The Mind as Field Phenomenon
This is the third in our series of essays by Rupert Sheldrake on the implications of his hypothesis of Formative Causation for the psychology of C. G. Jung. The intense controversy this hypothesis generated with the publication of his first book, “A New Science of Life” (1981), has stimulated a number of international competitions for evaluating his ideas via experimental investigations. The results of these experimental tests are reported in his book, “The Presence of the Past” (1988) wherein he writes:
In this book, which is less technical in style, I place the hypothesis of formative causation in its broad historical, philosophical, and scientific contexts, summarize its main chemical and biological implications, and explore its consequences in the realms of psychology, society, and culture. I show how it points towards a new and radically evolutionary understanding of ourselves and the world we live in, an understanding which I believe is in harmony with the modern idea that all nature is evolutionary.
The hypothesis of formative causation proposes that memory is inherent in nature. In doing so, it conflicts with a number of orthodox scientific theories. These theories grew up in the context of the pre-evolutionary cosmology, predominant until the 1960s, in which both nature and the laws of nature were believed to be eternal. Throughout this book, I contrast the interpretations provided by the hypothesis of formative causation with the conventional scientific interpretations, and show how these approaches can be tested against each other by a wide variety of experiments.
Sheldrake begins this essay with an interesting insight regarding the evolution of Jung's and Freud's conceptions of the unconscious out of the previous world view of Soul. He then explores a number of provocative ideas about "mind extended in time and space" that give us fresh perspectives on power, prayer, and consciousness.
We've all been brought up with the 17th century Cartesian view that our minds are located inside our brains. In this view, our minds are completely portable and can be carried around wherever we go, packaged as they are inside our skulls. Our minds, therefore, are essentially private entities associated with the physiology of each of our nervous tissues. This idea of the contracted mind, a mind which is not only rooted in the brain but actually located in the brain, is an idea that is so pervasive in our culture that most of us acquire it at an early age. It is not just a philosophical theory (although, of course, it is that); it is an integral part of the materialistic view of reality.
Our understanding of the concepts of mind and soul is actually a question of how we define the word consciousness. I prefer to view the attribute of consciousness as being restricted to human beings and, perhaps, some of the higher order of animals in which one could say there was some kind of self-consciousness. Much of the behavior which we consider to be mentally organized, however, actually arises out of unconscious processes. Riding bicycles with great skill, for example, does not involve conscious memory; it does not involve conscious thought. Bike riding utilizes a body memory that involves a great deal of unconscious action and doing. We acquire many complex skills on an unconscious level skiing, swimming, piano playing, and so on.
Such learning is notoriously difficult to describe in words because it does not involve conscious thought in the normal pattern of thought as a directed intellectual activity. A more useful concept that is difficult for us to use nowadays because its meaning is obscure to most people is the concept of the soul.
In Aristotle's system, animals and plants had their own kind of soul, as did nature as a whole. This was the animistic view: the idea that there was an "anima" or soul in all living things. (Inanimate matter did not have a soul.) The very word animal, of course, comes from the word anima, meaning soul: animals are beings with soul. Actually, prior to the 17th century, it was believed that all of nature, and the earth as a whole, had a soul; the planets all had a soul. But the concept of soul was banished by 17th century mechanistic science.
The older view of soul is, I think, a better concept than that of consciousness. The word closest to it in modern usage is mind. The modern usage of mind, however, is almost identical with the word consciousness; mind incorrectly implies consciousness. We then have to use the term, unconscious mind, as Jung and Freud did. This usage has appeared to be a contradiction in terms to the academic world, so they have tended to reject it (and Jung's and Freud's conceptions of it, as well). The concept of soul, however, does not necessarily imply consciousness. The vegetative soul, which is the kind of soul that organizes the embryo and the growth of plants, was not viewed as functioning on a conscious level. When we grow as embryos, we don't have any memory of the process. We don't consciously think out, "the heart comes here, and I know I'll develop a limb out there, teeth here," and so forth. These things just seem to happen in a way that is tacit, implicit, or unconscious but yet soul like in the way they are organized.
Until the time of Descartes, three levels of soul were conceived. The vegetative soul contained the form of the body and governed embryology and growth; all animals and plants were viewed as having it. Then there was the animal soul, which concerned movement, behavior, instincts, and so on; all animals as well as humans were seen as having this level soul. Over and above the vegetative and animal soul in human beings was the rational soul, which was experienced as the more intellectual, conscious mind.
Descartes contended that there was no such thing as vegetative or animal souls. All animals and plants were dead, inanimate machines. The body itself was viewed as nothing more than a machine. It did not have an animal soul governing unconscious instincts and patterns. Those processes were entirely mechanical in nature. The only kind of soul human beings had, on the other hand, was the rational, conscious soul: "I think; therefore I am." Thinking thus became the very model of conscious activity or mental activity, and in this way, Descartes restricted the concept of soul or spirit to the conscious, thinking, rational portion of the mind, which reached its highest pinnacle in the proofs of mathematics.
Descartes' perspective left us with the idea that the only kind of consciousness worthy of the name was "rational consciousness" especially mathematical, scientific consciousness. In a sense, Descartes created the problem of the unconscious, for within 50 years of his work, people started saying, "Wait a minute, there's more to us than just this conscious mind, because there are things that influence us that we are not conscious of." Thus the idea of the unconscious mind, which we generally regard as having been invented by Freud, was actually invented again and again and again after Descartes. By defining the mind as solely the conscious part and defining everything else as dead or mechanical, Descartes created a kind of void that demanded the reinvention of the idea of the unconscious side of the mind (which everyone before Descartes had simply taken for granted in the soul concept). There is an excellent book on this subject by L.L. Whyte called “The Unconscious before Freud”, published by Julian Friedman, London, 1979.
The problem we are encountering now is that, having eliminated the concept of soul in the 17th century, we are left with concepts such as mind which are not really adequate for what we mean. If we want to get closest to what people meant by soul in the past, the modern concept of field is the most accurate approximation. Prior to Isaac Newton's elucidation of the laws of gravity, gravitational phenomena were explained in terms of the “anima mundi”, the soul of the world or universe. The soul of the world supposedly coordinated the movements of the planets and stars and did all the things that gravitation did for Newton. Now from Einstein, we have the idea of space-time gravitational fields that organize the universe. In this concept of fields one can see aspects of the anima mundi (soul) as the being of the universe. Souls were invisible, nonmaterial, organizing principles. Fields, especially morphic fields, are invisible, nonmaterial, organizing principles that do most of the things that souls were believed to do.
MIND EXTENDED IN TIME AND SPACE
In Jean Piaget's book, “The Child's Conception of the World”, he describes how by the age of about ten or eleven, children learn what he calls the "correct view" that thoughts, images, and dreams are invisible "things" located inside the brain. Before that age they have the "incorrect view" (as do so-called primitive people) that thoughts, images, and dreams happen outside the brain.
The Cartesian view of the mind as being located in the brain is so pervasive that all of us are inclined to speak of our minds and brains as if they were interchangeable, synonymous: "It's in my brain," rather than "it's in my mind." In the 20's and 30's, various philosophers and psychologists, particularly Koffka, Uhler, and Wertheimer of the Gestalt school challenged this view.
I want to argue that our minds are extended in several senses. In previous articles, we discussed how our minds are extended in both space and time with other people's minds, and with the group mind or cultural mind by way of their connection to the collective unconscious. Insofar as we tune into archetypal fields or patterns which other people have had, which other social groups have had, and which our own social group has had in the past, our minds are much broader than the "things" inside our brains. They extend out into the past and into social groupings to which we are linked, either by ancestry or by cultural transmissions. Thus, our minds are extended in time, and I believe they are also extended in space.
Throughout this article, I want to make a simple point that is a very radical departure from traditional theory. The traditional theory of perception is that light rays reflected from objects travel through electromagnetic fields, are focused by the lens of the retina, and thereby produce an image on the retina. This triggers off electrical changes in the receptor cells of the retina leading to nerve impulses going up the optic nerve into the cerebral cortex. An image of an object somehow springs into being inside my cerebral cortex, and something or someone inside sees it. A "little man in my brain" somehow sees this image in the cerebral cortex and falsely imagines that the image is "out there," when, in fact, it is "in here."
Personally, I find this explanation extremely implausible. In my experience, my image of an object is right where it seems to be: outside of me. If I look out the window, my perceptual field is not inside me but outside me. That is, the objects are indeed outside me, and my perception of them is also outside me. I'm suggesting that in our perceptual experience, the perceptual fields extend all around us. While, as the traditional view holds, there is an inward flow of light impulses which eventually lead up to the brain, I also experience an outward projection of the images from my mind. The images are projected out, and in normal perception, the projection out and the flow in coincide, so that I see an image of an object where the object really is located.
In hallucinatory types of perception, I can see images whether they are there, in fact, or not. Consider "psychic blindness": people can be hypnotized so that they no longer see objects which are actually in their view. In such a case of "psychic blindness," the inward flow is present but not the outward projection. More normally, the movement out and the movement in coincide with each other as part of a coordinated process, creating a perceptual field that embraces both the observer and the object.
This idea of the extended mind is a matter of common belief in ancient and traditional societies. If this concept were true, it would mean that we could influence things or people just by looking at them. In India, for example, it is believed that a person who either looks on a holy man, or is himself looked on by the holy man, receives a great blessing. In many parts of the world, including India, Greece, and the Middle East, it is believed that if you look upon something with the eye of envy - the "evil eye" - you therefore blight it. People in many cultures still take great precautions against this so-called evil eye. In India, it is considered to be extremely unlucky for a childless woman to admire a baby who belongs to another woman (whereas in our society, this is merely good manners). This is because she is assumed to be envious of the baby. Once a childless woman breaks this taboo, rituals must be performed (such as making a circle of salt around the baby and reciting various mantras) to exorcise the harmful influence.
When new buildings go up in India, scarecrows are fixed on the buildings; similarly, when there is a good crop of wheat or rice, scarecrows are placed in the field. These scarecrows are not intended to "scare away crows" literally, but rather to attract the evil eye of people who might otherwise blight the crop by looking upon it with envy. The scarecrows act as "lightning conductors" because anything with a human figure attracts the eye. The Indian people also put out round pots with huge white spots stuck on sticks; the eyes are drawn to the pots because the white spots look like eyes. For similar reasons, people throughout the Middle East wear talismans which contain eyes; in Egypt, the eye of Horus serves a similar function. All this is done to protect against the evil eye.
If we do affect things or people by looking at them, then can people perceive when they are being looked at, even when they cannot actually see some one looking at them?
In both realms of fictional literature and real-life experience, many people claim to have had the experience of knowing they were being watched and then turning round and seeing someone staring at them. As undergraduates at Cambridge, some of us had read a Rosicrucian advertisement about the power of the mind. It said something about, "Try this simple experiment: look at the back of someone's neck and see if they will turn round after a few minutes." During boring lectures we acted as suggested, and it often worked; we found that we could fix our attention on the back of someone's neck and after a minute or two, the person often looked uncomfortable and turned round.
Although there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that people sense when they are being watched, there is almost no scientific investigation of this phenomenon. The entire world literature on the subject that I've been able to find consists of three papers: one written in 1896, the next one in 1910, and a final paper in 1953. Two of the papers show positive effects, although they were both done on very small subject populations.
I've done some simple preliminary experiments over the last few months in workshops. The way we conducted the experiment was very simple. Four people volunteered and sat at one end of the room, with their backs turned toward the audience. We put each person's name on his or her back by way of identifying them. Then, in a series of trials, I would hold up cards in a random sequence containing the name of the person the audience was to watch. For example, if I had selected "Tom," I would hold up a card reading, "Trial 1, Tom," and everyone in the audience would stare at the back of Tom's neck for fifteen seconds. At the end of each trial, all four subjects would write down whether or not they thought they were being looked at during that time period. At the end of the series of trials, we compared when the volunteers thought they were being looked at, with whether or not they really were being observed.
My results so far indicate that people vary tremendously in their degree of sensitivity to being watched. In one workshop I conducted in Amsterdam, there was a woman who was 100 percent accurate; she knew each time she was being watched. She was the best subject I've encountered. When I asked if she knew why she had done so well, she said that as a child she used to play this game with her brothers and sisters. They practiced and she got very good at it; she had volunteered because she was sure she'd still be able to do it, even though she hadn't done it for 20 or 30 years.
A friend of mine has been conducting this experiment in one-on-one trials with friends and colleagues. In over 600 trials subjects reported accurately when they were being observed 65 - 70% of the time, which is statistically significant. These results indicate that there is an outgoing influence from the eyes or from the mind; perhaps mental influence does extend beyond the boundaries of the physical body. It has been suggested that this might be a telepathic rather than a visual influence.
There is a simple method of checking that out. In some trials, the people doing the looking could turn around so that they are facing away from the volunteers and just think about the designated volunteer rather than look at him or her. If there was greater effect when the volunteers were actually being looked at than when they were being thought about, then one could hypothesize which type of influence was functioning.
A variation of this experiment is to examine the effect of distance on the perception of the subjects. Have the person being looked at located at a considerable distance from those looking at him (binoculars could be used) and then see if the effect still works. If it does, then set up trials using video or closed circuit television. Imagine an experiment in which there were four people in a studio (or even in different studios), with cameras running continuously, and a randomized switching device so that the person being looked at in each trial is randomly determined. Imagine a typical television audience of millions of viewers. Now, what if the subjects could distinguish when they were being looked at by other people over television. There one would have a massive, large-scale demonstration of extended mind in a way that could be conclusive.
This format, too, could be extended. You could have people looking at subjects in the Soviet Union via satellite linkups; one could elaborate this pattern indefinitely. What happens to actresses and actors, to prominent political figures, when they are looked at by millions of people? Are they affected by being in people's minds?
Large-scale experiments to test hypotheses could do more to bring about a paradigm shift than any amount of lecturing about the limitations of the mechanistic theory. Our perceptual fields may reach far beyond our physical brains; when we look at the stars, our minds may literally reach to the stars. There may be almost no limit on how far this process can extend.
© 1995 - 2003 Rupert Sheldrake. All rights reserved.
Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author of Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals (1999), a sequel to his best-selling Seven Experiments that Could Change the World (1994).
His most recent book is The Sense of Being Stared At, And Other Aspects of the Extended Mind (Hutchinson 2003).
He lived for a year and a half at the ashram of Fr Bede Griffiths in South India, where he wrote A New Science of Life (Blond and Briggs, 1981). He is also the author of The Presence of the Past (Collins 1988), The Rebirth of Nature (Century, 1990),Trialogues at the Edge of the West with Ralph Abraham and Terence McKenna, (Bear and Co., 1992) and The Evolutionary Mind (Trialogue Press, 1998). His book Seven Experiments that Could Change the World (Fourth Estate, 1994) was voted Book of the Year by the British Institute for Social Inventions.
With Matthew Fox, he is the author of Natural Grace: Dialogues on Science and Spirituality (Bloomsbury, 1996) and The Physics of Angels (Harper Collins, 1996). His book Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals (Hutchinson) was published in September 1999, and won the British Scientific and Medical Network Book of the Year Award. In July 2000 he was the H. Burr Steinbach visiting scholar at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Massachusetts. His most recent book is The Sense of Being Stared At, And Other Aspects of the Extended Mind (Hutchinson 2003). He is currently a Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, San Francisco. Rupert lives in Hampstead, London, England with his wife, Jill Purce and their two sons. Jill is the pioneer of the international sound healing movement. Website: Jill Purce.
Rupert's website includes articles, research and ongoing research the public can participate in, a free e-newsletter, a cool glossary with definitions of such terms as: dialectical materialism, entelechy, evolution and teleonomy and much more.
(All photos in this article are clip art except for the picture of the "Girl in Sky Skirt" by Jane Sherry and Rupert Sheldrake's photo, which came to us courtesy of the author.)