Hunger for Wholeness: Morphic Resonance and Telephone Telepathy with Rupert Sheldrake (Part 1)
In Part 1, Ilia and Robert interview biologist and author Rupert Sheldrake about his most well-known concept, morphic resonance and his studies in human telepathy. They discuss the ideals of scientific inquiry, and what impact his ideas might have on everyday life if they were more broadly accepted by the scientific community.
ABOUT RUPERT SHELDRAKE
“Science at its best is an open-minded method of inquiry, not a belief system.”
Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author of more than 90 scientific papers and nine books, and the co-author of six books. His books have been published in 28 languages. He was among the top 100 Global Thought Leaders for 2013, as ranked by the Duttweiler Institute, Zurich, Switzerland's leading think tank. For ten years running he has been recognized as one of the “most spiritually influential living people in the world” by Watkins Mind Body Spirit magazine. His work has been featured in many magazines, newspapers and broadcast media, including New Scientist, The Guardian, Discover magazine, The Spectator, The Washington Post, Die Zeit and on BBC radio and television.Support the show
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Robert: Welcome back to Hunger for Wholeness. I'm your host Robert Nicastro. Today Ilia and I speak with biologist and author Rupert Sheldrake. To open our discussion, Rupert introduces us to his most well-known concept of morphic resonance. And later I asked Rupert more about his studies on human telepathy.
Ilia: Back in, I think it was the nineties or so, might have been earlier, when you first coined that term morphic resonance or morphogenetic field. I remember it being rather controversial and yet very provocative. Here in the US, any of us picked up that term and tried to understand it in terms of systems and what led you to that idea of morphic residents and where are we with that idea today?
Rupert: Well, funnily enough, I first thought of it very long time ago in 1973, 50 years ago, when I was doing research at Cambridge on plant development. And I came up with the idea because I was working on how plant forms like leaves and pets develop. And I'd been working on the chemical basis of development and quite successfully. But I realized that the chemicals in plants, the hormones, are the same in all plants and they don't explain why a leaf's different from a petal or a sepal. And I got interested in the concept of morphogenetic fields, which are form shaping fields which had been put forward in the 1920s in biology, so it wasn't my idea. But the idea of fields that shape, form invisible fields that give structure to developing plants and animals, seemed to me very necessary concept, but I couldn't understand how they were inherited. They couldn't be in through the genes which only code for proteins.
And then I read a book by Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, who as you know, great influence on Teilhard. And I read his book Matter and Memory in which he argues, as you know, that memories are not stored in the brain, that there's a form of causation working across time. And that for me was a hugely revelatory idea. I was wrestling with a problem and this seemed a solution to it. And that was really how I came up with the idea of morphic resonance, the idea that it's based on similarity of form and as a kind of resonance across time. I didn't publish it until 1981 when my first book came out, A New Sense of Life. And that book was written in Benedictine Ashram in South India, father Bebe Griffiths's Ashram, in fact it's dedicated to, to Don Bebe Griffith.
So then it was very controversial because a lot of people in biology particularly thought that the materialist mechanist way of approaching life was the only possible way that was truly scientific. And that sooner or later they'd solve all the problems of biology and consciousness in mechanistic terms. And in the 1980s, there was a huge optimism that that would happen. What's happened since is that it's become clear that genes don't explain all inheritance, that consciousness is a problem that's not going to be solved by more neuroscience. That evolution is more than just the selection of Darwinian genes. The whole atmosphere in science is going against that kind of hardcore neo Darwinism and militant molecular biology that was the dominant ethos for a long time. I would say things were opening up, but morphic resonance is still treated by many biologists as a heretical idea because many of them are still committed to the materialist worldview, and they want all inheritance to be explained in terms of molecules of one kind or another. So, it's still, unfortunately, particularly biology is still locked into a dogmatic materialism. But more and more people are questioning it. It's just that they can't do much about it within existing academic institutions at present. But I think things will change.
Ilia: Wow, that's really interesting actually seems to me as well that biology, you know, like many of our disciplines, they get entrenched in certain ways of thinking and materialism has definitely has been one of them. And I think, you know, two things that really open up here because this idea of morphic resonance - and there's three things going on; consciousness, morphic resonance, the notion of the field. Let me just ask you, does this idea play in any way into what has become the development of quantum biology? In other words, there's a quantum effect that's undergirding biological phenomenon. Is that anything related?
Rupert: Quantum biology is recognizing that quantum effects can be not simply at the microscopic level of subatomic particles or level of atoms, but over the macromolecular complexes that they can, like the chlorophyl system in algae, that you can have quite large systems in molecular terms in which there are quantum processes. Well I would say that's a step in the right direction, but it's a very small step because we're still talking about macro molecular complexes, very small components of cells. What it's looking at is a more holistic organization, quantum biology, the whole of these systems are organized in a holistic way where they're interconnected. Now, I think that this is the tip of the iceberg of a much larger set of interconnections that's into our cells, not just molecular complexes within them, and tissues and organs and like brains, and all have the holistic organizing principles. And quantum biology is still talking only about ones at the molecular level or molecular macro molecular complexes.
Ilia: Do you think mind and matter here are forming the holism? Do you think consciousness is playing a fundamental role in this field effect of morphic resonance?
Rupert: Well, most morphic resonance is about habit. Morphic resonance is the idea there's a kind of habit, memory and nature and that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits. Now, habits are generally speaking unconscious. There may be mental, but they're unconscious. We all have numerous unconscious habits and typically when something's been repeated quite few times, it becomes an unconscious habit. Like I learned to ride the bicycle and I was quite a young child and ever since then I get on a bicycle, I just know how to do it, I don't need to think about it. And when I'm cycling I can talk to people about completely different things. My conscious mind is engaged with other subjects because the unconscious habits take over. We need unconscious habits, and most of our mental life and physical life depends on them. So if we look at nature as a whole and we see that much of nature is habitual, then it doesn't have to be more conscious than our own habits. However, there are moments when consciousness is involved and that's where we make choices, where we have to choose between alternative possibilities, where habits are not simply in control. And then I think we need, our conscious minds are involved in choosing an amount of possibilities in the part of our minds that's not unconscious and habitual.
Ilia: It's interesting because I think if I understand like the morphic field idea and we are going to move on to other things, but I'm really fascinated by this concept. So habits, is that kind of generating informational patterns then? You know, in other words, a habits sort of like an informational pattern that gets maybe stored, you know, in this field or whatever so that we're tapping into informational fields. Is that kind of what you're -?
Rupert: Yes. Although I personally don't use the word information because although that's what it is. For a lot of scientists, it comes laden with a whole baggage of information theory, which is a technical theory about how to send messages through phone lines. And you know, in terms of how many bits you've got and how they compare with the number of bits you might have sent. Instead, it has sort of tedious technical definitions. And some people within science use the term in a way that sort of oscillates between a technical meaning and a much more vague meaning, much more common to the sort of ordinary everyday meaning of information. What I prefer is the word form. I mean of course information is in formation, it's putting form into things. But because information's got so cluttered up with human concepts about information theory and storing information in libraries and on computer disks and stuff, I prefer the word form which is much more direct.
I mean when I look out at my window now I can see trees and those are forms. If I say they're packages of information, that seems to be an unnecessary complication compared with just saying I'm seeing a tree, which is a form. And I use the word morphic resonance. The word morphic is of course from the Greek word morphe. So, morphic resonance is really about form. And so you could say that it's related to information, it is related to information, but I think it's easier to use the word form. And when we do that it's easier to tie it in with more traditional understandings of form in the western world. For example, in St. Thomas Aquinas, he talks as you know, of the formal cause, the cause of form, the form in a growing plant, there's a formal cause which is given by the soul of the plant, which shapes the growing plant and gives it its form.
And so, I think again it's clearer if we talk about formal causes, causes of form rather than talk about information. Because most people's minds, the minute you say it's information, they start immediately get locked into sort of computer metaphors and floppy discs and hard drives and stuff. So again, I think of these as morphic fields, fields of form of which morphogenetic fields, the forms of embryos and growing plants are one kind. Another kind of field of form, the fields of instincts, or social fields that underlie termite colonies or flunks of birds, that forms of social organization. I don't think of these fields as being stored exactly because the word stored implies some place that they are in a memory bank or something like that. Whereas the whole point of morphic resonance, as I am trying to understand it, is, of a direct connection across time, a resonance across time, a resonance at a distance in time and space. So in between it's not stored anywhere; it's not out there, somewhere you could actually open up a little area of space and find it on a floppy disc or a CD or a magnetic tape or something. It resonates across time. That's how I think it works.
Ilia: You mentioned Bergson as an influence on your thinking, do you pull to vitalism in nature? Do you think there's an operative vital impulse or what do you think is kind of dynamizing nature even in its formative capacities?
Rupert: Well, I think physicists quote energy is dynamizing nature. And yes, the standard scientific concept that there's energy working through the whole universe through light, through biological forms, through quantum processes, through electric plug sockets, you know, energy - just in the normal everyday sense of the word of energy is I think what is vitalizing all nature. And I don't think that we need a special kind of vitalization for life. I mean I agree with Bergson that life can't be explained in terms of purely mechanical processes, but I don't think that purely mechanical processes can be explained in terms of purely mechanical process either. You know, I think that crystals and molecules also have morphic resonance and morphogenetic fields. And I think that the so-called laws of nature that govern physical processes are physical habits. I think atoms have habits and molecules have habits. So, I think we need more than mechanistic science even for inorganic systems. That means that I'm an organicist rather than the vitalist.
Vitalists said that life needs something different from inanimate nature. An organicist would say that even inanimate nature is made up of organisms, you know, atoms and molecules are like small organisms. Solar systems are like big organisms, they're organized holes which are more than some of the parts, and this is the way nature is. And there's something about the wholeness that's more than the sum of the parts at every level, which goes beyond standard mechanistic materialism. So I think vitalism doesn't go far enough; I think what's wrong with this is not that it goes too far, it just doesn't go far enough because we need to transform our view of all nature. And I think when we see energy, what really it needs more explanation in science's form.
I mean what science explains nature in terms of is form and energy. Energy is what gives things dynamism activity, actuality. And energy by its nature according to science itself is promiscuous. It can do almost anything. The electricity in your electric plug socket could power a hair dryer or a computer or a TV set or an electric fire or a fan. It can do all these different things; the energy's the same. The energy of the sunlight falling on the garden can help to power a beach tree, an ash tree, a horn beam, a holly hot plant or loop in grass. The same energy could be the energy in all those different forms. But what makes the forms different isn't the energy, it's the formative principle which I would say is the morphic field. And in general in modern physics, the matter itself is explained in terms of fields and energy.
Everything in modern science has explained in terms of fields and energy and fields are what give form and energy is what gives movement change in actuality. So, I think these are the two main cosmic principles which science is based on, and which of course fit in with metaphysical views or theological views about ultimate reality, which would very traditionally have said that you have a grander of being and then you have a principle of form in the Christian model is Logos, and you have a principle of energy in the Christian model, the Holy Spirit. But if we see this Trinitarian principle which is reflected in other traditions as well, it's actually incomplete accordance in my view with the modern scientific understanding of nature.
Robert: In its most general formulation, morphic resonance means that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits. Each individual inherits from the past and contributes to the future of a collective memory. Next, I ask Rupert about his experiments on telephone telepathy and how general acceptance of the otherwise controversial concept of morphic resonance might shape our everyday life. I know you've conducted experiments on particularly attention and intention in terms of morphic resonance, and I'm wondering how that research was conducted, particularly telephone telepathy I think is the language you used.
Rupert: Well, I'm interested, another influence of Henri Bergson on my thinking also comes from his book Matter and Memory, where he points out in the first chapter that our minds are not just inside our brains. That our perceptions are extended into the world around us. There are now quite a number of philosophers of mind who agree with this idea of the extended mind, that our minds reach out. So, when I look out my window right now, I'm looking at a tree, but my image of the tree according to conventional signs is inside my head. Light comes in, changes happen in the brain, the visual cortex produces a three-dimensional full color image of a tree in some kind of virtual reality display inside my skull. Now, I don't think that's what's happening at all. I think my image of the tree is right where it seems to be out there, and I'm projecting images into the world around us.
So I think attention as the Latin root of the world, attention ad tendre to stretch towards, is the mind stretching out into the world, and intention is the mind stretching into things. So if I'd formed the intention to make a phone call to you Robert, for example, if I've thought about you, if we knew each other well and my intention would stretch out to you, and you might then start thinking about me because you feel my intention. And then if I've thought about you because I want to ring you up on the telephone, I mean, I'm getting up my phone and dialing your number, and so you start thinking about me because you've picked up my intention to contact you. So when I ring you, you say, "That's funny, I was just thinking about you." This is a really common experience, telephone telepathy. 85% of the populations say they've experienced it. And so, bring it up with any friends or family members and most people are going to say yes it's happened to me, or I always know who's calling before I look at the caller ID and pick up the phone, but they don't always, but sometimes know who's calling.
So, no one has ever done research on this and the so-called skeptics who are really defenders of mechanistic materialism had just dismissed it by saying, "Well, you think about people all the time and occasionally one rings up and you think it's telepathy, you just forget the millions of times you are wrong." That's their armchair argument against this. And they got away with that evidence-free for over a hundred years since telephones were invented. So, I decided to test their theory. Is it just coincidence? Is it just random? And so, in my basic experiment we find someone who says it happens to them quite often. Say it was you Robert, then you'd sit at home, you'd be on a landline phone, no caller id, you're being filmed on a continuously. You'd give us list of four people you know well who you might be telepathic with. We pick one of the four at random, ring them up and ask them to call you. So they think about you for minutes or two, then they call you.. Your phone rings, you know it's one of these four people before you pick it up, you say to the camera, "I think it's Rupert or I think it's Tim or whoever you think it is. And then you pick out say hi Rupert," you are right or you are wrong.
There's a 1:4, 25% chance of being right by just guessing. So in these experiments, the actual hit rate is much, much higher. It's on average 45%. It's not. People aren't right every time. It's a very artificial experiment, but it's very, very much more than chance. Statistically this is immensely significant with hundreds of trials. So, that's an experiment on telephone telepathy. We've developed automated versions that work on smartphones. It's been replicated in universities in Holland and Germany, and most people have experienced it. So personally I think telephone telepathy is a reality in the modern world, and so is email telepathy and text message telepathy, so very similar things happen. We've tested those as well with similar results. And it's an interesting phenomenon because if you've got something that most people would say, "Yes, those happened to me," the scientific evidence says yes, that's really happening. And yet within academic and scientific circles, there's a whole culture of denial where lots of scientists and materialist philosophers, feel that they have to pretend this is impossible, that it can't possibly happen; all the evidence must be worthless or fraudulent because it's totally impossible.
A complete denial at least in public. And even some of these same people have the experience themselves in private. But there's a dogmatic denial of these phenomena within the academic and scientific world if they don't fit into the materialist worldview. And so here we have a case where ideology or faith overcomes evidence and reason and locks people into what I think is an absurd denialist position because they're so keen to preserve their belief in the materialist worldview, which says the mind is nothing but the activity of the brain. It's inside the head, and so therefore there's no way my intention to call you on the telephone could actually affect you hundreds of miles away. Therefore, the evidence must be flawed or fraudulent because it's simply impossible. That's their position. And actually I think it's an unscientific position because it's not looking at evidence, it's starting from ideology or blind faith in a dog world.
Ilia: It sounds very much Rupert, your phenomenon of telepathy, sounds a lot like quantum entanglement. Henri Bergson speaks about entanglement, even consciousness he says can be entangled, so that you know the thought in one person can appear in another person even though they're spatially separate and geographically apart.
Rupert: Yes, it is similar to quantum entanglement in not only in that respect, but also in the respect that quantum entanglement only occurs when particles have been together as part of the same system, then they move apart, and a change in one is instantaneously accompanied by a change in the other. That is not quantum entanglement. Now, telepathy typically only happens between people who know each other well; parents and children, lovers, husbands and wives, best friends, close colleagues, therapists and clients, whether there's been transference and counter transference. So typically, it involves people who've been close and interacted together, and then when they're apart they remain connected. And it happens with dogs too. As you know I wrote a book called "Dogs that know when their owners are coming home" about telepathy between dogs and their owners and cats and parrots and horses. Lots of animals are telepathic with humans. And so, that depends on a bond.
The other thing about quantum entanglement is, it doesn't fall off with distance and neither does telepathy. With our telephone telepathy tests, you can have people phoning from 10 miles away, 50 miles away, you know, up to 12,500 miles away. We've done these experiments between Britain and Australia, which is the antipathies as far away as you can get. And it works just as well when the other - literally the other side of the world. But I think it's only an analogy with quantum entanglement because quantum entanglement as currently understood, only occurs between quite easily breaks down. It's has to be, you know, to get it to work in quantum computers and things. It doesn't work at room temperature with lots of other noise going on around it. So, literal quantum entanglement isn't likely to happen between brains, but something very similar to quantum entanglement seems to be happening.
Robert: Since we're still on this idea of a morphic resonance, obviously I'm curious if it did become a new established pattern within scientific discourse and that eventually permeated the public, how do you think that would shape our worldview in terms of ethics and just our everyday actions in the world?
Rupert: Well, I think morphic resonance, there's a sense in which something like it is already part of a worldview in the world, in the sense that among union psychologists for example, the idea of the collective unconscious is very similar to the idea of morphic resonance. We all tune into a kind of collective memory which helps shape our behavior, the archetypes of our myths, the images in our dreams and so on. So, there's a sense in which Yung psychologists and many traditional cultures have the idea that we're not just isolated individuals, we are influenced by a collective, a collective memory, and the ancestors and those who've gone before. And this is of course inherent in all religions as well. All religious rituals are repetitive in the sense they have a form that's been done many times before. And I think this sets up the conditions for morphic resonance by deliberately doing things similarly, using the right words, phrases, gestures, et cetera, you set up a context for morphic resonance.
And when people take part in rituals, they usually think they're not just connecting with other people in the present, they're connecting with those who've done it before, right back to the first time. So for example, Jewish people taking part in the Passover festival, see themselves, many consciously see themselves as connecting with those who've done it before, right back to the first Passover. And Christians taking part in Holy Communion are in a very similar situation. They're connecting, not only with those who are doing it now, but those who've done it right back to the very first last supper of Jesus with his disciples. So, there's a sense in which there's a connection with the whole collective of people, which in the Christian tradition is one way in which I understand the phrase the communion of saints. Those with whom we share a community, even though many of them are now dead, a part of a living community is through these rituals.
So if morphic resonance became widely accepted within our present day society, I think the first thing that would happen is that a lot of people would say, "Well, we've believed this all along," but it wouldn't be a big surprise to Yung analysts or to people who take seriously the doctrine of the communion of saints or people who believe that rituals connect them with those who've gone before. I think it would also mean that we'd recognize we're much more interconnected with other people now. And I think this would work in all sorts of ways. It would have ethical implications because we affect other people, not only through what we do and what we say, but since morphic resonance works with attitudes and frames of minds, also with what we think would influence others, our intentions, our desires and so on. And I think even in seemingly trivial ways, it would influence us.
For example, I think that the popular word puzzle, Wordle, which is a five letter word puzzle, you probably come across it. My wife's a great devotee of Wordle, so I get a running commentary on it on a daily basis, that they have a new puzzle every day. Millions of people do it. On the base of morphic resonance, I would predict that it's easier to do Wordle in the evening than in the morning because so many people have already solved the problem, so a morphic resonance from those who've done it before. I've carried out online surveys to find out if people who've tried it at different times of day do find it easier in the evenings than the mornings. And indeed, majority who do, they say they have experienced that. Now, Wordle is owned by the New York Times and I approached New York Times games department to see if they'd let me look at the evidence.
They've got daily data from millions of people on scores throughout the day, and it's like a replicated experiment every single day on morphic resonance. I thought this would be a great way to look at the evidence. Unfortunately, they didn't see it that way. I think the head of the games department prefers a quiet life and if Wordle suddenly became the arena of an intense debate about morphic resonance and huge scientific controversy, her quiet life wouldn't be so quiet anymore. And so, I think she said we are not interested in this possibility at this time. So unfortunately, the everyday aspect of morphic resonance through Wordle remains untested. But I think people would recognize morphic resonance effect in things they already know and have already noticed. So instead of, for most people a sense of how totally weird and strange, I think there'd be a sense of recognition where we've known this all along in some sense or at some level of our being.
Robert: This concludes the first half of our conversation with Rupert Sheldrake. Be sure to listen next week when Ilia and Rupert discuss evolution in faith. A special thanks to our partners at the Fetzer Institute. On behalf of the Center for Christogenesis, I'm Robert Nicastro. Thanks for listening.