Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Rupert Sheldrake, "The Sense of Being Stared At"

c. David Grim (taken 8/28/10)

I recently worked my way through "The Sense of Being Stared At and Other Aspects of the Extended Mind", by Rupert Sheldrake. The title is likely to be shelved in the "science" section of your local book store, as the author has worked as a biochemist and plant physiologist. However there might be some controversy about such a classification because Sheldrake is more famous (perhaps) for being a parapsychologist. Practitioners in the field of psychology are already up against it when it comes to seeking legitimacy as "scientists", so to have someone mucking about in subjects like ESP and Psi phenomena really tends to raise some hackles.

As the title suggests, Sheldrake seeks to examine the feeling of being observed without actually witnessing someone doing so. He claims that many folks have had such experiences, and contends that it is legitimate to apply science and its methods to characterize the,. While this may seem counterintuitive, researchers have actually attempted to study this poorly defined "sense" using laboratory experiments. Sheldrake bolsters his review of such research with a fairly extensive analysis of a database of relevant anecdotal accounts.

What amount of credibility you are willing to invest in these methods likely depends on your personal philosophy. A purely-defined "rationalist" is likely to turn his nose against such work. But if you are interested in considering materialist explanations for what most scientists would call a paranormal phenomenon, then it's all worth a read. Just don't expect unchallenged revelation. Sheldrake's theories are intriguing, yet murky. They involve the idea of the extended mind- which entails a consciousness and memory that extends beyond an individual's brain in a morphogenetic field.

I'm not going to belabor the reader with all the details of Sheldrake's theories. You can either engage this on his level, or stick with your intuitive sense of what is real. Do you believe that you can affect someone by staring a hole into the back of his head? There's nothing to stop you from trying it, say, on the bus to work. I'd suggest you employ a certain level of discretion- people are growing more hostile nowadays. Make sure to keep a detailed record, and maybe you can share your results with Mr. Sheldrake. He's very encouraging of amateur research (an attitude that a lot of his critics find offensive).

Ultimately I guess I'm undecided about the existence of Sheldrake's "extended mind". His use of the pseudopodia of amoebas ** as an analogy for intention is definitely intriguing, but seems a bit outlandish to me. I can say I've had the experience of concentrating on a person who has seemed aware of my perusal without directly acknowledging it. I've seen figure models react in very localized ways as I've attempted to render a specific body part. There does seem to be something to an unconscious awareness of being observed. Still I'm not sure what it all actually means. If Sheldrake simply means to say that we are all interconnected in a way that we have never quite acknowledged, then I guess there's nothing wrong with that.

** If a term like this piques your curiosity, then you're just going to have to track down the book or ask me about it in person.

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