Ashley Ward, Where We Meet the World: The Story of the Senses (2023)

Author: Ashley Ward

Title: Where We Meet the World: The Story of the Senses

Format: e-book

Pages: 324

Series: –

Ward’s newest book, Where We Meet the World, is a beautiful ode to the miracle of the natural world. It’s funny, engrossing, and educating, but the main highlight for me is the way it radiates awe and amazement directed at things we usually take for granted: the incredible, complex way our senses work to deliver our sense of self within the wider world.

I took my sweet time with this book, mainly because I wanted to savour the various facts and anecdotes, and consign as many of them as I could to memory. Yes, I could’ve taken notes, but weirdly enough reading an e-book discourages me from using paper and pen altogether – which never happens when I’m reading a traditional dead-tree book – and my poor old Kindle was already addled enough not to let me make highlights in the text. So, I read slowly, trying to cram the more intriguing facts into my head. And believe me, there are plenty of fascinating tidbits of information gathered in Ward’s book, from the incredible nature of the mantis shrimp to the gag-inducing culinary customs of Iceland. Heck, even reading about hákarl is gag-inducing for me, I have no need to actually physically sense it. I blame my mirror neurons.

In some ways, maybe because I’ve read less about this topic than about social characteristics of animals, I felt that Where We Meet the World was more educational than The Social Lives of Animals. It’s still popular science, easy to read and easy to digest, light, humorous, relatable and sometimes even personal, but filled with a plethora of curated, fascinating biological facts many of which were quite eye- (or other sensor-) opening for me. The cultural bias with which we perceive our senses, for example – it’s fascinating that different societies value the senses differently, and that the precedence afforded to vision is not entirely universal. I would dearly love to know how environmental factors come into play here, or how history/evolutionary adaptations could have moulded our responses to different stimuli. Of course, no book about senses would be complete without the famous cortical homunculus, here for your perusing pleasure:

What I particularly loved, however, was the tantalisingly short consideration on how all of our senses collaborate and compile the external stimuli into a coherent vision of the world, and the internal stimuli into a vision of us – and how our own uniqueness, our sense of self, is born from that interaction. I am still not convinced that the term Umwelt was coined by the Estonian/German biologist Jakob von Uexküll (the earliest mention of his use of the term that I have found comes from his book A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, published in 1934, while Martin Heidegger used the term as one of the main building blocks of his philosophy in his key work Being and Time published seven years earlier, in 1927), but the mention of this term in a biology book was rewarding enough. This is a topic that’s getting hotter by the minute, considering the evolution of AI – how do we exist in the world? What makes us us? Can you achieve sentience without a body which interacts with the wider world? Philosophy was long intrigued by these concepts, from the inherent unknowability of the reality of the world to the intrinsic subjectivity and fundamentally physical nature of our perception – but it’s great to see biology, and informational sciences, taking interest in these topics as well. I would wish to read more about it, particularly in Ward’s accessible, narrative style, but I guess that could well be the topic of his next book :).

Where We Meet the World is a truly fascinating work, opening large vistas of knowledge just waiting to be discovered. It’s also fun, and poignant, and written with love and awe for the subject that is truly contagious. It perfectly fills a niche between the dry academic books and the easy pop science offerings, skilfully delivering a wealth of knowledge with a storyteller’s panache.  I’ll be looking forward to whatever Ward decides to write about next.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.

Score: 10/10

31 thoughts on “Ashley Ward, Where We Meet the World: The Story of the Senses (2023)

    1. Somehow it slightly broke in one corner and the touch functionality doesn’t really work anymore, anywhere. But I’ve been given a new one as a birthday present so I’m very happy 😁

      Liked by 1 person

            1. I still have a working gen 2 somewhere… But I’m super chuffed with my new one, it’s so good on the eyes, the light strength and warmth is customizable and the screen is bigger.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. For me, I like the weight and weight distribution of the oasis. I can read it one handed quite comfortably, so I can use the other to eat. That way I don’t have to waste time “just” eating 😀

                How does the “warmth” work? changes the color tone?

                Liked by 1 person

                1. Yup. In the evenings I use a warmer tone so my eyes don’t get tired so quickly, and my brain doesn’t get that blue light wake-up call before sleeping.

                  I usually keep my Kindle flat on the table in front of me when I’m eating so that I can eat with both hands 😅

                  Liked by 1 person

  1. So, is this one purely focused on humans or also on animals? I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that many birds of prey see in a larger resolution than humans, and what that would be like. It also makes you wonder how our humans forms of visual or auditory art, like paintings, movies, music, would be different where our senses different.

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    1. It focuses on animals in contrast/relation with humans, speaking of differences in perception. That’s where the mantis shrimp comes into play, for example 😁 but it’s mostly about humans, and it’s really fascinating. Differences between individuals, between sexes, various age differences all play role in perception so it’s super interesting how each of us sees the world differently. In a way, we each live in an essentially different, unique world!


  2. What a fascinating concept! And I like what you say about sometimes taking things for granted and not being aware of the small everyday miracles happening around us. I will have to take a look at this book, you certainly piqued my curiosity… 😉
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oooh thanks for pointing me toward a new title, Tammy! I’m on the prowl for some more sensory biology titles, so your rec is much appreciated!


    1. Heh, I do get your feelings. It just looks so weird and moronic, with these fat open lips, the lolling tongue and all! According to Ward, even the orginal author of the homunculus hated it to pieces and wished it gone 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve come across the Umwelt concept in biology books before. You need something like consciousness if you want to react to stuff while you are moving, and your senses provide all this data.

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    1. Yeah, it’s quite popular – I’m just curious who was its original author, whether biology appropriated a philosophical term or was it the other way round.

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    1. Yep, very similar. Sure, he used it in relation to the human being in the world, but it seems to me that it’s just a variation on the broader von Uexküll theme.

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