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Do Israelis and Palestinians Inhabit the Same World?

Ultimately, most humans have broadly similar sensory capabilities, and the sensory experiences of other humans are assumed to be within our ability to imagine. But if humans can inhabit distinct, unbridgeable sensory worlds, our approach to conflict resolution will have to change.

BERLIN – In his Pulitzer-Prize-winning book An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us, science writer Ed Yong describes how every mammal, fish, insect – all life forms on Earth – is “enclosed within its own unique sensory bubble, perceiving but a tiny sliver of an immense world.” That sensory bubble is the creature’s Umwelt, the “part of those surroundings that an animal can sense and experience – its perceptual world.” Two creatures can be “standing in the same physical space,” and yet, “have completely different Umwelten.”

This raises a fundamentally important question: Do all humans share the same Umwelt? Or can we become incapable of shared experience?

An animal’s perceptual world is determined by the specifics of its senses. For example, a shark uses smell to locate its prey over miles of ocean, sight once the prey is within its field of vision, a sensory organ known as a lateral line to detect movement, and electrical pulses at the very end to guide its attack. Birds can see ultraviolet markings on one another’s feathers that humans cannot, so male and female birds that look identical to us look very different to them. Bats “see” the world through echolocation, while some fish use “electrolocation.”