An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us

Ed Yong

Random House

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. There is a wonderful word for this sensory bubble—Umwelt…Our Umwelt is still limited; it just doesn’t feel that way. To us, it feels all-encompassing. It is all that we know, and so we easily mistake it for all there is to know. This is an illusion, and one that every animal shares.

             from An Immense World



Re-discovering our capacity for wonder

There was a time as children when we still had the ability to be awed by the natural world: fascinated by a bee on a blossom, a seagull suspended in mid-air riding the wind, the stars overhead appearing magical. By the time we were teenagers, we probably were less prone to that sense of wonder. The world had become ordinary and lost much of its magic as our interests became focused more on the emerging social self with its complex feelings, and friendships, and first stirrings of sex and sexual attraction.

Ed Yong’s An Immense World has been an immense bestseller, perhaps in part because it helps readers recapture that child-like experience of wonder and fascination. Like E.O. Wilson, Carl Sagan, and Loren Eiseley, Yong, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer for The Atlantic, writes in a clear, jargon-free style that makes science accessible to the layperson.

He explores and expands our world of the senses. Aristotle first identified the five senses—sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing—through which we know the world. But, as Yong reveals, there are other sensory modes of perception beyond these. In 1909, zoologist Jakob von Uexküll applied the German word for environment, Umwelt, to an animal’s surroundings, “specifically the part of those surroundings that an animal can sense and experience—its perceptual world.” Yong takes us on a fascinating tour of the rich diversity of ways animals perceive and interact with the natural world: birds and turtles that can track the earth’s magnetic fields; fish that send electrical messages; snakes and bats that sense infrared radiation emanating from their warm-blooded prey; birds, butterflies, and mammals that perceive ultraviolet colors we are blind to.

One realizes that we humans, like all animals, live within our own “perceptual bubble,” and we get a glimpse of just how vast, complex and, yes, wonder-full is the natural world.

Similar to the writings of neurologist Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Awakenings, The Mind’s Eye) Yong also discusses how atypical persons may be using other senses as ways of knowing the world, and how their unique experiences may broaden and deepen our own understanding of perception and cognition.

One comes away from An Immense World with a greater appreciation for the vast complexity and beauty and diversity of life on this planet, and is finally left with a sense of humility and, if one’s lucky, child-like wonder.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (February 15, 2023.) Reprinted with permission.