by this, and think you’re magical, and think, ‘How could Jordan know that there was something coming over the hill a mile away when we had to wait to get close and hear it and then touch it?”
In other words, the rest of the world would have no idea that they were blind. To them, “reality” would be limited to whatever they could hear, smell, taste, and touch.
The broader point that Eagleman is working towards here is that everyone’s reality is subjective. We’re all trapped in our own brains but laughably confident that we’re experiencing the world as it truly is.
We’ll give you a moment to collect the pieces of your exploded mind.
Scientists use the term “umwelt” — the German term for the surrounding world — to describe an individual person’s experience of reality. As Eagleman explained in his 2015 TED Talk, a person’s umwelt is “the slice of their ecosystem that they can pick up on.”
Eagleman says that even as someone who studies and is fascinated by sensory perception, he’s just as guilty as anyone else of thinking that his umwelt is objective reality.
“This is a very stubborn psychological filter to get beyond. This is one of science’s most basic, fundamental things is figuring out: What are these psychological illusions that we have and how do we make an end run around these things and study this?”
Eagleman is one of many scientists who are currently working to develop technology that allows deaf people to “hear” and blind people to “see.”
But as Harbinger pointed out, for most humans, this relative ignorance might be bliss: “It seems like it’s maybe a healthy way to live somehow. There’s an illusion that we are maybe just aware of everything that’s in front of us, and we get it, and that’s the whole of what there is to perceive. So we’re under the illusion that we’re not seeing an illusion.”
No one wants to stop every second to despair over all the sensory experiences they’re missing out on. Consider your umwelt the cocoon that enables you to survive and thrive.
If you can remember to take a step back once in a while to consider what someone else’s experience might be like, maybe that’s just enough.
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