Brigid O’Dea: Have you ever wondered how a blind cavefish experiences the ocean?

Umwelt concept helps us understand how insight into people’s extreme experiences is limited by our own exposure to these intense events

There’s a viral video called Jonathan Frakes Asks You Things. You may not know the video by name, but if you are on social media, there is a high chance you’ve seen this video over the past few years.

In the video, the presenter asks a series of out-of-context questions.

“Have you ever walked out of a mall into a huge parking area and realised you’d forgotten where you parked your car?” he begins.

“Can you remember the tallest man you have ever seen?”


“Have you ever had the desire to write your initials in the wet cement?”

The video is often shared with humorous captions on Twitter.

“My girlfriend to me when we are watching a film.”

“My two year old in the supermarket queue when I have had three hours sleep.”

The reason I mention this video is because recently I have morphed into Frakes. No, not the man himself, but the obtuse question-asker.

I am reading a book about the sensory world of animals and I have become obsessed with the topic. How do animals experience this world? What are their motivators and deterrents? How do their sensory systems work?

“Have you ever wondered how a blind cavefish experiences the ocean?” I asked a friend recently, interrupting their update on their current job situation.

I continued this thread with another friend the following evening. “Did you know we can’t perceive certain colours underwater?” I ask.

Unperturbed by his blank facial expression, I embarked on a nine-minute monologue on how our human eyes cease to function at a certain depth under water.

“At 10m down,” I tell him, “anything red, orange or yellow will look black, brown or grey.” He smiles.

“By 100m, we can only perceive blue.” He nods.

I continue, “At 1,000m, our eyes no longer work.”

I may have taken this digression into deeper waters than first intended. When I finally came up for air, he asked me “Do you ever meditate? You know, let the thoughts pass like cars?”

Reader, I do. But the journey continues.

“Have you ever heard the term Umwelt?” I ask my dad, on a six-hour trip to west Cork.

Umwelt, according to the author, Ed Yong, refers to the part of our environment that a creature “can sense and experience – its perceptual world”. The concept is central to the narrative of the book.

While different creatures may occupy the same space, their experience of that environment will differ. Yong writes, “a tick questing for mammalian blood cares about body heat, the touch of hair and the odour of butyric acid that emanates from skin. These three things constitute its Umwelt.”

Right now, in my tighín in a misty Inis Chléire, my Umwelt is shaped by a quest for warmth, dry clothes and shelter from the sharp Atlantic winds. My new nephew’s Umwelt is milk and cuddles.

We can listen and learn about the experience of the Umwelt of others, but we cannot inhabit the perceptual world of another.

Our reality is the reality we know.

Writing for the Guardian, author Sarah Perry once wrote “The problem with describing pain, of course, is that you can no more know what I mean by torment than I can know what you mean by love – and besides, privately we all think ourselves made of sterner stuff than the sickly.”

Our understanding of other people’s experience of grief, love, loss or pain is ultimately tethered to our own interactions with these intense experiences. If other people’s experience of these emotions fail to share common traits with our own, we can start to question or dismiss it.

The same is true for illness. My migraines are taken most seriously when they are accompanied by vomiting. People can see my distress. The disorder becomes visible; it exists within their Umwelten. Yet vomiting is one of the least distressing aspects of my migraines.

If another person’s experience of ill-health or disability exists beyond our Umwelten, we may doubt the validity of this experience. We ask them to prove or perform their illness so it can exist within our frame of reference.

A number of years ago I was on holidays with a friend. On a particularly hot afternoon, she asked us to forego a day of turquoise sea and orange Aperol, and instead embark upon a cross-city quest for a well-stocked pharmacy. My friend needed to buy sun-cream appropriate for use on her eczema.

“It’s very bad,” she explained

“Pinch your leg,” I replied. “That will distract from the itch.”

“And next time you have a migraine,” she said, “drink a glass of water.”

“Point taken,” I smiled.