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Sheldrake Opening Statement [2]

Dear Michael,

For committed materialists, psychic (psi) phenomena such as telepathy and the sense of being stared at must be illusory because they are impossible. Minds are inside brains. Mental activity is nothing but electro-chemical brain activity. Hence thoughts and intentions cannot have direct effects at a distance, nor can minds be open to influences from the future. Although psi phenomena seem to occur, they must have normal explanations in terms of coincidence, or subtle sensory cues, or wishful thinking, or fraud.

Dogmatic skeptics often repeat the slogan that “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.” But the sense of being stared at and telepathy are not extraordinary, they are ordinary. Most people have experienced them. From this point of view, the skeptics’ claim is extraordinary. Where is the extraordinary evidence that most people are deluded about their own experience? Skeptics can only fall back on generic arguments about the fallibility of human judgement.

I here consider research on the sense of being stared at and telepathy. These are subjects on which I have published more than 20 peer-reviewed research papers in scientific journals, as well as two books, Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home (2nd ed.: Three Rivers Press, 2011) and The Sense of Being Stared At (2nd ed.: Park Street Press, 2013; Park Street Press). Because of limitations of space, I omit the other three main areas of psi research: clairvoyance or remote viewing, meaning the ability to see or experience things at a distance; precognition or presentiment, knowing or feeling a future event; and psychokinesis, or mind-over-matter effects.

The detection of stares

Most people have felt someone looking at them from behind, turned around and met the person’s eyes. Most people have also experienced the converse: they have sometimes made people turn round by staring at them. In extensive surveys in Europe and North America, between 70 and 97% of adults and children reported experiences of these kinds. Many species of non-human animals also seem able to detect looks. Some hunters and wildlife photographers are convinced that animals can detect their gaze even when they are hidden and looking at animals through telescopic lenses or sights.

If the sense of being stared at is real, then it must have been subject to evolution by natural selection. How might it have evolved? The most obvious possibility is in the context of predator-prey relations. Prey animals that can detect when predators are looking at them will stand a better chance of surviving than those that cannot.

Since the 1980s, the sense of being stared at has been investigated experimentally both through direct looking and also through closed circuit television (CCTV). In the scientific literature it is variously referred to as “unseen gaze detection” or “remote attention” or “scopesthesia” (from Greek skopein = to view and aisthesis = perception). The majority of these studies, even some of the studies by skeptics, have shown positive, statistically significant effects. The largest experiment on the sense of being stared at began in 1995 at the NEMO Science Centre in Amsterdam. More than 36,000 people took part, with positive results that were astronomically significant statistically. The most sensitive subjects were children under the age of nine.

For a detailed summary of the research on the sense of being stared at, including that by skeptics, see this paper.

Telepathy in real life

In most, if not all, traditional societies, telepathy seems to be taken for granted and put to practical use. For example, many travellers in Africa reported that people seemed to know when people to whom they were attached were coming home, even though they had no normal means of knowing. The same occurred in rural Norway, where there is a special word for the anticipation of arrivals: vardøger. Typically, someone at home heard a person approaching the house, and coming in, yet nobody physically did so. Soon afterwards the person really arrived. Similarly, the “second sight” of the some of the inhabitants of the Scottish Highlands included visions of arrivals before the person actually arrived.

In an attempt to find out more about telepathy in modern societies, I launched a series of appeals for information through the media in Europe, North America, and Australia. Over 20 years, I have built up a database of seemingly telepathic and other psi experiences containing more than 10,000 case histories.

Many people have observed responses of animals like dogs and cats to their thoughts and intentions. The most impressive occur when the people are miles away, far beyond the range of the animals’ senses. More than 1,500 people have told me that their dogs and cats know when a member of the family is coming home and go to wait at a door or window, often 20 minutes or more in advance. Many of these stories make it clear that the animals’ responses were not simply reactions to the sounds of a familiar car, or familiar footsteps in the street. They happened too long in advance, and they also happened when people came home by bus or train. Nor was it just a matter of routine. Some people, like plumbers, lawyers, and taxi drivers, worked irregular hours, and yet the people at home knew when they were coming because the dog or cat went to wait at a door or window.

Among humans, many cases of apparent telepathy occur in response to other people’s needs. For example, hundreds of mothers have told me that when they were breastfeeding, they knew when their baby needed them, even from miles away. They felt their milk let down. The milk let-down reflex is mediated by the hormone oxytocin, sometimes called the love hormone, and is normally triggered by hearing the baby cry. The nipples start leaking milk and many women feel a tingling sensation in their breasts. When nursing mothers were away from their babies and felt their milk let down, most of them took it for granted that their baby needed them, even though it was not at a routine feeding time. They were usually right. They did not experience their milk letting down because they started thinking about the baby; they started thinking about their baby because their milk let down for no apparent reason. A statistical analysis showed that this was not a matter of synchronized physiological rhythms.

A telepathic connection between mothers and their babies makes good sense in evolutionary terms. Mothers who could tell at a distance when their babies needed them would tend to have babies that survived better than babies of insensitive mothers.

Until the invention of modern telecommunications, telepathy was the only way in which people could be in touch at a distance instantly. In most respects telepathy has now been superseded by telephones—but it has not gone away. Indeed telepathy now occurs most commonly in connection with telephone calls.

Experimental research on telepathy with animals

I started my own research on telepathy with animals, rather than people. I thought that if telepathy occurs, it is normal, not paranormal, natural, not supernatural, and is likely to have evolved as a communication system between bonded members of animal groups.

In particular, I carried out many experiments with return-anticipating dogs to find out whether they really did anticipate their owners’ returns when they could not have known by “normal” means. In these tests, the owners of the dogs went at least five miles away from home. While they were out, the place where their dog waited was filmed continuously on time-coded videotape. The owner did not know in advance when she would be going home and she did so only when she received a message from me via a telephone pager at a randomly selected time. She traveled by taxi or in another unfamiliar vehicle to avoid familiar car sounds. The dog I have investigated most, a terrier called Jaytee, was at the window on average only 4% of the time during the main period of his owner’s absence, and 55% of the time when she was on the way back. This difference was very significant statistically. You can see a video of an independent experiment with Jaytee here, filmed by the Science Unit of Austrian State television, ORF.

At my invitation, a leading British media skeptic, Richard Wiseman, did his own videotaped tests with Jaytee under the same conditions. His data showed that Jaytee was at the window 4% of the time during the main period of his owner’s absence, and 78% of the time when she was on the way back, a statistically significant positive effect. (Details here.) However, in the media, Wiseman misleadingly tried to portray this replication of my results as a refutation of Jaytee’s abilities! (Details here.)

Experimental research on human telepathy

Since 1880, there have been hundreds of studies of human telepathy under laboratory conditions. The great majority have given positive, statistically significant results. (For links to peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals, see here.)

The commonest kind of apparent telepathy in the modern world concerns telephone calls. Surveys show that most people have thought of someone for no apparent reason, and that that person called, or else they just know who is calling before looking at the caller ID or answering the call. But couldn’t this just be coincidence? We think about other people frequently; sometimes, by chance, somebody rings while we are thinking about them; we may imagine it is telepathy, but we forget the thousands of times we were wrong. Or when we know someone well, our familiarity with her routines and activities enables us to know when she is likely to ring, even though this knowledge may be unconscious.

I searched the scientific literature to find out if these reasonable possibilities were supported by any data or observations. I could find no research whatever on the subject. In science it is not enough to have a hypothesis. Hypotheses need testing to find out if they are supported or refuted by the evidence.

I therefore designed a simple procedure to test both the chance-coincidence hypothesis and the unconscious-knowledge hypothesis experimentally. I asked volunteer subjects for the names and telephone numbers of four people they knew well, friends or family members. The subjects were then filmed continuously throughout the period of the experiment alone in a room with a landline telephone, without a caller ID system. If there was a computer in the room, it was switched off, and the subjects had no cell phones with them. My research assistant or I selected one of the four callers at random by the throw of a dice. We called the selected person and asked him to phone the subject in the next couple of minutes. He did so. The subject’s phone rang. Before answering it, she had to say to the camera who, out of the four possible callers, she felt was on the line. She could not have known by knowledge of the caller’s habits and daily routines, because in this experiment the callers were randomly selected by the experimenter.

By guessing at random, subjects would have been right about one time in four, or 25%. In fact, in hundreds of trials the average hit rate was 45%, very significantly above the chance level. None of the subjects was right every time, but they were right much more than they should have been if the chance coincidence theory were true. (A video of one of these experiments filmed by a British TV channel is online here.)

This above-chance effect has been replicated independently in telephone telepathy tests at universities in Germany and Holland. I have also obtained very similar results in experiments with text messages and SMS messages. (For a recent review, see here.)

Skeptical reactions

Informed skeptics, like Professor Chris French, the former editor of the UK Skeptic magazine, do not deny that there is experimental evidence that suggests psi phenomena are real, but say there is not yet enough to convince them. By contrast, dogmatic skeptics are generally ignorant of the evidence, as I have found in my many encounters with leaders of the organized skeptical movement, including James Randi and Richard Dawkins (described in detail here).

One of your own favorite sayings is that “Skepticism is a method, not a position.” But you have not practised what you preach. In my experience, you have been prejudiced and unscientific.

For example, in 2003, USA Today published an article about my book The Sense of Being Stared At, describing my research on telepathy and the sense of being stared at. As a prominent professional skeptic, you were asked for your comments. You were quoted as saying, “[Sheldrake] has never met a goofy idea he didn’t like. The events Sheldrake describes don’t require a theory and are perfectly explicable by normal means.”

It takes years to do careful research and publish it in peer-reviewed journals. By contrast, it only takes a few minutes to make an evidence-free claim to a journalist. Dogmatic skepticism is easy.

As you will remember, I emailed you to ask what your normal explanations for my results were. You could not substantiate your very public claim in a newspaper read by millions of people, and admitted you had not even seen my book. I challenged you to an online debate. You accepted the challenge, but said you were too busy to look at the evidence, and promised you would “get to it soon.” You didn’t. So I am pleased that we are having this debate now.

In November 2005, you attacked me in your Scientific American “Skeptic” column in a piece called “Rupert’s Resonance.” You ridiculed the idea of morphic resonance and stated that I proposed a “universal life force,” a phrase I have never used. You also referred to claims by fellow skeptics that my experimental work was flawed. These false claims had already been refuted in peer-reviewed journals, and even in the Skeptical Inquirer. I wrote a brief letter to Scientific American to set the record straight, but it was not published, nor even acknowledged.

In 2010, you contrasted skepticism with denialism, as in climate change denial, or Holocaust denial, or evolution denial: “When I call myself a skeptic, I mean I take a scientific approach to the evaluation of claims . . . A climate denier has a position staked out in advance, and sorts through the data employing “confirmation bias”—the tendency to look for and find confirmatory evidence for pre-existing beliefs and ignore or dismiss the rest . . . Thus one practical way to distinguish between a skeptic and a denier is the extent to which they are willing to update their positions in response to new information. Skeptics change their minds. Deniers just keep on denying.”

In my experience, many crusading skeptics are deniers. They are in fact pseudoskeptics. You have behaved like a denier yourself. But I hope your belief in free inquiry will come out uppermost.



Shermer Response

Dear Rupert,

Our letters seem to be crossing not only in the email but in content as well. In your latest letter you have nicely summarized the research you believe supports your hypothesis of morphic resonance and its various manifestations, such as that people know when they are being stared at from behind and that dogs know when their owners are coming home. For both of these sets of experiments and corresponding published papers I outlined the numerous methodological shortcomings identified by scientists who have taken the time to examine carefully your data and, in some cases, even to try to replicate your experiments without success.

In this this paper by Richard Wiseman, Mathew Smith, and Julie Milton, for example, the authors reveal what happens when you operationally define what constitutes a “hit” in psychical research, in this case whether or not Jaytee the dog knew when his owner Pam was coming home. In initial observations by the owner it seemed like Jaytee had foreknowledge based on his moving from the house to the porch. Sometimes Jaytee went to the porch when Pam was coming home, but there were plenty of times when Jaytee went to the porch with no connection to Pam at all. Wiseman et al. insisted on testing the claim by actually counting the number of such behaviors and especially the length of time Jaytee would stay on the porch waiting for Pam to return. Under these conditions Jaytee went to the porch 12 times without correlation with Pam’s return. One explanation for this nonsignificant finding is that Jaytee was distracted by the neighbor dog in heat and thus went to the porch with something else in mind. Wiseman et al. returned months later and carried out two more experiments but failed to find any pattern between Jaytee’s behaviors and that of his owner.

Your attempt—after the fact—to find a pattern in the video data by changing the criteria of a two-minute stay on the porch to ten-minute chunks of time during which Jaytee allegedly spent more time on the porch during those periods when the owner was returning home than not, was gainsaid by the authors when they noted that such patterns should arise naturally by the fact that a dog is likely to do little after its owner departs, but then as the day goes on he is more likely to start anticipating the owner’s return (just by normal time elapse and the dog’s memory of the owner’s usual time away) and make more trips to the porch. As well, searching the video record post hoc for patterns is a form of data snooping that is subject to the confirmation bias, and allowing Pam to determine when she would come home means her behavioral patterns might not be random at all but subject to her own unconscious preferences that Jaytee may have learned over time.

These particular methodological problems are not uncommon in psychical research, and thus my opinion of all such experiments is similar to that of the renowned paranormal researcher and experimental psychologist Susan Blackmore, who was once a believer in ESP but gave it up when she could not find enough convincing evidence: the tighter you make the controls and the more carefully you operationally define the behaviors to be measured, the weaker the Psi effects become. You accuse me and other skeptics of being closed-minded materialists unable to see what is before our very eyes. Yet Blackmore set out on her professional career as a trained experimentalist and believer in psi to find evidence for the paranormal and came up empty handed, as she recalled here:

    The results were a shock. Whether I looked for telepathy or precognition or clairvoyance, I got only chance results. I trained fellow students in imagery; chance results. I tested twins in pairs; chance results. I worked in play groups with very young children; chance results. I trained as a Tarot reader; chance results. Occasionally I got a significant result. Oh the excitement! Then as a scientist must I repeated the experiment, checked for errors, redid the statistics, and varied the conditions, and every time either I found the error or got chance results again.

It takes considerable intellectual integrity to admit when your beliefs are wrong, but Blackmore has integrity in spades. As she explained about the day she became a skeptic: “At some point something snapped. Instead of struggling to fit my chance results into yet another doomed theory of the paranormal, I faced up to the awful possibility that I might have been wrong from the start—that perhaps there were no paranormal phenomena at all. I had to change my mind.”

Rupert, the reason most of us scientists are skeptical of psi is not because we don’t want it to be true; to the contrary. As I’ve explained in my earlier letters, if ESP, telepathy, telekinesis, or any other psi effects turned out to be real—and especially if an explanation for the effects were found (through neuroscience or quantum physics or whatever)—it would just be another remarkable feature of nature on the shelf next to the other natural wonders we already accept.

Like most dog owners, I would love to believe that I have a special psychical connection to our beloved chocolate lab Hitch (left—named for my friend the late Christopher Hitchens), because I already know I have a physical and psychological bond with him and it would be easy to believe that there is something even more. But what I would like to be true and what is actually true may not always coincide (and he never seems to know when I’m going to crest the driveway hill on my bike ride home as he cluelessly snoozes on the porch). But the bond we have is beautiful and wonderful just for what it is, so I don’t feel the need to believe there is more if there isn’t.

And like so many viewers (I suspect), my wife and I were moved to tears—weeping really—during the Richard Gere film Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, the true story of the faithful Japanese Akita Inu dog named Hachiko (right), who patiently waited for his owner Hidesaburo Ueno to return to the train station from his office . . . fruitlessly every day for nine years . . . because his owner died at work. (Anyone who can get through this film without sobbing must be heartless.) If such connections as you suspect exist, why didn’t Hachiko know that his owner was never coming home? If there is an afterlife, and the departed can communicate from beyond to those whom they love on this side, why didn’t Hidesaburo give Hachiko some signal? Why allow such suffering to continue if we can do something about it? If loves connects us then why do so many people (and animals) in love not know when something tragic like this happens? We hear about the anomalous links between loved ones through powerful anecdotes that confirm such beliefs, but it is in the exceptions to the pattern that we must come to terms with and face the fact that love in this world is enough for you, for me, for Hitch, for Hachiko, and for everyone who has ever loved . . . and especially who has loved and lost.



Sheldrake Reply

Dear Michael,

Probably most of our readers will have experienced the sense of being stared at and telephone telepathy. Many will also have come across dogs or cats that know when their owners are coming home. Surveys in the US and in Europe have shown that about 85% of people have experienced the sense of being stared at, about 80% of people have thought of someone for no apparent reason who then called, and about 50% of dog owners and 30% of cat owners say their pets anticipate the arrival of a member of the household. These are ordinary, not extraordinary, experiences—normal, not paranormal, events—and the scientific evidence supports their existence, as I discussed in my opening statement and in my response to yours.

Unfortunately, your dog Hitch seems to be in the 50% of dogs that don’t sense when their owner is coming. The fact that the Japanese dog Hachiko, to whom you referred, waited every day at the train station for his deceased owner shows that this dog’s devotion was not dimmed by his owner’s death: this was also the case with a famous Scottish dog, Greyfriars Bobby, who spent 14 years guarding his owner’s grave. But these animals’ heroic loyalty is not a refutation of many dogs’ and cats’ abilities to know when their owners are coming home in normal circumstances.

Committed skeptics try to dismiss psi phenomena as tricks of the mind, or mistaken interpretations of chance events, or self-delusions, or examples of “anomalistic psychology.” In effect, they are asking people to disregard their own experience in favor of the materialist theory that the mind is nothing but the brain, mental activity is nothing but brain activity, and minds are confined to the inside of heads. Therefore, mental action at a distance is impossible, or at least so unlikely as to merit no serious attention. Crusading skeptics also try to muddy the waters by making it sound as if positive results in psi research are false, or at least scientifically unreliable.

There is nothing wrong with fair criticism; science thrives on it. But science does not thrive on bias, prejudice, and willful attempts to cause confusion and misdirect attention. Professional skepticism is all too easy: only the opinions of other skeptics count, and there is no need to do time-consuming experiments, or even to read about them. Moreover, skepticism pays, and it opens the way to a niche career in the media. When Susan Blackmore gave up her unsuccessful experimental research and joined the skeptic movement, her media career took off.

You and I have both referred to Richard Wiseman’s claims to have debunked the “psychic pet” phenomenon. Here is my reply to his article that you referred our readers to. In addition, this short film, recently released, summarizes his claims and shows how misleading they are. And Wiseman’s theory that Jaytee went to the window more and more the longer Pam was out has already been refuted experimentally. You can see the data from the control experiments, filmed on occasions when Pam was not coming home, in Figure 3 in my summary of this long-running controversy.

I wish there was a way to move our argument forwards. It seems to me that your rejection of psi phenomena is a result of your worldview and confirmation bias. Based on my experience of our dialogues so far, I do not expect that anything I write, or any evidence I draw to your attention, will lead you to change your beliefs. But I live in hope. I do not know what you will say in your reply, published simultaneously with this. I will read it with your own criterion in mind: “One practical way to distinguish between a skeptic and a denier is the extent to which they are willing to update their positions in response to new information. Skeptics change their minds. Deniers just keep on denying.”

Some of our readers may want to find out more about mental action at a distance. They do not need to take my word for it, or yours against it. I encourage those who are interested to discuss their own experiences with their friends and families, to read some of the many published papers on psi research, and to try some experiments for themselves. Here are some that can be carried out with one or two other people online or through phones.