Perhaps the most contentious idea in neuroscience is the concept that mind might extend beyond the organic matrix of the body. How realistic is this and, putting aside the likely gut response you are having right now either for or against the concept, just what is 'nonlocal mind'?
The commonest and most readily criticised experience that relates to this phenomenon is when the phone rings and there is a sense of knowing who it is before picking up. Some call this a contextualised guess, others, either an example of mind-to-mind communication, or of knowing something before it happens.
Rupert Sheldrake has endured personal attacks for his entire career for experimenting in this area of mind-beyond-body. This is someone with a past in biochemistry and cell biology, well published, and appointed to a number of prestigious academic institutions, including Cambridge University. As reputation goes, we might assume his work to be carefully considered. And he supports the ability of mind to operate beyond the confines of the scull, calling this aspect of consciousness 'the extend mind'.
Back in 1987, a medical practitioner, Larry Dossey, came up with a different label, based on what was happening with his patients and his own experiences. He called this 'nonlocal mind' (also written as non-local mind).
Stephan A. Schwartz has a career built around this topic too, with many papers and books. One of his concerns is the impact of this aspect of reality on experimental science. If mind has influence beyond body might it not affect experimental outcomes? After all, many people believe in the power of prayer.
For some, the prospect of mind reaching beyond the tiny eddies of magnetic force created as neurons, thinner than a human hair, that 'fire' off in the brain, seems preposterous. For others, the concept is a welcome ratification of lived experience.
Have you ever known something before it happens? Some people recount dreaming snapshots of the future that come true, or feeling a sense of foreboding when unknowable disasters are near. One friend told me how she stood peeling potatoes at her kitchen sink and heard the door open (her partner arriving home). Instantly, and correctly it turned out, she pictured him with a black eye (an unexpected event) before seeing him. Others have told me about telepathy and healing at a distance.
We could spend the rest of this blog devising scenarios to explain away such experiences, such as coincidence, subconscious cues, and memory adjustment. Doubt is a sensible approach to any new information, however, and perhaps surprisingly, there is rather a lot of support for nonlocal mind effects from valid scientific studies.
This nonlocal mind effect is considered by proponents to occur for many animal species, not just humans. Take for example some of the research by Rupert Sheldrake into mind-to-mind communication between pets and their owners. To summarise, pets with owners who arrived home at irregular times were placed under video surveillance and their behaviour scored for excitability and activity. The study supported the idea that pets did know when their owners were leaving for home. Yet despite statistically credible evidence from 100 videotaped trials, and no apparent fraud, this work has been misrepresented in ways designed to humiliate any taking an interest in such evidence.
There is not the space to delve into this topic more deeply here, however, I review the research data available for nonlocal mind effects in the latter section of my book, Design Your Mind: Everyday tools to make every day better. For example, there are data from brain scans that show physical changes in regional brain activity that only occur when a distant, caring person seeks to connect with and influence the secluded volunteer.
We scientists turn to meta-analysis of data when there is variation in the outcomes from studies, or concern over misrepresentation. And just such an analysis has been carried out on studies looking at the impact of good intentions, by Stefan Schmidt: Can we help just by good intentions? A meta-analysis of experiments on distant intention effects. The full pdf version is also available.
In such collective studies, individuals focused their minds on helping others to achieve improved levels of concentration. As usual for such experiments, the 'receivers' were isolated from the 'senders', in separate rooms or places. If minds can help one another in this way then perhaps all those times my mother spent wishing me to do well as I sat in my exams may have helped.
By contrast, Larry Dossey examines the dark side of misusing such mind-at-a-distance intention in his fascinating book, Be careful what you pray for, you might just get it.
Leaving aside acceptance of evidence, and the challenge to personal views, the topic raises another question. How might nonlocal mind be possible in terms of our current picture of reality? This will be addressed in a later blog.
Till next time – B.W. Cribb