An Immense Opportunity: What Ed Yong’s “An Immense World” Can Teach Us About Neurodiversity | Elaine Griffin | 10 Min Read

April 27, 2023

In later years some further ears
Were found in other forms.
The more we know just goes to show
There are no real norms.

–Portion of a poem by zoologist David Pye from An Immense World

Neurodiversity among our children isn’t new. Much of the science is helping us better see it. And as we become increasingly aware of the brain’s various ways of processing information, we are not only doing a better job as educators, but also coming to a more expansive understanding of what it means to be human.

There are books galore for educators and parents that specifically address this big and important topic. But some of my recent insights involving neurodiversity draw on similar advances in how we see and perceive animals. Cue the music for Ed Yong’s marvelous new book, An Immense World, which deservedly finished on nearly every 2022 list of the year’s best books.

What does Yong’s research on how animals perceive the world have to do with neurodivergent kids? Plenty.  

More on that in a minute; first let me tell you about the book itself.


Yong explores this central thesis: “Earth teems with sights and textures, sounds and vibrations, smells and tastes, electric and magnetic fields. But every animal can only tap into a small fraction of reality’s fullness. Each is enclosed within its own unique sensory bubble, perceiving but a tiny sliver of an immense world.” Yong’s term for a species’ particular sensory bubble is “Umwelt.” 

Because an Umwelt “is all that we know,” Yong writes, “we easily mistake it for all there is to know.” Hence the refreshing humility with which Yong continually reminds his readers that for all of our advanced intelligence, it’s difficult for us to grasp that animals—even when they share our senses—perceive and experience the world in very different ways from us and from each other.

That’s why many sensory biologists are neurodivergent: Perceiving the world in atypical ways themselves gives them a special capacity for imagining that animals have different perceptual experiences. In other words, people who are diagnosed with “disorders” or who identify as “atypical” possess “an intuitive feeling for the limits of typicality,” Yong suggests. In short, their unique sensory bubble helps them appreciate that other creatures may have similarly unique ways of experiencing the world.

While Yong explores a host of senses and sensory experiences within his book, I’ll focus on a few of those that humans share with animals; doing so will drive home that even when animals possess the same senses as we do, the way they use their senses and therefore the way they experience the world is often markedly different.

  1. Smell: While humans rely most on the sense of sight, what comes first for dogs is smell. When we impose our Umwelt on our dogs by encouraging them to look ahead and keep moving on a walk, we are “dimming their olfactory worlds,” Yong explains. He instead encourages us to acknowledge that our dogs’ “Umwelt is different, and lean into that difference.” How? By going on dedicated sniff walks, of course! Dogs offered regular opportunities to exercise their sense of smell are more “optimistic” and show a heightened sense of well-being. Bottom line: “Let dogs be dogs” and follow their nose.
  2. Taste: Compared to smell, taste is a relatively simple sense. Humans ordinarily make only “binary decisions” regarding taste; if something tastes good, we eat it and if it tastes bad, we don’t, using our tongues to do all the work.

    Given our Umwelt, we might assume that all animals taste with their tongues, but many don’t. Most insects actually taste with their legs and feet. Bees sense sweetness when they come to rest on a flower and flies taste fruit just by descending on it. It’s hard for us to imagine what it would be like to taste with our feet or fingers. A more extreme example: Catfish. They “are swimming tongues” with “taste buds spread all over their scale-free bodies.” Yong, a consummate humorist, points out that “if you lick one of them, you’ll both simultaneously taste each other.” Don’t try this at home; some catfish contain venom and others create electricity!
  3. Sight: Eyes can come in pairs, as with humans, or by the hundreds. And just because an animal has eyes doesn’t mean it sees as we do. It might see clearly into the distance or see only a distant blur. It might see in the dark or go blind in bright light. It might be able to look in opposite directions at once without moving. And as with other sense organs on animals, eyes can be anywhere: on mouths, arms, or armor.

    While we visually-oriented humans aren’t at the top when it comes to any sense, “we’re rocking it with visual acuity.” And because our excellent vision tops nearly every animal except eagles and other raptors, we’re biased toward sight. We assume that all creatures we encounter can see what we see. But most can’t.

    Or they see differently than we do. Humans have forward-facing eyes, so “for us, seeing is synonymous with facing.” But most birds have side-facing eyes; forget this and we make wrong assumptions about how those birds behave. Yong uses an illustrative example from TikTok to make his point. A video went viral because it showed a male pheasant displaying his beautiful plumage to a female who only looked off to the side. TikTok followers found humor in what appeared to be her disinterest, not realizing that she was looking straight at her potential mate with her side-facing visual field.
  4. Color: Color is entirely subjective. Yong explains it this way: “There’s nothing inherently ‘green’ about a blade of grass, or the 550-nanometer light that it reflects. Our photoreceptors, neurons, and brains are what turn that physical property into the sensation of green.”

    What an animal sees depends on how many cones it has. Animals with just one cone are monochromatic; they only see shades of gray. Dogs have two cones and as dichromats see some color; humans, as trichromats possessing three cones, see more. But unlike many animals, humans can’t perceive UV light (most animals see UV light as a deep shade of blue). Yong points out that this makes us the “weirdos” in the animal kingdom. 

    And then there are birds. Insult their “bird brains” all you want, but remember that these amazing creatures are tetrachromats (i.e., their eyes have four types of cone cells). Birds can therefore “distinguish a multitude of colors that are imperceptible to us.” Yong speculates that “we might be able to see just 1 percent of the hundreds of millions of colors that a bird can discriminate.”

    A very small percentage of humans, almost always women, are also tetrachromats. Their eyes can distinguish between shades of colors that ordinary human eyes cannot. Born into the world with their particular set of retinas and their particular brain, it doesn’t even cross their minds that they are seeing more colors than other people.
  5. Sound: As with animals’ other senses, their sense of hearing is calibrated to serve their needs. Crickets find it most useful to have ears on their knees. Cicadas are served best with ears on their abdomens, while hawkmoths have them in their mouths. Most insects are deaf, largely because they don’t need hearing to survive.

    On the other side of the spectrum? Birds, yet again. Researchers have found that “the processing speed of bird hearing is exceptionally fast.” Birds’ songs contain “extremely fast shifts that occur within the span of a single note.” This means that birds can hear intricacies within songs that rush by humans in a blur. To us, each rendition of a zebra finch’s song sounds just like the last, but they themselves hear nuances that could convey information about the lifelong bonds they have with their partners on topics such as their travel plans and parenting responsibilities. 

    While we can at least hear the basic elements of birds’ songs, we can altogether miss the lively banter among elephants. They produce infrasounds that at times contain frequencies inaudible to humans. Infrasound travels long distances, allowing elephants to coordinate their movements through a savannah even when they are miles apart. But elephants also use infrasound in a variety of other contexts, from greeting one another to saying goodbye. 

    While elephants can make infrasounds below the range of human hearing, mice, rats, and other rodents can make “ultrasonic calls, with frequencies too high to be audible to humans.”

    These illustrative examples represent just a tiny sliver of Yong’s wide-ranging exploration of animals’ sensory abilities; Yong’s book even identifies senses found in animals that humans don’t have. Some animals, for example, draw upon echolocation, electric fields, and magnetic fields to hunt, communicate, and travel. 

    All of which underscores Yong’s continual reminder that for all we’ve learned about how other animals experience the world, we’re nowhere near understanding even a fraction of the ways they use and combine their senses as they move through that world. How could we possibly know what it feels like to be that animal? “They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations,” naturalist Henry Beston points out, in a passage Yong quotes.

Given that the animal world is so mysterious—so radically, wonderfully other—we need to approach it with humility and imagination as well as empathy and sheer awe. Yong encourages us to watch tetrachromatic birds at play, take sniffing walks with our dogs, and observe the wonders of our gardens.

The wilderness, he says, is not far away. We are surrounded by it. “It is there for us to imagine, to savor, and to protect.” And, I’d add, it is there for us to embrace in all its magnificent and exciting difference.

So what does Yong’s brilliant research on animals have to do with our own efforts to better support our neurodivergent students?

In addition to being a thrilling read—there’s a reason why this book landed on all those year-end lists and why everyone is talking about it—Yong’s book offers a philosophical framework with which to consider and study neurodiversity among humans. His collective research doesn’t just decenter the idea that the universe’s creatures experience the world in the same way. He also celebrates that diversity as a source of joy.

Embracing and adopting Yong’s framework, we should alter how we view neurodiversity. Instead of seeing it as a problem to be solved or seeing neurodivergent students as “atypical” or “disordered,” we should be seeing them as manifesting ways of experiencing the world that can broaden our understanding of how that world works.

To return to Yong’s example regarding the comparatively large number of sensory biologists with atypical perceptive experiences: they haven’t had to “overcome” their ways of experiencing the world to do their professional work, but rather have exploited those differences to make the imaginative leap into other species’ worlds. They lead in this field because they combine expertise with empathy.

If we learn to approach the differences among us with the combination of humility, empathy, and excitement that Yong’s approach embodies, perhaps we’d come to see that it isn’t just each species that has a distinct sensory bubble—a unique way of perceiving the world. So does every one of our children. So does each individual human being.

Are we going to merely tolerate such difference, in the same sort of grudging way that too many people learn to accept diversity? Or might we instead learn to see how exciting such difference can be—thereby coming to embrace and love it rather than merely putting up with it?

If we take the time to better understand and appreciate how others learn, interpret, and embrace the world around them—and if we take the time to read books like Yong’s that facilitate us doing so—it won’t just make life better and fairer for those who experience the world differently than we do. It will make us better, too. More closely reading the immense world unfolding all around us, who’s to say how much we might grow and how far we might go?

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Elaine Griffin on Intrepid Ed News.

Elaine Griffin

Elaine Griffin is the Middle School Head at University School of Milwaukee, where she had previously served as an Upper School literature teacher and administrator for more than 20 years. Her essays have previously appeared in Education Next, The Once and Future Classroom, Chinese Language Matters, and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Her professional interests include parent education, curricular reform, and social-emotional learning.

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