Rupert, Resonance & Rats

By Kary Vannice

No matter what your political, moral or spiritual stand on using animals for experimentation, it’s undeniable that rats have contributed a lot to understanding the nature of biology, psychology, genetics and many other areas of science. Rats also been instrumental in helping scientists quantify the nebulous and unquantifiable. 

One such theory is that of “morphic resonance,” proposed by Rupert Sheldrake in the late 1960s. Sheldrake proposed that organisms inherit memory, such as learned behaviors, and not just biological material from their forebears. Or, put another way, individuals inherit a collective memory from past members of the species. 

But how does one begin to prove something as nebulous as morphic resonance? Enter the rats.

One experiment that Sheldrake used to support his theory began at Harvard University in the 1920s. A scientist named William McDougall devised an experiment where lab rats were to escape from a specially designed tank of water by swimming down one of two pathways that led out of the water. The “wrong”’ pathway was brightly lit, while the “right” gangway was not. If the rat left by the illuminated pathway it received an electric shock. Which path was illuminated changed from trial to trial, so the rats had to learn that the key to success was the darkness and not the left or right gangway. 

When the experiment began, some rats required more than 150 shocks to learn to exit the experiment via the non-lighted path. Once the rats had learned the key to successfully exiting the experiment without receiving a shock, they were bred. Their offspring were then subjected to the same exact experiment, without the benefit of watching the parent rat, so no learned behavior could take place. Any improved rate of success would have to have been “passed down” and not learned. 

By the thirtieth generation only 20 shocks were needed to learn the key to successfully exiting the experiment. The findings seemed to prove the theory that this learned knowledge was somehow being passed from generation to generation. But here’s where it gets really interesting. To test the theory, the exact same experiment was set up in London using rats that were not genetically linked to the rats used in the Harvard experiment. Shockingly, from the very first experiment the new rats needed only 25 shocks to learn the key to success, suggesting that the knowledge of how to avoid the lighted pathway was not being passed from parent to offspring, but was instead was universally available on some sort of energetic level.

To prove that out, the same experiment was conducted again in Australia using rats that had no connection to those used in previous experiments. These experiments, too, showed the same results. In each, the first set of rats to try the maze seemed to start out with a failure/learning rate similar to where the last set had left off, even though they were on another continent and had no genetic connection to the other rats. 

All of these experiments ended in 1954 with hardcore scientists scratching their heads, unable to refute the results, but also unable to explain them. Sheldrake’s morphic field theory, proposed 10 years later, pointed to a possible explanation, but was met with plenty of skepticism. 

Do the rat results prove there is some sort of morphic field that we all have access to? It’s a question that researchers in many areas of science have been asking and trying to prove for centuries. 

If you’ve ever heard of “The 100th Monkey Effect,” it’s the same premise. Carl Jung theorized there was a collective unconscious at work in his psychology patients. Likewise, Freud spoke of archaic remnants, which he described as “mental forms whose presence cannot be explained by anything in the individual’s own life and which seem to be innate and inherited shapes of the human mind.”

While scientists are still trying to find definitive proof that this collective memory bank exists, it’s hard to deny that there is something in the “field” when so many researchers from various disciplines are coming up with the same idea. If it does exist, what would you put into the collective field for future generations to pick up on?

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