The Memory of Nature

An exploration of Rupert Sheldrake’s morphogenetic fields

Cover: The Radiolaria, also called Radiozoa, are protozoa of diameter 0.1–0.2 mm that produce beautifully sculptured mineral skeletons, typically with a central capsule dividing the cell into the inner and outer portions of endoplasm and ectoplasm.

The concept of the morphogenetic field was first introduced in 1910 by a Soviet biologist and medical scientist Alexander Gurwitsch (1874–1954). It was later expanded by the English biologist and author Rupert Sheldrake.

Morphogenetic fields are regions of activity that shape developing organisms. They are only one kind of a larger category called morphic fields which include behavioral fields (instinctive and learned behavior), social fields (organization of social groups, like flocks of birds, hives of bees, human families), and mental fields (mental activity).

One of the great problems in developmental biology is understanding how the form appears. How is it that a fertilized egg with relatively little structure gives rise to a complex organism like you and me, containing many different organs and many kinds of cells?

To explain how form comes into being, you would have to have a cause of form. As the organism develops, more form comes from less. Genes don’t really explain this. What genes do is now well-known — they are responsible for the sequence of amino acids in proteins. In other words, they enable you to make the right proteins.

But that doesn’t really explain an organism which is so much more than a collection of proteins. Think about your arms and your legs — they have exactly the same genes, proteins, myoglobin, hemoglobin, and so on. And yet they have a different shape.

If you think about buildings, they’re made of building materials like timber, cement, bricks, and so forth. The same materials can be used to build houses or buildings of different shapes. What makes a house or building a particular shape is not so much the building materials but the architect’s plan — without that plan, there would be no building with a particular shape.

Morphogenetic fields play the role of architectural plans. They act as invisible formative influences that shape organisms as they develop.

When this term was introduced, the primary analogy was magnetic fields. The magnetic field is within the magnet, but it also extends invisibly around it. In the same manner, the morphogenetic field is within the organism, but it’s also around the organism, helping shape its development.

Iron filings attracted to a powerful magnet demonstrate the magnetic field.

Fields are inherently holistic. You can’t have a slice of the magnetic field. If you cut the magnet in half, you don’t get one half of the north pole and one half of the south pole; you get two complete magnets, each with a north and a south pole.

Organisms are also inherently holistic, and their ability to regenerate is similar to a magnet’s ability to remain a whole magnet, even if you cut it into pieces. If you cut a field-organized system, like a magnet or a hologram, which is an interference pattern within a field, you can constitute the whole from those pieces.

Morphogenetic fields not only shape a multicellular organism, but they also shape unicellular organisms. These organisms can have quite complex patterns and forms, even if they’re only a single cell.

Radiolarians are small, single-celled organisms that build their skeletons out of silica.

Image: Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo

These are radiolarians — single-cell organisms that live in the sea. As you can see, they’re completely different in form. And these organisms are formed by a single cell which has one nucleus and one lot of proteins. You can’t really explain these forms by turning the protein synthesis on and off because it’s all in the same cell.

The picture below shows pollen grains. Each of these is a single cell as well, with quite a distinctive form.

A scanning electron micrograph of false-colored Passiflora (passion vine), Spathiphyllum (peace lily), and Aster (daisy) pollen showing intraspecific pattern stability and interspecific pattern variation. These patterns on pollen grains may be part of a broader class of biological patterns that result from first-order phase transitions on the surfaces of spherical cells.

Image: Asja Radja

The next picture shows single-cell algae called Acetabularia. These are gigantic single cells which grow in fresh waters. Each Acetabularia cell is composed of three segments: the “foot” or base which contains the nucleus, the “stalk,” and the “cap.”

An unusual feature of Acetabularia is its ability to withstand and survive wounding. Because it is not partitioned into cells, this capacity probably is essential for its survival. This property also makes this organism very useful for experiments that involve surgical manipulation.

Although a single cell, Acetabularia exhibits a remarkably complex shape and has therefore long been a model organism for studying gene expression and morphogenesis.

For example, the cap can be cut off an Acetabularia and the stalk not only will continue to live but also will regenerate a new cap. Furthermore, the regenerated cap will have the same appearance as the first cap. This can be repeated many times, and each time the regenerated cap will be the same. A stem segment lacking both a cap and a rhizoid also will regenerate a new cap, even though it lacks a nucleus, provided the stem segment is given light so that photosynthesis can continue. If, however, the regenerated cap is cut from a plant that lacks a nucleus, there will be no further cap regeneration.

This proves that the whole process is not being controlled by the genes or by the nucleus. It’s under the control of the morphogenetic field. These organisms cannot survive without the nucleus for long, but they can certainly regenerate without it.

You can look at the Universe as a collection of sub-systems nested in each other. The little circles could be subatomic particles. The next big circles that contain them could be atoms, and the next circles up could be molecules. The circles containing them could be crystals of those molecules.

Morphogenetic fields in higher organisms are organized in a hierarchic way. This is the basic pattern in which any hierarchically organized holistic system exists. All of nature is made up of nested hierarchies. At each level, there is organizational form, which contains parts which are themselves forms at a lower level of abstraction. Each of these levels is organized by a morphogenetic field.

In living organisms, there is a hierarchy of levels of the morphogenetic field. In this sense, the development is modular, and each module has its own field.

One of the things about morphogenetic fields that is very striking and is one of the reasons that the whole concept was put forward in the first place is that they help to explain regeneration. You could conceivably rerun a genetic program and develop an organism again, but in regeneration, it develops a part of an organism in a way that is different from the way it would normally develop.

What happens when you take a dragonfly egg, tie it in the middle and kill one half of it? The lower part of the egg, which would normally form the lower part of the organism, will instead form a small and complete dragonfly embryo. This is very analogous to cutting a magnet in half and having each half be a complete magnet.

Planarians have a number of cell types, tissues and simple organs that are homologous to our own cells, tissues, and organs. However, regeneration has attracted the most attention. Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866-1945) was responsible for some of the first systematic studies before the advent of molecular biology as a discipline. Planarians are also an emerging model organism for aging research. These animals have an apparently limitless regenerative capacity, and the asexual animals seem to maintain their telomerase levels throughout their lifetime, making them “effectively immortal”.

You can also cut a flatworm Planaria into little bits, and each bit will regenerate a complete flatworm. It’s even more surprising that the experiments done by Michael Levine at Tufts University have shown that you can train flatworms to respond to light. You can then chop off their heads, which contain most of their nervous organization (a ganglion under the eyespots), and when they grow a new head, they can remember what they learned before.

The next picture shows one of the most remarkable examples of regeneration in an amphibian. In this case, scientists had removed the lens from the eye of a newt. They deliberately chose a form of injury that would probably not happen in nature.

In urodele amphibians, lens induction during development and regeneration occurs through different pathways. During development, the lens is induced from the mutual interaction of the ectoderm and the optic vesicle, whereas after lensectomy the lens is regenerated through the transdifferentiation of the iris-pigmented epithelial cells.

Image: The National Academy of Sciences

The lens is then regenerated from the margin of the iris. During normal embryology, the lens is formed by folding in the skin from the outside; it doesn’t form from the iris. Therefore, the eye has found a new way of making a lens, and this wouldn’t make sense if everything was pre-programmed according to some kind of mechanistic operations. But if there’s a field that gives an eye the whole form, it can help guide this regenerative process.

A great deal of healing depends on the regeneration and self-healing capacities of the body. All living organisms have self-healing capacities on which they depend. The ability to heal is inherent to all forms of life, and these morphogenetic fields underline that healing process.

How Do Morphogenetic Fields Work?

According to Sheldrake, morphogenetic fields work through imposing patterns on otherwise indeterminate or probabilistic processes. At the quantum level, things happen in a probabilistic way. In biological systems, everything is quivering on the edge of chaos and randomness. The firing of the nerve impulse or the activities of a membrane transporting proteins could go one way or another. A morphogenetic field is imposing a formal pattern on these processes, restricting the probabilistic outcomes.

They also work by guiding processes of development along canalized pathways of change. C.H. Waddington (1905-1975), a British developmental biologist, suggested an extension of the idea of the morphogenetic field to take into account the temporal aspect of development. He called the new concept the chreode and illustrated it by means of a simple three-dimensional epigenetic landscape.

An organism, represented by the ball, moves through development over a landscape with valleys representing various possible phenotypic states. The shape of this landscape is determined by an individual’s overall genotype, which may have dramatic effects on the relative likelihood of different end points (for example, schizophrenic or not, or left- or right-handed).

Development is attracted towards ends or goals which are called attractors in the mathematical models of morphogenetic fields. Sheldrake believes that morphogenetic fields depend on the kind of memory given by the process he calls morphic resonance.

Morphogenetic fields are vibratory patterns of activity. Like everything in nature, all organisms are in rhythmic patterns of vibration. An electron is a vibration in an electron field, a photon is a vibration in the electromagnetic field, and so on. We have a heart that beats rhythmically, we breathe rhythmically; we have brain waves, like alpha waves that happen rhythmically. And there are many rhythms within cells. We also have circadian rhythms which are inherent in many organisms. Everything in life is rhythmic, and rhythmic processes just by themselves have the ability to create a form.

The CymaScope is a new type of scientific instrument that makes sound visible. These are ways in which small volumes of fluid, usually water, can be vibrated at particular frequencies. When you do this, it sets up a particular pattern of vibration of waves on the surface of the fluid, and these can be visualized by shining light and using particular optical techniques that reveal in great detail these wave patterns.

For the first time in history, individual piano notes have been made visible using the CymaScope instrument. The piano notes were painstakingly recorded by Evy King and then fed into the CymaScope one by one. Music, in the absolute sense, is the invisible geometry of the cosmos, a delicate tracery of frequencies that harmonize with each other and from which all matter manifests.

Image: CymaScope

This ability to create form through vibration is something which hasn’t been paid much attention to within biology, and Sheldrake thinks it is a crucial feature of how morphogenetic fields work. If you look at the three-dimensional vibratory patterns which you have in living organisms, then, of course, even more complex forms can appear.

Morphogenetic fields must be inherited — foxglove plants give rise to foxglove; hedgehogs give rise to hedgehogs. The forms of these organisms are inherited. Sheldrake argues that these forms are not inherited through the genes since they are only responsible for protein synthesis.

His hypothesis is that they are inherited through the process of morphic resonance. A resonance across space and time and based on similarity.

The patterns of the developing hedgehog or a giraffe should resonate across time so that a present-day giraffe, growing as an embryo in the womb of its mother is resonating with previous giraffes which have been developing in the wombs of their mothers and growing into the adult giraffes.

This resonance carries the field of the giraffe through a morphogenetic field. It carries an average or a composite of many previous giraffes.

Morphic resonance is a fundamental principle of memory in nature. The way crystals crystalize depends on morphic resonance as well. The first time you make a new chemical compound into a crystal, it won’t have a preexisting morphogenetic field. If you make it again, the second time it should happen faster because there will be an influence from the first crystals by morphic resonance. There will be a build-up of memory through the morphic resonance, making it crystalize quicker and quicker.

Newly-synthesized compounds are indeed hard to crystallize. People wait for weeks or months before they crystallize, and then they crystallize easier and easier as time goes on.

The usual assumption within the science is that the laws of nature were all fixed at the very moment of the Big Bang, and they have been the same ever since. Sheldrake believes that this is a very unjustified assumption. It makes more sense to think of the laws of nature as themselves evolving.

If crystals become more stable, then not only do they form more easily, but it should be harder to break them up. The way to break up crystals is by heating them. Sheldrake predicts that new compounds should show rises in their melting points, but compounds that have been around for millions of years, crystallizing in nature will have so much more morphic resonance from the past that they will behave as if they are governed by fixed laws.

Sheldrake compared the melting points of substances that occur in nature with synthetic-related compounds that were first made by chemists in the 19th and 20th centuries.

For instance, we have a penicillic acid which occurs in nature in exudates from molds, and penicillamine used as a chelating agent. It’s also a breakdown product of penicillin, which is a synthetic form of what occurs in nature. The synthetic form showed an increase in the melting point, but the natural form did not.

It is possible to test for morphogenetic fields in the realm of developmental biology as well. A normal fruit fly Drosophila has two wings and the segment below the wings is called halteres, which act as balancing organs.

The example to the right shows a mutant fruit fly where the halteres have been transformed into wings. You can produce this mutation in fruit flies simply by changing the environment, without changing the genes. If you expose the eggs of the fruit flies to diethyl ether three hours after they are laid, around 2% of the resulting flies will have four wings instead of two.

If you expose their eggs to the ether, then a higher proportion of their offspring have four wings. If you keep doing this generation after generation, the proportion of four-winged flies goes up. Sheldrake hypothesizes that this is a morphogenetic, as well as an epigenetic effect. The key experiment here is when the scientists took some fruit flies those ancestors had never been exposed to ether.

The first generation treated with ether had about 2% of the four-winged flies, and the second generation had about 6%. But during the second experiment, the first generation has 10% of four-winged flies, and the second generation has 20%. Sheldrake thinks that is because morphic resonance from the first lot of flies made it easier for this abnormal pattern to appear again.

Morphic resonance also applies to behavior. If animals learn a new trick, rats for instance, then the more rats that learn it, the easier it should get for other rats to learn the same trick subsequently.

In the 1920s, some classic experiments were done on rats in Harvard and showed that if you train them to escape from the water maze, subsequent rats (their children), escape quicker than their parents.

The Morris water navigation task, also known as the Morris water maze, is a behavioral procedure mostly used with rodents. It is widely used in behavioral neuroscience to study spatial learning and memory. It enables learning, memory, and spatial working to be studied with great accuracy, and can also be used to assess damage to particular cortical regions of the brain.

One of these experiments, which went on for 22 generations showed that the first rats made more than 230 errors before they learned always to go to the correct exit. Their children learned quicker; they made fewer errors until it went down to about 25 errors (about 10 times quicker).

This was so surprising and unexpected that this work was repeated in Melbourne, Australia, and Edinburgh, Scotland. Their rats started off more or less where the Harvard rats had left off, at about 25–30 errors. The most interesting data came from Melbourne — as time went on, they got quicker and quicker at learning how to escape the maze. In fact, soon some rats were doing it straight away without even a single error.

Was it an epigenetic effect, some sort of modification of a sperm or an egg, or was it a morphogenetic effect? The way to find out is to do a control experiment where you test rats whose parents were never exposed to this particular task. This is what the Australian scientists did, and what they found is that all rats of that breed were getting better, not just the ones who had trained parents.

Sheldrake believes something similar is happening to humans. It should be easier for humans to learn computer programming, snowboarding, or any of the new skills, both intellectual and physical.

Form and behavior are inherited not through the genes which simply code the proteins and the control of protein synthesis, but rather through morphic resonance, through morphogenetic fields and behavioral fields.

The Human Genome Project was a technical triumph, but it led to some very surprising and consoling results. First of all, instead of there being 100000 genes, there are only about 23000. We don’t have many more genes than the fruit fly. In fact, we have less than a rice plant which has about 35000 genes.

When many genes were analyzed, it turned out that it was very hard to explain most of the inheritance with their help. Genes only explain 5–10% of inheritance of most characteristics including proneness to many diseases and simple things like height.

The gap between what can be explained with genes and what is inherited is now called the missing heritability problem, one of the major problems within biology.

Morphic resonance depends on similarity, and perhaps the most radical implication of this is when we ask the question — who in the past was most like you? If you think about it for a moment, you will see the organism in the past that was most like you is you. We are all most similar to ourselves in the past, more similar than to any other person or organism.

Therefore, the most specific resonance working on us from our past will be self-resonance. Sheldrake believes this is the basis of memory. The usual assumption is that memories are stored inside the brain and that they are somehow in modified nerve endings, chemicals or phosphorylated proteins. But attempts to find these long-term memory stores have been unsuccessful because, according to Sheldrake, they are not there.

The brain is more like a TV receiver than a video recorder, designed for tuning into these memories. Of course, if you damage the brain, you can get a loss of memory, but it doesn’t prove the memories have been damaged. If I damage your TV set, I could affect the pictures or the sounds the set produces, but this wouldn’t prove they are all stored within the set.