Monday, October 24, 2005

Stare cases

Most people say they have sensed when they were being stared at, and most people also say they have made others turn around by looking at them. The sense of being stared at is taken for granted by most surveillance professionals, security officers, soldiers, celebrity photographers, martial arts practitioners and hunters. The ability to detect makes biological and evolutionary sense. It may be deeply rooted in our animal nature, and widespread in the animal kingdom.
So writes Dr. Rupert Sheldrake in a special issue, dedicated to this phenomenon, of the June 2005 issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies.

A lot us us, I suspect, tried the experiment when we were schoolchildren. We'd stare at the back of the head of a kid sitting several rows in front of us in class. Before long, he'd start to fidget even more than kids in class normally do. Eventually he'd look around, finally turning all the way around to look back at us.

Most people classify it as a youthful prank of no significance, but Sheldrake has run a boatload of experiments, which he believes follow strict scientific protocols, and which suggest that "the sense of being stared at" is a fact. He's written a book on the subject and referred to it in some of his other books.

Even if (some?) people are able to feel being stared at in the absence of any sensory clue, what's the big deal?

Anyone who is not familiar with Sheldrake's work and theories might answer that it seems to be an example of telepathy. That in itself, of course, is enough to send steam out of the ears of many scientists, particularly those in the so-called "hard sciences" as well as experimental psychologists.

But to Sheldrake, it ties in with his two even more "outrageous" concepts that have made him an Untouchable in the eyes of orthodox science but celebrated by many investigating the paranormal. (Like most psychical researchers, he maintains that his hypotheses imply no violation of natural laws, and instead exemplify natural laws of consciousness and of non-material reality, which can't be understood by assumptions and measurements based on the material world.)

Those concepts, guaranteed to set the cat among the pigeons, are morphic fields and morphic resonance. Follow the link to his own explanation, better than me trying to explain them.

The idea that consciousness (not only of people but of all creatures) is maxed out in a universal field rather than limited to a neural network in the brain, is startling to many people although a shopworn platitude to psychical researchers and metaphysicians. (Sheldrake understandably prefers to dissociate himself from the latter.) But considering the morphic (also called morphogenetic) field as a kind of mind-field or ultra-fine material substrate of the physical body is similar to the subtle body of Vedantic theory and the astral double described in Theosophy, "the etherial counterpart of the gross body of man" in the words of Annie Besant.

Somewhat in the same vein, a Yale University professor of anatomy, Harold Saxton Burr, Ph.D., came to believe that what he called a "life-field" or "electro-dynamic fields," although "invisible and intangible," underlie physical life as a kind of blueprint of living forms.

But morphic resonance is still more shocking in its implication that the morphic field has its own kind of memory, or "habits" as Sheldrake says, that can transmit learned behavior from one organism to another of the same type. To academic biologists this is as disturbing as the discredited theories of the politicized Soviet scientist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, who argued for the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

Congratulations are due to the editor of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Anthony Freeman, for publishing Sheldrake's papers and peer reviewers' responses, although he candidly acknowledges that under the normal peer-review process Sheldrake's articles would never have been accepted for publication. But, he says, "Sheldrake’s work interests many of our readers and it reflects our commitment to open debate."

You can read Sheldrake's papers here. Neither he nor the journal, as far as I can make out, link to the reviewers' comments. Sheldrake only publishes his own replies to the reviewers, which hardly seems to be in the spirit of an open debate. I'm sure Susan Blackmore could be counted on for an attempted demolition job, and would provide interesting reading. Anyway, if you want the Big Bertha howitzers from the anti-Sheldrake persuasion, you can always visit The Skeptical Inquirer.

1 comment:

M.C. said...

I have a new interview I conducted with Sheldrake on my blog.