f all the terms used to describe such phenomena as telepathy, “sixth sense” seems to me a better starting point than any of the others. This has a more positive meaning than “ESP” or “the paranormal,” in that it implies a kind of sensory system over and above the known senses, but a sense just the same. As a sense, it is rooted in time and place; it is biological, not supernatural. It extends beyond the body, though how it works is still unknown.
An even better term is “seventh sense.” Biologists working on the electrical and magnetic senses of animals have already claimed the sixth sense. Some species of eels, for example, generate electrical fields around themselves through which they sense objects in their environment, even in the dark.Sharks and rays detect, with astonishing sensitivity, the body electricity of potential prey.Various species of migratory fish and birds have a magnetic sense, a biological compass that enables them to respond to Earth’s magnetic field.
There are also a variety of other senses that could lay claim to being a sixth sense, including the heat-sensing organs of rattlesnakes and related species, which enable them to focus on heat and track down prey by a kind of thermographic technique.Web-weaving spiders have a vibration sense through which they can detect what is happening in their webs, and even communicate with one another through a kind of vibratory telegraph.
The term seventh sense expresses the idea that telepathy, the sense of being stared at, and premonitions seem to be in a different category, both from the five normal senses and also from so-called sixth senses based on known physical principles.
Evidence for The Seventh Sense
The first and most fundamental kind of evidence for the seventh sense is personal experience — and there are many such experiences. Most people have sometimes felt that they were being stared at from behind or thought about someone who then telephoned. Yet all these billions of personal experiences of seemingly unexplained phenomena are conventionally dismissed within institutional science as “anecdotal.”
What does this actually mean? The word anecdote comes from the Greek roots an (not) and ekdotos (published), meaning “not published.” Thus an anecdote is an unpublished story.
Courts of law take anecdotal evidence seriously, and people are often convicted or acquitted thanks to it. Some fields of research — for example, medicine — rely heavily on anecdotes, but when the stories are published they literally cease to be anecdotes; they are promoted to the rank of case histories. Such case histories form the essential foundation of experience on which further research can be built. To brush aside what people have actually experienced is not to be scientific, but unscientific. Science is founded on the empirical method; that is to say, on experience and observation. Experiences and observations are the starting point for science, and it is unscientific to disregard or exclude them.
Isaac Newton’s insights about gravitation started from observations of such everyday phenomena as apples falling to earth and the recognition of a relationship between the moon and the tides. Almost all of Charles Darwin’s evidence for natural selection came from the achievements of plant and animal breeders, and he drew heavily on the experience of practical people.
In a similar way, people’s personal experiences form the essential starting point for research on the reach and powers of the mind. Despite an impressive accumulation of evidence, psychic research has never been widely accepted within institutional science. In spite of the dedicated work of the small band of psychic researchers and parapsychologists, this field of investigation is still the Cinderella of the sciences.
The Seventh Sense Is Part Of Our Biological Nature
I myself am not a parapsychologist, but a biologist. I am interested in the seventh sense because it has much to teach us about animal nature and human nature, about the nature of the mind, and indeed about the nature of life itself. My own approach is more biological than that of parapsychologists and psychic researchers, who have almost entirely concentrated on human beings. I see the seventh sense as part of our biological nature, which we share with many other animal species.
In my own research, I have investigated the natural history of unusual perceptiveness in people and in animals. I have appealed for information through radio, television, magazines, and newspapers in Europe, Australia, South Africa, and North America, asking people about their own experiences, and also about observations of pets and wild animals suggesting the existence of unexplained sensitivities. My associates and I have also interviewed hundreds of people whose professions provide opportunities to observe the seventh sense in action, including soldiers, fighter pilots, martial-arts practitioners, psychotherapists, security officers, private detectives, criminals, photographers, hunters, horse riders, animal trainers, and pet owners.
In these ways we have built up a computerized database of more than 8,000 case histories of apparently unexplained perceptiveness by people and by nonhuman animals. These case histories are classified into more than 100 categories. When many people’s accounts point independently to consistent and repeatable patterns, anecdotes are transformed into natural history. At the very least, this is a natural history of what people believe about their own perceptiveness and that of animals.
Over a period of more than twenty years, we have done a variety of experiments on the sense of being stared at, and on different aspects of telepathy in animals and in people.
Why This Subject Is So Controversial
Some people find psychic phenomena of no interest, which is fair enough. Most people are not very interested in the scientific study of the behavior of cuttlefish, or research into the genetics of mosses. Yet no one becomes emotionally antagonistic to cuttlefish or moss research.
Is it simply a matter, then, of hostility to new ideas? This may be a partial explanation, but some areas of contemporary scientific speculation seem far more radical and yet excite little or no opposition. Some physicists, for example, postulate that there are countless parallel universes besides our own. Few people take these ideas seriously, but no one gets angry about them. Even speculations about time travel through “wormholes” in space-time are considered a legitimate field of inquiry within academic physics, rather than a branch of science fiction.
Could it be that psychic researchers are particularly disreputable, or that this field is rife with fraud and deception? In fact, psychic research and parapsychology may be less prone to fraud than most other branches of science, precisely because the former are subject to more skeptical scrutiny.
Certainly experimental research in psychic investigation and parapsychology is more rigorous in terms of methodology than in any other area of science. In a recent survey of journals in various fields of science, I found that 85 percent of the experiments in psychic research and parapsychology involved blind methodologies, compared with 6 percent in the medical sciences, 5 percent in psychology, 1 percent in biology, and none at all in physics and chemistry (see “Experimenter Effects in Scientific Research: How Widely Are They Neglected?” [Sheldrake, 1998b]).
In an insightful study of fraud and deceit in science, William Broad and Nicholas Wade concluded that fraud is most likely to be successful in mainstream, uncontroversial areas of research such as immunology:
“Acceptance of fraudulent results is the other side of that familiar coin, resistance to new ideas. Fraudulent results are likely to be accepted in science if they are plausibly presented, if they conform to prevailing prejudices and expectations, and if they come from a suitably qualified scientist affiliated with an elite institution. It is for lack of all these qualities that new ideas in science are likely to be resisted.”
The Existence of Psychic Phenomena Violates Powerful Taboos
The only remaining explanation is that the existence of psychic phenomena violates powerful taboos. These phenomena threaten deep-seated beliefs, especially the belief that the mind is nothing but the activity of the brain. For people who identify science and reason with the materialist philosophy, they arouse fear. They seem to threaten reason itself; if they are not kept at bay, science and even modern civilization seem to be endangered by a tidal wave of superstition and credulity. Hence they have to be denied outright, or dismissed as unscientific and irrational.
In addition, some opponents of “the paranormal” have strong personal fears about invasions of their own privacy. “I would not care to live in a world in which others had the telepathic power to know what I was secretly thinking, or the clairvoyant power to see what I was doing,” wrote Martin Gardner, one of the most implacable deniers of psychic phenomena. Worse still, says Gardner, is psychokinesis, the influence of mind over matter, or PK for short. “PK opens up even more terrifying possibilities. I am not enthusiastic over the possibility that someone who dislikes me might have the power from a distance to cause me harm.” In the background lurks an archaic fear of witchcraft.
These taboos are strongest among intellectuals and are actively upheld by many academics. Otherwise reasonable people can be surprisingly prejudiced when it comes to phenomena such as telepathy. Although people with these attitudes usually call themselves skeptics, they are not genuine skeptics. They are usually believers in a worldview that excludes psychic phenomena. Some try to deny or debunk any evidence that goes against their beliefs. The most zealous behave like vigilantes policing the frontiers of science. The Greek word skepsis, the root of our word, means “inquiry” or “doubt.” It does not mean denial or dogmatism.
The effect of these taboos has been to inhibit research and to suppress discussion in the academic world in general, and within institutional science in particular. Consequently, although there is an enormous public interest in psychic phenomena, there is virtually no public funding for psychic research and parapsychology, and very few opportunities for doing this kind of research within universities.
For example, in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there were fewer than ten professional scientists working full-time in parapsychology, all of whom were privately funded. Meanwhile, there are several well-funded and powerful organizations whose main purpose is to propagate a negative attitude to all psychic phenomena.
I believe it is more scientific to explore phenomena we do not understand than to pretend they do not exist. I also believe it is less frightening to recognize that the seventh sense is part of our biological nature, shared with many other animal species, than to treat it as weird or supernatural.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Park Street Press, an imprint of Inner Traditions Inc.
©2003, 2013 by Rupert Sheldrake. www.innertraditions.com
The Sense of Being Stared At: And Other Unexplained Powers of Human Minds
by Rupert Sheldrake.
About the Author
Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D., is a former research fellow of the Royal Society and former director of studies in biochemistry and cell biology at Clare College, Cambridge University. From 2005 to 2012 he was director of the Perrott-Warrick Project on unexplained human abilities, funded from Trinity College, Cambridge. He is currently a fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, near San Francisco, and a visiting professor at the Graduate Institute in Connecticut. He is the author of more than 80 technical papers and articles appearing in peer-reviewed scientific journals and 10 books, including Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, Morphic Resonance, and Science Set Free.
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