The University Of Chicago Essay Prompt On The Mantis Shrimp: Seeing Is Believing

In Mantis Shrimp Essay Prompt, University of Chicago, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Essay Prompts for 2013-2014 on August 6, 2013 at 10:47 pm

This post will focus on another Chicago prompt with both humorous and philosophical  potential, yes that one on the mantis shrimp.  To refresh your memory, here it is:


The mantis shrimp can perceive both polarized light and multispectral images; they have the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom. Human eyes have color receptors for three colors (red, green, and blue); the mantis shrimp has receptors for sixteen types of color, enabling them to see a spectrum far beyond the capacity of the human brain.

Seriously, how cool is the mantis shrimp: mantisshrimp.uchicago.edu

What might they be able to see that we cannot? What are we missing?

Inspired by Tess Moran, Class of 2016

There are many options for approaching this prompt, but all of them begin with perception.  Here’s the thing:  cones and rods shape what comes into the brain to be seen, but seeing takes place in the brain.   And I’m not sure how far you can really go in talking about what a stomatopod  sees, even with this kind of groovy visual apparatus to riff on, without talking about yourself–when it comes to consciousness, let’s put it in video terms:  you’re Halo and the mantis is Pong.  As soon as you have a thought beyond “eat now” or “run away” about what you are seeing, you do more than a mantis shrimp does with all its rods, cones, infrared, multifocal and other apparatus.  Though I’d hate to get into a game of table tennis with a human-size mantis shrimp.  Speaking of which,  you will likely have to move to an anthropomorphic approach pretty quickly with this prompt if you are going to do anything with it.

With that as a preface, I would like to observe that the cross-species  thought experiment proposed in the mantis prompt is more complex than it might seem at first, and it opens up the opportunity to be a bit philosophical, and even serious, if you wish.  I will discuss this more specifically  when I discuss what I call Option Two, below.  Keep in mind that, as in all of my prompt and essay analysis,  all of my “options” are arbitrary–these are just  starting points for ideas, not the last word.   But also keep in mind that the trick with a strange or open-ended prompt is to come up with some way to organize your thinking, first by understanding and breaking down the prompt and then by being able to list and categorize ways to approach it–if you don’t do this first, you may end up floundering as you try to slap together disparate ideas.

And also be aware  that when you talk about this shrimp you are really talking about yourself, showing the reader what you are like as an individual, which is, of course, the point of all the U Chicago prompts.

The most obvious way to break down the approaches to this prompt is,  first, to  try to walk a mile in the shrimp’s, uh, pereiopods, writing about the world the shrimp would perceive, then shift to some observations about and an elaboration on the interplay of perception and reality, or on how we are shaped by our environments, or pivot from what the shrimp sees to a humorous human topic.

And now a word from your author:  this post, my friends, is on a University of Chicago prompt from the year 2013-2014.  We are now in the application cycle for 2014-2015.  If you feel I tricked you by making you read a few paragraphs before telling you this, just consider how we have already had a look at perception and reality as well as having started to look at options for an essay like this.  You can continue reading for more, or you can go to the link immediately below, for a quick explanation about how to use my blog, as well as links to currently available college application essay prompts–most of them won’t be online for this year until August 1st, though many schools leave their old prompts up until August 1st.  Now that is tricksy.  For more on why this post is here, as well as posts on this year’s college app prompts, click here:  College Essay prompts and other information, 2014-2015

The First Approach:  My Life as a Shrimp

To start with, it’s not even a shrimp.  It’s called  a mantis shrimp because it has a resemblance to both of the species in its name.  So you could spend some time on the “shrimp,” learning a bit about it, then write.  Not that a whole lot is actually known about this creature.

By the way, the word shrimp, while misapplied here, comes form an old Norse word (that’s Viking-speak, to you) and seems to have originally been applied to denote a skinny if not starving cow, among other things, coming from a root verb having to do with shriveling up.  The word skimpy seems to be related to this root as well. I note all this because you have to start an essay somewhere, and even if the mantis is not really a shrimp, as noted above, when you are making stuff up,  start with some facts, however tangential.  Then take it somewhere surprising and interesting.  Maybe the mantis in your essay resents being called a shrimp and wants to talk about that.

On the other hand, consider what it’s like to be chased by a mantis, to be its prey, as here, where a mantis shatters an old glass a crab tries to use for shelter:  World’s Deadliest (video starts after an ad.  Thanks to National Geographic).  Hard to avoid being anthropomorphic here, as well, but that’s the way it is, with this prompt.

So I do encourage research–as you can already see, I have done some–but more of a tangential nature than of the formal research paper kind, though if you want to take a scientific slant, you could go all kinds of directions–what is happening to the kind of shallow-water habitat that the mantis needs as the oceans warm with climate change; or how ocean acidification is affecting shellfish of various kinds (hey, the mantis as a species is literally going to see these changes in its habitat –the fact that it has no clue about what is going on both emphasizes the fact that you do, or can, if you conduct a little research, and it also emphasizes the responsibility that those of us with human consciousness have for those changes, both in addressing them and in bearing responsibility as their cause.)

You could also write a kind of faux-scientific entry on the shrimp–you know, start with the facts, then invent a whole set of  new “facts” or do a takeoff on something, making a turn into satire–a home improvement show for a mantis shrimp, shopping with a mantis, Mantis Iron Chef.  Whatever.  If you want to do humor, start listing ideas, the more ridiculous the better, then you begin with what it sees and take off into fantasyland from there.   Pimp my Mantis Ride.

After looking at the mantis as predator, it’s also interesting to consider it as dinner, as I found here:  yum, yum.  And if you happen to live in northern California and want to see one in captivity–this does not happen often, for reasons the link with the prompt makes clear–the Monterey Bay Aquarium has one on display currently:  On Display.

Option Two

Use the shrimp as a starting point to talk about a philosophical matter raised by this imaginative activity–in other words, work with what this prompt says about  what it means to be human or what it means to be sentient at all.  This could focus on human imagination, perception, creativity, all of which you have to call on to write about what shrimp sees when it sees.  This prompt raises  serious philosophical issues in the realms of ontology and epistemology  the shrimp is having an experience, but one quite different from you, one that his determined by its physiology and environment, just as yours is. What does it mean for you to imagine yourself as that animal?

Others before you have thought about thinking about the experience of being another creature–the philosopher Thomas Nagel, for example, who used a similar trope  to examine materialist assumptions about the mind, and argued that a purely mechanistic view of the brain leaves out what it feels like to be embodied as a specific creature.    Nagel discussed this back in the 1970’s, in a famous essay entitled, What Is It Like To Be A Bat?  He noted that we can think about what it means to be a bat–nearsighted, using sound to navigate, etc–but we can never know what it really feels like to be the bat itself; there is something to the individual experience that remains ineffable and unknown from the outside.  Something that demands respect.  I think his critics have missed that last point as they felt he was attacking the materialist approach to the brain as a sort of mechanism, a biological entity which can be broken down.  It certainly is, but that hologram we call the self that arises from it also deserves some respect.

For more, take a look at Nagel’s original essay here–I recommend it most highly;  the first paragraphs alone will give you a lot to think about: Nagel.  

From Nagel’s point of view,   we can only talk in a superficial way about what a mantis shrimp can see, from its point of view,  because to do so means talking about its conciousness, not just a range of the visible spectrum–there are a number of ways to talk about why it sees what it sees, including habitat, evolution, the mechanics of its trifocal eyes, etc–but we have to pull back from claiming to know its actual, individual experience.  Yes, I know, the consciousness of a being this far down the cognitive scale from us is hardly a consciousness at all, but Nagel is also indirectly making a profound argument that we should respect the subjective experience of every sentient being as he discusses what it’s like to be a bat–we are more than we appear to be, all the time, and only we know and own our own experience–even if we are the fascinating, ferocious but cognitively primitive mantis shrimp.

I find it interesting that most of the counter arguments  to Nagel which have been written since do exactly what he suggests they cannot do, by presuming that we will, at some point, be able to map brain activity well enough to show what it is like to be any sentient being and/or that, in being able to manipulate the cognition and experience of a mind, through chemical manipulation, for example, tinkering with dopamine or some other brain chemical, that we know it.  Messing with my head is not the same as being me–a point Nagel would agree with.  And reading a map, even in 3-D, on a screen, even via a virtual reality helmet or goggles, is not the same as being in the territory, or being the territory itself, whether of a stomatopod, a mantis shrimp, a human or  a bat; only the creature  in the moment can be the consciousness,  in the moment  (The map vs. the territory or vice versa is an interesting thing to explore and has been, in philosophy and fiction–I’ll leave that one to you to look up).  I also find this interesting to consider this issue in the age of Facebook and other social media–just as even a relatively simple creature like the mantis shrimp is beyond our real understanding, so are we all more than what an FMRI scan can show, or a Facebook profile, or our meta data, for that matter.  What does it mean to know or to be known–the biggest ontological question of all, folks.

Do some research and start scribbling down ideas and be aware of what you assign to the shrimp, Oh Human.    Good luck and see you soon.  I may return to the Chicago prompts within a week or so, but I’d also like to get to some of the slowpokes (Princeton, I’m talking to you) in the Ivy league.


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