Episode 6: Rupert Sheldrake, Morphic Fields and The Sense of Being Stared At
Rupert Sheldrake, Morphic Fields and The Sense of Being Stared At
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Duncan Campbell: From time immemorial, beginning with indigenous councils and ancient wisdom traditions, through the work of Western visionaries such as Plato, Galileo and quantum physicist David Bohm, mutually participatory dialogue has been seen as the key to evolving and transforming consciousness, evoking a flow of meaning, a dia – flow of logos – meaning, beyond what any one individual can bring through alone.
So join us now as together with you, the active deep listener, we evoke and engage in Living Dialogues.
Duncan Campbell: I'm your host, Duncan Campbell, welcoming you to Living Dialogues. For this particular program I am really delighted to have as my guest Rupert Sheldrake. He is known to many of you for his numerous books and for his pioneering work in creating the notion of morphic fields, which we will get into.
His most recent work, talking about the existence of a seventh sense and how our mind is much more extended out into the universe than we may think in terms of conventional science. He is married to the great sound healing pioneer Jill Purce and they have two sons.
So with that extensive bio Rupert, let's just dive in to talk about your early life and how you came to the work that we have just described in your adult life. Perhaps there is an incident from your childhood that might come to mind here spontaneously that in some way was a harbinger of things to come.
Rupert Sheldrake: Well, there are two that I can think of that are relevant I think. One is that I was very keen on animals. I kept lots of pets. My father was a biologist and the herbalist and a pharmacist. He had an amateur laboratory at home with microscopes and things.
He used to take me to our local railway station where every Saturday baskets of pigeons came from all over England. The porters released these pigeons for pigeon races. I helped them. I was about five. I used to open these wicker baskets and out would burst the pigeons. They would fly up into the air, circle around and groups of them would all head off in different directions to different parts of England. I was fascinated by pigeons and I kept some myself and found that they did indeed home.
So that was one thing that got me very intrigued by animal behavior and the things we don't understand about it. No one understood it then and no one understands it now.
Duncan Campbell: Really?
Rupert Sheldrake: So that is an enduring preoccupation of mine, the unexplained abilities of animals.
I think the other incident, which was to do with plants that had a big influence was when I was around the same age. I was at our family farm in a village near my hometown in Nottinghamshire. I saw a row of willow trees with rusty barbed wire hanging between them. I asked why there was barbed wire there. My uncle, who was standing behind me, said, “Oh well, we made a fence out of those willow stakes and they came to life.”
I looked at it and I could see that yes, it was a fence. They had made a fence out of willow stakes. They had taken root and sprouted and they turned into willow trees and the barbed wire was still there between them. This, I think, influenced my view on the regenerative power of plants and indeed of morphogenesis.
I didn't think about this incident until much later. When I was at Cambridge doing research on plants, I was working on regeneration of cuttings. I even worked on willow cuttings, formation of roots and shoots and the development of form.
So I think that these two incidents, one with plants, the other with animals, in some ways foreshadowed a lot of my later work.
Duncan Campbell: It’s very interesting that you put it that way because what could be more basic in a sense than plants and animals. Of course we have the mineral world itself. But we have also in the indigenous beginnings, we might say of our species, this very intimate relationship not only with sense of place that would be interacting with the mineral world but also very sensitive and enormously complex embeddedness in a world of plants and animals.
Some of the things to which you have brought our attention and begun to offer a modern scientific framework for, with respect to the powers and the wisdom, you might say, of plants and animals, are things that have been known for millennia by the indigenous world. But they have been, in a sense, forgotten and obliterated by our modern materialistic, scientific education. When I say scientific, I might say scientisms. The understanding of pre-modern peoples was very scientific in its own way because it was based on observation and deduction although we seem to think in the modern world that we have a monopoly on science as a term.
But with that caveat, we might say institutional science has not really answered some of the big questions as you put it in the introduction to your most recent book ‘The Sense of Being Stared At’. We have a sense of superiority or arrogance in our materialistic science as if somehow all the ‘big questions’ have been answered. And yet there are many things right under our noses in our ordinary lives in our own behavior as well as the behavior of companion animals and nature that we simply take for granted or literally overlook and to which we do not pay attention because science really doesn't have the ability to explain them. So they in a sense regard them as inconsequential.
So perhaps we could give an example or two of those kinds of things in your early days Rupert that you were inquisitive about, that when you got your formal education in Cambridge as a biologist, you realized that science really had overlooked some very basic things.
Rupert Sheldrake: Oh yes, definitely. Well, I mean this pigeon homing thing was one of the things that stayed with me all through my time at Cambridge and through my science education. However much we understand the biochemistry of proteins, enzymes, etcetera, it doesn't really explain things like that, things that we actually see and experience with our own eyes.
So I was actually aware all the time I was studying at Cambridge and doing research there of this huge gulf between what we do understand - we have a very detailed understanding of certain kinds of things, mostly of things at the molecular level within cells - and what we don't understand which is largely to do with behavior and form. In fact, the things that strike us most immediately about animals and plants are the things that we don't understand.
Of course, the greatest unsolved mystery of all is our own consciousness. Consciousness itself is quite unexplained in scientific terms.
Duncan Campbell: Here is where I think your own work has been so seminal and pioneering. You are using what we might say ‘scientific methodology’, from our modern science to explore questions that have long been relegated to the realm of superstition or mysticism and therefore not worthy of scientific inquiry.
We could take telepathy as an example. Your book ‘Dogs Who Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home’, right there the title grabs our attention because many of us have had the experience that our dogs somehow mystically seem to know when we are coming home, telepathically we might say. You have a very graphic example of this where a particular man would be getting on the train in London to go to his home, maybe 35 or 40 minutes away. He would get on the train at a different time each day, unpredictably because of the nature of his work. His spouse began to notice that at a particular time every day the dog would get up out of its bed and go to the door to await his arrival. They began to correlate the time that the dog would get up to go to the door with the times that he would get on the train. They were quite struck by that because it was not as if the dog got up at the same time every day.
These are experiences that are common in our everyday life but have not been thought worthy of discussion. So perhaps you could talk a bit about that and other experiences in the animal realm that you have encountered that really illustrate your sense of morphic fields. Perhaps we could use that as a lead-in to how you began to develop the notion of morphic fields, which has such wide applicability at this point to so many different things. Yet it is still considered on the frontier of science. It is not entirely accepted by conventional science.
Rupert Sheldrake: Hmm. Well, my work on companion animals, dogs, cats, parrots, horses and others really starts from people's observations. I think that all science has to begin from empirical data. The most basic empirical data is what people notice. Sometimes my colleagues just dismiss what people notice. They say it's anecdotal and not scientific. I think that's completely the wrong attitude. All science starts from experience and anecdotes are simply unpublished experiences.
So what I have done is build up a huge database with thousands of cases of stories from people who keep animals about what they have noticed. The animals we know best are the ones we live with. People have a chance to observe them day and night, year after year.
There are many forms of behavior shown by ordinary animals like dogs and cats that don't fit into the present scientific worldview. This example of dogs and cats, for that matter, that know when their owners are coming home is a very good one. It happens when a person is many miles away in some cases. It happens quite reliably and repeatedly. It is an objective thing. We filmed the place where the dog or cat goes to wait by the window. So we have a film from the whole time that the person is out. So we know what the animal is doing. It is an objective record.
We can test the various possible theories of this scientifically. Some people say, “Well, maybe it is just routine.” We have people go away at least 5 miles from home and then I page them on the telephone pager at randomly chosen times. They go home. We know it is not routine because we have chosen random times quite different from the normal ones. The people at home don't know when they are coming so it's not the people at home telling them.
People say, “Well, maybe they can just hear the car engine from miles away.” Actually, dogs can't hear much further away than we can. They can hear higher pitches. But to rule out that theory what we did was have people come home in taxis or other unfamiliar vehicles. The dogs still know and they still wait there.
We found that in cases we studied most intensively, the dogs are responding to the owner's intention to go home before they have even gotten into the taxi. It's when they decide to go home that the dog starts waiting. So they seem to be responding to their thoughts or intentions at a distance.
This is quite a repeatable phenomenon. It has even been tested by skeptics who were convinced it wasn't true. They did experiments with one of the dogs with whom I worked using their own car, their own randomization system and so on. They got exactly the same results we did.
So it seems to be a repeatable and robust phenomenon. Millions of people who keep dogs and cats have noticed this kind of behavior. But to the usual response of scientists is to dismiss it, saying that it is just coincidence and that people only remember when they are right and the dog is right and forget all the times they are wrong and so forth. There are many ways of brushing it away or pretending it doesn't really happen.
But the fact is that the only scientific tests that have ever been done are the ones that we've done and the ones that the skeptics did on the dogs that we worked with. They showed that it is a real phenomenon. It supports what lots and lots of pet owners have always claimed. Science in this case supports the ordinary observations.
There are many other things pets do that haven't been explained scientifically and we have investigated a number of these other things as well. Of course, there are unexplained human powers, which is the theme of my new book ‘The Sense of Being Stared At’.
Why I think this relates to the idea of morphic fields is that morphic fields are fields that connect together parts of self-organizing systems, giving them the wholeness that makes them more than the sum of their parts. In relation to social animals, a flock of birds or a school of fish behaves kind of like a super organism or a termite's nest for that matter. The individual animals respond to the others in such a way that they can move directions and change and behave in a way that makes sense and is integrated.
I think these are field phenomena. There is a field of the flock and a field of the school of the fish. I think social groups have fields in general. When dogs bond to their owners, there is a field between them. If they are separated in distance, the field isn't broken. It's stretched. They remain connected as if by an invisible elastic band. A change in one will affect the other.
This is actually quite similar to quantum non-locality in quantum theory where particles that have been part of the same system, when they move apart, retain what's called a non-local or non-separable connection such as a change in one can affect the other at a distance.
So, I think that morphic fields rather naturally provide an explanation for telepathy. Telepathy interestingly occurs by far the most with people who know each other well, with members of families, best friends, between dogs and their people or the person to whom they are most attached. It doesn't happen with strangers or mere acquaintances or at least if it does it is very, very rare. It is something to do with social bonds. I think that's a key feature about telepathy.
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