Scientific Papers on Morphic Resonance
Published online: April 8, 2021
by Rupert Sheldrake
Plant and animal cells can be grown outside the organism they come from, and some can be propagated in cell cultures within laboratory glassware for years. Through morphic resonance, if some cells from the culture adapt to a new challenge, similar cells should be able to adapt to the same challenge more rapidly even when they are separated.
Mindfield Bulletin, (2019), Volume 11 Issue 1, 26-33
by Rupert Sheldrake
The morphic field hypothesis proposes that minds are systems of fields that are located inside brains but also extend far beyond them, just as the fields of magnets are both within magnets and extend invisibly beyond them. Morphic fields contain attractors (goals) and chreodes (habitual pathways towards those goals) that guide a system toward its end state. They effect all self-organizing systems, and systems within systems, in a nested hierarchy or holarchy of morphic units. Morphic fields of social groups may help to coordinate flocks of birds and schools of fish, which can rapidly change direction without individuals colliding.
In this paper I discuss the sense of being stared at and telepathy as natural consequences of the hypothesis of morphic fields. Although this hypothesis could perhaps account for clairvoyance, psychokinesis, and precognition, it only does so through chains of additional hypotheses, whereas possible explanations for the sense of being stared at and telepathy emerge naturally and directly from this hypothesis. I also differentiate this hypothesis from other explanatory models of psi and discuss its application to non-psi phenomena, like protein folding, inheritance, collective memory, learning, and navigation in animals.
World Futures, The Journal of New Paradigm Research, (2006), 62(1-2), 31-41
by Rupert Sheldrake
Ervin Laszlo's concept of the Akashic Field includes the idea of a cosmic memory. This field is a universal field, and Laszlo's (2004) Laszlo, E. 2004. Science and the Akashic Field, Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International. [Google Scholar] scientific starting point is the physics of the vacuum underlying space itself. A similar idea of a memory in nature arises from the hypothesis of formative causation, with its central concept of morphic fields. This hypothesis arose from biology rather than physics. Morphic fields help to explain embryology, biological development, habits, memories, instincts, telepathy, and the sense of direction. They have an inherent memory. In its most general form this hypothesis implies that many of the so-called laws of nature are more like habits.
Since ancient times, a strong and pervasive belief in the efficacy of prayer–for the living and the dead–reinforces the notion that consciousness is not limited to the physical body. Not only do traditions throughout the world share a belief that prayers may in some way help (or invoke help from) deceased ancestors, many cultures throughout history have believed that prayer can bring about changes in the physical circumstances of the living.
The hypothesis of formative causation predicts that as animals of a given species learn a new pattern of behaviour, other similar animals will subsequently tend to learn the same thing more readily all over the world, a a result of a process called morphic resonance. The more that learn it, the easier it should become for others. This possibility was tested with day-old chicks using a simple learned response, a conditioned aversion. The test took place in the laboratory of Steven Rose, a sceptic, following a standard procedure used routinely in his laboratory, and was carried out blind by a summer student who knew nothing of the purpose of the experiment nor of morphic resonance. The chicks were exposed either to a test stimulus, a small yellow light-emitting diode (LED), or a control stimulus, a chrome bead. Half an hour after pecking the stimulus, the control chicks received an injection of saline solution, and the test chicks an injection of lithium chloride, which made them mildly sick. They were then tested three hours later, each chick being exposed sequentially to the control and the test stimulus, when most test birds were averse to pecking the yellow LED, but not averse to pecking the control bead. The response of the chicks was measured by recording the latency, the time delay in seconds before they first pecked the stimulus. The same experimental procedure was repeated for 37 days. If morphic resonance were occurring, successive batches of chicks should have shown an increasing aversion to the yellow LED, even in the initial training procedure, by morphic resonance from their averse predecessors. The controls should have shown no such increasing aversion. I think the results are consistent with such an effect, which shows up with a high degree of statistical significance (p < 0.01) when the aversion to the yellow bead is measured relative to the control. Rose disagrees with this interpretation.
Sheldrake's paper claims that the results of the experiment which we jointly planned, and which was conducted by myself and Ms Harrison, are in conformity with the hypothesis he describes as "formative causation". Before demonstrating that Sheldrake's interpretation of these results is invalid, and that they by no means confirm his hypothesis, I wish to comment briefly on the background to the experiment. His book A New Science of Life seemed when I first read it, and still seems, to propose an entirely empty hypothesis. The circumstances in which novel hypotheses (paradigms) become important in science have been well described by Thomas Kuhn; they emerge when there is an accumulation of observational anomalies which existing hypotheses cannot account for, or when a theory becomes excessively cumbersome and "inelegant" and the alternative seems to handle the same material more coherently. To Kuhn's account we can, at least in the particular context of the present discussion, add the well-worn view that to have utility, a hypothesis should be capable of disconfirmation.
Rivista di Biologia - Biology Forum 85 (3/4), 1992, 455-460
by Rupert Sheldrake
Rose's predictions about the outcome of this experiment were refuted by the empirical data. His aggressive tone and extravagant rhetoric conceal this simple fact. I will not attempt to answer his polemic, ranging from Nietzsche to ley-lines, but simply start by looking again at his predictions about the chicks: "No secular trends apparent; latencies to peck the illuminated bead after ten weeks are no different from those on week I, and the differences between latencies for illuminated and chrome beads, if they occur, are also unchanged". In fact secular trends were very apparent, latencies to peck the illuminated bead after ten weeks were very different from those on week I, and the differences between latencies for illuminated and chrome beads were not unchanged. Rose and I discussed various interpretations of the data over a period of eighteen months. At the outset, he seemed certain that the hypothesis of formative causation would be disconfirmed. He had already publicly denounced it in the strongest terms. He appeared to have no doubt that when tested in his own laboratory, under his own supervision, in my absence, by an experimenter working blind, the data would reveal no trace whatever of morphic resonance. But it soon became clear that there had been an effect of the kind predicted by the hypothesis of formative causation. (I discuss below Rose's alternative interpretation of this effect in terms of "floors" and "ceilings"). After lengthy delays, Rose withdrew from our agreement to write a joint paper, and no longer wanted to publish the results.
Ranchers throughout the American West have found that they can save money on cattle grids by using fake grids instead, consisting of stripes painted across the road. Real cattle grids, usually made of a series of parallel steel tubes or rails with gaps in between, which make it physically impossible for cattle to walk across them. However, cattle do not usually try to cross them; they avoid them. The illusory grids work just like real ones. When cattle approach them, they "put on brakes with all four feet", as one rancher expressed it to me.
In this essay, I am going to discuss the concept of collective memory as a background for understanding Jung's concept of the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious only makes sense in the context of some notion of collective memory. This then takes us into a very wide-ranging examination of the nature and principle of memory-not just in human beings and not just in the animal kingdom; not even just in the realm of life-but in the universe as a whole. Such an encompassing perspective is part of a very profound paradigm shift that is taking place in science: the shift from the mechanistic to an evolutionary and wholistic world view.
The approach I am putting forward is very similar to Jung's idea of the collective unconscious. The main difference is that Jung's idea was applied primarily to human experience and human collective memory. What 1 am suggesting is that a very similar principle operates throughout the entire universe, not just in human beings. If the kind of radical paradigm shift 1 am talking about goes on within biology ? if the hypothesis of morphic resonance is even approximately correct ? then Jung's idea of the collective unconscious would become a mainstream idea: Morphogenic fields and the concept of the collective unconscious would completely change the context of modern psychology.
This is the third in our series of essays by Rupert Sheldrake on the implications of his hypothesis of Formative Causation for the psychology of C. G. Jung. The intense controversy this hypothesis generated with the publication of his first book, A New Science of Life (1981), has stimulated a number of international competitions for evaluating his ideas via experimental investigations.
Related Research by Others
Journal of Consciousness Studies, 18, No. 11–12, 2011, pp. 203–24
by Fraser Watts
This paper examines the central theoretical concepts in the work of Rupert Sheldrake. The first section examines Sheldrake’s account of morphic fields and questions whether difficulties arise when these concepts are extended upwards from the biological level. The second section reviews Sheldrake’s concept of extended mind and considers the criticism that it is reductionist about mentality. In considering both of these criticisms it is argued that Sheldrake’s theories can be taken in a reductive direction, but need not be. The third and final section draws on the work of Joseph Bracken and David Ray Griffin to suggest a panpsychist metaphysics of field as one possible way that Sheldrake could sidestep these dangers and strengthen his approach.
Rupert Sheldrake, a fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, is a biologist who has spent many years exploring and developing an alternative view of evolution one in which "formative causation", "morphogenetic" or "mental" fields play a decisive role. Sheldrake is also a scientist who devotes time regularly to the practice of prayer and exploration of its efficacy. How did a scientist come to be so interested in prayer, and how does he reconcile this with his scientific training? In December last year , IONS editor Christian de Quincey visited Sheldrake in his London home to talk about prayer and science. The following article is based on that interview.
Noetic Sciences Review, (Summer 1994), 30 4-9
by Rupert Sheldrake
Since ancient times, a strong and pervasive belief in the efficacy of prayer for the living and the dead reinforces the notion that consciousness is not limited to the physical body. Not only do traditions throughout the world share a belief that prayers may in some way help (or invoke help from) deceased ancestors, many cultures throughout history have believed that prayer can bring about changes in the physical circumstances of the living.
If prayer affects things in the physical world, its effects should be measurable, and science should be able to investigate it. There is a very scattered literature on this, but when you bring it all together as Larry Dossey has done in his recent book, Healing Words (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), you see there is quite a large number of interesting experiments with challenging results. Out of 131 controlled experiments on prayer-based healing, more than half showed statistically significant benefits. One of the best known is a double blind study of 393 patients in the coronary unit at San Francisco General Hospital. In this experiment, 192 patients, chosen at random, were prayed for by home prayer groups, the others were not. The prayed-for patients recovered better than the controls, and fewer died.
In order to make sense of these data on the efficacy of prayer, science will have to change its underlying assumptions about the nature of causality. Currently, the standard view is still purely mechanistic- notwithstanding all the recent talk about chaos and complexity theory. When applied to the life sciences, chaos and complexity theory even with the help of highly sophisticated computer modeling still explain the world in terms of mechanical causes involving known physical and chemical processes.
The data from empirical studies of prayer, as well as from the large literature reporting psi research in telepathy, clairvoyance and psychokinesis, seriously challenge the mechanistic view. Some other causal agent besides the mechanics of electrochemical interactions is required to make sense of the observed phenomena.
Holistic thinkers generally divide into two main categories. The majority want to have holism on the cheap. They want a holism which doesn't conflict with science as we know it. Instead of exploring the possibility of new causal factors, they prefer to explain holism in terms of complexity and self-organization of conventional mechanical forces, modeled with sophisticated mathematics and the latest computer techniques. Nothing essentially different from physical and chemical interactions is considered to account for the properties of living systems.
The other group of holists, a minority among which I include myself and Larry Dossey, think that there is more to it than just what we know about chemistry and physics and clever mathematical models. My view is that there are other causal factors in nature, processes that make actual differences, causes in nature which bring about new kinds of effects that we have to take into account in order to understand our experience and the world. These new causal factors are involved in things like paranormal phenomena, prayer and healing.
The whole thrust of my morphic resonance theory is to say there is more to nature than just the standard forces in physics. And what's more these other agents are at the very heart of the way things are organized in chemistry, in life, and in consciousness.
Prayer and Mental Fields
How might prayer fit in with the scientific view of things? I shall focus on two broad categories of prayer: petitionary and intercessory. In petitionary prayer we ask for something for ourselves; in intercessory prayer we pray to a higher power for the benefit of other people (either living or dead).
In praying for other people and for ourselves we ask a higher power to bring about a particular result. For me, this is what distinguishes prayer from positive thinking. Positive thinking involves nothing more than ones own mind, ones own desires and wishes, but petitionary and intercessory prayer are put in the context of a higher power. For this reason positive thinking does not fit into the category of prayer even though it is often confused with it.
Whether petitionary or intercessory, prayer clearly poses a challenge to the mechanistic view of the world. According to this view, there is no way that thoughts going on in your head, which at most create small electrochemical disturbances barely detectable a few inches from your head even by highly sensitive apparatus, could affect someone or something at a remote distance.
If you were practicing positive thinking or some of the more specifically directed forms of petitionary prayer, you could resort to explanations in terms of telepathy, or if it were a prayer affecting physical objects, you might say it was psychokinesis. But such explanations serve only to replace one set of explanations which lie outside the scope of modern mechanistic science with another set. There is nothing in mechanistic science that could allow mere thoughts inside my mind, whether cast in the form of prayer or as positive thinking, to affect things at a distance. It just cant happen.
The key to understanding prayer as a scientific phenomenon requires, in my view, getting away from the idea of the mind as somehow inside the brain. If we think our minds are confined to our brains the standard view then since what goes on in our brain occurs in the privacy and isolation of our own skull it cant affect anyone else. However, I see minds being field-like in nature (part of my general view of morphic fields), and I see mental fields as the basis for habitual patterns of thought. Mental fields go beyond, through, and interface with the electromagnetic patterns in the brain. In this way mental fields can affect our bodies through our brains. However, they are much more extensive than our brains, reaching out to great distances in some cases.
As soon as we have the idea that the mind can be extended through these mental fields, and over large distances, we have a medium of connection through which the power of prayer could work. We are no longer dealing with a purely mechanical system in the brain, with absolutely no way of connecting the brain and the observed effect for if that were the case the phenomenon of effective prayer would have to be dismissed as delusion or coincidence. With a mental field, however, we have a medium for a whole series of connections between us and the people, animals and places we know and care about with the rest of the world, in fact. When we pray, those extended mental fields would be the context in which prayer could work non-locally.
Clearly, this does not amount to a fully articulated scientific theory of prayer; it is highly speculative. But, I believe, it is also very clear that we need to have a much broader view of how the mind is extended beyond the brain. We need a theory of what I call the "extended mind" as opposed to the conventional scientific view of the "contracted mind" holed up inside the skull. This view of a contracted mind came from Descartes in the seventeenth century. It is a model of consciousness which separates our minds from the whole world around us into a small region in the brain a model of the mind which plainly contradicts direct experience. For example, when you see this page in front of you, you experience it as being outside you, not inside your brain. To say that this and all your other perceptions are located in your brain is a theory, not an experience.
It is important, however, not to envisage the extended mind as some amorphous field, a kind of undifferentiated Universal Mind. I dont think we should make a large leap from the concept of a contracted mind to a boundless universal mind. Such a jump isn't helpful scientifically.
My idea of morphic fields is that even though they are extended and non-local in their effects, they are still part of our individual and collective mind, but not to be equated with some ultimate Universal Mind. The morphic fields are not God. They are non-local in the sense that they can spread out over immense distances (as, for instance, gravitational fields do), so that if I were praying about somebody in Australia from my home in London the morphic field would carry the information and the prayer could work. But my mental field wouldn't usually spread out to Mars, for example, because there is nothing connecting me to someone on that planet. If someone I knew had traveled there on a spaceship, then there would be a link. For morphic fields to have a mental connection I believe there has to be something that links you to the other person. Even if you have never met the other person, I believe just knowing their name or something about them seems to be enough to establish a connection, though this connection is likely to be weaker than that between people who know each other well.
You could picture it something like this: When two people come into contact and establish some mental connection (perhaps experienced as affection, love, even hate) their morphic fields in effect become part of a larger, inclusive field. Then, if they separate from each other it is as if their particular portions of the morphic field are stretched elastically, so that there remains a "mental tension" or link between them. There has to be something like this that relates the two people.
Nested Sets of Morphic Fields
Morphic fields are organized in nested hierarchies (see below). For example, there are morphic fields surrounding the atoms in our bodies, which are within the higher level morphic fields of molecules, organelles, cells, organs and limbs, all of which exist within the morphic field associated with the entire body. The body field, in turn, would be within the field of relationships that constitute a family, within a larger social group. Societies, in turn, are embedded within ecosystems, and ecosystems within the planetary system, "Gaia". And by extrapolation, we could extend the series of nested morphic fields until we reach out beyond planetary, solar system and galactic limits to encompass the entire universe.
Even Einstein's space-time field of gravitation is a universal, cosmic field holding everything together and linking the entire universe, in fact, making it a uni-verse. It does the same thing as the World Soul or Anima Mundi of neo-Platonic philosophy. It embraces the whole cosmos. There are levels upon levels of morphic fields within fields, within which we are embedded. Human life is embedded in vastly larger fields of organization. To what degree they are conscious still remains in the realm of speculation. But I would assume that higher-level fields are not less, and probably more, conscious than we are. I would think they are more conscious than we are not simply because they are larger in size, but because they are more inclusive, contain more complexity, and encompass more possibilities.
I think that is one way of interpreting traditional doctrines about super-human intelligences, or cosmic intelligences, usually thought of in Christianity as the hierarchy of the angels. The word "angel" normally conveys the image of a good-looking youth with wings; but that's simply a pictorial representation. The traditional doctrine behind that image, however, is of a super-human intelligence. And if the solar system and galaxy have intelligence, then one might be an angel and the other an archangel. In some traditional Christian doctrines there are, for instance, nine hierarchies of angels or levels of intelligence. And I would see these as equivalent to intelligences, minds or organizing fields at different levels of complexity. The galactic angels, for instance, would embrace or include those of solar systems, which in turn would include those of planets.
This is a description of a cosmos which has intelligence at every level, not a view that sees consciousness as something that emerged from unconscious matter. Conscious intelligence was there to start with. The place to look for it is not going to be in atoms or quanta (although there may be some kind of consciousness there), but in solar systems and galaxies and in the whole cosmos. There may be all these different levels of imagination, intelligence, and mind throughout the whole of the cosmic organization. All traditional doctrines that I know of have recognized something of that kind.
Notes & References
1. For an extended discussion of these theories, see R. Sheldrake, A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation (Tarcher, 1981), and The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature(Vintage, 1988).
Opening Up To The Numinous
As a scientist I wasn't always interested in prayer. In fact, in earlier days I believed it was all nonsense. I was an atheist; God had no room in my scientific education. After graduating from Cambridge, I thought I had outgrown childish belief structures like religion, and that rational science was the way forward. I had a typical secular-humanist atheistic worldview for a long time, well into my thirties. And this, of course, is the worldview that most of my scientific colleagues still have. They regard religion as a relic from a superstitious age. In that context, prayer is completely meaningless, except insofar as people believe in it they may derive some psychological benefit a kind of "placebo effect".
Then in 1968 I visited India, and all the materialist assumptions I took for granted just didn't seem to work any more. What struck me most was the experience of being immersed in a culture that worked in an entirely different way to what I had been accustomed. In this exotic culture, the idea of what we might call "other realms" the supernatural or spiritual was simply taken for granted by practically everybody. There was a palpable sense of another dimension to life, everywhere you looked, and everywhere you went.
As an atheist, of course, my initial reaction was to think they were deluded in their beliefs. Yet on the other hand, these beliefs produced a fascinating culture. Even people living in the extremes of poverty seemed to have more joy in their lives than most people I knew who lived in the lap of plenty. I was touched deeply by the natural human warmth, and the quality of the people and of their way of life. According to the materialist beliefs I had, poverty equaled misery; wealth and good medical attention meant, if not happiness, then at least a much better quality of life. In India I saw it wasn't as simple as that. The people there were poor beyond the comprehension of most Westerners, yet everywhere they walked about with the most radiant smiles. Walk along a street in London, Paris or New York and you see mostly harried, worried faces. That difference impressed me very deeply.
The contrast between the sense of inner joy and peace I experienced all around me in India compared with the tense way of life in the West was so striking that I decided to investigate meditation. For about four years I did various forms of Hindu practice. This didn't conflict with my scientific attitude because meditation didn't challenge my whole scientific worldview. On the contrary, I could approach my study of meditation in a truly scientific spirit. Its appeal is that you do it and see if it works. It's empirical. You sit, you calm your breath and you observe what happens. I started with Transcendental Meditation which sounded scientific in that it was supposed to lower lactose levels in the blood, have beneficial effects on the circulation, and calm brain activity. I found that meditation did indeed work. I experienced within myself that calm I was seeing all around me in India.
As a scientist I wasn't troubled. I could understand meditation by explaining to myself that it wasn't opening me up to other realms of consciousness, but that it was simply changing the physiological state of my brain. To say that breathing in a particular way and doing a particular kind of mental activity could affect my mental and physical state did not challenge my worldview.
Nevertheless, although I could follow Hindu practices, India was such a completely different civilization and culture that there was no way I'd ever be an Indian. I began to have a sense that I would need to recover my own tradition if I were to share in the deep perceptions and peace that I saw in the people around me.
Furthermore, after living there a while, I also saw the shadow side of the Hindu tradition, which I hadn't seen in my earlier brief visit. There is a fatalistic lack of concern for other people that was alien to me. That view was at variance with my more optimistic, progressivist Christian culture.
In India I came face to face with the realization that rooted in the Christian tradition is the sense that you can, and should, help other people; we can aim for some better state of affairs on Earth, for the whole of society. When I talked with my Indian friends and colleagues, it became very clear that I had this view deep within me. I realized that this sense didn't come from Hindu philosophy, nor from my atheistic outlook. Instead, I saw it came from a deeply embedded Christian view of the world that I carried with me unwittingly. In fact, I realized this partly because in conversation with my Indian friends they would frequently point out that so much of what I was expressing was a Christian view. The repeated revelation of this, even to an avowed atheist, was difficult to ignore.
I spent some time living in Father Bede Griffiths ashram, and I found that coming back to a Christian path made sense to me. I began praying and discovered that it was more helpful to me than meditating. I would say that meditation involves a kind of separation between the practice and the rest of ones life; it is going into another space altogether. You could say that contemplative prayer would have the same effect. But for me, ordinary petitionary and intercessory prayer, such as the "Lords Prayer", links the events of my daily life directly with my practice. I pray about what I've done that day and whats coming up the next day. It's a matter of bringing the very fabric of one's life -relationships, work, and personal concerns into the context of the spiritual life.
How Do Mental Fields Work?
My hypothesis of morphic resonance and morphic fields has grown out of the notion in developmental biology of "morphogenic fields". This idea dates back to the 1920s in the work of biologists A. Gurwitsch and Paul Weiss. In modern developmental biology these fields are usually regarded as heuristic devices, or as mathematical abstractions with no causal effect. By contrast, I interpret them to be causal fields with an inherent memory given by morphic resonance; in other words I regard them as one kind of morphic field. Other kinds of morphic fields include behavioral fields, responsible for coordinating instinctive or learned behavior, mental fields, responsible for organizing mental activity, and social fields, responsible for organizing social groups.
If fields are the medium of mind then what you have in the brain is an interface between one kind of field and another kind of field. All organization in the body has morphic fields underlying it. Morphic fields in the brain interact with electromagnetic (EM) fields in the brain. However, the nature of this interaction is indirect. Rather than morphic fields working directly through the electromagnetic field, they interact through both affecting the same thing in this case, physical activity within the brain.
I am not saying that there is a linear-type causal relationship between brain-electromagnetic-morphic fields. I regard mental fields as one kind of morphic field that affects the brain, shaping its activity, and this affects the EM field associated with the brain.
Here you've got fields acting on fields: morphic fields surrounding all the cells, tissues and organs of the body, as well as in molecules and cell membranes, and indeed in quantum-matter fields. This is contrasted with the more usual view of the spirit-matter dichotomy where mechanical matter and ineffable spirit interact in some kind of quasi-miraculous way. If you say that the spirit acts on the EM field, you've got a problem of miraculous intervention.
On the other hand, if everything in nature is organized by fields, and if mental fields are a more subtle kind of field, you've got no sharp dichotomy- you've got fields acting through fields at all levels of reality. So the mind-body problem ceases to be a sharp dichotomy.
Source Jean-Pierre Dalbéra
This is the third in our series of essays by Rupert Sheldrake on the implications of his hypothesis of Formative Causation for the psychology of C. G. Jung. The intense controversy this hypothesis generated with the publication of his first book, A New Science of Life (1981), has stimulated a number of international competitions for evaluating his ideas via experimental investigations.
Source Jean-Pierre Dalbéra
Psychological Perspectives (Spring 1988), 19(1) 64-78
by Rupert Sheldrake
This is the third in our series of essays by Rupert Sheldrake on the implications of his hypothesis of Formative Causation for the psychology of C. G. Jung. The intense controversy this hypothesis generated with the publication of his first book, A New Science of Life (1981), has stimulated a number of international competitions for evaluating his ideas via experimental investigations. The results of these experimental tests are reported in his new book, The Presence of the Past (1988) wherein he writes:
In this book, which is less technical in style, I place the hypothesis of formative causation in its broad historical, philosophical, and scientific contexts, summarize its main chemical and biological implications, and explore its consequences in the realms of psychology, society, and culture. I show how it points towards a new and radically evolutionary understanding of ourselves and the world we live in, an understanding which I believe is in harmony with the modern idea that all nature is evolutionary.
The hypothesis of formative causation proposes that memory is inherent in nature. In doing so, it conflicts with a number of orthodox scientific theories. These theories grew up in the context of the pre-evolutionary cosmology, predominant until the 1960s, in which both nature and the laws of nature were believed to be eternal. Throughout this book, I contrast the interpretations provided by the hypothesis of formative causation with the conventional scientific interpretations, and show how these approaches can be test ed against each other by a wide variety of experiments. Sheldrake begins this essay with an interesting insight regarding the evolution of Jung's and Freud's conceptions of the unconscious out of the previous world view of Soul. He then explores a number of provocative ideas about "mind extended in time and space" that give us fresh perspectives on power, prayer, and consciousness.
We've all been brought up with the 17th century Cartesian view that our minds are located inside our brains. In this view, our minds are completely portable and can be carried around wherever we go, packaged as they are inside our skulls. Our minds, therefore, are essentially private entities associated with the physiology of each of our nervous tissues. This idea of the contracted mind, a mind which is not only rooted in the brain but actually located in the brain, is an idea that is so pervasive in our culture that most of us acquire it at an early age. It is not just a philosophical theory (although, of course, it is that); it is an integral part of the materialistic view of reality.
Soul, Mind, and Consciousness
Our understanding of the concepts of mind and soul is actually a question of how we define the word consciousness. I prefer to view the attribute of consciousness as being restricted to human beings and, perhaps, some of the higher order of animals in which one could say there was some kind of self consciousness. Much of the behavior which we consider to be mentally organized, however, actually arises out of unconscious processes. Riding bicycles with great skill, for example, does not involve conscious memory; it does not involve conscious thought. Bike riding utilizes a body memory that involves a great deal of unconscious action and doing. We acquire many complex skills on an unconscious level skiing, swimming, piano playing, and so on.
Such learning is notoriously difficult to describe in words because it does not involve conscious thought in the normal pattern of thought as a directed intellectual activity. A more useful concept that is difficult for us to use nowadays because its meaning is obscure to most people is the concept of the soul. In Aristotle's system, animals and plants had their own kind of soul, as did nature as a whole. This was the animistic view: the idea that there was an "anima" or soul in all living things. (Inanimate matter did not have a soul.) The very word animal, of course, comes from the word anima, meaning soul: animals are beings with soul. Actually, prior to the 17th century, it was believed that all of nature, and the earth as a whole, had a soul; the planets all had a soul. But the concept of soul was banished by 17th century mechanistic science.
The older view of soul is, I think, a better concept than that of consciousness. The word closest to it in modern usage is mind. The modern usage of mind, however, is almost identical with the word consciousness; mind incorrectly implies consciousness. We then have to use the term, unconscious mind, as Jung and Freud did. This usage has appeared to be a contradiction in terms to the academic world, so they have tended to reject it (and Jung's and Freud's conceptions of it, as well). The concept of soul, however, does not necessarily imply consciousness. The vegetative soul, which is the kind of soul that organizes the embryo and the growth of plants, was not viewed as functioning on a conscious level. When we grow as embryos, we don't have any memory of the process. We don't consciously think out, "the heart comes here, and I know I'll develop a limb out there, teeth here," and so forth. These things just seem to happen in a way that is tacit, implicit, or unconscious but yet soul like in the way they are organized.
Until the time of Descartes, three levels of soul were conceived. The vegetative soul contained the form of the body and governed embryology and growth; all animals and plants were viewed as having it. Then there was the animal soul, which concerned movement, behavior, instincts, and so on; all animals as well as humans were seen as having this level soul. Over and above the vegetative and animal soul in human beings was the rational soul, which was experienced as the more intellectual, conscious mind.
Descartes contended that there was no such thing as vegetative or animal souls. All animals and plants were dead, inanimate machines. The body itself was viewed as nothing more than a machine. It did not have an animal soul governing unconscious instincts and patterns. Those processes were entirely mechanical in nature. The only kind of soul human beings had, on the other hand, was the rational, conscious soul: "I think; therefore I am." Thinking thus became the very model of conscious activity or mental activity, and in this way, Descartes restricted the concept of soul or spirit to the conscious, thinking, rational portion of the mind, which reached its highest pinnacle in the proofs of mathematics. Descartes' perspective left us with the idea that the only kind of consciousness worthy of the name was "rational consciousness" especially mathematical, scientific consciousness.
In a sense, Descartes created the problem of the unconscious, for within 50 years of his work, people started saying, "Wait a minute, there's more to us than just this conscious mind, because there are things that influence us that we are not conscious of." Thus the idea of the unconscious mind, which we generally regard as having been invented by Freud, was actually invented again and again and again after Descartes. By defining the mind as solely the conscious part and defining everything else as dead or mechanical, Descartes created a kind of void that demanded the reinvention of the idea of the unconscious side of the mind (which everyone before Descartes had simply taken for granted in the soul concept). (There is an excellent book on this subject by L.L. Whyte called The Unconscious before Freud, published by Julian Friedman, London, 1979.)
The problem we are encountering now is that, having eliminated the concept of soul in the 17th century, we are left with concepts such as mind which are not really adequate for what we mean. If we want to get closest to what people meant by soul in the past, the modern concept of field is the most accurate approximation. Prior to Isaac Newton's elucidation of the laws of gravity, gravitational phenomena were explained in terms of the anima mundi, the soul of the world or universe. The soul of the world supposedly coordinated the movements of the planets and stars and did all the things that gravitation did for Newton. Now from Einstein, we have the idea of space time gravitational fields that organize the universe. In this concept of fields one can see aspects of the anima mundi (soul) as being of the universe. Souls were invisible, nonmaterial, organizing principles. Fields, especially morphic fields, are invisible, nonmaterial, organizing principles that do most of the things that souls were believed to do.
Mind Extended in Time and Space
In Jean Piaget's book, The Child's Conception of the World, he describes how by the age of about ten or eleven, children learn what he calls the "correct view" that thoughts, images, and dreams are invisible "things" located inside the brain. Before that age they have the "incorrect view" (as do so-called primitive people) that thoughts, images, and dreams happen outside the brain.
The Cartesian view of the mind as being located in the brain is so pervasive that all of us are inclined to speak of our minds and brains as if they were interchangeable, synonymous: "It's in my brain," rather than "it's in my mind." In the 20's and 30's, various philosophers and psychologists, particularly Koffka, Uhler, and Wertheimer of the Gestalt school challenged this view.
I want to argue that our minds are extended in several senses. In previous articles, we discussed how our minds are extended in both space and time with other people's minds, and with the group mind or cultural mind by way of their connection to the collective unconscious. Insofar as we tune into archetypal fields or patterns which other people have had, which other social groups have had, and which our own social group has had in the past, our minds are much broader than the "things" inside our brains. They extend out into the past and into social groupings to which we are linked, either by ancestry or by cultural transmissions. Thus, our minds are extended in time, and 't believe they are also extended in space.
Throughout this article, I want to make a simple point that is a very radical departure from traditional theory. The traditional theory of perception is that light rays reflected from objects travel through electromagnetic fields, are focused by the lens of the retina, and thereby produce an image on the retina. This triggers off electrical changes in the receptor cells of the retina leading to nerve impulses going up the optic nerve into the cerebral cortex. An image of an object somehow springs into being inside my cerebral cortex, and something or someone inside sees it. A "little man in my brain" somehow sees this image in the cerebral cortex and falsely imagines that the image is "out there," when, in fact, it is "in here."
Personally, I find this explanation extremely implausible. In my experience, my image of an object is right where it seems to be: outside of me. If I look out the window, my perceptual field is not inside me but outside me. That is, the objects are indeed outside me, and my perception of them is also outside me. I'm suggesting that in our perceptual experience, the perceptual fields extend all around us. While, as the traditional view holds, there is an inward flow of light impulses which eventually lead up to the brain, I also experience an outward projection of the images from my mind. The images are projected out, t and in normal perception, the projection out and the flow in coincide, so that I see an image of an object where the object really is located.
In hallucinatory types of perception, I can see images whether they are there, in fact, or not. Consider "psychic blindness": people can be hypnotized so that they no longer see objects which are actually in their view. In such a case of "psychic blindness," the inward flow is present but not the outward projection. More normally, the movement out and the movement in coincide with each other as part of a coordinated process, creating a perceptual field that embraces both the observer and the object.
This idea of the extended mind is a matter of common belief in ancient and traditional societies. If this concept were true, it would mean that we could influence things or people just by looking at them. In India, for example, it is believed that a person who either looks on a holy man, or is himself looked on by the holy man, receives a great blessing. In many parts of the world, including India, Greece, and the Middle East, it is believed that if you look upon something with the eye of envy - the "evil eye" - you therefore blight it. People in many cultures still take great precautions against this so-called evil eye. In India, it is considered to be extremely unlucky for a childless woman to admire a baby who belongs to another woman (whereas in our society, this is merely good manners). This is because she is assumed to be envious of the baby. Once a childless woman breaks this taboo, rituals must be performed (such as making a circle of salt around the baby and reciting various mantras) to exorcise the harmful influence.
When new buildings go up in India, scarecrows are fixed on the buildings; similarly, when there is a good crop of wheat or rice, scarecrows are placed in the field. These scarecrows are not intended to "scare away crows" literally, but rather to attract the evil eye of people who might otherwise blight the crop by looking upon it with envy. The scarecrows act as "lightning conductors" because anything with a human figure attracts the eye. The Indian people also put out round pots with huge white spots stuck on sticks; the eyes are drawn to the pots because the white spots took like eyes. For similar reasons, people throughout the Middle East wear talismans which contain eyes; in Egypt, the eye of Horus serves a similar function. All this is done to protect against the evil eye.
If we do affect things or people by looking at them, then can people perceive when they are being looked at, even when they cannot actually see some one looking at them. In both realms of fictional literature and real-life experience, many people claim to have had the experience of knowing they were being watched and then turning round and seeing someone staring at them. As undergraduates at Cambridge, some of us had read a Rosicrucian advertisement about the power of the mind. It said something about, "Try this simple experiment: look at the back of someone's neck and see if they will turn round after a few minutes." During boring lectures we acted as suggested, and it often worked; we found that we could fix our attention on the back of someone's neck and after a minute or two, the person often looked uncomfortable and turned round.
Although there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that people sense when they are being watched, there is almost no scientific investigation of this phenomenon. The entire world literature on the subject that I've been able to find consists of three papers: one written in 1896, the next one in 1910, and a final paper in 1953. Two of the papers show positive effects, although they were both done on very small subject populations.
I've done some simple preliminary experiments over the last few months in workshops. The way we conducted the experiment was very simple. Four people volunteered and sat at one end of the room, with their backs turned toward the audience. We put each person's name on his or her back by way of identifying them. Then, in a series of trials, I would hold up cards in a random sequence containing the name of the person the audience was to watch. For example, if I had selected "Tom," I would hold up a card reading, "Trial 1, Tom," and everyone in the audience would stare at the back of Tom's neck for fifteen seconds. At the end of each trial, all four subjects would write down whether or not they thought they were being looked at during that time period. At the end of the series of trials, we compared when the volunteers thought they were being looked at, with whether or not they really were being observed.
My results so far indicate that people vary tremendously in their degree of sensitivity to being watched. In one workshop I conducted in Amsterdam, there was a woman who was 100 percent accurate; she knew each time she was being watched. She was the best subject I've encountered. When I asked if she knew why she had done so well, she said that as a child she used to play this game with her brothers and sisters. They practiced and she got very good at it; she had volunteered because she was sure she'd still be able to do it, even though she hadn't done it for 20 or 30 years.
A friend of mine has been conducting this experiment in one-on-one trials with friends and colleagues. In over 600 trials ping 65 - 70% of the time, which is statistically significant, indicate that there is an outgoing influence from the eyes or from the mind; perhaps mental influence does extend beyond the boundaries of the physical body. It has been suggested that this might be a telepathic rather than a visual influence. There is a simple method of checking that out. In some trials, the people doing the looking could turn around so that they are facing away from the volunteers and just think about the designated volunteer rather than look at him or her. If there was greater effect when the volunteers were actually being looked at than when they were being thought about, then one could be type was functioning.
A variation of this experiment is to examine the effect of distance on the perception of the subjects. Have the person being looked at located at a considerable distance from those looking at him (binoculars could be used) and then see if the effect still works. If it does, then set up trials using video or closed circuit television. Imagine an experiment in which there were four people in a studio (or even in different studios), with cameras running continuously, and a randomized switching device so that the person being looked at in each trial is randomly determined. Imagine a typical television audience of millions of viewers. Now, what if the subjects could distinguish when they were being looked at by other people over television. There one would have a massive, large-scale demonstration of extended mind in a way that could be conclusive.
This format, too, could be extended. You could have people looking at subjects in the Soviet Union via satellite linkups; one could elaborate this pattern indefinitely. What happens to actresses and actors, to prominent political figures, when they are looked at by millions of people? Are they affected by being in people's minds?
Large-scale experiments to test hypotheses could do more to bring about a paradigm shift than any amount of lecturing about the limitations of the mechanistic theory. Our perceptual fields may reach far beyond our physical brains; when we look at the stars, our minds may literally reach to the stars. There may be almost no limit on how far this process can extend.