Mutts Who Think
Telepathy, morphic fields, and Fido

Dogs know what you're thinking. Pigeons have a secret sense that tells them how the universe is really put together. Termite nests have a giant collective superbrain that tells them what to do. And people have the power to touch other people with their minds. This is the spooky world of Rupert Sheldrake, and it's no wonder the other scientists hate him for it.

See also...
... by Paul McEnery
... in the Scope section
... from October 29, 1999

Perhaps Sheldrake's biggest sin against conventional biology is that he's actually good at it. He's got a Ph.D. from Cambridge, and every time he comes up with one of his looped ideas, he insists on performing rigorous experiments to prove that he's right. While the likes of Richard Dawkins are busy showing that the world is one big logic problem, Sheldrake finds holes in that logic, and opens them up to show a stranger world than is dreamed of in their philosophy.

Behind books like the new Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home is the theory that every organism -- from ants to elephants, and from individuals to whole societies -- is formed by something he calls a morphic field, and stays together by morphic resonance. Take one individual out of the group, the field keeps them connected. That's the kind of big idea that leads to questions about quantum theory, religion, and, of course, telepathic dogs.

GettingIt: It's a long way from Cambridge to telepathic dogs. A big leap, I imagine, away from the big grants, as well.

Rupert Sheldrake: Oh yes, there's no big money in this research, that's for sure. My work on morphic genesis -- how form develops in plants and in animals -- led me to the idea of morphogenetic fields, which led me to the idea of a new kind of field within and around developing organisms. I then saw that similar fields would organize behavior and social groups, and this then led me to think that this could lead to forms of communication between members of social groups at a distance. Which would look rather like telepathy.

GI: So perhaps you'd like to tell me exactly what you mean by telepathy.

RS: Telepathy is defined as distant feeling, so a lot of people have the wrong idea when they talk about it as thought transfer. It's really about feelings, intentions, needs. Cats often disappear when people are thinking about taking them to the vet, even before they've got out the carrying basket or done anything. Dogs howl mysteriously at the time the owner dies, and people don't find out till the phone call comes later why the dog's doing that.

So telepathy is mostly to do with feelings, emotions, and needs. And it also occurs mostly between organisms that are strongly bonded to each other: dogs and owners, husbands and wives. At the moment, we're collecting information on telepathic links between mothers and babies, because I think this is one of the areas where there's the most intense biological-type linkage, and where I think telepathy happens rather a lot.

GI: How long have you been working with mothers and babies? Is this very new?

RS: For about a year and a half, I've been doing survey work with mothers who've recently given birth to find out how many had had these telepathic experiences with their babies. A rather high proportion had. But I made a mistake in the way I organized the survey. I found I recruited the people through the Holistic birth center. So keen are these mothers on being holistic mothers that quite a high proportion in the survey had never been away from their baby, and you can't study telepathy unless people are far away. Of those who had been away, quite a lot had noticed these telepathic links, but I think the next survey I do, I'll try and get a high proportion of working mothers.

GI: Well, yes. I mean, you'd imagine that people who were involved in a holistic process might be predisposed to believe in telepathy in the first place, so wouldn't that produce skewed results?

RS: Well, now I ask them to do more detailed investigations, keep log books, whenever they get these... nursing mothers get something called the "milk let-down reflex." When the baby needs them, their nipples start leaking. And this happens when they're away from the baby, and I try to find out whether the time it happens is the same time the baby gets upset, hungry, and wants the mother.

I'm also interested in hearing from people about their experience of the feeling of being stared at, the feeling of being looked at from behind. Many people have found that they just turn around, they don't quite know why, and someone is looking at them. And people can stare at someone from behind and make them turn around.

GI: How do you account for it? How does it work?

RS: I think that perception involves a two-way process -- the inward movement of light, and the outward projection of images. Our mind reaches out to touch what we're looking at and can therefore affect it. I think that's how the feeling of being stared at arises. The medium in which our mind reaches out is in what I call a perceptual field, a field of perception extended beyond a plane. And these perceptual fields are one example of the more general class of fields that I call morphic fields. I think it's morphic fields that underlie most of these mysterious phenomena.

GI: Your thoughts on morphic fields and on telepathy in general seem to imply a radically different notion of the structure of reality than we normally work with. How did you work that out?

RS: Quantum physics implies a radically different notion than what we normally work with, as well. So the really intriguing question that interests me is: To what extent are morphic fields explicable in terms of quantum non-locality?

In quantum physics, we learn that objects that have been part of the same system, when separated, retain a non-local, or non-separable connectedness, or entanglement. Now, if you think about it, a dog that's closely bonded with its owner -- lives with the owner, they do a lot of things together -- that's a system, a social system organized by a morphic field. One of them goes away and, if this is indeed an example of this quantum principle at a macroscopic level, this non-local connectedness would apply.

It's very possible that what I call morphic fields are just a manifestation of quantum non-locality in the everyday world. A leading quantum physicist from the Max Plank Institute in Germany, Hans Peter Dürr, is very intrigued by these ideas, but nobody can yet make the bridge between this microscopic quantum realm of electrons and photons, and whole organisms or societies.

GI: Right, quantum entanglements are a much, much smaller business than whether or not your pet cat is entangled with you.

RS: Well, exactly. It's been studied only in the realm of electrons and photons. But if quantum theory is really fundamental to nature, then we'd expect something like that to work at a larger scale. The usual view is that all these effects disappear when you come to the everyday world we're familiar with. In which case, quantum theory is not fundamental; it's just some kind of marginal, quirky thing on the fringes of reality. But that's not what physicists believe. They believe it truly is fundamental, in which case you may well see these phenomena manifesting with cats, and dogs, and people, and things that we experience in the everyday world.

GI: The Dawkins people would claim that this is all just wishful thinking and you're coming up with anecdotal evidence to support it. And here you are, aligning yourself with the fringe religionist, Matthew Fox.

RS: I don't see Matthew Fox as a fringe religionist. I would say he is a radical and innovative thinker in the realm of religion and spirituality. You see, the Dawkinses of this world, when they speak about religion, they're not speaking as scientists. They're speaking as materialist idealogues. And Dawkins is a kind of scientific fundamentalist. For him, science is a kind of religion, itself, which is why he's against other forms of religion. So I think one has to try and tease apart what are valid scientific claims in what people like Dawkins say, and what are simply evangelical views of a kind of religious bigot. And I think there's a great deal of that in him.

So what I claim to be doing is looking at areas that are not understood at present, trying to use scientific methods to look at them. What he would do is say "don't even look at these things. I know for sure there's nothing in it." I think that's anti-scientific, not just unscientific. It's an attempt to prevent inquiry, and not to stimulate it. And as Carl Sagan said, the thing about science is that we should inquire into things we don't understand and not be bound by dogmas and dogmatic assertions.

GI: Did you ever meet him?

RS: I did, yes, two or three years ago. And when I told him I was doing experiments on these things, he was rather torn. I think he found himself in the position of the dogmatist, and he didn't want to be a dogmatist. So it was a rather split reaction.

When it comes to exploring how these things might relate to the realm of religion, I think inquiry is very important. For example, if dogs can react to when their owners are coming home, they're responding to their owners' intentions at a distance. When people pray, they have intentions which they claim can have effects at a distance. Is there any similarity here, between the power of prayer, as recently demonstrated in double-blind experiments on the effects of prayer on people recovering from heart attacks and so on... is there any similarity between that and the kind of thing I'm talking about?

This is obviously an area worth exploring, and this is the kind of issue that I've been exploring with Matthew Fox. I'm very pleased he's open-minded enough to do this. I mean, there are some religious figures who wouldn't want to explore these things, because they're not interested in inquiry and finding out what's going on. He is. In that sense, I find him a kindred spirit. Both of us have suffered from the dogmatism of colleagues. I believe science needs to go beyond the limits and dogmas, and he thinks the same thing about religion. So we get on very well talking about these things.

Paul McEnery knows what you're thinking about at this very moment.