The Umwelt Approach

Following our #DiversityInEcology theme, Ben Whittaker discusses mental health from the perspective of the umwelt.

silhouette of persons sitting on picnic table

Photo by Sindre Strøm on

Cognitive philosophers use the term umwelt to describe the epicentre of being. Your umwelt is your own personal environment, a foundation on which to build your self-centred world view. As you encounter new experiences your umwelt evolves with you, changing not only the way your mind interacts with the world but also how you perceive yourself. Theories describe how every umwelt is totally unique through the cumulation of personal experiences. However, individuals sharing a common identity often encounter similar experiences, perhaps creating convergence among their umwelten. This could explain why a cultural group shares similar thought patterns or even a sense of fellowship. The umwelt could prove a useful tool for understanding why diversity is so important in STEM, as diverse umwelten address research questions from multiple world perspectives. As umwelten are internal, they hold particular relevance for supporting the LGBT+ community. To illustrate why, I will share stories from my own (exceptionally awkward) umwelt with you:

My eyes sting after another restless night as I order an extra-large coffee from the cafe on platform two. I never sleep well in the run up to a conference. I stumble through the sea of sofas and armchairs, my poster tube narrowly avoiding collisions with the other customers, until I reach a stool by the window. Early morning commuters are already making their way through the train station and I begin to people watch. Groomed businessmen in sharp suits confidently stride past, as pigeons scatter from their path. A dishevelled woman with wild hair quickly pushes her wailing pram towards the toilet block. Hooded figures stand against the back wall, laughing and jeering amongst themselves from the shadows. Without even speaking to these people, I find myself forming opinions regarding their character. Judging others by the way they appear is morally discouraged, but our species thrives on creating social niches within a taxonomy of identities. There is undoubtedly a diverse spectrum of gender identities within the station, but I feel alone. In a visibly heteronormative society, where being straight is an assumed default, the LGBT+ community is masked not only from the world but also from itself.

An email loudly pings from my phone across the silent train carriage. To avoid making eye contact with the people I just woke up, I intently read over the brutally constructive feedback on my manuscript. The reviewer wants to know why I wasted an entire paragraph discussing an anomalous data point. I need to focus on the bigger pattern: only the trends amongst the majority matter. While I do not necessarily disagree with the reviewer, I feel disheartened. I knew that specific data point. When all the fish swam clockwise she would swim counter-clockwise, and when the rest of the shoal would eat together she foraged alone in the corner. I appreciate the reviewer’s feedback, though I find myself questioning – am I an anomalous outlier? Would my statistical deviance be banished to the supplementary material?

I arrive late to the conference, feeling gross after enduring several hours on the world’s slowest train. I find some friends and begin relaxing into the wine reception. That’s when I see him emerging from the parting crowd *Him* I’ve had a considerable crush on this guy since we met at a last year’s conference. He is one of those immensely annoying people who constantly exudes confidence and effortless charm, making me feel as graceful as a chubby troll-doll wearing nothing but a surprised expression and violent shades of hair erupting from my head. Oh crap, He’s coming over! I stink of train. Crap! “Hey, great to see you again, how’s it going?” He shakes my hand and places his other hand on my shoulder. My brain instantaneously melts and I try my best not to fall over, in doing so bowing into a deep courtesy. We chat and catch up, but I have no idea what he is even saying. How does he smile so perfectly? His voice washes over me. His eyes are so expressive, but every time I look into them I begin to blush. Is he gay? I think he is straight, but he is so friendly towards me. Does he know I am gay? Should I say something?

The presentations are inspirational, yet I only think of the perfect phrasing for my question several hours after the Q&A ended. Everyone here is so brilliant, yet I sink one conversation after another leaving their wrecks across the networking floor. I met an undergraduate who was so insightful it took every ounce of my moral fibre not to ‘accidently’ spill a drink down his shirt. I met an eminent professor by the buffet and in a moment of star-struck panic asked her “what is your favourite type of cheese?” I find being in new social environments mentally exhausting. Being around new people sends my anxiety into overdrive. I start to question and censor my every move. “Does my voice sound funny? Was that handshake too weak? Did I make eye contact with that person for too long, or not for long enough? Why am I here? What the hell are you doing here, you obviously don’t belong here. They can see you are sweating. They can see you are struggling to breathe. They can see you want to cry. Everybody thinks you are a freak. You don’t deserve to be here. You are a freak!” I spend the rest of the day locked inside a toilet cubical.

Weeks after the conference, I was walking down a busy corridor when I overheard somebody struggling to use the LGBT+ acronym. They remarked “It’s a bit too much – completely lost on me.” I slipped behind a group of undergraduates to continue accidentally overhearing the conversation. “I don’t want to know what happens in their private life anyway.” Part of my identity was nothing more to this person than a letter in an inconvenient acronym, part of my private life to be hidden away.

So, the umwelt? Gender and sexual orientation are perhaps the most difficult identities to visually assess, unless you are a particularly skilled people watcher. This can create an incredibly isolated umwelt, unsure of who is facing similar challenges and unsure who can help. Meanwhile, in a never-ending quest for fit-all models and significant norms, science can seem cold to the ‘outliers’ within its own ranks. The language we use is important and should be considered to avoid building a marginalised umwelt. Minorities undoubtedly benefit from a platform to meet and network, but by also creating opportunities for wider conversations on diversity we can boost the confidence of a hesitant umwelt. As a society, we all need to work hard to support those suffering or recovering from a self-destructive umwelt. Finally, by educating others through sharing personal experience and openness, the LGBT+ community avoids becoming an unknown umwelt. Wherever and whenever it is both safe and possible – be visible in your support and your identity, it could change an umwelt for the better.


One thought on “The Umwelt Approach

  1. Pingback: BES Journal Blogs Round Up: March 2019 | Animal Ecology In Focus

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