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Morphic field

Morphic field is a term introduced by British biologist Rupert Sheldrake, the major proponent of this concept, through his Hypothesis of Formative Causation in the early 1980's. It is described as consisting of patterns that govern the development of forms, structures and arrangements. As a new theory challenging established concepts, Sheldrake's theories have received criticism by some members of the scientific establishment, have been ignored by others and have been taken as a possible new line of research by borderline researchers.


Morphic field

Sheldrake proposes that there is a field within and around a morphic unit which organizes its characteristic structure and pattern of activity.[1] According to this concept, the morphic field underlies the formation and behavior of holons and morphic units, and can be set up by the repetition of similar acts and/or thoughts. The hypothesis says that a particular form belonging to a certain group which has already established its (collective) morphic field, will tune into that morphic field. The particular form will read the collective information through the process of morphic resonance, using it to guide its own development. This development of the particular form will then provide, again through morphic resonance, a feedback to the morphic field of that group, thus strengthening it with its own experience resulting in new information being added (i.e. stored in the database). Sheldrake regards the morphic fields as a universal database for both organic (living) and abstract (mental) forms.

In layman terms, the theory proposes that any form looks always alike because it "remembers" its form through repetition and that any new forms having similar characteristics will "use" the pattern of similar forms already existing as guide for its appearance.

That a mode of transmission of shared informational patterns and archetypes might exist did gain some tacit acceptance, when it was proposed as the theory of collective unconscious by renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung. According to Sheldrake, the theory of morphic fields might provide an explanation for Jung's concept as well. Also, he agrees that the concept of Akashic Records, term from Vedas representing the "library" of all the experiences and memories of human minds (souls) through their physical lifetime, can be related to morphic fields [2], since one's past (an Akashic Record) is a mental form, consisting of thoughts as simpler mental forms (all processed by the same brain), and a group of similar or related mental forms also have their associated (collective) morphic field. (Sheldrake’s view on memory-traces is that they are “non-local”, and not located in the brain [1] ).

Morphic resonance

Essential to Sheldrake's model is the hypothesis of morphic resonance. This is a feedback mechanism between the field and the corresponding forms of morphic units. The greater the degree of similarity, the greater the resonance, leading to habituation or persistence of particular forms. So, the existence of a morphic field makes the existence of a new similar form easier.

Sheldrake proposes that the process of morphic resonance leads to stable morphic fields, which are significantly easier to tune into. He suggests that this is the means by which simpler organic forms synergetically self-organize into more complex ones, and that this model allows a different explanation for the process of evolution itself, as an addition to the Darwin's evolutionary processes of selection and variation.

Morphogenetic field

For the mainstream developmental biology concept, see Morphogenetic field.

Morphogenetic fields are defined by Sheldrake as the subset of morphic fields which influence, and are influenced by living things.

“The term [morphic fields] is more general in its meaning than morphogenetic fields, and includes other kinds of organizing fields in addition to those of morphogenesis; the organizing fields of animal and human behaviour, of social and cultural systems, and of mental activity can all be regarded as morphic fields which contain an inherent memory.” — Sheldrake, The Presence of the Past (Chapter 6, page 112)

Morphogenetic fields contain the information necessary to shape the exact form of a living thing, as part of its epigenetics, and may also shape its behaviour and coordination with other beings. The term morphogenetic field has also been used in a different sense by mainstream developmental biologists, as regions within a developing embryo that will subsequently develop into particular structures or organs. Since 1920's, mainstream biology has used the term morphogenetic field to mean "that collection of cells by whose interactions a particular organ formed". This usage is distinct from Sheldrake's in that nothing external to the cells themselves is implicated.[3] Sheldrake proposes that his ideas of morphic fields and resonance can give a better account of embryological development in terms of fields acting upon the embryo to give it the characteristic form of the organism.

The morphogenetic field would provide a force that guided the development of an organism as it grew, making it take on a form similar to that of others in its species. DNA, in this view, is not itself the source of structure, but rather a "receiver" that translates instructions in the field into physical form. The principle of morphic resonance implies that the new individuals imprint upon the field, and the field then causes subsequent generations to tend to show that form.

In Sheldrake's theory, since humans have a different form to plants (for example) they do not "pick up" the pattern of plants during development.

Research background

Rupert Sheldrake trained as a plant physiologist and became interested in the way that living things took on their form. In particular, he was interested in how what began as a single cell that split into identical copies eventually changed to take on specific characteristics such as leaves or stems in a plant. He posited a theory of morphogenetic fields that has become well-known for the criticism and skepticism directed towards it by some prominent members of the scientific community.

At the time of his research in the late 1960s and 1970s, the mechanisms for such development were unclear. In the 1920s, embryo regeneration and the ability of willow shoots to grow whole new trees implied to some researchers the possibility of some influencing field. The later discovery of DNA appeared at first to offer a clearer explanation, but since the DNA remains largely identical throughout an organism, it was thought that DNA could not explain form. Subsequent research postulates that DNA controls the form of a creature through the complex mechanism of cellular differentiation. Such a mechanism is, at present, defined but not explained.

Sheldrake observed:

"The instructors [at university] said that all morphogenesis is genetically programmed. They said different species just follow the instruction in their genes. But a few moments' reflection show that this reply is inadequate. All the cells of the body contain the same genes. In your body, the same genetic program is present in your eye cells, liver cells and the cells in your arms. The ones in your legs. But if they are all programmed identically, how do they develop so differently?"

Sheldrake developed a theory to explain this problem of morphology, with its basic concept relying on a universal field encoding the "basic pattern" of an object. He termed it the "morphogenetic field".


Sheldrake first published his ideas in 1973, offering several examples as evidence in support.

One was the research of Harvard University researcher William McDougall, who, in the 1920s, studied the abilities of rats to correctly solve mazes. He found that the offspring of rats that had learned the maze were able to run it faster. The first rats would get it wrong 165 times before being able to run it perfectly each time, but after a few generations it was down to 20. McDougall attributed this to some sort of Lamarckian evolutionary process, such as genetic memory. An alternative explanation involving the rats following the scent left behind by their predecessors is avoided in rat trials by using the same maze pattern constructed with fresh materials for each trial.

Sheldrake attributed this process to morphogenetic fields. The rats running the maze the first times built their pattern of learning into the "rat field", and later rats were able to draw on this now-established pattern. Several examples of this sort of "universal learning" were offered.

Another piece of evidence came from pure chemistry, where another unexplained "learning behaviour" takes place during the formation of crystals. When a new chemical compound is first created it will crystallize slowly, but when other researchers repeat the experiment they find it occurs more quickly. Chemists hypothesize that this is due to better experiments — the parts of the first experiment that result in slower growth are documented and not repeated. If this is correct, using documented processes should consistently result in slower crystal growth; however, this hypothesis does not appear to have been tested. Sheldrake also attributed this to a morphogenetic field, suggesting that the crystals being formed for the first time were influencing a field that later crystals drew on.

Although Sheldrake had talked about the theory in the 1970s and had become somewhat well known, the public release occurred when the theory was presented in book form in 1981 in A New Science of Life. The theory was offered as an explanation of plant and animal development, in this view, nature may be not a set of laws, but rather of habits.

Critical reception

The reception of many scientists to Sheldrake's theories was of extreme criticism or direct dismissal. "Theories of everything" are generally greeted with skepticism, particularly if they are written in layman's language and not published in peer-reviewed journals — even more so if the author claims insight into fields that they have no direct experience in. A New Science of Life was all three, and thus generally ignored by mainstream scientists, or else explicitly dismissed as pseudoscience[4] as in the case of the editor of the magazine Nature, John Maddox, who wrote : "Sheldrake's argument is an exercise in pseudo-science. — Many readers will be left with the impression that Sheldrake has succeeded in finding a place for magic within scientific discussion — and this, indeed, may have been a part of the objective of writing such a book.".[5]

Sheldrake's theories, however, became popular with the new age thinkers, attracting the attention from movements such as neurolinguistic programming;[6] chiefly due to its view of the "connectedness" of the world. In 1988 Sheldrake followed up his earlier book with The Presence of the Past: A Field Theory of Life.

Sheldrake's ideas have received a positive review by some "wholeness" philosophers and theoreticists as physicist Amit Goswami, who relates them to his own views.[7]

Continuing experiments

As Sheldrake moved away from interest in mainstream institutions, he proposed a list of Seven Experiments That Could Change the World (1994), which included, among other things, the seed of his study of Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home (1999).

In 2003 he published The Sense of Being Stared At, about a sense reported widely by a great many people. This included an experiment where people were blindfolded and having other people behind them either stare at them or at another target; the object beings stared at determined randomly. A loud click would cue the subject to declare if he was being stared at or not. Sheldrake claimed that if the guess was wrong and the subject was told that, they would subsequently get it wrong less often.

Sheldrake reported that, in over tens of thousands of trials, the scores were consistently above chance (60%) when the subject was being stared at, but only 50% (random chance) when the subject was not being stared at. This suggested a weak sense of being stared at but no sense of not being stared at. Sheldrake claims that these experiments have been very widely repeated, in schools in Connecticut and Toronto and a science museum in Amsterdam, with consistent results. Skeptics claim that the results are due to bad randomization during the experiments [2], despite the fact that these same results occur under pure random number generation (coin flipping) as well as many other randomisation schemes[3].

Sheldrake's approach to the scientific method, based on Darwin's careful observations, took him further away from molecular biology and the focus on gene, enzyme, protein and cell functions. This, he says, is a challenge to the mechanistic paradigm that views biology as a function of chemistry and physics—part of 19th century materialism that has led to genetic engineering and to biotechnology in general, but away from an account of consciousness, which the field theories are seeking. He blames this challenge as the reason to why his theories have received criticism. Some critics see lack of good experimental evidence in Sheldrake's presented work.[citation needed] They also claim that, since Sheldrake first proposed his theories in the 1970s, supposedly there is some improved understanding how form 'arises' from genetic material, although Sheldrake maintains that genetic material is responsible only for chemical reactions that determine the structure of the organic form, and not the shape itself.[4]

In spite of the fact that Rupert Sheldrake is a qualified scientist graduated with a Ph.D. in sciences from Trinity College in Cambridge and fellow of Clare College for seven years, where he served as Director of Studies in Biochemistry and Cell Biology, his theory of morphic resonance left him standing almost alone when presented. It also attracted over him the label of pseudoscientist. Nevertheless, he was later (2005) appointed to a three years position at Trinity College in Cambridge for further research.[8]

The theory on morphic resonance and morphic fields remains today (2007) as a proposal, not validated by third parties scientific research and not recognized as a proven concept in science.

See also

  • Biophoton
  • Akashic Records
  • Hundredth Monkey Effect
  • L-field
  • Synchronicity
  • Noosphere


  1. ^ Glossary at, accessed 18 Aug 2007
  2. ^ Sheldrake, Rupert (1988) The Presence of the Past, Chapter 17
  3. ^ Gilbert, Scott (1997), , . Retrieved on March 3, 2007
  4. ^ L'Imposture Scientifique en Dix Lecons, "Pseudoscience in Ten Lessons.", By Michel de Pracontal. Editions La Decouverte, Paris, 2001. ISBN 2-7071-3293-4.
  5. ^ (24 Sep 1981) "A book for burning?". Nature 293 (5830): 245-246. doi:10.1038/293245b0. Online quote
  6. ^ Dilts R, DeLozier J (2000). Encyclopedia of Systemic NLP and NLP New Coding. Retrieved on 2007-08-16.
  7. ^ Goswami, Amit (2002). The Physicists' View of Nature: The Quantum Revolution: Pt. 2. Kluwer Academic / Plenum Publishers, pp 277-289. ISBN 978-0306465093. 
  8. ^ (November 2005) "A Heretic for our times". Ode (28).


  • Shermer, Michael. "Rupert's Resonance". Scientific American, Nov. 2005, p. 19.
  • Freeman, Anthony (editor). Sheldrake and his Critics: The Sense Of Being Glared At, Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 12, no. 6 (June 2005).
  • Sheldrake, Rupert (1995). Nature As Alive: Morphic Resonance and Collective Memory. Source: [5] (Accessed: Thursday, 1 March 2007)
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Morphic_field". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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