Overlapping Morphic Fields.

Overlapping Morphic Fields.

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, biologist and author, interviewed by Gil Dekel.

Gil Dekel: If the mind is ‘extended’ as you seem to suggest, how then do you see human-kind in general? As individuals that are inter-connected, or perhaps as one ‘entity’ which is separated to six billion awareness? [1]

Rupert Sheldrake: I think that we – humankind – are connected to everybody we think of and to all the places we are attached to through our extended minds. Our minds are vast, far-reaching, and spatially extended networks of connections in space and time – networks of immense scope in which the brains inside our heads are but a portion… [2]

It is important not to envisage this connection as some amorphous field, a kind of Universal Mind. I don’t think we should make a large leap from the concept of a contracted mind to a boundless universal mind. The extended minds are not God. In fact, for the morphic fields of the extended mind to have a mental connection I believe there has to be something that links you to the other person. [3]

You have said that you ‘see telepathy as a normal, rather than paranormal’ – why then do you think people generally tend to disagree that telepathy exists at all? [4]

Because it’s a taboo area. Some people simply believe telepathy and other forms of ‘extrasensory perception’ (ESP) or psi are impossible in principle. So, they suggest that all the scientific evidence for telepathy must be flawed and should be treated with scepticism. Most research that brings evidence falls into obscurity. It just doesn’t make it into the mainstream scientific literature. [5]

The reasons for this are historical. They go back at least as far as the ‘enlightenment,’ when the idea was to push science and reason forward and reject religion, credulity, folk law and so forth. Somehow these psychic phenomena got put into the compartment of ‘superstition,’ and ever since then, rational people have been supposed not to believe in them. Educated people – not just scientists, but most university graduates – know that they’re meant to be part of this ‘enlightenment’ project, and, at least in public, are supposed to deny telepathy. If you do talk about telepathy you might be seen superstitious or stupid… [6]

How has your own search developed or shifted throughout the years? [7]

Early on in my study of biology and biochemistry, I felt a gap between my interest in actual living organisms, and the kind of biology I was taught: orthodox, mechanistic biology which essentially denies the life of organisms and instead treats them as machines. [8]

Red Leaf

Figure 1: The fractal morphogenesis of leaf veins. Photo: Gil Dekel. [9)

I discovered Goethe’s vision of a different kind of science, and following Thomas Kuhn I came to see the mechanistic theory of life as just a paradigm, a belief system which is not necessarily ‘true’ but rather is subject to change. [10]

I did a Ph.D. on how plants develop, and at the same time I was exploring the connections among mystical experiences, philosophy, and science. My study of rainforest plants took me to Asia, where I found totally different ways of looking at the world. There I became increasingly convinced that the mechanistic approach simply could not work in understanding the developments of living organisms. [11]

At that time the idea of morphic resonance came to me in an exciting moment of insight. I felt that a new kind of science was necessary, and I began to see what it could look like. I was drawn to the Hindu traditions and Indian philosophy, so I went to India and worked in agricultural research improving crops for subsistence farmers. There I went on thinking about my heretical ideas in biology until I felt ready to write a book on the subject. I went and lived in Bede Griffiths Christian ashram for a year and a half, and then I wrote my first book, A New Science of Life, which I dedicated to him. [12]

Since then I’ve continued to pursue my interests in morphic resonance and holistic ideas in biology. [13]

Has your stay in the Ashram and your spiritual exploration shaped your scientific inquiry? [14]

I wrote A New Science of Life while living in the ashram, but the basic idea of morphic resonance and morphic fields came to me while I was in Cambridge, before I went to live in India. When I was first thinking about these things in Cambridge, many people there simply couldn’t understand what I was going on about, particularly scientists, and thought the idea was too ridiculous to be worth taking seriously. When I arrived in India and discussed it with Hindu friends and colleagues, they took the opposite approach; they said, ‘There’s nothing new in this, it was all known millennia ago to the ancient rishis.’ So, the climate of Indian thought was a very fertile one for me. [15]

In Indian culture, the idea of what we might call ‘other realms’, the supernatural or spiritual, was simply taken for granted by practically everybody… There is a sense of another dimension to life, everywhere you looked, and everywhere you went. The contrast between the sense of inner joy and peace I experienced around me in India compared with the tense way of life in the West was so striking that I decided to investigate meditation. [16]

I started with Transcendental Meditation (TM), 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 calmness 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. [17]

For years I was involved with Hindu gurus and visited ashrams, and also came to know some Sufis in Hyderabad. I had a good Sufi friend, a charming old man, who was my teacher. But oddly enough, in spite of all this, I found myself being drawn back to the Christian tradition, which I felt was my own tradition. Around that time, I met Bede Griffiths, and as an English Benedictine monk living in a Christian Ashram, he made the bridge between the Christian and the Eastern traditions much easier for me to cross. It was in his ashram that I articulated my thoughts on morphogenetic fields, but the main influence on my thinking came from the holistic tradition in developmental biology, where these fields are fairly widely accepted. [18]

My morphic resonance idea was shaped in part by Henri Bergson’s book, Matter and Memory. His ideas have much in common with Indian thought, but the germs of these ideas, the roots of my own thought, are in Western philosophy and science rather than Oriental philosophy. So, it’s a kind of convergence. [19]

What do you think of such theories as ‘collective-unconscious’ suggested by Carl Jung? [20]

Jung thought of the collective unconscious as a collective memory, the collective memory of humanity. He thought that people would naturally be more tuned into members of their own family and cultural group, but that nevertheless there would be a background resonance from all humanity: a pooled of experiences of basic things that all people share (e.g. maternal behaviour and social structures of experience and thought). [21]

Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious makes extremely good sense in the context of the general approach of morphic resonance. The main difference is that Jung’s idea was applied primarily to human experience and human collective memory. What I am suggesting is that a very similar principle operates throughout the entire universe, not just in human beings. [22]

Actually, morphic resonance theory would lead to a radical reaffirmation of Jung’s collective unconscious. Today, biologists and others within mainstream science do not take the idea of the collective unconscious seriously. It is considered a flaky, fringe idea that may have some poetic value, but no relevance to proper science. But, if the kind of a radical paradigm shift I am talking about here 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. [23]

Do you see any connection between biological morphogenesis, and human psychic phenomena? [24]

My proposal is that morphogenetic fields (first introduced by Gurwitsch and Weiss) are not just a way of talking about known phenomena like gradients of chemicals, but are a new kind of field. With a new understanding of these fields, the mental field in particular, 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. These overlapping morphic fields result in some of what we refer to as psychic phenomena. [25]

However, not all of the phenomena of parapsychology are explained by the theory of morphic fields and morphic resonance. For example, anything to do with precognition or premonition doesn’t fit in to an idea of influences just coming in from the past, or immediate past. So, I don’t think this is going to give a blanket explanation of all parapsychological phenomena, but I think it’s going to make some of it at least seem normal, rather than paranormal. [26]

How can you determine that ‘the sense of being stared at’ operates on the basic of a feeling of being looked/stared at? Perhaps people actually feel something else, which they do not know to describe, so they just say to you that they felt as if ‘someone looked at them’? [27]

Most experiments have given positive, statistically significant results supporting the reality of this particular sense, the ‘sense of being stared at’. These tests are easy to perform, and have now been carried out with many thousands of participants. [28]

One kind of experiment involves direct looking, where people work in pairs, with a subject and a looker. The subjects sit with their backs to the lookers, who either stare at the back of the subjects’ necks, or look away and think of something else. A mechanical signal marks the beginning of each trial. The subjects guess quickly, in less than 10 seconds, whether they are being looked at or not. Their guesses are either right or wrong, and are recorded immediately. [29]

Several parapsychologists have done different tests, using closed circuit television, with the subjects and lookers in separate rooms. The subjects were not asked to guess whether they were being looked at or not. Instead, their galvanic skin response was recorded automatically, as in lie-detector tests. Most of these experiments gave statistically significant positive results. The subjects’ skin resistance changed when they were being looked at, even though they were unconscious of this change. [30]

Do you think there might be other senses, such as the ‘sense of being remotely touched’? [31]

I think you’re asking for examples of telepathy, and there are really many, both documented and anecdotal. One very common claim is that mothers are often telepathic with their babies. Some nursing mothers claim that they’re physiologically telepathic, in the sense that their milk lets down if they’re away from the baby, maybe shopping, when the baby needs them. [32]

Probably the commonest kind of apparent telepathy in the modern world is telepathy in connection with telephone calls. I’ve done surveys that show, in an average population, about 80 percent of people claim to have had the experience of thinking of someone who then rings in a seemingly telepathic way, or ringing someone who says, ‘That’s funny, I was just thinking about you.’ [33]

Many people have had telepathic experiences with dogs and cats. With Pam Smart, we’ve filmed hundreds of experiments on dogs that know when their owners are coming home. They go and wait at a door or window when the owner’s on the way home, and we’ve shown that this happens even when people come at random times. It’s all filmed; it’s objectively evaluated. It happens when they travel by taxis – it’s not a chance effect. It’s highly significant statistically and it’s been replicated, rather unwillingly, by sceptics eager to debunk it – and they got exactly the same results. [34]

Is there a biological or evolutionary significance to telepathy? [35]

I think that in many cases, telepathy is to do with things of great biological significance. You can’t, of course, do experiments on this, because you cannot ask someone to die at a random time, but you could observe telepathy in their dog. [36]

The most powerful experiences with telepathy are to do with the communication of need or want. Telepathy means ‘distant feeling,’ tele-pathy, like an empathy, a sympathy. It is not primarily about thoughts or images, but about feelings and needs. [37]

There are many stories from travellers in Africa, who say that it is taken for granted in many parts of Africa that members of a tribe will know when somebody is coming to visit them, or when somebody is needed somewhere else, and they’ll just go and find someone who needs them fifty miles away… They respond to this call all the time. [38]

Before the invention of telephones, this was what people did, and there are reports from the American Indians, Australian Aborigines – travellers’ reports. Typically, anthropologists didn’t study it, because they were convinced it was impossible. They went there with a rationalist frame of mind and didn’t document the things in traditional cultures that are the most interesting features about them… [39]

What are the historical origins of the rationalist frame of mind? [40]

Ironically, the roots of the 17th-century mechanistic world view can be found in ancient mystical religion. The mystical insight that reality is timeless and changeless, developed into the scientific paradigm of today… Pythagoras and Plato were both fascinated by the eternal truths of mathematics. In the 17th century, this evolved into a view that nature was governed by timeless laws that existed within the mind of God. This world view became dominant and was incorporated into the foundations of modern physics. [41]

A second view of changelessness which emerged in the 17th century stemmed from the atomistic tradition of materialism. Parmenides, a pre-Socratic philosopher, had the idea that only ‘being’ is; and ‘not-being’ is not. In other words, if something is, it can’t change because in order to change it would have to combine being and not-being, which was impossible. Therefore, he concluded that reality is a homogenous, changeless sphere. Unfortunately for Parmenides, the world we experience is not homogenous, changeless, or spherical. The atomists’ solution was to claim that reality consists of a large number of homogenous, changeless spheres: the atoms. The changing appearances of the world could then be explained in terms of the movements of the atoms. [42]

The combination of this materialistic tradition with the Platonic tradition gave rise to the mechanical philosophy which emerged in the 17th century and produced a cosmic dualism that has been with us ever since: on the one hand, we have eternal atoms of inert matter; and on the other hand, we have changeless, non-material laws. In modern physics, matter is now seen as a form of energy; eternal energy has replaced eternal matter, but little else has changed. [43]

Could you say if your upbringing has determined why and what you do today? [44]

I was born and brought up in Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire, in the English Midlands. My family were devout Methodists. I went to an Anglican boarding school and was for a while torn between these two very different traditions – one Protestant and the other Anglo-Catholic with all the trappings of Catholicism. [45]

From a very early age I was interested in plants and animals; the living things. My father was an amateur naturalist and microscopist and he encouraged this interest. My mother put up with it. I kept lots of animals at home and she said, as mothers do, ‘It’s all very well, but who’s going to feed them?’ And of course, in the end, she usually did. [46]

So my childhood definitely influenced my interest in biology, and led me to take religion seriously, although for a while I rejected it and became an atheist, an attitude that was encouraged by my scientific education. [47]

How do your theories sit with spiritual or religious teachings? [48]

My theories of morphic fields and morphic resonance fit with several aspects of religion. For example, they are relevant to the practice of prayer. The extended mental fields of our minds, as explained by morphic fields, could be the context in which prayer works non-locally, connecting the prayer to the person or situation he or she is praying about. [49]

Religious (and secular) rituals create the right conditions for morphic resonance to occur. When people are asked why participants must use the correct movements, gestures, words for the ritual, they frequently say that this enables them to participate with their ancestors or predecessors. If my theory of morphic resonance is true, those participating in ritual might be doing just that, reconnecting with their ancestors and all those who have performed the ritual before them. [50]

Now consider the use of mantras, sacred sounds or words which often have no explicit meaning. In Tibetan and Hindu tradition, the mantra enables the disciple to connect with the guru as well as with the entire spiritual lineage. Morphic resonance could help explain the power of mantras. [51]

Another aspect of religious tradition becomes clear when viewed in terms of morphic fields. Many religious teachers compare their way to a path, as in Christianity when Jesus says, ‘I am the Way,’ or as in Buddhism where there is the eightfold path of the Buddha. The notion is that through a religious initiation, the individual is set on a path which the initiator and many others since have trod before them. The people who have gone along that path create a morphic field, making the pathway easier to traverse. In Christianity the concept is explicitly stated in the Apostles’ Creed through the doctrine of the ‘Communion of Saints.’ Those who follow the path of Jesus are not only aided by Jesus himself but also by the communion of saints, all those who have trodden the path before. [52]

Have you ever had yourself an experience of telepathy or a ‘peak experience’? [53]

I have had several memorable experiences of telepathy, notably with one of my sons when he was a child. For example, one day when we were walking along I felt an acorn in my coat pocket, which must have been there for months. As I was feeling it, he asked me something about acorns, completely unrelated to anything we were doing or talking about. Throughout my life I have also had moments of insight or a feeling of connection that I would call peak experiences. Such experiences have inspired and empowered me, and convinced me that there is more to reality than materialists would have us believe. [54]

Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D. is a biologist and author of more than 80 technical papers and ten books, the most recent being a new edition of A New Science of Life, published in the US under the title Morphic Resonance. He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge and a Research Fellow of the Royal Society. He is currently Director of the Perrott-Warrick project, funded from Trinity College Cambridge. See www.sheldrake.org

4 November 2009.

Exclusive publishing rights © Gil Dekel. Text © Rupert Sheldrake and Gil Dekel. Image © Gil Dekel.
Interview conducted via email correspondence, as well as via a compilation of material from Rupert’s website (compiled by Roberta Lee), October 2009.
Rupert Sheldrake is based in London, UK. Gil Dekel is based in Southampton, UK.

[Hebrew עברית]


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