Morphogenetic Fields And Beyond

New research is undermining old ideas of separation

One of the articles in The New Story (IC#12)
Originally published in Winter 1985/86 on page 32
Copyright (c)1986, 1997 by Context Institute

WHAT’S MISSING? Is there some way in which our description of the New Story is incomplete?

I hope so! To fulfill its role, the New Story needs to be a living thing, not a fixed dogma. New developments, discoveries and understandings will likely keep it incomplete for a long time to come.

"Yes, of course, details will continue to change," you may say, "but might there also be some really major aspect that we should be able to see now, yet have overlooked? After all, looking back over the past 45,000 years suggests a tremendous amount of cultural continuity within long cultural epochs. The major elements of the Empire Story were already visible near the start of that epoch. If, as you claim, we are close to the beginning of the Planetary Era, after 500 years of transition, we should be able to see at least the broad outline of the Planetary Story. What assurance is there that we have the whole picture?"

To explore this question, we need to pull back from the details, and look at some of the fundamental differences between the Old and New Stories. That comparison should help to clarify the essential vision of each story, and may also help to reveal any major blind spots.

At the heart of the New Story, as I see it, are two testable (and thus contestable) understandings. The first has to do with our relationship with time. The New Story characterizes this relationship as fundamentally one of unfolding, evolution, and the creation of increasingly complex and conscious systems. The second has to do with our relationship to each other and the world around us, and is characterized by interconnection, interdependence, and interaction – neither total unity nor total separation.

The Old Story of the Empire Era also, of course, deals with these issues. It begins by seeing time as characterized by cycles (as in the seasons) but beyond these, the world is seen as fundamentally unchanging. As an absolute vision, it is deeply disempowering, for it sees a tragic zero-sum world in which death is always cancelling out life, no lasting new creation is possible, and life is a perpetual uphill battle to try to beat the averages.

The cyclic perceptions of the Old Story can be placed within the evolutionary framework of the New Story, where they can carry great wisdom and add to our understanding of interconnection. The New Story’s view of time also includes other refinements, like the role of entropy. Indeed, our relationship to time is one of the best developed aspects of the New Story, and I don’t see any major missing pieces in this area. While the mechanisms and purposes of evolution are still hotly debated, even Fundamentalists acknowledge the existence of large-scale change.

As for relationships, The Old Story deals with these in terms of boundaries. Whether the circle is drawn around the individual, the family, the tribe, or the nation, the basic idea is that there is a high degree of connection (requiring conformity) within the circle, and no significant connection outside. It is a world of us and them. The New Story converts this black and white division into multicolored overlapping webs of relationships in which there are no absolute boundaries.

We have been slower to acknowledge the reality of interconnectedness, yet in the past few decades, the message has grown stronger – from the physical unity of the universe, to the unity of life on Earth, to the interconnectedness of ecological systems, to even the interdependence of our global economy. All this is comfortably there within the New Story.

There is, however, one very important place where we still seem to think that absolute separation applies – between our minds. The conventional wisdom of our culture is that our thoughts, memories, emotions and perceptions are totally private. This idea of total mental privacy is so fundamental to our culture and the Old Story that I could hardly even begin to sketch its implications. Suffice it to say here that this is one of the cornerstones of our whole sense of personal identity.

"Ah ha! So we have left out a deeply important topic," you say. "What, pray tell, does the New Story have to say about the separation of our minds, about our personal identity, and about consciousness?"

(I thought you’d never ask.)

I’d like to approach this through Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of formative causation involving morphogenetic fields (see his A New Science Of Life, J.P. Tarcher, 1982). I described this theory in IN CONTEXT #6, the issue on "Learning," but let me briefly redescribe it here. Sheldrake is a biologist, and for many years biologists have found it hard, using only physics and chemistry, to explain the way that living things grow into their normal forms. Most biologists have assumed that these difficulties just reflected the current limits of the science, and that in time an appropriately detailed application of the rules of physics could explain all biology. A minority, however, have held that something beyond physics was needed, some kind of non-physical "blueprint" that they called a morphogenetic field (meaning "giving birth to form").

Sheldrake’s brilliant contribution was to take what have been fairly loose ideas about morphogenetic fields and formulate them into a testable theory. Briefly, the theory goes as follows: Morphogenetic fields carry information only (no energy) and are available throughout time and space without any loss of intensity after they have been created. They are created by the patterns of physical forms (including such things as crystals as well as biological systems). They help guide the formation of later similar systems. And finally, a newly forming system "tunes into" a previous system by having within it a "seed" that resonates with a similar seed in the earlier form.

Thus, from this perspective, the DNA in the genes of a living system (like an oak tree) does not carry all the information needed to shape that system, but it can act as a "tuning seed" that tunes in the morphogenetic fields of previous systems of the same type. Morphogenetic fields are thus the repository of what might be described as genetic habits.

In addition, these same concepts can be used to explain some of the mysteries about human memory. In effect, our brains are not so much libraries as they are sending and receiving stations that leave a continuous trail of experience imprinted in morphogenetic fields and then "recall" previous experiences by tuning into that trail.

If these ideas are correct, then the "storehouse of memory" is not the least bit private since morphogenetic fields are universally available and continue to exist regardless of what happens to their original source. The only thing that makes our mental processes seem private is that we naturally resonate most strongly with our own past mental states. In other words, each of us broadcasts on a unique channel to which, generally, no one else listens. Yet in principle, someone else could tune into "your" memory and thoughts, and indeed, in practice, we do – as the common experience of "reading" another person’s mind attests.

These ideas can be carried further to consider what happens when many people have a similar thought. The information stored in the morphogenetic field should then be stronger and accessible over "more channels." In that case we would expect it to be easier for new people to also "have" that thought (or skill, insight, or whatever). One aspect of this would be the creation of what Jung called the collective unconscious.

What proof is there that these ideas have any validity? One and a half years ago when I wrote the article about morphogenetic fields for IC #6, most of the experimental support for Sheldrake’s ideas came from the reinterpretation of old experiments. One of the most intriguing involved teaching rats to run a particular maze. Each new generation of rats learned it faster even though there was no direct physical way for any generation to pass its learning on to the next. Since then, a variety of new experiments have been performed. To catch up on these, I spoke with Rupert Sheldrake for the latest results:

What has been happening experimentally with regard to morphogenetic fields in the past two years or so?

Rupert: There are a few new experiments that have been completed. First, there was a series of three television experiments that used hidden images in puzzle pictures (see illustration below).

Puzzle Picture 1 for BBC Experiment

Puzzle Picture 2 for BBC Experiment

The experiment has three steps. You start by showing two of these puzzle pictures to a group of test subjects to establish a base line for how easily the hidden picture in each can be recognized. Next, on TV so that you can reach large numbers of people, you teach the TV viewers how to see one of the hidden images, but do not show the other. Finally, you get a new group of test subjects who did not see or hear about the TV show, and again test their ability to recognize the hidden images. The experimental question is, if lots of people learn to spot the hidden image in the puzzle picture, then does that make it easier for other people to spot it as well?

[To see the hidden images, click here for Picture 1 and here for Picture 2]

The first of these TV experiments was done in Britain in 1983 with 2 million viewers. Several thousand people were then tested in different parts of the world and the result was very positive and significant. The percentage recognizing the hidden image shown on television increased after this broadcast whereas the percentage recognizing the control picture, the one that wasn’t shown on TV, didn’t change.

This was then done on a larger scale on BBC television in 1984 with 8 million viewers. It was on one of the popular science programs called Tomorrow’s World. Now in that one, the image to be shown was selected at random, live, at the moment of broadcast. Post-broadcast tests were then carried out in North America, in Western Europe, and in the Southern Hemisphere, particularly South Africa. The results are puzzling. The percentage of people recognizing the hidden image in the picture that was shown on television increased very significantly in Western Europe, but not in North America, and in neither case was there a change in the control picture. So there seems to have been an effect, but the effect was confined to Western Europe. Now at first this looks as if it might be a distance effect but I don’t expect distance effects. Then, in looking at the data from South Africa, there was also an effect there, although not as significant because the sample size was rather small. One possibility is that this has to do with people being in similar time zones, being more in phase. South Africa and Western Europe are only one hour different from Britain, whereas America is 5 to 8 hours different.

The third experiment was done in West Germany on North German Television in early 1985. There again the control picture showed no change at all. The only change was for the puzzle picture shown on TV. But this time, after the pictures had been shown on German television, it seemed to become harder for people to spot in England. Not in America. In America there was again no effect. But in other parts of Europe, particularly in England, there was a significant effect but a negative one. Another thing that happened in the German experiment was that people, even in North America, started giving the right answers to the pictures shown in the previous BBC experiment. So there were a number of anomalous features – rather puzzling and bizarre!

Robert: It sounds as though, by pursuing the same genre of experiment, you perhaps are beginning to get some interference effects.

Rupert: Yes. I think it sounds very much like that, which I suppose one might have expected. In any case, I find this series of experiments inconclusive so far, but encouraging. I mean, if there had been no significant effects then it would have been very discouraging but we have gotten significant effects in all three. The results are just more complex than we expected.

I hope the next series of experiments of this type will involve repeated exposure of subjects to hidden images, because the whole hypothesis is based on the idea of habitual patterns of response, and in this run, pictures were shown only once. They could be shown repeatedly, for example, if they were used in an advertising campaign. You know, on billboards.

Another experiment of considerable interest is one done by Dr. Arden Mahlberg of Madison, Wisconsin using Morse code. Dr. Mahlberg, who is a psychologist, has done experiments testing the ability of subjects who don’t know Morse code to learn two codes – one is the real Morse code and the other is a new code that he’s invented by reassigning dots and dashes to different letters in such a way that it should be equally easy to learn from the conventional point of view. And the question is, is it easier to learn the real Morse code than the new Morse code, because millions of people have already learned the real Morse code? And it turns out that it is.

Related work is being done, not as a test of this theory, but as a technique for speeding up learning. I recently was in Holland where I met a Dutch woman who had been developing a new system of teaching based on the idea that children can pick up things from the collective memory. It’s very like a morphic resonance theory and she’s been obtaining remarkable results by starting from that assumption. There’s also, in California, something called the Marshall Faber Accelerated Learning Forum, which is a kind of business school that teaches businessmen extremely rapidly. That again is explicitly based on the idea of morphic resonance. So the idea of accelerated learning using this principle in education is already being explored on a small scale.

Robert: It is striking to me that both these current experiments, and the work with the rats in mazes that provided one of the strongest experimental supports in your book, all deal with mind and memory. I wonder if there has been any work outside of that area?

Rupert: There have been some experiments done recently in Britain at the Open University which have revealed some very interesting and puzzling effects with fruit flies. I think they provide very good evidence for this hypothesis, although they weren’t done to test it. In these fruit fly experiments, they were looking at the effects of ether. If the eggs were exposed to ether three hours after they’re laid, then some of the flies developed abnormally, with 4 wings instead of 2. And as they went on exposing subsequent generations of flies to ether, the abnormal proportion increased more and more. Then if they took flies from the basic stock which had never been exposed to ether, neither they nor their ancestors, and exposed them to ether, they got a much bigger response of deformed flies than they did at the start of the whole series of experiments. In other words, the treatment of the other flies with ether seem to be leading to a bigger response in subsequent (but non- descendant) flies treated in the same way.

There are some other experiments in progress that are giving rather interesting results, but I’ve been asked by the people doing them not to talk about them publicly until they have had a chance to publish their own results. I might, however, mention the Tarrytown prize of $10,000 for the best experiment to prove or disprove the hypothesis. The closing date for this, the end of 1985, has just past, but the results will not be announced until some time in April. Of the entries I have seen so far, there are 3 or 4 serious contenders.

Robert: Have there been any interesting attempts at disproof?

Rupert: Well, my book and this theory have been attacked quite a lot, but none of the attacks have actually struck at the heart of the argument. No one has actually claimed that what I’m saying is impossible or that it’s illogical or that it couldn’t occur on any kind of basis. The attacks have mostly been along the line that this theory is completely unnecessary because regular biology, given time, will solve all the problems along conventional lines, that I’m either being too impatient or misleading the public. But so far there has been nothing of scientific substance.

The only experiment which at least claims to disprove the hypothesis is one done by Francisco Varela, the neurophysiologist. He assumed that this hypothesis applied to computers, and he did an experiment where a computer did an iterated operation many times over and over again. He measured the time taken for this operation to see whether it speeded up. And it didn’t. He regards this as a refutation of the hypothesis, but I don’t because I never claimed that the hypothesis applied to computers in the first place. I think of it as applying to self-organizing systems like cells, molecules, and crystals, but not to artificial machines.

Robert: There’s no opportunity for the computer to change its speed of operation.

Rupert: No. He didn’t take that point into account. He thought that there might be an increase in the rate with which the silicon chip responded.

Robert: Good grief, if that’s the most serious challenge you’ve gotten, you’re certainly in very good shape.

Where does this lead us? We cannot yet say that Sheldrake’s ideas about morphogenetic fields have been proven to the satisfaction of his fellow scientists, but it looks to me as if they are on their way to that kind of general acceptance. Especially in Western Europe, where the theory is well-known and has been widely discussed, an increasing number of scientists are taking it seriously. If further experiments continue to produce significant results, it will soon be the critics who will need to prove their case.

The most difficult part for most to accept is the fundamental idea that information, created by and retrievable by physical systems, can be transmitted and stored in a non-physical form. This is a direct contradiction of the materialist vision that has served as the basis for most of the sciences, and many (but by no means all) scientists are reluctant to let go of that vision. Yet the experimental support for materialism has been crumbling for some time – from the "instantaneous communications" implied by Bell’s Theorem in quantum physics to the solid experimental demonstrations that now exist for such psychic abilities as telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and psychokinesis (see, for example, Charles Tart in the December 1985 Special Report for Members from the Institute of Noetic Sciences, 475 Gate Five Rd, Suite 300, Sausalito, CA 94965). Thus the morphogenetic field research is more like the last straw than the first wave in the assault on traditional materialism.

The New Story, as we have been describing it, would certainly have no trouble embracing the idea of morphogenetic fields, or of the interconnectedness between minds that it entails. The Story’s overall usefulness and validity does not now depend on this theory, and we could adopt a wait- and-see attitude. But I’m going to stick my neck out and predict that the central ideas in Sheldrake’s theory will soon be as important in the full New Story as the ideas developed by 20th-century physics, astronomy, geology, biology, ecology, etc. If this happens, these ideas will provide us with a framework within which the New Story can handle questions about the separation of our minds, about our personal identity, and about consciousness.

As I’ve described above, using morphogenetic fields as the carrier of memory implies no absolute separation between minds. Further, it suggest that our identity is dual, like an electron that is both particle and wave. We have aspects that are unique and totally individual, yet at the same time much of our thought and behavior is shaped by, participates in, and helps to create transpersonal morphogenetic fields. Our ordinary learning within our culture shapes us in a similar way, but these ideas move that sharing to a more intimate level.

We are thus both individuals and expressions of/creators of a group mind – like the Jungian collective unconscious, but more extensive, and in some aspects more changeable. Because our brains contain levels (mammalian, reptilian, etc.) that connect us to other species, that group mind includes all life. We may even find, as we explore the possibilities of consciousness associated with what we now think of as non-living matter, that we are linked in consciousness to all creation. We would thus be linked to the stars not only through the chemicals in our bodies, but through our minds as well.

Accepting the idea of morphogenetic fields also opens the door to the scientific investigation of the idea that consciousness and mental processes can function without physical support. This would allow the existence of non-physical beings (gods, angels, life after death, etc.) – a subject of prime interest to most religious and spiritual traditions.

Some of these traditions claim to have a level of knowledge about the non-physical realm that makes the experiments that Sheldrake describes look like "Ben Franklin flying a kite in a thunder storm to study electricity" compared to "the knowledge behind a modern microcomputer." This knowledge could be very helpful in the research process (and, indeed, Sheldrake is well aware of these traditions). What these traditions have not done, however, has been to find a way to universalize or publicly validate this claimed knowledge. This is the great strength of the plodding and conservative process of science.

Thus one of the reasons why the morphogenetic field research is so important is that it is starting to provide a common language, a meeting ground, that may permit mystics and scientists to cooperate in exploring these realms. The New Story does not have to adopt any particular traditional belief system, but it can acknowledge that these traditions may hold verifiable knowledge. The results of this will probably be full of surprises, disappoint most partisans, and increase religious interest at the same time that it deflates scriptural authoritarianism. Out of it all may even come a fresh synthesis that will finally end the three-way war between science, religion, and mystical spirituality.

And so, wherever we look – at the cosmos, at life on Earth, or into our own consciousness – the New Story greets us with its two central visions of evolution and interconnection. Enliven these with the power of attraction/generosity/love, and you have the dynamics of life as the New Story understands it. From these basic understandings come all our more familiar visions – such as the nurturing of life on earth, the elimination of abusive hierarchies, or the central role of love as the basis for social relationships.

As a vision and a hope, the New Story is not new. What has become new about it is that its central principles now stand on a solid basis of fact acknowledged in every country in the world. It is no longer just a few voices crying in the wilderness. Our institutions and their values stand embarrassed in the discovery that they are contradicted by these facts. Everywhere in the world, these institutions turn and churn under this stress, and so, in our own way, do we. As a world, we face an immense choice. Will we choose to move ahead on the basis of the knowledge we have uncovered, or will we attempt to suppress that knowledge in order to maintain our old worldview and its institutions?

How about it? Are you up for an adventure?

Rupert Sheldrake’s book,
A New Science Of Life, is about to be re-issued by J.P. Tarcher in a new addition that will include details on recent experiments.