Noted Speakers Led Exploration of Umwelts

Written by Giulia Giuffre
Megaphone Staff Writer

The 30th annual Brown Symposium, “Umwelt: Exploring the Self-Worlds of Human and Non-human Animals,” was hosted April 3-4 in the Alma Thomas Theater of the Sarofim School of Fine Arts.

The Brown Symposium was established and funded by The Brown Foundation, Inc.

Every year, one of the Brown chair holders designs the symposium to enhance an interdisciplinary education and present topics in one of the broad areas of study represented by the chair holder.

This year’s Brown Symposium was developed by Jesse Purdy, professor of Psychology and holder of the John H. Duncan Chair.

The theme of the Brown Symposium, Umwelt, is based on an influential paper by Jacob von Uexkull entitled “A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds.”

Von Uexkull argued that to truly understand animal behavior, one must appreciate the animal’s “umwelt,” or self world. The umwelt allows insight into a creature’s sensations and perceptions of the surrounding world.

“By learning about another creature’s behavior through its own self world, we can get a better feeling of what it needs to survive and live a healthy life,” Purdy said. “The more we know about an animal’s self world, the more we know about the animal. The more we know about the animal, the more we care about the animal. The more we care about the animal, the more we want to help the animal. This is true for most things. The more we know about something, the less likely we are to step on it. This can be applied to people too. Knowing more about a fellow human’s self world and having a better understanding of a person’s behavior can increase tolerance.”

The Brown Symposium began with an introduction to von Uexkull and the umwelt and how it can be used to help understand the life of such beings as a polar bear or autistic child. The introduction was followed by a documentary of the umwelt of a Weddell Seal that conveyed appreciation for non-human species and a want to protect them.

This symposium’s speakers, Diane Ackerman, writer and poet; Christopher Clark; Imogene Powers Johnson, director of the bioacoustics research program at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and senior scientist in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior; David Fogel, president and chief executive officer of Natural Selection, Inc. and senior principal engineer at ORINCON Corporation; and Michael Gazzaniga, professor of psychology at the University of California-Santa Barbara and head of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, used the umwelt to explore the self worlds of living and non-living, human and non-human creatures.

The first speaker of the day was Ackerman. He is the author of several novels that explore the relationships between human and non-human animals, including her non-fiction historical work, “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”

In relation to The Zookeeper’s Wife, Ackerman explained the human want and need to have a connection with nature and animals and the conflicting human traits that separate humans from nature.

“An animal on a leash is not tamed by the human, the human has extended their self through the leash to that animal” Ackerman said.

Ackerman continued by examining the self-worlds of some diverse animal species, including squirrels, a species that she has studied first hand.

“Ackerman really set the tone for the symposium and allowed, if not reestablish, everyone’s inner-love for animals,” junior Delia Shelton said, “She also recognized the complexity of animals and made it possibly to take a peep into their worlds.”

After lunch, the symposium resumed with a presentation by Gazzaniga. He explored the umwelt of the right hemisphere of the human brain as examined in research of participants with Split Brain Phenomenon.

Gazzaniga combined a presentation of scientific literature with videos of participants with Split Brain Phenomenon to better convey and demonstrate the perceptions of the human right brain. Gazzaniga concluded that, in addition to the very different perceptions of the right and left sides of the human brain, each side is made up of many systems, “each with its own processes, own interactions and own umwelt.”

Thursday concluded with an exploration of the self world of marine mammals led by Clark. Clark combined scientific research and audio of the magnitude and diversity of whale calls to immerse the audience into the auditory world of whales.

“The world of the marine mammal is one where your ears, not your eyes, are the passageways to your consciousness,” Clark said.

Clark also explained how better understanding of the self-world of the whale can help determine what is detrimental to its survival. Clark used acoustic maps to demonstrate the affects that the sound pollution from ships and oil-prospect companies has on the oceans.

The auditory world that whales depend on has been dramatically reduced due to the impact of humans. Clark and others are working to legally regulate this and other forms of pollution harmful to animals and nature.

Friday, Fogel examined the self worlds of intelligent machines and compared these self worlds to those of human and non-human animals. This included a chess playing machine that Fogel helped create. This machine is able to make its own decisions without help, but instead by weighing the advantages and disadvantages of a decision.

“Since an animal doesn’t need to be aware of its self world to have one, it is possible for a machine to have a self world,” Purdy said. “It is interesting to think of how this perspective of machines can affect later research.”

Fogel explains that the umwelt of an intelligent machine, such as one that plays chess, consist of computing, exploring and collecting ideas and applying what it has learned from the surrounding environment.

“This year’s Brown Symposium was truly integrative and embodied the idea of a well rounded educational,” Shelton said. “The symposium had mathematics and physics, intertwined with art, literature, history, biology, neuroscience, environmental policy and geography.”

The Brown Symposium ended with a panel discussion. Ackerman and Gazzaniga were not able to join the panel Friday, but, in addition to Clark and Fogel, William Timberlake, animal behaviorist and professor of psychology at Indiana University, joined the panel. The panel answered questions asked by members of the audience. The speakers and organizers of the Brown Symposium appreciate the attendants that made up the audience.

After the Brown Symposium on Thursday, the Fine Art Gallery of the Sarofim School of Fine Arts hosted guest lecturer Rudy Pozzatti and held a reception.
Pozzatti, distinguished professor of fine arts at Indiana University, introduced and discussed his work, “The Bestiary of Bishop Theobaldus” and “Darwin’s Bestiary,” which had been featured in the Fine Art Gallery this semester.

Poems by Philip Appleman, Pozzatti’s colleague at the Fine Art department of Indiana University, accompanied Pozzatti’s lithographs. During the Brown Symposium and the following exhibit reception, it was announced that Pozzatti was donating the bestiaries to Southwestern University.

The Smith Library Center had two exhibits to coordinate with this year’s Brown Symposium. One exhibit is in the foyer and contains bestiaries similar to those in the Fine Arts Gallery. The other exhibit contains several works written by the speakers of this year’s Brown Symposium, as well as works related to the theme of the Brown Symposium. This includes von Uexkull’s work about interpreting the umwelt of other creatures that served as the inspiration for this Brown Symposium.

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