46. Dr. Rupert Sheldrake and the Skeptics

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Show Notes



“These are mainly people who are committed to a kind of militant/atheist worldview. As far as they are concerned, if you allow any psychic phenomena to occur you are leaving a door open a crack and, you know, who knows, within seconds you could have God back again and, even worse, the Pope. So, I think, for them, it’s almost like a kind of religious struggle. It’s like a crusade.”

–Dr. Rupert Sheldrake


Alex: Welcome to skeptiko where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and, on today’s show, we’re going to talk with Dr. Rupert Sheldrake who, as many of you know, is the author of several books including “Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home” which has been an area of interest for this show, and is a project that we’ve undertaken at dogsthatknow.com. And there will be more in future episodes about the current status of that. We’re moving along quite nicely and have that research underway and I’ll update you in the next couple episodes.


But, on today’s show, I was able to talk to Dr. Rupert Sheldrake for a little while at his home in London and we talked about skepticism and we talked about some of the history of theDogs That Know experiment and some of the experiences he’s had with that. As always, it’s great to talk to Dr. Sheldrake. He’s very levelheaded and he…and one thing I’m particularly impressed with is he’s been in a very controversial area of science which is not of his making. He’s just followed his line of inquiry and its controversy has followed him rather than, you know, somebody who’s gone out and sought controversy. And yet, he’s managed to keep a good spirit. He talks in a very levelheaded straightforward kind of way that’s easy to understand and, also, he’s able to maintain the passion and the drive to for this research and doesn’t seem to have a real edginess about his critics that one would expect given the kind of…just outrageous criticism that’s been leveled against him.


So, here is my talk with Dr. Rupert Sheldrake.


[intro music plays]


Alex: You know, the first thing I thought you just might want to mention, because a lot of listeners have heard about this and have probably read bits and pieces but, the terrible incident that you went through in Santa Fe where someone from the crowd who appears to have had some kind of psychotic break, you know, stabbed you quite severely in the leg. So, I know a lot of folks are interested in just how you’re doing. How is your health?


Dr. Sheldrake: Well, by God’s grace, I’m feeling, you know, much better. I’ve got, you know…I’m walking around now. I’ve been walking two or three miles a day with a stick outdoors and I can go up stairs. My leg’s swollen and stiff but I’m recovering the use of it. And, so, you know, apart from that, I’m fine. And, ever since I was stabbed, I, oddly enough, haven’t had any pain so I’ve not been taking medication or, you know, painkillers or anything. So…and it’s…my surgeon was surprised. Everyone was surprised that, firstly, I didn’t have any pain and, secondly, you know, I’ve just been recovering so far. So, I’m really pleased about that.


I’ve put up…just one thing…on my website, I have put up a summary of the incident so, anyone who’s interested in more details can find it there on my website.


Alex: Great. Well, why don’t we just leave it at that because I don’t want to belabor that point. It’s such a horrible incident though. It has been over a year since you’ve appeared onskeptiko and, obviously, a lot has happened since then. And, as we were just chatting a little bit about…before we started the interview, there’s so many different aspects that we could go into on this one experiment that we’ve focused on of dogs that know when their owners are coming home.


But, you know, the part that you just touched on earlier, that I really wanted to just have a dialog with you about, and that’s this aspect of the skeptics. And, I thought…because when you dig into it is when you really start to understand what’s going on. I want to look at…and get your opinion on, you know, the work of Richard Wiseman who, if someone was coming in from the outside would look at his credentials and professorship and the public understanding of psychology and all these other things and he has all the trappings of scientific credibility and that, when you juxtapose that to the work that he’s done, it just doesn’t match. And…so…without being too personal about Richard Wiseman, what do you think is going on here with some of these skeptical attacks and how removed they are from just good basic science?


Dr. Sheldrake: I think the basic history of this is that quite a number of skeptics have a big idealogical agenda. You know, they are very firm believers that these things are impossible. They believe the mind is nothing but the brain. It’s all just inside the head. And, therefore, for them, this can’t happen. Therefore, the role of the skeptic is to expose what’s gone wrong. And, as Bob Morris, the professor of parapsychology at Edinburgh, used to joke, for skeptics, ESP means error some place.


Alex: Uh hummm…


Dr. Sheldrake: And, you know, their job is to find out what the flaw is. And, in all my encounters with Richard Wiseman who, personally, I can talk to and we, you know, we have a similar kind of scientific education and I can talk to him in a perfectly normal way. And he’s quite a witty guy and sometimes fun to be with, and, you know, when I talk to him personally, we don’t have any kind of hostility. We don’t joust each other or anything but, what’s become very clear to me in all our discussions is that he’s perfectly sane and rational and so on when it comes to trying to find the errors. And, of course, critical evaluation of science is an important part of the scientific process. But it soon became clear to me that he was only interested in finding errors that could render research on dogs that know when their owners are coming home, or any other research of this kind, invalid. He wasn’t in the slightest interested in considering the possibility that it might be true. That simply wasn’t on the agenda for him. It just wasn’t a possibility.


So, I think, like many dogmatic skeptics, he’s made his mind up. These things are impossible. Therefore, the job of the skeptic is to uncover the errors.


Alex: But see, that’s the part that I think is really confusing to…not only me but to a lot of folks. I was talking to my wife, as I frequently do, and she’s a psychologist and trained in that and, of course, she follows what I do too, and, I don’t even think she can really get her arms around it because, you know, we’d expect…if it was a politician standing up there and saying, “Look, I have to get my point across. I have to win the idealogical war at all costs because there’s whatever…” We expect that from a politician.


Or, if it was a corporate head who was promoting Big Tobacco or Big Oil, we’d expect that. But I think our guard is let down a little bit because we think that scientists are playing it straight and, I mean…where is your scientific soul if you’re…if you can’t remove yourself a little bit from the ideology behind what you’re investigating?


Dr. Sheldrake: Well, I mean, I’ve had to think long and hard about this because, of course, I often have encountered some skeptics and… I think that, for many of them, it…they’ve made science, not into a method of inquiry, but into a kind of ideology. Michael Shermer likes to say, “Skepticism is a method not a position.” But, actually, for him, it is a position. And, so it is for most skeptics.


I think, what lies behind it for many of them is that they’ve…many of them are atheists, dogmatic and often militant atheists.


Alex: Right.


Dr. Sheldrake: For them, they’ve rejected religion and, instead, they’ve put all their faith in science. So, they’ve got a kind of evangelical attitude to science and there’s no better example of this than Richard Dawkins who…


Alex: Right.


Dr. Sheldrake: …is both a militant atheist and a militant skeptic. He’s a Fellow of CSICOP, now CSI, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, as is Daniel Dennett and as, indeed, is Richard Wiseman. He’s a Research Fellow of CSI. And, these are mainly people who are committed to a kind of militant/atheist worldview and, as far as they are concerned, if you allow any psychic phenomena to occur, you are leaving a door open a crack and, you know, who knows, within seconds you could have God back again and, even worse, the Pope. So, I think, for them, it’s a kind of…it’s almost like a kind of religious struggle. It’s like a crusade.


Alex: I agree. And I think that also explains some of the belligerence, especially here in the United States, but in other parts of the Western world as well. Atheists feel under attack. I mean, they feel like they are in the minority position and that, therefore, if we get down to this win at all cost kind of thing, I’m under attack so I have to kind of attack back and…that’s the only…the only way I can really understand it is, as you put it, in this kind of evangelical fundamentalist kind of battle that we have somehow found ourselves in.


Dr. Sheldrake: Well, I think so. And I think it’s really important for people to realize that, actually, the question of the existence of psychic phenomena is a completely separate question from the existence or nonexistence of God. One very interesting fact that I uncovered at…a few months ago…at a European Parapsychology Association meeting…I realized there was a very big difference among the people in their attitudes to religion. And I did a secret ballot on people’s attitudes to religion. There were 32 people there. Four were atheists, twelve were agnostics, and sixteen had religious beliefs/meditated/believed in spiritual dimensions and so forth. The interesting thing is that some of the leading parapsychologists are, in fact, atheists.


Alex: Right. Right.


Dr. Sheldrake: And…and…I think it would actually be an interesting thing for you to take up on skeptiko. I mean the…I don’t think they’d mind me telling you, but one of them is Richard Boughton who used to be, you know, at the Rhine Research Center and now at the University of Northampton.


Alex: Um hmmm…


Dr. Sheldrake: Another is Dick Bierman who is a leading European parapsychologist at the University of Amsterdam. And, actually, I’m trying to encourage them to sort of form a little movement called Atheists for Parapsychology.


Alex: Um hmmm…


Dr. Sheldrake: Because I think that it’s important to realize that these are separate issues and it’s nothing to do with religion particularly whether telepathy exists or not. It’s a separate kind of issue.


Alex: It may not have anything to do with religion but I’m not so sure that I completely agree with you because I think, honestly, if you look at the trendline in consciousness research, it does threaten and call into question this materialistic paradigm that is dominant and, while I certainly agree it doesn’t suggest any particular religion or any particular set of beliefs, if I was an atheist and a dogmatic atheist and a hardcore atheist, I would feel threatened by near-death experience research, medium research, and even parapsychology research that hints at consciousness being this more fundamental kind of pervasive field that we’ve totally discounted in our current scientific worldview.


Dr. Sheldrake: Well, I think that’s true and I think that that’s the reason it’s so upsetting for a lot of militant atheists. But, the parapsychologists who are atheists, like Dick Bierman, I think what they hope is that there could be an expansion of the whole scientific worldview that would make science more strong and important rather than less so and which would be able to incorporate these phenomena without necessarily opening the door to a religious worldview. That’s obviously an area of debate and I think it’s a very interesting area but I think the importance of having important…these leading atheist parapsychologists is to show that you don’t…it’s not a question of having to buy into religion to accept that dogs can know when their owners are coming home. It’s…it’s a much less major question really than the question of religion. And it’s an interesting fact of religious people that some of them are anti-parapsychology.


Alex: Hmmm…right [laughs].


Dr. Sheldrake: There was a wonderful bishop here in England, Bishop Hugh Montefiore, who was a Jewish bishop, I mean, a leading thinker in the Church of England, a member of the House of Lords, died last year. But he was…he had written several books on parapsychology. He was very interested in the subject. And he told me that when he brought up the subject of telepathy and parapsychology at a seminar of bishops in the Church of England, he got just as distdainful and skeptical reception as he did when he brought it up among his scientific friends. So, it’s…this thing…this issue…the religion and psychic phenomena thing…cuts across the normal divisions. It doesn’t correlate 100% with, you know, atheism or faith.


Alex: You know, the point that I was leading up to that I wanted to talk about…because there is some controversy and this is a little bit of inside baseball talk here…but so many times I hear folks say that, you know, these skeptics are really out there and they’re not representative of mainstream science and that may be true but I was wondering what your take is on it. Is this a case of the tail wagging the dog or are these groups really being enabled by a scientific community that would be very comfortable with just leaving things the way they are? How do you see that?


Dr. Sheldrake: I think that it has to be seen in a historical context. I mean, there’s been a taboo against things like telepathy for a long time. I mean, it goes back at least as far as the Enlightenment, the end of the 18th century, when people who identified with science and reason saw themselves on a kind of liberating crusade to free humanity from what they saw as religion and superstition and things like psychic phenomena got classified with superstition. And…so this crusade became something that quite a lot of scientists identified with and, in fact, a lot of intellectuals, more so in Europe than America, because, you know, sort of atheistic and agnostic attitudes of the majority of the intellectuals in Europe and…whereas they’re not in America. There’s a big difference.


Anyway, I think it became this kind of crusade and what these skeptic organizations do, they represent kind of vigilantes for that old standard enlightenment crusade. The Skeptical Inquiry has as its subtitle, The Journals of Science and Reason. Dawkins has the slogan on his website, Science and Reason. So, it’s a very old agenda, going back a couple of centuries or more and they see themselves fighting…as a kind of battling to preserve the gains of civilization, reason, and science against the vast forces of superstition and unreason.


But, within the scientific community, although most scientists wouldn’t really feel free or wouldn’t dare to disagree with these skeptics…


Alex: Right.


Dr. Sheldrake: …in public, I don’t think they command majority support. And, actually, one of the best things that could be done would be a proper survey of attitudes among scientists and doctors to find out just how many do support the skeptic position. I think it’s probably a minority, maybe a large minority, maybe a small minority. But my experience, whenever I give talks at scientific institutes or in academic circles, in universities, is that what happens is that I give the talk. Sometimes there’s one or two people who totally object to my giving the talk and try and get them to disinvite me or cause a fuss in the local media. That’s usually quite a common pattern but it’s usually only one or two. If the people organizing the talk are strong minded enough, they stand their ground and they don’t disinvite me.


And then, when the talk happens, I usually get a pretty full house and the question period is usually a little bit tentative but, in the tea break afterwards, person after person comes up to me and says, you know, “I’m really into this. I can’t talk about it and my colleagues are all so straight.” In one subdepartment at Cambridge, there were six members of the department and, when all six had come up to me and said the same thing, including the professor, I said to them, you know, “Why don’t you guys come out. You’d have so much more fun?”


Alex: [laughs] Right.


Dr. Sheldrake: And they were all pretending…


Alex: Yeah.


Dr. Sheldrake: …that they were sort of skeptics and against these things because they thought the others were and…you know…I mean, I compare it a bit to Russia under Brezhnev, you know, when there was kind of an official ideology. If you spoke out against it, it would damage your career but how many people really believed it?


Alex: Yeah.


Dr. Sheldrake: And, I think it’s a bit like that in science. And I think these skeptics have got away for far too long with claiming to speak for the whole science community. Actually, an awful lot are not even scientists. Randi’s a conjuror. Shermer is a historian. A lot of them aren’t even scientists. Paul Kurtz is a philosopher. They’re ideologs. And I think it’s a great shame that they’ve been enabled, you know, they’ve been able to get away with this.


I think the best way to break this bubble really would be a survey in different branches of science and medicine and find out, you know, just what proportion do support this extreme position and I think it…the extreme version, I think, would be a very small minority.


Alex: You know, that’s an intriguing idea and I wonder where something like that would go.


Okay, let’s switch gears for a minute and…we’ve talked about the skeptical movement and I think that’s really an important…I’m glad we did because it’s an important part of this. I mean, we can’t pretend like these experiments are happening without that backdrop because it really informs so many of the decisions that are made.


But, if we can, let’s switch gears and talk about the Dogs That Know project that we’re working on here and I want to thank you for the guidance that you’ve provided along the way and also, of course, for just pioneering this work. The more I get into it, the more I appreciate what you and Pam have gone through. And that’s one of the topics I want to talk about is just, as you…as I’ve done…or even stick my toe into this research, it’s so much more clear some of the issues involved and I thought we’d talk a little bit about that.


So, one of the first points about that is I think, for a lot of folks, even for myself coming into this, there’s this apparent paradox between your statement or your survey that this is a relatively common phenomena among…observed by dog owners and yet the relatively few number of dogs that have been tested. And…


Dr. Sheldrake: Hmmm…


Alex: Now, I, [laughs] having lived through that the last six months…and we were talking a little bit about this online, have a completely different perspective on that having spent six months in getting a lot of stories and a lot of initial interest and people who are just thoroughly convinced as dog owners that this phenomena is real and that this is happening with their dogs and yet, to overcome all the challenges involved in getting someone to really participate in an experiment, oh, that’s a whole different matter.


So, would you care to speak on that for a second?


Dr. Sheldrake: Yes. Well, first of all, I’m sure the surveys are right in showing many many people, in my surveys roughly 50% of dog owners, and these are random household surveys, claim their animals anticipate an arrival of a member of the family. Also, whenever I bring the subject up in lectures or in conversation with groups of friends, you know, and I say, “Who’s noticed that?” Lots of people put their hands up in my lectures and whenever I’m, you know, at a dinner party or something and the subject comes up, there’s always a few people who say, you know, “Oh, yes. My dog does that.”


So, you’re right. There is a very common perception of this. A lot of people have noticed it. When Pam and I…well, when I first started trying to do research on this, I appealed for people to come forward who’d be willing to take part in experiments. I did that through a British newspaper, The Sunday Telegraph. And I got about thirty or forty people expressing an interest. One of them was Pam. That’s how I met Pam Smart.


Pam just wrote a very straightforward bit. She said, “My dog seems to do this. I would be happy to take part in tests.” And, you know, I asked her what to do. I asked her to keep a logbook with her parents on the dog’s behavior, to go out and come back at unusual times. Pam just straightforwardly just did it…all that…I mean, and told me she was intrigued and so was her family and so forth. It was absolutely plain sailing.


But this was very much the exception rather than the rule.

Alex: [laughs] Yeah.


Dr. Sheldrake: Most other people…I don’t think they were insincere in expressing an interest but, when you said, you know, “Could you do this next week and get someone to keep notes on the dog and, you know, and go out and come back at an unusual time.” You know, it just ran head-on into collision with real life. They said, “Oh, yeah. I’d love to do it. I’ve got to pick up my son from school.”


Alex: Right.


Dr. Sheldrake: You know, “My husband’s ill.” “I’ve got to go and visit my mother-in-law.” You know, suddenly all these kind of real-life effects came in and they couldn’t do it. I don’t think these were just excuses. I…when we ask people to come home at unusual times, and they’ve got busy lives and stuff, it’s just too much for most people. And they don’t feel strongly enough motivated and, you know, they know their dog does it. They don’t really feel the need to prove it to the entire world.


And so I found it was very hard to motivate people to do this. In the end, when Pam and I had done this long series of experiments with J.T., lasting more than two years, we then recruited more dog owners and we got one who lived fairly near Pam, a student with a dog called Cane, and we published a paper on the experiments with Cane. And, you know, we paid her. And, so, from then on, we paid people to take part. Ten pounds a test or something like that.


Alex: Uh hmmm…


Dr. Sheldrake: And that was a motivation for people who weren’t very well off, like students. And so we were able to do quite a number of filmed experiments that way. But it was always hard to get people to take part because simply they’re too busy doing other things. And, it’s not just dogs. I find the same with all my other experiments. It’s very hard to motivate people to participate because, if they have these experiences, they just don’t see the point of trying to prove it to skeptics and…um…


Alex: That’s a real interesting point too in that there’s this vast disconnect [laughs] between the skeptics and scientifically…even scientifically minded skeptics…and your typical dog owner who’d be interested in this kind of investigation or has formed this kind of bond at least. And those are generalizations of course but I’ve definitely found that to be true. And, even to the point of…it was kind of interesting in the one person that we’re working with most closely now and it’s been as you described. Really, she’s been tremendous and her participation by her family has been tremendous but it’s still been very very difficult to run trials because stuff just gets in the way. Life just gets in the way.


But, the point I was going to make was, even regarding the randomization of the trials, I think…I had to explain it so many times to Jane what we were trying to do and, finally, it became clear that one of the blocks for her was it was just so ridiculous. I mean, clearly if she’s…in her mind…and this is true, if she’s going to the dentist and then going to visit her horse and riding her horse and coming back, that is a completely random event. I mean, that happens once every six months so, I think it was hard for her to really say, “Well, what…that’s random. Why are we trying to randomize it any further?”


So, I think there’s also, I think, a disconnect for people in terms of some of the rigors and controls that we want to apply to the experiments.


Dr. Sheldrake: Yes. Absolutely. I mean, most people just don’t get why you need to do that. They just don’t get why you have to do it in such a way that it will stand up to the scrutiny of extreme skeptics. In fact, a very common reaction I get…when I give talks to unsophisticated audiences, you know, not to scientific audiences but to general audiences, the question quite often comes up is…it first came up in Switzerland with a farmer. I was giving a talk in Zürich and it was a very general audience. He was a farmer, a ruddy-faced Swiss farmer. He said, “But Dr. Sheldrake,” he said, “everybody knows these things. Why do you waste your time trying to prove it?”


Alex: [laughs] Yeah, right.


Dr. Sheldrake: “Because we know it already.”


Alex: Exactly.


Dr. Sheldrake: For him, he was genuinely interested. I mean, but he couldn’t understand why I was going to all this trouble, jumping through all these hoops, to prove something that he and his family just take for granted.


Alex: Right.


Dr. Sheldrake: And, I run into the same problem in my experiments on telephone telepathy.


Alex: Uh huh.


Dr. Sheldrake: You know, 80% of people claim to have had this experience but when I try to recruit people to do these experiments, you know, to test it, most of them just can’t quite get the point of doing this. And it’s only people with the sort of fair degree of scientific education who can get that really on the whole.


Alex: Right. You…related to that but a slightly different topic is…I wonder if we could talk for a second about the nature of what we think is going on and how it manifests itself in the experiment and, in particular, what I’m thinking about is…so many times I hear from skeptics who are just ill-informed or just dogmatic in trying to ford an ideology without thinking about it. They kind of jump into this mode of imagining that, if there is some kind of telepathic link, it’s going to operate like some telephone and the person is going to communicate and tell the dog [laughs] to do something and…I think what we’re already beginning to find, and I think it’s consistent with what you’ve found, is that this signal, whatever signal is happening, is a weak signal. You know, it can be easily disturbed by a variety of different things that might come up naturally in the dog’s environment.


So, let’s talk for a minute about what we think is going on and what is the nature of this link. It’s obviously weak. It has something to do with the connection or love we feel with these animals. It’s uh…what other things can we say about it?


Dr. Sheldrake: Well, I think that it’s…I think it’s stronger between dogs and people than it is between a lot of people and people for example. I think that it’s…the…in the human realm, the strongest case I’ve come across of telepathy is between mothers and babies, mothers picking up when their baby’s in distress. And that’s something where there would be a clear biological reason. You know, a baby who’s mother could find…know when it was in distress at a distance would tend to survive better than one who’s mother didn’t know.


So, I think in the case of dogs, they’re probably more sensitive than people and…after all, most people don’t know when a member of the household’s coming home. There are cases in rural Norway and Africa where people do know but it’s much less common for people to know than for dogs to know.


So, I think that the dog…I think what’s happening is that the dog’s picking up the intention of the person to come home and, in some of the experiments with Pam, this was very clear. We…in fact, in most of them, the dog was reacting before she actually set off. It was when she decided to set off that it reacted. You know, when she phoned for a taxi or whatever.


So, it seems to be an intention. I don’t think this kind of telepathy conveys a huge amount of information. I think it’s just…is saying, you know, “I’m coming home.”


Alex: Uh huh…


Dr. Sheldrake: I don’t think it’s…it’s not the kind of communication that would transfer complex information. And, in the human realm, I think it usually does something similar. You know, a mother suddenly…what happens to nursing mothers when their babies need them is that many of them have found their milk lets down. Their nipples start leaking. It’s a kind of…it’s called the milk letdown reflex. It normally happens when the baby cries.

And, what happens is some totally basic biological function. Their breasts start leaking. They tingle and leak. And then the mother thinks, “Oh, my baby must need me.” What’s happening is her body’s responding first. This is working at a kind of emotional unconscious physiological level. I think, in humans, it’s similar. Even though they…the phone call thing which is the commonest kind of telepathy in the modern world, is where people think of someone who then calls and they say, “That’s funny. I was just thinking about you.”


There…what people get is not why they’re calling or what it’s about, it’s usually just a feeling that that person is trying to get in touch with them. It’s just a feeling of contact or connection. And I think most cases of telepathy are pretty basic like this. And sometimes they’re to do with need. Someone feels the need to go to someone or a dog suddenly struggles to get out and it turns out that its owner had an accident and it’s trying to go and help or something like that. It’s sort of needs coming home and basic feelings that it’s primarily about.


And the very word telepathy, “tele” distant, “pathy” feeling, like in empathy or sympathy, shows it’s more to do with feelings than it is to do with details, ideas, or anything like that.


Alex: What do you make of something that you’ve observed, and we’ve started to observe a little bit, is this phenomena or the behavior seems to be more likely to show up if there’s more than one dog in the house or if there’s more than one person in the house…or if there are people in the house for the dog to demonstrate it to? I mean, it would be very easy to make a connection with this kind of pack behavior that we would expect to see in dogs but I wonder if you had any thoughts on that.


Dr. Sheldrake: Yes. We started…with Pam…we started the…had a dog, J.T. She only had one dog so there were no other dogs, but we did a whole lot of experiments, about 50, filmed experiments with the dog in her parent’s apartment which is where she usually left it when she went out. They lived next door to her. So it was very easy to leave the dog with her parrots.


And we did a similar number with the dog alone in her own apartment. And, although the dog showed the behavior when it was alone, it was much weaker and, you know, it waited less long. It did it less frequently and, instead of statistic, there’s significant fact. But it wasn’t as much.


Now, I’m sure this wasn’t because the dog, when it was with her parents, was picking up signals from them because they didn’t know when she was coming home in these tests and; therefore, they couldn’t have given signals. And the dog could do it on its own anyway. But I think what it is…going to the door by the dog is telling the people or the other dogs…


Alex: Right.


Dr. Sheldrake: …you know, “They’re on the way.” The dog’s job, how it sees its job, is to sort of warn us of things. You know, if someone’s coming to the house, it barks.


Alex: Um hmmm…


Dr. Sheldrake: You know, it’s there as a kind of…to alert us to what’s going on and, in many ways, dogs act as an extra sense to people. They tell them things they wouldn’t otherwise know, you know, like when someone’s at the door.


So, I think that signalling when a member of the family’s on the way home is part of their sort of suite of behaviors that they can do and it’s a communication. It’s not just that they want to be at the door when the person arrives because, if they know when the person’s coming, there’s no need for them to sit there for ten minutes or half an hour before they get back.


I think they’re actually signalling it to other people and to other animals. And, I think that’s what they do and that’s why I think it happens more when there are other animals or other people present.


Alex: Yeah, I suspect that you’re right about that. One other aspect of it that is interesting and I can’t really say that I have any real solid evidence to back this up, but I cannot tell you the number of stories I’ve heard from folks who say, “Oh, I had a very dear dog who did that and he’s passed away.” And it kept coming up and I sort of just suspect that this behavior might be more prevalent in older dogs. And I was wondering, you know, perhaps the connection with their owner has deepened or perhaps they have less energy. I don’t know. I don’t want to speculate too much because I…like I said, I’m not even sure that that’s real. Do you have any insight into that?


Dr. Sheldrake: Well, we’ve got more than 850 cases of dogs…case histories in our database of dogs knowing when people are coming home. None of them are younger than about nine months. So, I think that it takes time for this behavior to develop. You know, there has to be a bond and it doesn’t happen with very young puppies. So, it tends to be with older dogs. I haven’t noticed in either our surveys or our case histories that it’s only old dogs that do it. In fact, some really old dogs don’t do it. You know, they’ve become inactive and they just lie around all the time, sort of arthritic really, and so I’m not sure if it’s older dogs. I get the impression that it sort of cuts in or starts around, you know, one or two or something like that and continues often through a dog’s life until it’s really quite old. That’s the impression I’ve gotten from the case histories.


I think that when people say, “We had a dog that did that.” it’s partly, you know…when people think about dogs, they’ve got a whole lifetime of experience. You know, they may have had a dog when they were a child that did it when their father came home or they may have kept a dog when they were a young married couple with young kids and then stopped keeping dogs later. So, quite often when people…since dogs live a lot less longer than people do…people’s experience of dogs, you know…they are quite often talking about dogs in the past.


I did suspect for awhile that it might just be a kind of rosy glow of memory cast over dead dogs. You know, where people are perhaps embroidering memory but, actually, we’ve found plenty of living dogs that were doing just the same kind of things so I dismissed that idea.


Alex: Yes. You know, the other interesting thing you touched on there is the extraordinary waiting behavior which I’ve also heard a lot anecdotally… and I actually have one of these stories and I haven’t published it yet…but of a returning soldier, a soldier who’s returning after a couple of years. And the dog is especially agitated and especially excited at this return that no one knew about because the soldier wanted to surprise his family and just appeared kind of out of the blue. And…but the dog knew and everyone was just…it really stuck in people’s mind because it was clearly this behavior with this animal. And I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of these kind of extraordinary stories in addition to the routine kind of waiting…so…


Dr. Sheldrake: Yes. I mean, in a way, the more…the most impressive stories are ones where people have been away, you know, on holiday or, in the case of soldiers, been away for quite long periods and return unpredictably. There are some dogs that respond when people have been away for, you know, a few weeks but they don’t bother on a daily basis, you know, when they’re just coming home from work or from shopping or something. And, actually, the very first case that really got me interested in this was a neighbor of mine in my hometown had a cat and she had a son who was a merchant seaman. And she told me he’d never tell her when he was coming home on leave because he thought she’d worry if he was delayed or anything so she never knew when his ship was getting in or when he’d be coming home. And, he…we…our hometown was about three hours…three or four hours train ride from South Hampton, the port he came into. And, yet, she said she always knew when he was coming because the cat would go and wait several hours beforehand at the front door so she knew when to get his room ready and go and get some food and stuff.


Alex: Yeah.


Dr. Sheldrake: And, so that was the story that first intrigued me about this whole phenomenon, a cat with a…knowing when a merchant seaman was coming home. And, I’ve heard many many stories of that kind about people in the armed forces, you know, who come home after quite long intervals.


Alex: Yeah. I want to kind of wrap things up here. I appreciate you taking the time and it took extra long because we had that little break in between but I’m wondering, what is your current thinking about…what are the implications of this research and the other research that you’ve done into human telepathy? Taking a step back, what is your current thinking about what this is telling us about human consciousness?


Dr. Sheldrake: Well, first of all, the reason I started doing this research with animals was because I wanted to see whether this was part of animal nature and we just have it as part of our own animal nature or whether it’s special in humans. I don’t think it’s special. I think animals are often more telepathic than people are and lots of pet owners think their dog or cat is much more psychic than they are themselves. So, it’s not just my opinion. It’s quite a widespread opinion.


That, I think, is important because we need to understand how these things have evolved and I think they’ve evolved because social animals, of which we are one and dogs are another…even cats are social in their family groups…that social animals need to keep in touch at a distance and that’s why we have cellphones and things. But, until the invention of modern telecommunications, the only way of doing that was through telepathy. And I think these abilities have evolved because they are useful. I think they are widespread in the animal kingdom. And, what I would like to see is, you know, when this further research that you’re doing hopefully will trigger off even more applications. If it’s generally agreed this really happens in dogs, for me, that would raise the question of, “Well, what about wolves?” They’re the wild ancestors of dogs. “Do wolf cubs know when adult wolves are coming back from a hunting trip?” And, nowadays, you know, technically, it wouldn’t be too difficult to do that. You know, a small surveillance-type camera placed in the wolf den. One could actually observe whether this happens in the wild. And we have almost no information about telepathy in the wild but we could collect it, especially with young anticipating the return of their elders.


So, one way I’d go in further research is, you know, looking into the natural history and just seeing how these things appear in nature. Because if dogs do it, cats do it, parents do it, horses do it, rabbits, ferrets, you know, lambs raised on bottles…lots of animals know when their owners are coming home. It’s not something that’s just evolved with dogs in relation to people. I think it’s something basic in animal nature that they do with each other in the wild.


So, that’s one line of investigation. Another is to look into the…with humans…the factors that influence it and that’s why I’m doing these automated telepathy tests with text message telepathy, email telepathy, and so forth, to try and find, just in more detail, how it works. And this is something that other people in psychical research are trying to do as well.


Then, of course, the next thing is to try and build models of just how it happens, trying to find scientific theories. You need to enlarge science to include this but I think what it tells us basically is that our minds are not just confined to the inside of our brains. Our intentions and our attention reach out into the world and can have an effect at a distance, that we’re much more interconnected than science usually assumes. Not that most people usually assume. I think most people take this kind of interconnection for granted. But, within the scientific world, we’ve, at present, got a model of the mind as nothing but the activity of the brain confined to the inside of the head.


And, of course, the brain’s involved in mental activity just like the activity inside your cellphone is essential to the cellphone. But, it doesn’t prove that the whole of the cellphone’s activity is inside the handset that your holding. It depends also on invisible fields that stretch out beyond it. And so, I think, do our minds.


So, I think that’s the biggest theoretical implication. And, how we fit that into a large view of science, no one quite knows. I have my own theories. Other people have theories. That’s a challenge for the future. But, obviously, the first thing we’ve got to do is we’re not going to have any motive to extend science unless we think telepathy’s for real. And that’s why I think these experiments are so important.


But I think what they’ll lead to is a major breakthrough in our understanding of the nature of the mind and of our interconnectedness with each other and with the animals and the environment around us.


Alex: Right. Well, why don’t we leave it there then and thanks again so much for joining us today and I’m sure we’ll be checking back in with you as the Dogs That Know experiment proceeds on.


Dr. Sheldrake: Good. Well, keep me informed. I’m eager to hear what happens.


[call ends]


Alex: Thanks again to Dr. Rupert Sheldrake for joining us today on skeptiko. Stay with us on future episodes of skeptiko for more information and updates on what’s going on in theDogs That Know experiment. We’ll have plenty more information on that. And, as always, visit the skeptiko website at skeptiko.com where you can check out all our past episodes. You can subscribe to the podcast, join our forum discussion, or drop me a note and let me know your thoughts.


So, thanks for listening and, until next time, bye for now.