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No. 115: Jan-Feb 1998

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More Sheldrake Heresy

"In 20th century physics, the fact that the observer and the observed are linked is well established. In biology this is heresy."

Thus spake Rupert Sheldrake, and he is absolutely correct. He was referring, of course, to that "spooky" prediction of quantum mechanics that the mere act of observing subatomic particles affects them. (See: "A Watched Atom Is an Inhibited Atom" in SF#67.) Sheldrake proposes extending the "observer effect" to biology. In effect, he suggests replacing the state of an atom with the state of the neurological connections within the human brain. All this technical jargon breaks down to a simple question: Can a person tell if he or she is being stared at?

Before you leap ahead to the next item, which we assure you is not as highly charged with controversy, consider that Sheldrake has conducted thousands of tests that do seem to show the reality of the observer effect in biology.

Sheldrake separates starer from staree by a glass window. The staree faces away from starer and is blindfolded. Prompted by a random-number generator, the starer stares or does not stare. The staree responds positively if he feels the starer's eyes locked on to the back of his head.

The starees are right more than 50% of the time. In fact, some starees are particularly sensitive to stares and respond correctly up to 90% of the time. Interestingly, even the best performers cannot tell when they are not being stared at! That's reasonable, if there is no signal, why should there be a response? Those scientists who have reviewed Sheldrake's data agree that some sort of observer effect seems to be present.

Just what is the "signal" linking starer and staree? What kind of "force" can alter the neurological connections in the staree's brain, eliciting a positive reponse?

Sheldrake suggests that the act of staring generates a "field" similar to gravitation and other action-at-a-distance fields. When one thinks about it, all such fields are "spooky;" Sheldrake's is no more so than the others.

(Anonymous; "Are You Looking at Me?" New Scientist, p. 39, July 26, 1997.)

Comments. Two questions come to mind:

(1) If some starees are especially sensitive, are there also particularly powerful starers? (2) Would viewing the staree via a mirror or closed-circuit TV make any difference?

From Science Frontiers #115, JAN-FEB 1998. 1998-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987