Book Review: The Sense of Being Stared At, by R. Sheldrake

Sheldrake, R. 2004. The Sense of Being Stared At, and Other Aspects of the Extended Mind. Arrow Books, UK.

The famous sci-fi writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke once said “Magic’s just science we don’t understand yet.”

A quote that is repeated by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) in the movie Thor (2011) as she persuades Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) to believe her story that Thor the Norse God (Chris Hemsworth) has come to earth. Their argument is one that can easily be found off screen and it is easy to see where it has come from. Take any piece of today’s technology or illustrate scientific principles to the people of the past and they will assume that what you are doing is magic.

While it is possible that there are many things within science we don’t yet know, the Erik Selvig’s of the world firmly draw the line between magic and science. This is one book that famously blurs that line and has consequently acquired controversy.

This book builds upon Sheldrake’s numerous publications and previous books, notably Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home. He approaches the controversial area of telepathy in a scientific manner which befits his education and career: He did his undergraduate degree in Natural History at Cambridge and then proceeded to study Philosophy and History of Science at Harvard. He returned to Cambridge to receive his PhD in biochemistry. His career since then has been heavily embedded within science, and he has established scientific protocols that examine specific aspects of his theory.

His theory, and the basic premise of the book, is that the mind does not just exist inside and within the brain, but that it is stretched outside of the human body. He describes this as a field, much like a magnetic field, which he terms the “morphic field” that explains supernatural-like abilities. The book is divided into three parts (Telepathy, The Power of Attention and finally Remote Viewing and Foreshadowings of the Future) with chapters focusing on a specialism within each of the parts e.g. telephone telepathy in part 1, the sense of being stared at in part 2, and precognition in part 3. Each chapter is as formulaic as a scientific publication; he starts with definitions and the history of the specific ability, and then moves onto experimental case studies explicitly stating his methods, data and analysis (including the importance of statistics to differentiate between positive results and coincidences).

As Carl Sagan once said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, Sheldrake offers up a wealth of evidence and data á la scientific rigour. Nevertheless this appears to not be enough to quell the staunch position of some sceptics, and there are plenty of them! You can always check out Sheldrake’s page on his website: Controversies and Debates with Skeptics to get the full story.

It is very easy to reject work that might come under pseudo-science and it is the first natural tendency of any scientist to be sceptical and question it. Sheldrake, as a scientist himself, knows the importance of healthy scepticism in scientific advancement, but he does find himself in debates and confrontations with the dogmatic sceptics who openly attack his research. Sheldrake addresses the hostility to his work outlining three reasons why it has garnered such criticism:
1- Such topics like his are open to fraud
2- His work and evidence violates the most basic taboo that the mind exists in the body
3- The issue of the paranormal infringes upon privacy issues, which nobody likes the idea of.

The one fact that strikes me the most (and probably anyone who reads the book) is that he doesn’t just give evidence, but he encourages others to get involved and do their own experiments. He provides his data and methods in the appendices (and also on his website), and explains how he has collaborated with the sceptics to improve his experiments in terms of both methodology and statistical significance. His book may blur the line, but he has the scientific background and approach that many others in pseudo-science do not have. In any case he encourages the scientific process and engages in debates and collaborations, which is always a good thing!

His work is fascinating no matter how it is received. Even if you are an open-minded “Jane Foster” or a suspicious “Erik Selvig,” I would recommend this book as excellent food for thought for anyone who enjoys an intellectual challenge! As for whether his theory holds water or not, the only way to settle that is with more objective and scientific evidence. So who is ready to participate?

Danae Dodge

I received my PhD in Scientific Archaeology from the University of Sheffield in 2011 which specialised in ancient DNA and anthropology. For my profile, see my websites: http://independent.academia.edu/DanaeDodge https://www.linkedin.com/pub/danae-dodge/9b/868/389 I started getting involved in Science Brainwaves as a volunteer in 2010. I have volunteered at presentations, events (such as the British Science Festival in 2011) and even participated in the Science is Vital protest march in October 2010. My first blog for Science Brainwaves was "Ancient Humans: Who were they? And who got it on?" which was the written version of a talk I gave for the Natural History Society at the University of Sheffield on 5 December 2011. I also have a public engagement page dedicated to ancient DNA, which I encourage both the public and specialists to join: https://plus.google.com/communities/115424956261446503473