Empathy, Theory of Mind, and the Loneliness of Umwelt

Inspired by Paul Ford’s essay How to Be Polite, Quinn Norton has written a fantastic piece entitled How to be Polite… for Geeks. In this article, she explores the concepts of empathy, theory of mind, and the concept of umwelt (how each of us experiences the world in very different, singular ways).

The color red, for example, is something we all know – but likely define and experience differently.

We have no idea if the red you see is the red I see. Science can’t answer that, or art, or philosophy. We just don’t know if people see the same thing when they see red. We can tell if two wavelengths match in the range we have assigned to “red,” but there is no inherent “redness” to a wavelength.

With all seven billion of us on Earth experiencing and understanding things differently, the notion of umwelt becomes a kind of sad, unbridgeable divide:

If I want to reach you, all I can do is make impressions on the surface of your umwelt, like a hand pressing against a window. We communicate with each other, but to some degree, we will always communicate like astronauts, tapping helmets together to pass sound waves through our spacesuits.

But this, Quinn argues, makes empathy all the more important. While we may never know truly what it’s like to be someone else, we should strive towards that understanding. We should try.

This is one of those articles where, again, I want to quote the whole damn thing here because it’s so good. Not only are the concepts great, but the writing is absolutely fantastic. There were so many delightful phrases, in the back of my head I was convinced that she also write poems in addition to prose. As soon as I finished this article, I immediately started following her on Twitter, with an eye towards finding more of her work to read.

I cannot recommend Quinn’s article enough. Go on over, and tap your little astronaut helmet to hers. It makes a lovely sound.

// Edit: I knew she wrote poems! Called it!

Astronaut: A Flickr-Generated Project
How to Be Polite
6 Billion Others

This Post Has 1 Comment

  1. I will read the article you posted after work, but i wanted to share an article I read yesterday by Paul Bloom, Against Empathy: http://www.bostonreview.net/forum/paul-bloom-against-empathy

    In it he makes a case that empathy may not always be good, and some of our traditional, “common sense” thoughts about empathy don’t play out in studies.

    Ben Reply

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