A Surprising Interview on Morphic Fields


Originally Posted on Scientific American

For decades, I’ve been only dimly aware of Rupert Sheldrake as a renegade British biologist who argues that telepathy and other paranormal phenomena (sometimes lumped under the term psi) should be taken more seriously by the scientific establishment.

Sheldrake probably provokes such strong reactions in part because he is a product of the scientific establishment—more specifically, of Cambridge University. He earned his doctorate in biochemistry there in 1967 and became a fellow and director of studies in biochemistry and cell biology. He gradually became dissatisfied with current theories of biology. He presented an alternative framework—involving his theory of morphic resonance (explained below)--in his 1981 book A New Science of Life, which Maddox, in a now-famous Nature editorial, called "the best candidate for burning there has been for many years."

Sheldrake, undaunted, went on to write more popular books, including Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home (1999), The Sense of Being Stared At (2003), Seven Experiments That Could Change the World (1994) and, most recently, Science Set Free (2013). The latter calls on modern science to shed its restrictive materialism and reductionism, advancing some of the same arguments that philosopher Thomas Nagel does in his recent book Mind and Cosmos.

Sheldrake—I think even his most adamant critics will agree--is a fascinating scientific figure. I was thus delighted when he agreed to the following email interview.

Horgan: I admit that I'm still not sure what morphic resonance is. Can you give me a brief definition?

Sheldrake: Morphic resonance is the influence of previous structures of activity on subsequent similar structures of activity organized by morphic fields. It enables memories to pass across both space and time from the past. The greater the similarity, the greater the influence of morphic resonance. What this means is that all self-organizing systems, such as molecules, crystals, cells, plants, animals and animal societies, have a collective memory on which each individual draws and to which it contributes. In its most general sense this hypothesis implies that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits.

Horgan: Did the idea of morphic resonance come to you in an epiphany, or was it a gradual process?

Sheldrake: The idea of morphic resonance came to me when I was doing research at Cambridge on the development of plants. I was interested in the concept of morphogenetic, or form-shaping, fields, but realized they could not be inherited through genes. They had to be inherited in some other way. The idea of morphic resonance came as a sudden insight. This happened in 1973, but it was a radical idea, and I spent years thinking about it before I published it in my first book, A New Science of Life, in 1981.

Horgan: What is the single most powerful piece of evidence for morphic resonance?

Sheldrake: There is a lot of circumstantial evidence for morphic resonance. The most striking experiment involved a long series of tests on rat learning that started in Harvard in the 1920s and continued over several decades. Rats learned to escape from a water-maze and subsequent generations learned faster and faster. At the time this looked like an example of Lamarckian inheritance, which was taboo. The interesting thing is that after the rats had learned to escape more than 10 times quicker at Harvard, when rats were tested in Edinburgh, Scotland and in Melbourne, Australia they started more or less where the Harvard rats left off. In Melbourne the rats continued to improve after repeated testing, and this effect was not confined to the descendants of trained rats, suggesting a morphic resonance rather than epigenetic effect. I discuss this evidence in A New Science of Life, now in its third edition, called Morphic Resonance in the US.

Horgan: Is animal telepathy a necessary consequence of morphic resonance?

Sheldrake: Animal telepathy is a consequence of the way that animal groups are organized by what I call morphic fields. Morphic resonance is primarily to do with an influence from the past, whereas telepathy occurs in the present and depends on the bonds between members of the group. For example, when a dog is strongly bonded to its owner, this bond persists even when the owner is far away and is, I think, the basis of telepathic communication. I see telepathy as a normal, not paranormal, means of communication between members of animal groups. For example many dogs know when their owners are coming home and start waiting for them by a door or window. My experiments on the subject are described in my book Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home. Dogs still know even when people set off at times randomly chosen by the experimenter, and travel in unfamiliar vehicles. One of these experiments can be seen here: http://www.sheldrake.org/videos/jaytee-a-dog-who-knew-when-his-owner-was-coming-home-the-orf-experiment

Horgan: Do you think morphic resonance theory will ever yield practical applications?

Sheldrake: Morphic resonance involves the transfer of information across space and time. It might be possible to develop information-transfer systems, with a global memory, which would work without all the normal paraphernalia of satellites, wires, booster stations etc. I have already designed experiments in which a pin code could be transmitted from London to New York without any conventional means of communication.

Horgan: Does your scientific outlook make you doubt whether artificial-intelligence researchers can replicate human minds on computers?

Sheldrake: Morphic fields take place in self-organizing systems. Machines are not self-organizing - they are made in factories - and I would not expect them to have morphic fields. Therefore I expect artificial intelligence on digital computers will remain rather limited in scope, and those who have high hopes for it will be disappointed. However if analogue computers with genuine quantum randomness were constructed, perhaps they could be organized by morphic fields and show much more intelligent behavior. It’s possible that quantum computing will lead in this direction.

Horgan: Do you ever have doubts about morphic resonance, and think maybe the materialists are right?

Sheldrake: I would like there to be much more research on morphic resonance and I would like to see a lot more evidence for it. If there were, it would not necessarily refute materialism, but could expand the materialist worldview, which has become excessively dogmatic, as I show in my recent book Science Set Free (called The Science Delusion in the UK). I think something like morphic resonance is necessary to make sense of inheritance, memory, the evolutionary nature of nature, and many other phenomena. Lee Smolin, the theoretical physicist, recently put forward a similar idea, which he calls "the principle of precedence," and perhaps his hypothesis might mesh in better with established science, since it is formulated in the context of quantum physics. The main question is whether or not the effects predicted by the hypothesis of morphic resonance – or the principle of precedence – actually happen.

Horgan: Why do you think your ideas are so vehemently rejected by the scientific mainstream, while multiverses, string theory, panpsychism (as defined by neuroscientist Christof Koch) and other highly speculative ideas are taken seriously?

Sheldrake: Within physics, since the quantum revolution and the Big Bang cosmology, there has been a pluralism of ideas with many unexpected possibilities entertained seriously by mainstream physicists. However in the 20th century, biology moved in an opposite direction, towards to a more dogmatically materialist position. When I first put forward the hypothesis of morphic resonance in the 1980s, most biologists were convinced that all the problems of biology would soon be solved in molecular terms, and this enthusiasm gave a great impetus to human genome project. But this confidence is now waning as developmental biology continues to defy any simple explanation in terms of molecules. The assumption that genes code for the characteristics of organisms is thrown into question by the "missing heritability problem." And it turns out that the inheritance of acquired characteristics, now called epigenetic inheritance, is common in both animals and plants. The implications of this revolutionary acceptance of epigenetic effects are still being worked out, but I think that biology will become more open as a result.

Horgan: Do you believe in God? Does your faith influence your scientific outlook in any way, or vice versa?

Sheldrake: Yes, I believe in God. I am a practicing Christian, specifically an Anglican (in the US, an Episcopalian). I went through a long atheist phase, and began to question the materialist orthodoxy of science while I was still an atheist. I later came to the conclusion that there are more inclusive forms of consciousness in the universe than human minds. But my ideas about morphic resonance and telepathy are not part of orthodox religious belief, any more than they are part of orthodox science.

Horgan: If you were appointed King of Science, in charge of prioritizing research and funding, what would your first decision be?

Sheldrake: I would leave most research funding as it is for the time being because it would be highly disruptive to the scientific community if there were a sudden change in direction. But I would allocate about 5% of the available funds to innovative research that could lead to breakthroughs. In most branches of science, there are dissident minority groups who have been marginalized by the mainstream, but which contain well-qualified scientists and promising unorthodox results. These are the low-hanging fruits that are most likely to lead to breakthroughs, and I would make sure that such areas were adequately funded.

Horgan: If you had the skeptic Michael Shermer (who critiqued morphic resonance in 2005) in front of you right now, what would you say to him?

Sheldrake: I would invite him to have a debate about the existence of telepathy and other psychic phenomena. In 2003, in relation to my research on the sense of being stared at and on telepathy, he asserted in USA Today that "The events Sheldrake describes don't require a theory, and are perfectly explicable by normal means." I emailed him to ask what his normal explanations were. He was unable to provide them, and confessed that he had not actually read the evidence. I challenged him to a debate. He accepted, but unfortunately he was so busy being a professional skeptic that he could not find time to look at the data. He has often claimed that “Skepticism is a method not a position.” Taking part in this long-delayed debate would provide an opportunity to put his principles into practice.


Experiment Proves Intuition is Real

Originally Posted on Huffpost

Most of us have a general idea of what intuition is -- you might say we have an intuitive idea -- but there’s never really been a clear scientific definition of the term.

A team of researchers in Australia is trying to remedy that. And their findings suggest that intuition is a real, observable thing that people can use to make more accurate decisions... at least sometimes.

“Intuition is one of the most fascinating kinds of human experience," said Joel Pearson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of New South Wales. "People have talked about it in literature going back to a thousand years or so, and they use the word every day. There are hundreds of books on it as well. But when you start looking into what it actually is, there’s not a lot of strong evidence that it actually exists.”

Pearson and his colleagues wanted to take a more rigorous look at this hard-to-pin-down phenomenon. To begin with, they agreed that there are two qualities present in any instance of intuition: It has to involve a piece of information that you're not exactly conscious of, and it has to have an emotional element. 

The unconscious part is obvious, but what about the emotional part? If you think about it, most of the time when we have hunches, there’s an emotion associated with it. You enter a room and something just doesn’t feel right (fear, anxiety); or you get a bad vibe after just a few minutes of being in a new restaurant (disgust, discomfort); or you somehow know you’re going to hit it off with your new co-worker (excitement, anticipation).

Now that Pearson and his team had a working definition for intuition, the next step was to measure it. So they did what any of us would do: They set about trying to generate flickers of intuition in the brains of a dozen or so college students.

Invisible to you, but not to your brain 

The experiment, as described in the May issue of Psychological Science, involved a task in which 21 participants were shown fields of moving dots. Most of the dots were moving chaotically, in random directions, but each image included a few dots moving purposefully toward either the left or the right -- a tiny bit of signal amid the noise. In each case, the participants were asked to name the direction of the motion as quickly and accurately as they could. As you might expect, it usually takes people a few moments to arrive at an answer, because they have to see enough dots moving in tandem for their brains to gather data and make a decision.

To inject emotionally charged information into the brains of the participants without them knowing it, the researchers used a modified version of binocular rivalry, in which a person is shown two different images simultaneously -- one in each eye.

Here, the researchers added a twist. They showed the participants two different images at once, and while one of the images always had an emotional connotation -- whether it was something positive, like flowers or puppies, or something negative, like a gun or a snake -- the other image would be something bright and eye-catching but emotionally neutral, like a nonsense pattern of shapes and colors.

The person would see the emotionally charged and the emotionally neutral images at the same time, but the bright colors of the emotionally neutral image would always dominate their attention. In other words, they would only be aware of seeing the emotionally neutral image. They'd register the other one -- the one that carried an emotional association; the puppy or the snake or the flowers or the gun -- but only on a subconscious level.



And there was one final wrinkle: Unbeknownst to the participants, the researchers had made an arbitrary rule. Every time the correct answer for the moving dots was “to the right,” the researchers would flash a negative image. Every time the answer was “to the left,” they'd flash a positive image. And in time, the participants subconsciously picked up on this association and started using it as an extra piece of data when trying to identify the direction of the moving dots. 

"Even though the people never consciously see these images, it turns out that they start reporting the direction more accurately, and they are more confident about their decisions," Pearson said. "And they never know why."

In other words, the findings show that people are able to use information they don't even know they have in order to make a decision. 

Pearson's definition of intuition hasn't convinced everyone, however.

"I'm not so sure the study measures intuition," said Dr. Michael Shadlen, a neuroscientist at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute. "I'm not so sure what that even means, to be honest."

Shadlen noted, however, that he was impressed by the experiment's design, which allowed the researchers to evaluate different aspects of cognition at the same time. "It's not easy to study these cognitive problems in the lab at all," he said.

Should you trust your gut?

Intuition is... complicated. As this study suggests, it can help you make a decision by providing you with more evidence. But that's not always guaranteed to help. After all, sometimes the evidence we take in, whether consciously or unconsciously, just so happens to be wrong.

However you define intuition, one question remains. How does a decision-making task like picking out the movement of dots, one that takes only a few moments, relate to the more common types of decisions we make in everyday life -- decisions that can take minutes or hours or days?

Both Pearson and Shadlen believe that those slower decision-making processes have something in common with the kind of process, like dot-evaluation, that happens very, very quickly. There's all kinds of information in our brains that we're not aware of, and these pieces of information combine to help us make decisions.

Pearson and his team are now looking into individual differences in a follow-up study.

"We are looking at why some people are good at using intuition and some are bad," he said. "We also compare our lab-based measure to more classical personality differences and questionnaires used by human resource."

The next step after this is to see whether it's possible to teach people to tap into their intuition.

"If someone can't do it, can we use our paradigm to train them?" Pearson said. "Would they get better at this task after a few days of practice, and if so, can it generalize to other tasks they do outside the lab?"