Is science stuck in the mud? Have a look at morphic fields

On Books

April 13, 2003|By Michael Pakenham

I love a mystery. Over a lifetime, I have yearned to believe in the inexplicable -- from flying saucers to the reputed ghost in my 120-year-old house in Baltimore. But almost every time I surrender my skepticism, I discover shameless fraud or indomitable naivete. By that, I do not mean that every inexplicable notion or event has been demonstrably false. But too many people who claim authority on the unknown have turned out either to be charlatans -- Yuri Geller and others of his ilk -- or superstitious to a degree that defies common sense.

I also love provocateurs -- catalytic minds that force others to raise, to confront, questions. To make people think the unthinkable. There's far too little of this, and the more comfortable a society is and the more advanced its presumed storehouse of knowledge seems to become, the less tendency there is to look beyond convention.

So I celebrate Rupert Sheldrake, a distinguished British scientist with a doctorate in biochemistry from Cambridge, for his new provocation: The Sense of Being Stared at, and Other Aspects of the Extended Mind, (Crown, 384 pages, $25). One of his previous books, Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, published in 1999, was a popular success in the United States as well as Britain. In 1994 he published a book, Seven Experiments That Could Change the World.

In all three volumes, Sheldrake argues that significant scientific research could detect and define unexplained human and animal abilities, insisting that such phenomena are grounded in biology. In this book, he examines a number of phenomena, including telepathy, animals' inexplicable awareness of human activities, the sense of being stared at, mysterious senses of death or illness of a family member from great distances and the like.

He likes the term "seventh sense" -- maintaining that the "sixth sense" has been properly appropriated by biologists working with electrical and magnetic senses of animals. He bemoans that these things are not taken seriously by the scientific community. Thus, he asserts, "current science is incomplete."

It may be, as some of his critics have suggested, that Sheldrake has never met a loony idea he didn't love. But nobody could deny his seriousness or energy.

Sheldrake's concerns and interests are far from unprecedented. In the 19th century, there was a great deal of serious scientific delving into the supernatural or inexplicable. In the late 1920s through 1965, professor Joseph Banks Rhine at Duke University did elaborate research in the area or concern for which he coined the title "parapsychology" -- which encompassed the more popular term extrasensory perception, or ESP. Rhine, his colleagues and many others led experiments with card recognition and thought transference that statistically very strongly suggested some sort of genuine thought transference, without leading to much in the way of explanation.

In the preface to this book, Sheldrake says that more than 5,000 correspondents have contributed case histories to his data base, that more than 2,000 have responded to household surveys and that more than 20,000 people have participated in experimental tests under his direction. He has a Web site,

Sheldrake has lectured widely in Britain, Germany, the United States, Argentina and elsewhere. He has asked for shows of hands on such questions as "telephone telepathy" and has had 1,700 people fill out questionnaires. Of those, 92 percent say they have had "telephone telepathy" experiences. He records reports from many people who "know" who is calling when a telephone first rings.

He says he has been interested in the "being stared at" phenomenon since the 1980s when he was working on the idea of morphic fields. And he says, "In my own surveys of adults in Europe and the United States, 70 to 90 percent said they sensed when they were being looked at from behind." The implication of that unverifiable figure is strengthened, he writes, by his own controlled experiments with the "being watched" sensation, carried on since the 1990s. They indicate, he says, that the odds against the positive results being due to chance were 10 to the 20th power, and the statistical probability increases as the experimental data accumulates.

Sheldrake reports many cases of unspoken apparent communication -- "mental concordance" -- between married couples or between parents and children, or siblings. He reports telepathy-like experiences among many athletes, and among musicians. He relates several types of psychic communications, including very significant ones among the primitive Kalahari bushmen of southern Africa. More specifically, he relates a substantial number of cases in which his sources have awakened suddenly aware of terror or acute sadness, later to find that someone personally close, but far away, had died at that instant.

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