Rupert Sheldrake, a biologist and author, discusses The Extended Mind: Recent Experimental Evidence at Google Tech Talks conference. This event took placed on September 2, 2008. Read the full transcript below.
Book(s) by the speaker:
Announcer: Our speaker today is Rupert Sheldrake, an innovative and controversial biologist, author of over 75 technical papers and books –very interesting, I must say, most recently, “The Sense of Being Stared At.” He studied at Cambridge, and is director of the Perrott-Warrick Project there, funded by Trinity College. And he is going to speak about some research he’s doing on that project about extraordinary or unexplained abilities of humans and animals. So, there’s going to be a 45-minute talk, followed by 15 minutes for questions and answers.
Let’s welcome, Rupert Sheldrake.
Rupert Sheldrake – Author
Okay. Thank you, I’m talking about the Extended Mind, the mind beyond the brain. And I’m going to start with a few reflections on the nature of consciousness. We don’t know how consciousness works or what it does. This is one of the things which in science is sometimes called The Hard problem, because there’s no known obvious reason why we should be conscious at all, or exactly how the mind works. And consciousness study is one of the most exciting frontier areas of science today.
What I’m going to suggest is that our minds are field-like, that they’re not confined to the inside of the head. They spread out into environment around us. Because our minds are extended beyond our brains, they can have effects at a distance which are surprising from the conventional point of view and helped to make sense of a range of controversial phenomena, like telepathy.
So, the first point is that, the question of “Where is the mind located?” I’m suggesting that minds are field-like, can spread out beyond brains in a similar way to the way that magnetic fields spread out beyond magnets, cellphone fields spread out beyond cellphones and the Earth’s gravitational field stretches out far beyond the Earth. These fields are within and around the material systems they organize, and I think the same is true of our brains.
The place where this becomes easiest to understand is in terms of vision, and the question of how vision works. Most people think they know how vision works, and science has told us a great deal about it. And what we know is that when you see me standing here now for example, light is reflected from me, goes through the electromagnetic field of inverted images of pair on your retinas, changes happen in the cone cells and then impulses travel up the optic nerves and various bits of your brain become active. That’s what happens during physical side of perception.
There are two problems here. First of all, there’s no explanation in this as to why you should be conscious at all, that’s simply not explained by describing what happens in the nervous system. And the second problem is that, according to the standard view, all this is supposed to be happening inside your brain. If the mind is nothing but the brain, which is the usual assumption within the academic and medical worlds, mental activity is nothing but brain activity, everything you’re seeing is inside your head. Somehow, miraculously in an unexplained way, changes in your nervous cells lead to a kind of virtual reality display inside your head, by which you see what’s going on in the world.
So, right now, for example, somewhere inside your head, there’s a little virtual Rupert, somewhere in your brain and you think it’s right out here, whereas I’m standing here talking. If you look at the sky, the sky you’re seeing is an image of the sky inside your head. So, your skull must be beyond the sky. A recent paper in a leading consciousness journal was called, “Is your skull beyond the sky?” Because if the sky you see is inside your head, the skull must be beyond the sky. The answer of the author was yes, my answer would be no. In fact, I suggest the very common sense view. A view that is so simple, it’s hard to grasp that when you’re seeing something, the image you’re seeing is where it seems to be. Your image of me is located not inside your head but right here. It’s in your mind, produced by your mind but it’s not in your brain. It’s projected out. And I’m suggesting our whole visual experience of the world is projected out to where it seems to be. Our minds are projecting out all that we see.
So, vision is a two-way process, light coming in and the outward projection of images. This, I suggest, happens through what I call the perceptual field, which is a kind of morphic field, another category of field that is part of a theory I’ve developed which I don’t have time to explain today. But it’s a field phenomenon and in a sense, your mind reaches out to touch what you’re looking at. The image of what you are seeing is superimposed on what’s really there. Sometimes it’s not, as in a mirror reflection when you have a virtual image or an illusion or a hallucination but usually it is.
So what I’m suggesting is that you can, by looking at things, you mind touches them, there’s a sense in which you might be able to affect things just by looking at them. Is this true? Can you affect anything by looking at it? Think of another person, can you affect another person by looking at them? Of course if they see you looking at them, we all know you can. But what if you’re looking at them from behind through a car window, for example, no sun, no smell, they can’t see you’re there, they don’t know you’re there. Can you affect them just by looking at them?
Well, most people think that that does happen. 90% of the population have had the experience of feeling that sometimes when they’re being looked at from behind, they turn around, someone’s looking at them. Survey show that more women than men have had that experience. It’s still a very large majority. More men than women have had the experience of looking at others and making them turn around. But most men and women have had both these experiences and, I guess, most people in this room have experienced these things personally.
So the sense of being stared at is a well-known phenomena, it’s found all over the world, children know about it, adults know about it. But it’s not part of the standard scientific map. You won’t find any reference to it in psychology textbooks. There’s virtually no research literature on this until about 15 years ago. And it’s extraordinarily under research in spite of the fact it’s very well known.
The standard scientific education that most of us receive makes us think, “Well, this must be some kind of illusion.” So probably most people in this room are being trained to dismiss the phenomenon by saying, “Oh, it’s just a coincidence, you turn around all the time, if no one’s looking at you, you forget about it. If they are, you think there’s some mysterious sense involved but it’s really nothing but either coincidence or peripheral vision or something like that.” That’s the standard way of explaining it away.
But now many experiments have been done to test whether this is real. And the simplest experiment involves people working in pairs. One sits with a blindfold, with their back to another. The other person either looks or doesn’t look at them in a randomized sequence and in each trial the person has to guess if they are being looked at or not. Hundreds of thousands of these trials have been done. The overall results show positive significantly — very significant effect. When things are repeated over hundreds of thousands of trials with many independent replications, they become very significant, even though as in this case the effect is fairly small. These results — these experiments have also been done in Amsterdam in the science museum in one of the largest experiments ever conducted for more than 20 years. This experiment’s been running more than 20,000 participants who’ve taken part. The results again are overwhelmingly positive and significant.
Rather surprisingly, this phenomenon also occurs through close circuit television. Various experiments have been done whereby people skin conductance is measured with electrodes on their fingers. This measures emotional arousal and it turns out that there’s a significant change in people’s emotional arousal when they’re being looked at through close circuit television by someone on the monitor in a different room. This work’s been replicated as well and one of the people who’s done it, Marilyn Schlitz, is right here in the Bay Area, indeed she’s right here in this room. And so it is in our substantial body of work, showing that people can tell when they’re being looked at even through close circuit television. This is something which has become of great interest to the security agencies and I can’t divulge exactly who or where. But I can tell you that security forces are very interested in this question: “Could a potential terrorist, for example, tell when they’re being watched through close circuit television?” The answer to that is probably yes, if they’ve trained their sensitivity a bit.