What is morphic resonance? (Bear with me through this part. It’s rather confusing and a bit weird.)
In his 1988 book, The Presence of the Past, biochemist Rupert Sheldrake first proposed his theory of morphic resonance. This idea, which has largely been ridiculed by the scientific community and has essentially resulted in the end of Sheldrake’s academic career, proposes an alternative to the ideas of Neo-Darwinism, as well as the belief that the universe is built on a set of fixed laws. He questions the traditional understanding of this political metaphor that man has used to understand the workings of reality in which the patterns inherent in nature are compared to the man-made laws of human society, albeit put in place by the highest law-maker, God. Rather than being fixed for eternity, man-made laws change throughout time as a result of precedent and Sheldrake proposes that the laws of nature change too, equating them less to fixed laws and more to a system of habituation and developed regularities that are conditioned on how things have been in the past.
All of the forms and processes that exist and occur in reality consist of morphic units, which are perpetually engaged in a feedback mechanism with a particular morphic field, which organizes the characteristic structure and behavior of those morphic units (also referred to as holons). These holons are constantly tuning in to the morphogenetic field that they exist within and that has been produced by the morphic units that precede them, which contributes both to the further development of the morphogenetic field as a whole and the individual holons. Given that the universe is, at the most fundamental level, composed of energy and vibration, Sheldrake draws the conclusion that similar things resonate with subsequent similar things on the basis of similarity of pattern and of vibratory patterns of activity. This leads to an established pattern in reality, whether that be in a population of rabbits or the formation of salt crystals.These habits may change over time, presenting a view of evolution that goes beyond Darwin’s processes of variation and selection and extending to the inorganic as well as the organic, creating the possibility that even the most very basic particles that comprise this material universe have evolved throughout time. Reality as a whole is composed of an infinite number of nested sets of systems, and each one of these individual systems is suggested to have its own morphogenetic field by which it evolves.
Has this been looked at empirically?
The concept of morphogenetic fields, which Sheldrake views as the universal database for both physical and abstract, mental forms, bears a striking similarity to C.G. Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, the aspect of man that transcends his genetic composition and acts as a source of mankind’s conglomerated experiential knowledge, a form of psychological instincts. This concept has constantly come under fire as being unfalsifiable and, put bluntly, total BS. To combat these claims, Sheldrake cites a number of experiments that have been performed that appear to support these hypotheses of morphic resonance and morphogenetic fields. A few of these have been listed below.
A study was conducted at Harvard in which lab rats were trained to escape from a maze over the course of 10 years. As the original rats died, the experiment was carried on with their offspring and it was ultimately found that the final group of rats, which were separated from the original subjects by a number of generations, were escaping the lab ten times faster than the initial group had been. It was originally thought that this might have been the possible result of some sort of Lamarckian inheritence in which the decedents of the initial rats had acquired some sort of ability in escaping mazes, or a set of skills that would contribute to that ability, via genetic modification. However, it was then noted that this trend was appearing all over the world in rats of that same species. This increased ability to escape a lab maze appeared in rats of the same breed that had not been descended from trained parents, showing that this improvement could not have been due to a mere genetic alteration and suggesting the existence of a morphogenetic field that all of the organisms in that system were tuning into that improved their ability at navigating mazes.
Sheldrake also cites the historical example of the Blue Tit, a bird found in England, and its developed ability to open the top off of milk containers (back when milk was still delivered door to door) and drink the cream off of the top, a skill that the Blue Tits in South England learned over a couple of decades. Roughly a year after this initial population had developed this ability, Blue Tits more than a hundred miles away were found performing the same cap-popping, milk stealing trick. Given that Blue Tits only fly up to 15 miles from their home territory, it seemed likely that this new appearance of the skill was an independent discovery. This trend continued to turn up across England and eventually in other European nations. And then World War 2 happened, and milk deliveries ceased in Holland, one of the other countries in which the Blue Tit developed this ability. These birds don’t ordinarily live more than three years and it was eight years until milk deliveries resumed. After having taken decades for this skill to initially appear in the species, it reappeared within the Dutch Blue Tit population within a matter of months. This suggests some form of communication with a collective memory of the species that the Dutch Blue Tits were tapping into, going beyond an ability learned via genetic mutations from parents to offspring.
There have also been studies conducted on humans that have clearly indicated that it is easier for people to learn things that have been previously learned before. One such study that demonstrates this fact was conducted by Gary Schwartz, a professor at Yale. He took 24 common Hebrew words and 24 rare Hebrew words from the Old Testament (all in Hebrew script), as well as anagrams of each of those words, using a total of 96 words, half of which were real and half of which were not. The study was done only using written language and performed on a group of participants that were entirely unfamiliar with Hebrew, so it served as a test of pattern recognition rather than of language ability. Each of the words was run by the participants and they were asked to give the first word that came to mind, as a way of proposing an English meaning for the Hebrew word, as well as a confidence rating (from 0-4) of how accurate their guess might be. Schwartz ran statistical analysis on the results (omitting all the participants that had gotten words right, hypothesizing that they might have unconsciously picked some Hebrew up at some point in their lives) and found an extremely interesting result. The confidence ratings that the remaining participants had given were substantially higher (to a statistically significant degree) for the real Hebrew words than those that they had given for the false, anagram words. Furthermore, the confidence ratings were notably higher for the common Hebrew words than the rare ones, suggesting that the participants had tapped into a collective memory of the morphogenetic fields created by all of history’s Hebrew scholars and speakers, creating a sense of unconscious familiarity. Schwartz even demonstrated that this apparent familiarity was entirely unconscious by running all the words past the participants once again, this time armed with the knowledge that half the words were real and half were false. The participants were requested to identify which were which, but when asked to perform this task consciously, the results were purely random.
Why does this matter?
So this all seems like pretty ridiculous stuff. Almost like magic existing in the realm of science. Well if you can suspend your belief and cynicism just a bit longer, I think it’s worth taking a look at a couple of the potential consequences that the concepts of morphic resonance and morphogenetic fields would have, not only on many other domains of scientific thought, but on our entire conception of reality as a whole.
Heredity and Evolution
The idea of morphic resonance suggests that the development of a species is contingent not only on the random mutations in genes and selective pressures that act on the organisms, but also by the morphogenetic field created by past members of that species. While DNA provides the blueprint for producing particular chemicals and consequently, an organisms chemical hereditary, Sheldrake proposes that the organization of those chemicals, the form that they take, and they way in which they are expressed through behavior are largely a result of morphic resonance. By tuning in to their ancestors, living members of a species are altered on a level that goes beyond genetics. This opens up the possibility for evolution to occur on a far smaller time-scale than Neo-Darwinian thought would lead one to believe, creating a tremendous potential for new ideas and attitudes to spread among the human species.
Scientists have continuously struggled to find a material basis within our brains for our memories. While they have been able to demonstrate that by stimulating certain parts of the brain specific memories can be evoked, as well as by ‘blocking’ those same sections of the brain, memories appear to be erased, neither of these tests conclusively demonstrates that our memories are physically located within our brains. Rather than likening the brain to a deeply complex storage mechanism, Sheldrake chooses to use the metaphor of the radio in considering the brain. The system of morphogenetic fields depends on similarity, and who or what could be more similar to oneself today than oneself in the past. Rather than storing all of our memories in our brains, which would seem to be an absolutely monumental task, our memories are recorded as a sort of energy signature in our distinct morphogenetic field. When we retrieve a memory, we act as if we were a radio, tuning in to a particular frequency and channeling that information through us. If the brain, which might be considered our receiving mechanism, an antennae perse, is externally moved to a particular frequency, as in being poked with an electrode, it could prompt a particular memory to be tuned into. Similarly, if part of the brain’s machinery is damaged, it might become difficult or impossible for one to tune to the correct frequency to access a memory. This doesn’t mean that the memory is completely gone, but that the brain can no longer properly tune itself to retrieve it.
Experiencing Past Lives
Much of what was mentioned in the previous section seems to be equally applicable for many individuals that claim to experience past lives. Yet rather than tapping into their own morphogenetic fields, they appear to be tapping into the field of another individual, separated from themselves by both time and space. Drawing from the tremendous amount of work done by Ian Stevenson on reincarnation (which I would recommend checking out. Absolutely wild stuff), it seems that young children are far more likely to have experiences of past lives. This is presumably because their sense as a separate self and their own particular morphogenetic fields are not yet fully formed and concretized, leaving open the possibility that they could access the morphic resonances of some deceased person. One’s answer to the question of whether they are that person or not is largely dependent on what one considers to be personhood. If being a particular person is simply having that person’s continuity of memory, then it seems that one could be considered to actually be that person who’s memories they are tuning into. However, you could also take a more liberal view and say that they aren’t that person, they’re just accessing those memories. This seems to lead into an endless discussion of what really constitutes a person and what might carry on from lifetime to lifetime, if you believe in reincarnation. I think I’ll try and stay away from that here, seeing how absurd most of you probably think this post is already.
Societies as a whole can also be thought of as being governed by these habits formed by morphogenetic fields and rituals are a particular way in which this is particular manifest. People are often extremely resistant to changing a ritual, whether it be a religious one such as the Passover Sedar or a secular one like Thanksgiving dinner, but are often unable to express exactly why; it’s tradition hardly seems like a valid answer. Why is tradition so important? Rituals are performed very deliberately as similarly as possible to the original model using the same language, and even the same words in many cases. By recreating this particular pattern of activity, ritual performers are able to tap into the morphogenetic field created by all of the individuals before them that have ever properly participated in that same ritual. In doing so, the past is brought into the present in a very real way. By changing the ritual, the ability to tune in is increasingly weakened, providing an explanation for why people might be so resistant to changes in ritual.
Could any of this actually exist?
It’s hard to say. Since originally proposing the idea over 20 years ago, Sheldrake has written a number of books on the topic but there appears to be virtually no other developments in the idea, which is presumably because the whole thing reeks of pseudoscience. Then again, most ideas that don’t fit into the current paradigm and that ultimately end up defining the new one are generally not accepted at first and the person responsible for their genesis is severely persecuted. While Sheldrake may not face persecution as harshly as some of science’s most famous paradigm shifters (see: Galileo), his ideas certainly haven’t been received well.
As I try and make sense of all of this and determine my own stance on the matter, one thing that does jump out to me as being of monumental importance is the implications that morphogenic fields might have on expansion of the self and improvement of society as a whole. Sheldrake’s ideas suggest that the culture in which we live and systems in which we place ourselves have a very real impact on our development as individuals. This goes beyond the lessons of social psychology and enters a whole new realm of influence on the Self, one in which our very energetic composition is being manipulated by the morphogenic fields that we choose to place ourselves within. My mind can’t but help to jump to Eastern conceptions of the subtle body and the way in which it could potentially be constantly tuning in to an innumerable number of morphogenic fields. By deliberately altering our environment, behavior, habits, and thought patterns, we have the capacity to tap into various morphic resonances, providing a fascinating lens through which one can view personal transformation.
So, what do you think? Absolute absurdity? Pseudoscience? Buy it? I’m still working through my own thoughts on the whole theory and its potential consequences so help me figure it out: comment!