Memory And Morphogenetic Fields

A controversial theory of how memory works

One of the articles in The Way Of Learning (IC#6)
Originally published in Summer 1984 on page 11
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

MEMORY AND LEARNING are intimately connected, both illustrating our capacity to change and adapt on the basis of experience. In a previous article, I made a distinction between "training," which involved the acquisition of a new automatic skill, and simple recall, such as remembering the events of the day. Both of them are a type of "memory," but in this article I want to focus on the simple recall process. We’ll begin by reviewing some of the general observable characteristics of memory, and then look at a promising, but highly controversial proposal for how these might be explained.

In considering memory, it is helpful to begin by making a distinction between retention and recall. Retention is the ability of the mind to take in and store information while recall is the ability to bring a particular piece of information back to conscious awareness. How good is our retention? There is considerable evidence that our retention is much better than our normal recall would lead us to expect – indeed we may retain all of our experience. For example, under hypnosis, people regularly recall whole chunks of their past with considerable detail. Likewise brain stimulation experiments using tiny electrodes have enabled people to vividly relive random previous experiences with great accuracy. The limiting factor in "memory" thus seems to be recall.

Normal recall is aided by two main factors – uniqueness and associations. For example, if you are asked to memorize a list of nonsense syllables and one of them is made of numbers rather than letters, you will more easily recall that "odd" one. Likewise, if you can associate a picture, a sound, an idea, or a smell with any of those syllables, that too will make it easier to recall. The importance of both uniqueness and associations is that they allow a piece of information to be more easily distinguished from the mass of potential memory.

One type of association – emotional – is particularly important. If the emotion is positive, the stronger the emotion, the easier the recall, but if the emotion is negative, the relationship is not so simple. Up to a point, negative (or painful) emotions also enhance recall, but if the unpleasantness associated with a particular memory is so strong that to remember plunges you back into the experience of that emotion, your mind will often try to prevent recall by erecting a block against that memory. Your mind, however, can’t do this by simply preventing recall of only that memory. The problem is that such a precise block would be like a silhouette – its precision would give away the memory it was attempting to hide. To be effective, memory blocks need to cast a broad shadow that obscures not only the particular painful memory, but also many of the associative trails that could lead to it.

How do these general characteristics of memory translate to the level of the brain and brain cells? That’s one of the major unsolved puzzles of brain research. As mentioned above, experiments with stimulating individual cells in the neocortex have given rise to vivid memories, suggesting that specific memories may be stored at specific locations in the brain. On the other hand, patients with extensive damage to the neocortex have been able, over time, to regain almost all of their memory. Likewise, extensive experimentation with animals has failed to "locate" memory. These difficulties led the brain researcher Karl Pribram to propose that memory is somehow stored throughout the brain in complex interference patterns, the way information is stored on a holographic picture. A hologram, you may recall, is a special kind of photograph taken with the help of a laser. In ordinary light it just shows a pattern of swirls, but when re-illuminated by the laser, the picture becomes a 3-dimensional recreation of the original scene. If you break off a small corner of the original hologram, it too can recreate the whole picture, but with a fuzzier focus. This all provides a fascinating analogy for memory, but so far it hasn’t led any further than that.

In the meantime, the puzzles about memory have grown even stranger. This part of our story will take us to one of the most controversial frontiers of current science, although it actually starts back in 1920 when W. McDougall, a biologist at Harvard, began an experiment to see if animals (in this case white rats) could inherit learning. The procedure was to teach the rats a simple task (avoiding a lighted exit), record how fast they learned, breed another generation, teach them the same task, and see how their rate of learning compared with their elders. He carried the experiment through 34 generations and found that, indeed, each generation learned faster in flat contradiction to the usual Darwinian assumptions about heredity. Such a result naturally raised controversy, and similar experiments were run to prove or disprove the result. The last of these was done by W.E. Agar at Melbourne over a period of 20 years ending in 1954. Using the same general breed of rats, he found the same pattern of results that McDougall had but in addition he found that untrained rats used as a control group also learned faster in each new generation. (Curiously, he also found that his first generation of rats started at the same rate of learning as McDougall’s last generation.) No one had a good explanation for why both trained and untrained should be learning faster, but since this result did not support the idea that learning was inherited, the biology community breathed a sigh of relief and considered the matter closed.

There it stayed until 1981 when another biologist, Rupert Sheldrake, proposed a radical new interpretation in his book, A New Science Of Life (Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1982). Sheldrake’s larger concern was with what biologists have for years called "morphogenetic fields." Morphogenetic means "giving birth to form," and some biologists hypothesized that, in order to explain how plants and animals grow into the forms that they have, something more than just the usual rules of physics and chemistry was needed. They described this unknown something as a "morphogenetic field." Of course, other biologists thought this was all hogwash and were convinced that an appropriately detailed application of the rules of physics would explain all of biology. In recent decades most biologists held this second position, but Sheldrake may be changing all that.

What Sheldrake has done is threefold. He has linked the longstanding biological problems of form with similar problems in areas as diverse as crystal growth and psychology. He has proposed plausible rules for how morphogenetic fields might behave. And he has suggested how his theory could be tested and shown how existing experiments, like the McDougall-Agar series, support his theory.

To understand his theory, it helps to begin in the strange world of quantum mechanics. At the beginning of this century it became clear that sub- atomic particles – electrons, protons, x-rays, etc. – behave as if they are both particles (bundles of mass/energy) and waves (spread in time and space). The wave aspect carries no energy but strongly influences how the particle aspect can behave. Translated into biologist’s terms, the wave can be seen as the morphogenetic field for the particle. Sheldrake takes this step and then goes further to suggest that larger forms, like biological organisms, have morphogenetic fields that are more than just the sum of their parts. These fields carry no energy but influence (in perhaps the same way the quantum fields do) the form the parts take as they come together.

The fields and the physical forms are intimately associated in that any existing form gives rise to (in a sense radiates) a field that then contributes to shaping subsequent similar forms. Sheldrake suggests that these fields are not diminished by passage across time and space (since they carry no energy), and that like gravitational fields, they only add to each other. Thus every place is "filled" with the morphogenetic fields from all past forms.

Earlier in our culture’s history, the idea of all space being filled with unseen information carrying fields would have seemed totally bizarre and unbelievable. Indeed when Newton introduced the idea of the gravitational field (another unseen entity whose existence can be detected only by its effects on matter), many of his contemporaries found the idea too "unreal" to be taken seriously, yet by now, with hundreds of channels of radio and TV signals passing unseen around us every moment, we can more easily grasp how morphogenetic fields might work.

How does some new form, for example molecules coming together to form a crystal, choose which field to be influenced by? Sheldrake suggests that the process is one of resonance, like tuning in a radio station. The parts that are coming together resonate with the fields generated by similar groups of parts in the past. In complex systems, like biological organisms, this tuning requires a "seed" or uniquely tuned starting point around which the organism can form. The uniqueness of the DNA in each organism provides such a seed.

The fields from similar forms will "overlap" to create a composite field that is stronger, although fuzzier, than the field from each individual form. In this process, newer forms can gradually dilute the importance of older forms, and so there is an opportunity for composite fields to evolve over time.

How does all this apply to memory and the McDougall-Agar experiments? Our brains, like any other physical form, are constantly generating morphogenetic fields, not only for the general form of the brain, but also for each moment of our existence. Sheldrake suggests that this continuous trail of experience – recorded in the morphogenetic fields – is at least part of the basis for memory. We recall a past state by having some initial pattern of associations that acts as a "seed," allowing us to tune in that particular memory. As the memory begins to be tuned in, it influences the brain to fill in more of the pattern which, in a feedback process, improves the resonance until the essential features of the past state are recreated in the present. These ideas fit very well with the observations that retention seems to be so complete and so effortless (we can’t help leaving our mental "morphogenetic trail"), and why multiple associations and uniqueness aid recall (since these improve the precision of our tuning).

But the big implication of this approach is that memory is transpersonal. These mental morphogenetic fields are not locked in your brain, but are available throughout all space and all future time! From this perspective, the results of the McDougall- Agar experiments become easily understood. Each rat that learned the task gradually strengthened a morphogenetic field associated with the correct choice. Later rats of the same breed placed in the identical experimental setting could have a high degree of resonance with the earlier rats regardless of whether their immediate parents had been trained. Agar’s rats started where McDougall’s had left off because the field had not been diminished by space or time. Some readers will likely recognize this as an example of what is generally known as "the hundredth monkey" phenomenon, but these experiments and Sheldrake’s interpretation are much more precise.

"Yet if memory is truly transpersonal," you may say, "why don’t I remember other people’s thoughts?" The answer to this is two-fold. First, you naturally resonate most strongly with your own past states, so most people find that their clear, detailed memories are from their own past. The other part is that we often don’t recognize (or acknowledge) the transpersonal aspects in what we remember, yet if we look from Sheldrake’s perspective, there is a great deal in our thinking and behavior that suggests a transpersonal influence. Most people have at one time or another had the experience of "reading" another person’s mind, which can be seen as an immediate tuning into the morphogenetic field created by that other person. During the past few decades, experiences of this kind have been studied with greater and greater experimental control, all indicating that at least some of these experiences represent a genuine transfer of information from one mind to another by some means other than the usual modes of communication. Some of the best of these experiments are the "remote viewing" experiments carried out at the Stanford Research Institute by Russell Targ and others (see The Mind Race by Russell Targ and Keith Harary (New York: Villard Books 1984) available for $17 from The Institute of Noetic Sciences, 2658 Bridgeway, Sausalito, CA 94965).

Yet beyond these "unusual" experiences, we need to realize that tuning into a morphogenetic field is not as simple or direct as looking at a snapshot. The field may carry a certain pattern, but our own minds interact with that pattern, translating it into our own terms. Thus the behavior patterns that MacLean identifies as occurring in essentially all land animals must have strong but fuzzy composite fields associated with them, leaving room for variation. Likewise, fields that are attuned to by one of the lower levels in our brain – like the reptilian – occur at a level where we are not normally conscious, so we don’t experience our "instinctive territoriality" as a "remembering." Jean Houston’s exercise in the previous article can be seen as a way to make that remembering more conscious.

A further example of composite morphogenetic fields acting as a transpersonal memory is in what Jung described as the "collective unconscious." As has now been well documented, certain symbols and archetypal patterns occur in dreams, art, and other forms of expression around the world and throughout history – often in ways that can’t be explained by cultural diffusion or learned behavior. Complex species-specific instincts may also depend on composite morphogenetic fields. If this is true, then these patterns are not fixed, but are like habits – persistent from all the strength of repetition that has built the field, but nevertheless open to change through learning.

If memory is indeed transpersonal, does this mean that we don’t need to go through the effort of learning? Can we just "tune in" to what others already know? It is not quite that simple. You have to have the basic elements of a pattern already available in your mind before you can tune to that pattern – the more detailed the pattern the richer your preparation needs to be. Remember too that some learning involves growth and permanent change in the brain. Likewise, the later generations of McDougall-Agar rats still had to train to learn the task even though they learned faster. The best method seems to be to approach the learning process from two directions at the same time. On the one hand, the learner needs to be immersed in those experiences that will build up the necessary elements on which the learning is based. On the other, the learner can benefit from activities that help him/her to attune to the existing field. Intriguingly, most of these seem to involve the "broad brush stroke" fast pattern recognition capacity of the right brain.

The picture of the brain that emerges from all this is best described as a combination computer- broadcaster-receiver. Much of our processing depends on patterns that are "wired" into the nervous system, yet most of our detailed memory is not stored in the brain but rather "read" – in and out – from the surrounding fields. It may make sense to describe our "minds" as comprising this whole system which suggests that each mind is a curious blend of the personal and the transpersonal, the unique and the universal. We are each parallel processors, receiving from and giving to the composite field of the mind of, not only humanity but through the many levels in our brain, all life.

Sheldrake’s theory is still in a very early stage of its development, and it is still a "minority point of view" within the sciences although support for it is steadily growing. (Curiously, he is finding physicists, who have learned to be comfortable with strange fields, more open to his ideas than biologists.) Like all theories, it is at best a working hypothesis, and it will no doubt go through changes as it is either disproved or it matures. Its implications are enormous, but Sheldrake cautions against going too far out on a speculative limb until some of the basic premises are somewhat better verified experimentally (although experiments now underway are yielding positive results). I would agree, although some speculation is useful for clarifying the theory, and my own sense is that this theory provides our best current working hypothesis for understanding the mysteries of memory. The prospects are exciting, and we may well find that the exploration of morphogenetic fields play a role in the 21st century similar to the exploration of electromagnetism in this century (which led to global communications and computers with all of their implications). We have much to learn, but for the moment, let’s look at what it might be like to be living in a changing morphogenetic field.

If you want to find out more about Sheldrake’s theory, and aren’t ready to tackle his book (which is really quite readable), I recommend the interview by Daniel Drasin published in the Vol. V, No. 5 issue of New Realities magazine.

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