Rupert Sheldrake on intuition, creativity and ‘morphic fields’

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake is best known for his concept of ‘morphogenetic fields’. His interest for the idea of morphogenetic fields grew out of the conviction that processes in nature are not governed solely by the known laws of physics and chemistry. He gradually became convinced that the conventional approach was unnecessarily restrictive and dismissed the idea that, for instance, the chemical constitution of the genes determines the forms and instincts of organisms. He describes the current paradigm shift as one from a mechanistic to an organismic (or holistic) theory of reality. The key word in his organismic view of the world is ‘habit’. His theory of morphogenetic fields proposes that memory is inherent in nature. It suggests that natural systems inherit a collective memory from all previous things of their kind.

“When any particular organised system ceases to exist, when an atom splits, an animal dies, its organising field disappears from that place. However, morphic fields can appear again physically in other times and places, wherever and whenever the physical conditions are appropriate. When they do so, they contain within themselves a memory of their previous physical existences. The process by which the pat becomes present within morphic fields is called ‘morphic resonance’”. This implies that each species has a kind of collective memory from which all members of the species draw and to which all of them contribute. (pp253-254)

Sheldrake compares the functioning of morphogenetic fields with that of the unconscious. “Consciousness,” he says, “is only one aspect of our mental activity.” The morphic fields he is occupied with largely work unconsciously, habitually. Sheldrake proposes a level between mechanism and consciousness – the realm of unconscious soul or unconscious habit – which is organised by morphic fields. In his view animals and plants are purposive but these purposes are unconscious. The hypothesis also suggests that styles and forms of art represent morphic fields. The notion of morphic resonance helps us to understand the origin of new fields. Sometimes we have intuitive flashes that are completely original, that are new. In those cases they cannot be explained in terms of a memory of what has gone before and we are confronted with the mystery of creativity. Morphic resonance explains how habits develop and endure. But Sheldrake says it does not explain how creativity comes about in the first place. New morphic fields – new paradigms – begin as insights, intuitive leaps, guesses, or conjectures. They are like mental mutations. “Our fascination with innovations and human creativity is one way in which we experience evolution as a living idea. Should we find that we are indeed living in a world of evolving habits, we will have to change our way of thinking entirely. We will have to adopt habits appropriate for a world that is living and open to continuing creation.” Creativity is always working against the backdrop of habits which, if successful, is then repeated: habits therefore grow out of creativity. In art creativity brings about new styles. There are paradigm shifts in art – like the outbreak of Modernism – attempts to move out of patterns of habit. More popular arts like popular music, architecture, cinema and television are obviously very important but are not normally considered ‘art’. Only looking at the past do we see some important changes in science that were preceded by artistic leaps, such as the use of perspective in the Renaissance. (p254)

The question I am dealing with is how form and order come into being in living organisms and indeed in nature as a whole. The idea of form-shaping fields, morphogenetic fields, has been around for at least sixty years. This idea of invisible fields which shape and guide the development of organisms is the starting point for my own ideas. What I am saying is that the form and the instincts of organisms are inherited as a kind of collective memory from past members of their species and that this inheritance does not go through the genes, but is a non-material kind of memory. Organisms tune in directly to past memories of the species. (p256)

The present conventional world view in biology is based on a mechanistic theory of nature which says there is no life, purpose, spontaneity, or truly self-organising capacity in living organisms the=at bears any relation to what people used to call ‘the soul’. There is no animating principle. It says that living organisms are inanimate. What I am suggesting with the idea of the morphic or morphogenetic field is that there is an organising principle within organisms, that living organisms are not inanimate in the normal sense, but that there is this invisible organising field which plays much the same role as the soul used to do in older kinds of biology. If one takes the view that nature is alive rather than dead, that organisms have a kind of inherent memory, that the laws of nature are in fact more like habits, then one has a completely different view of reality. It is a view of reality in which things are possible that are not possible in the conventional world view of science. I think that the worst thing about the mechanistic system is that it tells us that nature is not truly alive, but is just machinery. It is extremely anthropocentric. It involves projecting our own human concerns on to the whole world, without really looking at nature as it is. That leads to a false view of nature because it is too man-centred. We are the only organisms in the universe that create machines and our preoccupation with machines and mechanisms is projected on to the whole of nature, so the whole of nature is seen as some kind of machinery, rather than as something that is truly organic or truly alive. This alienates us from nature. It creates a false sense of what the universe is and what life is. It also leads us to think of ourselves as machines. People like to think of their bodies as machinery; the heart is just a pump, the brain is just a computer. That kind of view takes us out of our bodies and out of nature. It is as if we are somehow outside nature. (pp256-257)

The mechanistic world view drives the soul and the spirit out of nature. It says nature is just an inanimate, purposeless mechanism and our bodies are just inanimate, purposeless mechanisms. When Descartes drove the soul and the spirit out of nature, the only residue of the soul left in the whole natural world was a small part of the human brain, the rational soul which he thought was best expressed by doing mathematics. Other people say, “Well there is no such thing as the soul or the spirit in the human brain. Human brains are just mechanisms like everything else”. In theory that indeed totally eliminates the soul and the spirit from the whole realm of nature. Of course in practice it doesn’t eliminate it. (p257)

I think the key thing to recognise is that consciousness is one aspect of our mind. But there is a large part of our mental activity of which we are not conscious. I think that something like the unconscious mind is operating throughout the natural realm. The morphic fields I am talking about which organise the development of plants and animals, largely work unconsciously, habitually. They are more like our unconscious minds than our conscious minds. There is a level between mechanism and consciousness which is that of unconscious soul, or unconscious habit. That realm I think is organised by morphic fields. So I think that animals and plants are purposive, but I don’t think their purposes are conscious for the most part. Just as our own unconscious minds are purposive, but we are not conscious of their purposes or their activity most of the time. (p258)

There are tests in animal behaviour that can be done. The theory predicts that animals trained to learn a trick in one place will influence other animals of the same breed elsewhere, so that they subsequently can learn the same thing more quickly by an invisible connection acting at a distance. It should happen anyway, even in the absence of any known means of communication. When you actually see birds flying in flocks or spiders spinning their webs or flowers blooming in gardens, the scientific picture seems very two-dimensional. It seems to be leaving some essential feature of life out of the picture. The idea that there is a kind of inherent memory came to me in a flash. (p259)

There are two kinds of intuitive flashes. One is an intuitive flash where you are intuiting something that millions before you have known. You may suddenly have an insight which is original for you, but which is not original for humanity as a whole. Each of us goes through various stages in our education when we suddenly realise things, but they are usually things our fathers and mothers and grandparents and many others before us have realised in the course of their growing up. These kinds of intuitive flashes are things where morphic resonance, which is sort of an inherited memory, may well play a part. But sometimes we have intuitive flashes that are completely original, that are new, that are things that other people haven’t thought of at all. They can’t be explained in terms of a memory of what has gone before, because they are new. We come up against the mystery of creativity, of how things come to happen. (p260)

All of us are creatures of habit. We build up our own habits and we inherit cultural habits. For example in our language we inherit the whole vocabulary. I have not invented the English language. The vast majority of words were already there when I was born. The basic habits, the metaphors, the implicit cultural understanding that go with the language are habits you inherit. So most of us inherit cultural habits, we build up our own personal habits, we have social habits and our creativity happens against a huge background of habit. If individual creativity is successful, if it is useful, something takes root and is repeated, then new habits grow out of that creativity. (pp260-261)

I think mechanistic science is related to the single point of view of perspective painting. It is also related to a sense of the detached observer. In the Middle Ages the standard world view was that of a static earth with everything moving around it. The change in the Copernican picture was that the earth was spinning on its axis, moving around the sun. The changing point of view involved stepping outside the earth. The Copernican point of view requires us to imagine that we are observing from outside the earth, imagine that we are looking from the moon or looking from space. It involves imagining that we are disembodied minds, that we have left our bodies behind us, because minds can travel freely through space. There is a sense in which the vision of the earth from the moon that the astronauts saw was nothing new. It was nothing surprising at all. Ever since 1540, since the time of Copernicus, this is exactly what people expected to see. They had already seen it with the imagination and we have already seen it in every schoolroom. In every geography class there is a globe with its axis, a ball that spins on its axis. That has been the standard world view for four hundred years or more. (p262)

Tisdall, C, Wijers, L, Kamphof, I (Eds.)(1990) Art meets Science and Spirituality in a changing Economy. SDU Publishers. Amsterdam.

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