making sense of sheldrake

[copied from excerpt from YouTube video (embedded below) of a talk given by Rupert Sheldrake at ‘Google Tech Talks’ on September 2, 2008 entitled “The Extended Mind: Recent Experimental Evidence”]

Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D. is a biologist and author of more than 75 technical papers and ten books, the most recent being The Sense of Being Stared At. He studied at Cambridge and Harvard Universities, was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge and a Research Fellow of the Royal Society. He is currently Director of the Perrott-Warrick project, funded from Trinity College Cambridge.

We have been brought up to believe that the mind is located inside the head. But there are good reasons for thinking that this view is too limited. Recent experimental results show that people can influence others at a distance just by looking at them, even if they look from behind and if all sensory clues are eliminated. And people’s intentions can be detected by animals from miles away. The commonest kind of non-local interaction mental influence occurs in connection with telephone calls, where most people have had the experience of thinking of someone shortly before they ring. Controlled, randomized tests on telephone telepathy have given highly significant positive results. Research techniques have now been automated and experiments on telepathy are now being conducted through the internet and cell phones, enabling widespread participation.

I’d love to hear critique of Sheldrake that takes him seriously and respectfully enough to be patient, thorough and non-reactionary. I’m not ‘convinced’ by everything he says (probably not smart enough to know either way!), but I find it fascinating, and enjoyed a recent lecture on Sheldrake by Robert Mann.

15 thoughts on “making sense of sheldrake”

  1. “I’d love to hear critique of Sheldrake that takes him seriously and respectfully enough to be patient, thorough and non-reactionary.”

    Well, I’d have to say that it seems pretty clear that he has been given opportunity to demonstrate his work scientifically but…he doesn’t come up with the goods.

    Sheldrake is the perfect example why the scienctific community never takes scientific claims “on credit”.
    Doesn’t matter how many Phds you have.
    Doesn’t matter where you teach.
    Doesn’t matter how many Nobel Prizes you won before breakfast last Tuesday.
    All of that is trumped by the quality of the evidence you submit in support of any claim you make in the here and now.

    No respect for tradition. No treading lightly through the hallowed halls of tradition and seniority.

    If your research is crap….then it’s crap.

    “Oh, look at the pretty naked body.”

  2. Well, asking about what methodology Sheldrake uses in his research is fair enough. More people should.

    A quick, superficial search turned up a couple of interesting tit-bits.
    (pressed for time at the moment, sorry)

    First, a few figures and analysis of one of his studies…


    As a rebuttal of criticisms of his work, Sheldrake makes a very poor defense, IMHO.
    Bottom line is that he makes a lot of very impressive claims but nobody’s been able to repeat his experiments.
    This is not good at all.

  3. Hi Cedric,
    As far as repeating experiments goes, it appears that Richard Wiseman did just so with one experiment – with matching data.
    I’m quite happy for any of Sheldrake’s errors to be demonstrated, but I’m really wanting detailed critiques here – and the nature of this research indicates (to me) that there seem to be quite a few variables which may be relevant to the methodology. States of consciousness, for example, would be a very fragile thing when trying to test these kinds of proposed phenomena. The details take time, of course, and I can totally appreciate your busyness.

  4. (You know when you’re addicted to blogs when you take time out from your lunch break to post a comment)


    “As far as repeating experiments goes, it appears that Richard Wiseman did just so with one experiment – with matching data.”

    He did? Do you have a link?

    On Richard Wiseman’s own site, he has nothing very kind to say about Sheldrake or his methodology.
    Certianly nothing about sucessfully repeating Sheldrake’s experiment. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    Dale said..”…and the nature of this research indicates (to me) that there seem to be quite a few variables which may be relevant to the methodology.”

    Variables have to be taken into account whenever an experiment is done. Nobody would argue with this. That’s why experiments are repeated and any variations are carefully recorded and mentioned in any scientific paper.

    Yet that’s not a “get out of jail free” card.
    The work still has to be done.
    The results must be repeated independently.
    If other scientists can’t replicate Sheldrake’s experiments then…there’s not much to say.

  5. Cheers, CK,
    In the link you gave, Wiseman points out (what seem to be minor?) classification discrepancies, then offers two hypotheses “that could potentially account for Jaytee appearing to psychically know when his owner is returning home” (which Sheldrake responded to), and finishes very inconclusively. (in Wiseman’s defense, Rupert appears to have put more time into the exchange?)

    Here are some links to Sheldrake’s responses, etc.

    The (matching) data from Wiseman’s experiments are here:

  6. Also – a very important question…
    Who (that you know of) has attempted to independently repeat Sheldrake’s experiments? You say “nobody’s been able to repeat his experiments”, but who’s trying? If nobody’s trying, then we can only say nobody has repeated them, rather than nobody has been able
    (I’m only trying to be consistent here – again, I’m quite happy for genuine errors to be highlighted – cheers)

  7. “In the link you gave, Wiseman points out (what seem to be minor?) classification discrepancies, then offers two hypotheses…”

    Well, yes but both of those hypotheses solidly opposed Sheldrakes conclusions. Wiseman clearly doesn’t see any psychic ability at all.

    Neither does anybody else.
    Sheldrake can claim that “Oh, you’re all doing it wrong” or “You actually agree with me but you’re in denial” yet that’s quite an extraordinary postion to take.

    “Who (that you know of) has attempted to independently repeat Sheldrake’s experiments?”

    Clearly, Milton, Smith and Wiseman for a start in “Jaytee”.

    Disputes concerning experimental results

    Testing formative causation
    In 1990 neurobiologist Steven Rose experimented jointly with Sheldrake to test the hypothesis of morphic resonance. The experiment involved training day-old chicks to react negatively to a small yellow light when the light was followed 30 min later by an injection which caused temporary illness. Chicks become strongly averse to pecking the stimulus again. Sheldrake predicted that successive batches of day-old chicks would progressively become more averse to pecking the light for the first time, because morphic resonance would cause them to “remember” the experience of previous generations of chicks. Rose predicted that no such effect would be observed.

    Rose wrote that he and several scientists who reviewed the data were convinced that there was no evidence of morphic resonance.
    Sheldrake, however, said that the proportion of test chicks taking longer than 10 sec for the first peck, compared with control chicks, gradually increased in successive batches and believed therefore that the experiment supported his theory.

    In a separate paper, Rose responded that there were several confounding details of the experiment which skewed the results, such as the experimenter improving his skills with practice over the course of the experiment. Rose said there was no trend for an increase in the latency, in fact a slight decrease, thus disconfirming Sheldrake’s prediction. In an independent analysis of the data, biologist Patrick Bateson agreed with Rose that the results ran counter to the prediction of morphic resonance.

    Sheldrake responded that Rose’s analysis omitted a significant portion of the data, thus skewing the results. Sheldrake contended that repeating Rose’s analysis with the full set of data shows that the trends in aversion were in fact significantly different and morphic resonance was confirmed, not disconfirmed. Rose and other researchers in the field, however, rejected this interpretation of the results.

    Tests of the staring effect
    David Marks and John Colwell, writing in the Skeptical Inquirer (2000), criticized the experimental procedures Sheldrake had developed for tests designed to demonstrate the existence of the staring effect. Apart from the fact that Sheldrake had encouraged the involvement of lay members of the public in research of the effect, Marks and Colwell suggested that the sequences used in tests followed the same patterning that people who guess and gamble like to follow. These guessing patterns have relatively few long runs and many alternations. The non-randomness of test sequences could thus lead to implicit or explicit pattern learning when feedback is provided. When the patterns being guessed mirror naturally occurring guessing patterns, the results could go above or below chance levels even without feedback. Thus significant results could occur purely from non-random guessing. Non-randomization is one of seven flaws in parapsychological research identified by Marks.

    Michael Shermer wrote in Scientific American (2005) that there were a number of objections to Sheldrake’s experiments on the sense of being stared at, reiterating Marks’ and Colwell’s points about non-randomization and the use of unsupervised laypeople, and adding confirmation bias and experimenter bias to the list of potential problems; he concluded that Sheldrake’s claim was unfalsifiable.

    Sheldrake (2004, 2005) responded to the criticisms by stating that the experiments had been widely replicated; the results from an independent meta-analysis, which had excluded all data from unsupervised tests, were shown to be highly significant; and the Marks-Colwell suggestion of non-randomization had been refuted by thousands of trials with different randomization methods, including coin-tossing, yielding positive and highly statistically significant results, whatever the randomization method.

  8. Dale, this could be an excellent youth group exercise. Start with the hypothesis that people can, more often than not, detect when someone is staring at them behind their backs. Try to think of any natural explanations for why this might occur (i.e. subconscious reflections, non-random schedules, marker bias, etc) and then try to control for these factors. You could then set up a number of experiments and see what kind of results you get. If you get positive results, tighten the controls (i.e. a one-way mirror, double-blind, etc) and see if the next set of results are closer to chance. If you find that the trend is that the tighter the controls the less the result then you have a fairly strong case against the existence of the phenomenon. If not, it would be well worth pursuing further.

    The experiments Sheldrake performed around the sense of being stared at seem fairly simple to reproduce. All you need is access to willing participants. And you’re a youth leader aren’t you? Bingo! I’ll bet they learn more about the scientific method with an experiment like this than anything they’re taught at school.

    As an aside, I’m aware that there were accusations in one set of experiments where a person was responsible for picking the ‘random’ sequence of a number of picture cards (you know, the ones with the square, river, star and so on). After each guess the subject was told whether they had guessed correctly or not and they found that they got fairly positive results. However, when they retested without the confirmation the results dropped right back. My guess is that we humans don’t actually pick very good random sequences (i.e. we’re unlikely to pick 3 of the same in a row – something that would appear reasonably frequently in a genuine randomisation) and with the help of the confirmation people had just that more chance of a hint as to what the ‘randomiser’ may have picked next. It would also be great to run four sets of experiments to test this effect; two with genuine random selection (one with confirmation, one without) and two with ‘human random’ selection (one with confirmation, one without). I’d guess that the two genuine random ones would be the same but that the ‘human random’ non-confirmation would be slightly positive and the ‘human random’ confirmation one would be even more positive.

    (Good to see you’ve enabled commenting again! I’ve also had issues with accessing pages where is the URL as opposed to which I’m currently seeing in my address bar)

  9. Cedric,
    (just observing here)
    1. Links would have sufficed. ;)
    2. So, in other words, not too many attempts are repeating/refining the tests have been made? (4-5 in almost 20 years?)
    3. I found this support interesting:

    Some quantum physicists have supported Sheldrake’s hypothesis. The late David Bohm suggested that Sheldrake’s hypothesis was in keeping with his own ideas on what he terms “implicate” and “explicate” order. Hans-Peter Dürr has called for further discussion of Sheldrake’s hypothesis, describing it as one of the first to reconcile 20th-century breakthroughs in physics, which emphasize fields and the indivisible nature of matter, with biology, which he says for the most part remains rooted in 19th-century Newtonian concepts of particles and separateness.

    4. My overall feeling is that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. And with ‘healthy’ skepticism.

    Unfortunately, to do it properly would take oooooodles of time. :) I am interested to see how much research will be done over (say) the next 20 years, and how it all progresses… I’m quite interested in the relationship of Sheldrake’s ideas about morphogenic fields and the observed phenomenon of quantum nonlocality…

  10. oh yes – and the URL thing… the only URL that is ‘out there’ with “” in it would be the base (non post-related) URL… which should redirect to rhs…etc.

    As a profesho-techo, any advice as to how I can (or could) adjust my install location (is that right?) to replace rhs…etc. with ‘’ ??? (currently, I’m set up as a sub-domain of the ‘rhs…etc.’ site – as I understand it – which is not 100%)

  11. “Links would have sufficed.”

    Sorry, I’ll do better next time. (blush)


    “So, in other words, not too many attempts are repeating/refining the tests have been made? (4-5 in almost 20 years?)”

    He’s lucky to get even that, considering his dismal track record.
    Scientists are researchers, not saints.

    “I found this support interesting…”

    To each his own, of course, but polite, moral support from a couple of names does not a repeatable experiment make.

    “My overall feeling is that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. And with ‘healthy’ skepticism.”

    What? It’s a dead end. Are you honestly suggesting that the scientific community has been using “unhealthy” skepticism?
    How so?

    Orginally you said..

    “I’d love to hear critique of Sheldrake that takes him seriously and respectfully enough to be patient, thorough and non-reactionary.”

    Well, that’s been done. Sure, it’s no fun when people scratch their head and can’t replicate your results and call you on it but..that’s the nature of the scientific beast. If you can’t handle the heat then…(shrug).

    Later you mentioned…
    “Could you fill us in on any specific examples of the sub-par research.” and later still “I’m quite happy for any of Sheldrake’s errors to be demonstrated, but I’m really wanting detailed critiques here.”

    The scientists who have looked at Sheldrake have tried to clearly explain how they went about testing his claims. In detail.
    They have responded to Sheldrakes defence of his work, etc.
    It’s all on public record.
    There’s nothing “unhealthy” that I can see about it.

    After twenty-odd years of Sheldrake making money off of his book and flogging his unsupportable ideas to a largely gullible public, when does a reasonable person say “This guy’s full of gas” and stop giving him the benefit of the doubt?

    I appreciate your desire to keep an open mind and to give Sheldrake a chance but for the life of me I don’t understand why you feel that that chance has not been given! Repeatedly!

    Isn’t it time to hand him his pink slip (metaphorically speaking) and move on to other things? Giving him an unlimited line of credit where no credit is due seems to be unreasonable.

    Immanuel Velikovsky, anyone? Erich von Däniken?


    Oh, and thanks for enabling comments.

  12. Unfortunately, to do it properly would take oooooodles of time

    Then don’t do it properly. You should still get a sense of diminishing results over two, quick experiments with a tightening of controls and, to my mind, infinitely more benefit to a young person’s critical thinking than an in-depth study of a passage of text from the Bible.

    I think the reason why people aren’t looking much further (other than True Believers) is that without a proposed mechanism to test for, consistent results to indicate the existence of a phenomenon and with squillions of other things that need to be researched, it’s unlikely that anyone’s going to get the funding to look into it further or that anyone’s going to give their time for free on what they see as (as Cedric said) a dead end. This should be an indication to us laypeople that Sheldrake has missed the mark a bit. Can you imagine how many scientists (not to mention industries or security/military organisations) would be all over this if they thought there was the slightest hint of possibility that it were true?

    I personally would be fascinated to discover a new phenomenon like this but, if I’m to be blunt here, I think your desire is more aligned to wanting there to be “something more” out there that can give a boost to your beliefs which have undergone a bit of a trim-back over the last decade or so. Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Either way, it’s good to show a healthy interest, just remember to keep a critical mind — especially with claims of this nature.

    any advice as to how I can (or could) adjust my install location (is that right?) to replace rhs

    I’m not sure of your server setup but it might be a matter of having to create a new hosting plan or to make a domain alias rather than a redirect or frame-forwarding.

  13. Cedric,
    Cheers – we’ve probably gone as far as we can. :)

    Yeah, I’m fully aware of my potential bias (and I would call it a refinement and maturing of my beliefs, not a ‘trimming-back’). :) I still do think Sheldrake is committed to being fully scientific, and hasn’t been completely ‘dis-proven’. His loudest critics seem to be from the skeptical community, making the lack of rigorous independent follow-up experimentation all the more frustrating (no doubt frustrating to Sheldrake himself – who seems willing to have his ideas refined/shaped/over-turned by experimentation).

  14. Ah well, time will tell. Personally, I’m rooting for him because I think the world would be a fascinating place to live where I could manipulate things from afar with my mind. But I’ve logically had to conclude that there’s not enough evidence to support his hypothesis. Yet. Always ‘yet’.

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