DOGS THAT KNOW WHEN THEIR OWNERS ARE COMING HOME: AND OTHER UNEXPLAINED POWERS OF ANIMALS.
I was delighted to be given the opportunity to review Rupert Sheidrake's new book. I eagerly anticipated being given the latest irrefutable evidence to show that animals are psychic-something that I, for one, take for granted even though my belief is built more on anecdotes and, possibly, spiritual beliefs than on scientific evidence. I fear, though, that my enthusiasm was dampened considerably after reading this book.
My overall impression is that Sheidrake was out to increase his publication record with "another book." Sadly, the book is without scholarly merit and, apart from a newer collection of anecdotes of interesting psychic animal stories, pretty much without substance. Let me try to summarize his book in one paragraph:
Most scientists are rigid-minded technocrats who can't understand that some very simple experiments could be done to show that animals are indeed psychic, which in turn would confirm the theory of morphic resonance. Some of these experiments are documented here, including those of skeptics who replicated these incredibly simple experiments (thus confirming the theory of morphic resonance). The world is wide open to all you readers who can go beyond the confines of the rigid mindset of those disbelieving reductionistic scientists--and, to help you get started, an appendix is included that explains the theory of morphic resonance.
How successful Sheldrake is in convincing the reader that pets and animals are indeed psychic is a different matter. The book is divided into 16 chapters that are grouped approximately into 2 chapters each for the seven parts of the book. The parts include animal-human bonds, pets who know when their owners are coming home, animal empathy, telepathy, sense of direction, and premonitions. The final part is a concluding chapter. There are three appendixes: how to take part in research, a writeup of one of Sheldrake's own experiments, and a synopsis of the theory of morphic resonance and morphic fields.
Let me begin with some positive comments. Researching animal psi and their supposed abilities is both important and a fascinating topic in its own right. If Sheldrake does no more than inspire some of his readers to take up their own quest to become animal psi researchers, then indeed the book has been of great value. I did find that some of his collected stories of animals doing things looked impressively like a psychic event, but this is probably bound to happen when a call has been put out to send in any interesting psychic animal stories. Some nice collections of anecdotes can be found in Parts 1 and 3 and some of Part 4. However, Sheldrake knows that anecdotes will not impress the scientific community and that the days of achieving kudos from Victorian naturalist observations are long gone, and so he goes on to present some "simple" experiments that prove (as far as Sheldrake is concerned) that animals must be using psychic abilities--which, Sheldrake is keen to point out, fits in perfectly with his the ory of morphic resonance.
Some of the areas that Sheldrake covers include pets that know when their owners are returning home; pets that know to avoid people or intentions to visit nasty places, such as the veterinarian's office; pets that can sense the death of a person with whom they've bonded; pets that "call" their human owners to help them; pets that know who is calling on the telephone before the handset is picked up; pets that can follow their owners across long and unknown terrain; pets that can predict death, comas, or other types of fits; uncanny navigational and migratory behavior of animals; and animals that can predict natural disasters well before they eventuate.
Let me focus now on one of those experiments--because it does pertain directly to the parapsychological community--namely, experiments with dogs expecting their owners to come home. In his book Seven Experiments That Could Change the World, Sheldrake (1994) proposed that the fact that dogs could successfully predict the homecoming of their owner (at unexpected times) could be possible only because of psychic abilities of the dog. An experiment was then carried out by Sheldrake, and he reports on it both in Chapter 2 and, in greater detail, in Appendix B. After some initial trials to show that a particular dog, Jaytee, appeared to be a promising research participant, Sheldrake arranged for Jaytee to be filmed continuously. Another camera continuously followed Jaytee's owner, Pam Smart, around. This was arranged through an Austrian television company that was keen to film such an experiment. At a random time after Smart had set off, she was told to return home and, almost immediately (11s later) of Smart being told to return home, Jaytee went and waited at the French window and stayed for the whole duration of Smart's homeward journey. Smart and the Austrian television crew were too far away for Jaytee to have seen, heard, or smelled Smart's intention to return. This was very impressive--and great television viewing, too. Still, this was an experiment of one trial, and Sheldrake was keen to replicate this feat.
In a 14-month period between 1995 and 1996, Sheldrake ran 30 trials (although he insists on calling each of these trials a single experiment) in which Jaytee was kept at the house of Smart's parents while Smart would return from work. A camera was pointed toward the French window. Regardless of whether Smart chose to set off at her own time (in the evenings this could vary between 7:30 p.m. and 11:00 p.m.) or whether Sheldrake, using a die, randomly chose the time for her to set off, Jaytee spent significantly more time at the French window than the period before that. This was statistically significant (p [less than] .000001 for either of the conditions of who decided when Smart would begin to head home). There is a slight fly in the ointment in this impressive result that I cannot ignore. Smart, the owner of Jaytee, had become Sheldrake's research assistant during the time of these experiments. The parapsychological literature is replete with instances of unwitting or unconscious cuing that can occur betwe en experimenter and participants, and although theoretically both Sheldrake and Smart were out of contact with the research participant (in this case, Jaytee), there are a number of scenarios in which subtle cuing between both Sheldrake and Smart may have influenced each other to make the decision to return home at the time that Jaytee would probably (as in more often than not) move to the French window. In fact, this train of thought led me to an equally different set of explanations. Suppose that there is a transfer of psychic information but, in this scenario, either Sheldrake or Smart (or both) are clairvoyantly picking up on when Jaytee is about to move toward the window, and this is their (either of them or both) cue to decide to allow Smart to come home. Sheldrake does not consider this possibility, even though in a later chapter (chap. 8) he does consider the possibility that animals may in fact "send" information to humans. Some of these possibilities could have been obviated by the use of appropriat e randomized times, but other than information that Sheldrake himself used a die to decide the time, we are given no further information as to the randomization procedure.
Two parapsychologists, Richard Wiseman and Matthew Smith, used a similar setup but with the advantage that both were third parties in this replication. Jaytee was filmed by Wiseman while Smart was chaperoned by Smith. On hearing a pager's ring, Smith would inform Smart that it was time to return home.
Unfortunately, what Sheldrake and Smart concluded appears to deviate from what Wiseman, Smith, and Milton (1998) wrote. Wiseman et al. were charitably undecided about the extent to which their results demonstrate psychic abilities in Jaytee, whereas Sheldrake's message is completely different:
The videotapes of Jaytee's behavior were analyzed blind by someone who did not know when Pam had set off to come home. Pam and I have also analyzed them. We all agree about when Jaytee went to the window and how long he stayed there. These results are shown in Figure 2.5. The pattern was very similar to that in
my own experiments, and confirmed that Jaytee anticipated Pam's arrival even when she was returning at a randomly chosen time in an unfamiliar vehicle. (p.63)
I suppose that Sheldrake could, strictly speaking, always claim that in fact he did not say that Wiseman et al. actually said that the results were successful but rather that his own interpretation of their results claims that Jaytee was being psychic. I think Sheldrake's writing style is very economical: He suggests one thing, but if he were ever challenged on this, he could say "Strictly speaking, I was saying something else." This raises the specter of how "interpreted" and economical the rest of Sheldrake's writing is in his book.
One place where I could easily detect this was in Sheldrake's account of the navigational prowess of animals. This is so incredible, according to him, that only a rigid-minded scientist would continue to believe that this is not psi ability. For instance, the navigational skills of both homing pigeons and traditional Pacific Islanders are so good (and again the implication is given in the language used) that the most likely explanation is that they are using psi abilities. Sheldrake magnanimously relates that "No doubt pigeons' navigation can be aided by using the sun's position and perhaps even a magnetic sense," but ends with "but without the directional pull through the morphic field connecting them to their home, they would be lost" (p. 191). Similarly, Sheldrake writes about a Tahitian navigator, Tupaia, who was invited on board James Cook's ship in 1769 and who could "point towards Tahiti at any time, despite the distance involved and the ship's circuitous route between 48[degrees]S and 4[degrees]N" (p . 191), and he ends this section with "[The early navigators] can do something we can't. They have sensitivities that we have lost." (p. 192).
Again, in fairness, Sheldrake never actually writes that early human navigators used psi abilities, but his positioning of this text just after stating that homing pigeons are undoubtably using morphic fields (accessed by means of psi abilities) to navigate gives the reader the strong impression that he is implying that this is what is happening in humans also. One might question how the men of the Endeavour were able to ascertain that Tupaia was such a remarkable navigator considering the Endeavour's own navigators could not know exactly where they were because the longitude technology did not exist at the time (Sobel, 1996). Similarly, Sheldrake writes as if the navigational ability of birds is "uncanny," whereas this navigational ability is not perfect. Berthold (1996) estimated that between 1% and 10% of coastal juvenile passerine migrant birds in the United States perish each year because of poor navigational ability.
Our understanding of the Oceania navigators of old is that they used a variety of methods by which to navigate. None was used exclusively, and each had their strengths and weaknesses. General navigational bearings could be gleaned from the sun and stars, changes in sea color, cloud formations, and changes in wind directions and ocean swell rhythms. The difference between Oceania navigators and European ones is that the Oceania navigators tended to be constantly "navigating," so these ongoing observations were integrated into "knowing" where one was (Ellsworth, 1987). In the same vein, modern research into the navigational ability of birds is also of the opinion that a variety of methods are used to navigate: the sun, stars maps, olfactory cues, and the earth's magnetic fields. None is used exclusively on its own; rather, they are used in conjunction with each other, although some might take precedent over others depending on the flying conditions or on how close the end goal is (Berthold, 1996; Wallraff, 1990). One researcher's view on the cognitive mechanisms in navigational ability is that "the cognitive ecology of animal navigation is still relatively immature" (Dyer, 1998, p. 254). One cannot but help feel persuaded that the present state of research into animal navigation has a long way to go before we can decide that it is a phenomenon worthy of a psychic explanation.
I could go on and write at length at how surprised I was to find no reference to "anpsi" in the text, or that Sheldrake insisted on using the term telepathy rather than ESP or even clairvoyance, or that the first time the term psi-trailing appeared was about two thirds of the way into the book (p. 221). Instead I'll quote what Sheldrake has to say about parapsychologists and animal psi research: "Curiously enough, the unexplained perceptiveness of animals has been ignored not only by mainstream scientists but also by most psychic researchers and parapsychologists. Why?" (p. 270). Sheldrake's "why" essentially boils down to a historical reason based on the formation of the Society for Psychical Research, which had its focus "explicitly on the 'faculties of man'. The same human-centeredness characterizes parapsychology" (p. 271). I think Sheldrake has exposed his naive ignorance and understanding of parapsychology in using this as the explanation for a relative dearth of research on animals' psi abilities. An thropocentric attitudes pervade all our lives, and there is no doubt that some of this is pertinent to the lack of research in anpsi. But Sheldrake makes absolutely no reference to any other possible causes. Among the many that I could think of would be difficulty in making ecologically valid psychic tasks; the fraudulent case of Levy, which rocked the parapsychological community in the early 1970s (Rhine, 1974); and the difficulty, expense, and morality of maintaining healthy animal specimens for psi experimentation.
I think what annoys me about this book is that animal psychic abilities are an important topic--indeed, I have a vested academic interest in declaring this, because my own model on evolution and psychic abilities predicts that animals are just as likely as humans to have psychic abilities (Taylor, 1999). However, Sheldrake is most likely to put serious researchers off this topic through his lack of scientific rigor, possibly in his own experiments in testing psychic abilities in animals--and most certainly in his reporting of the results of other researchers--and in adequately considering alternative explanations, both nonpsychic and psychic. Sheldrake does give alternative explanations, but they are played down and tucked away in different parts of the book. I think that this is a strategy that Sheldrake believes will help give readers the impression that the most plausible explanations are his own, which support his theory of morphic resonance. My suspicion is that this ultimately was the purpose of the bo ok. Of course, for any area of science where no comprehensive explanations exist it "could" be that psi (as part of morphic resonance) is used to inform a pet that its owner is on the way home, or it "could" be psi that aids organisms in navigation other than using modern technological equipment. Indeed, any of the phenomena that Sheldrake writes about in his book "could" use psi as an explanation. But Sheldrake has done a very poor job of providing a good convincing argument to support this hypothesis, and it "could" be that any other, nonmorphic field (psychic) explanations are just as, if not more, plausible.
(1.) I could not but help notice that Sheldrake had also cited this reference but in a slightly different context. However, he did not present the conclusions to which Wallraff came regarding the multiplicity of methods that birds might use in navigating. Although Wallraff, a world authority on homing pigeon navigation, does not claim that bird navigation is an easily explained phenomenon, he gives no indication to suggest that bird navigation is unexplainable using "normal" senses. In fact, Sheldrake did not even spell Wallraff's name correctly in either the notes text or the References section, which made me wonder if we both read the same article.
BERTHOLD, P. (1996). Control of bird migration. London: Chapman & Hall.
DYER, F. C. (1998). Cognitive ecology of navigation. In R. Dukas (Ed.), Cognitive ecology: The evolutionary ecology of information processing and decision making (pp. 201-260). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
ELLSWORTH,J. C. (1987). Ancient (Pacific Island) and western (traditional and modern) navigation: A reflection of cultural perspectives. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, New York, NY
RHINE,J. B. (1974). Comments: A new case of experimenter unreliability. Journal of Parapsychology, 38, 215-225.
SHELDRAKE, R. (1994). Seven experiments that could change the world: A do-it-yourself guide to revolutionary science. London: Fourth Estate.
SOBEL, D. (1996). Longitude. London: Fourth Estate.
TAYLOR, R. K. (1999). Evolutionary theory and psi: Reviewing and revising some need serving models in psychic functioning. Proceedings of Presented Papers: The Parapsychological Association 42nd Annual Convention 398-414.
WALLRAFF, H. C. (1990). Navigation in homing pigeons. Ethology, Ecology and Evolution, 2, 81-115.
WISEMAN, R., SMITH, M., & MILTON,J. (1998). Can animals detect when their owners are returning home? An experimental test of the "psychic pet" phenomenon. British Journal of Psychology, 89, 453-462.
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|Publication:||The Journal of Parapsychology|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2001|
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