LIVING IN A MINDFIELD - REMEMBERING WHEREWE HAVE COME FROM - Ecological Intelligence: Rediscovering Ourselves in Nature - Ian McCallum

Ecological Intelligence: Rediscovering Ourselves in Nature - Ian McCallum (2008)




IN THIS CHAPTER I WANT TO PUSH THE ECOLOGICAL ENVELOPE. I WANT YOU to become aware of the constant interplay between our brains, our thoughts, our emotions, our intentions, and the environment. I wish to reinforce what the poets have known for a long time—that we are connected to the lives of plants, planets, stars, and animals in ways that are not as mysterious as we sometimes think, or as we would sometimes like to believe.

Could it be that we are born not only into ancient fields of gravity, electricity, and magnetism, but also into a mindfield—a field of information in which conscious and unconscious mental activities, signals, and directions interact and influence each other. Absurd? I don’t think so. When we review the evolution of life on our planet, “is it that unreason-able to imagine the emergence out of our molecular origins, a continuity of geogenesis followed by biogenesis and out of that, like a Chinese puzzle, an emerging psychogenesis?” asks Jacquetta Hawkes. And if we acknowledge the biological continuum of anatomy and physiology (the structure and functioning of the body) then why not a continuum of the brain, the psyche, and the world around us? If this sounds plausible, then say yes quickly.

Because it concerns the subject of ecological intelligence, I want you to be mindful of two important questions: to what degree are we receptive to events and processes within this field of information? Secondly, to what degree are we aware of our personal contributions into it? The answers to these questions may not be readily forthcoming but the search for them is what this chapter addresses.

On December 26, 2004, an undersea earthquake northwest of the island of Sumatra resulted in the formation of a tidal wave that would bring havoc to the coastlines of countries and islands in the Bay of Bengal. Within hours of the sudden shift of the subterranean plates, tens of thousands of people lost their lives. Millions lost their homes. It will stand as one of the greatest Human-Nature tragedies ever known.The Japanese word tsunami is now part of a universal language.

With reports of destruction and the rising toll of death flooding our television screens, I began to fear for the fate of the Andaman islanders, people with a Stone Age culture who live under the protection of the government of India. Andaman is part of an archipelago situated very close to where the 9.3 (Richter scale) earthquake occurred. I then began to worry about the fate of the animals, not so much for the marine creatures, but for those that lived close to the coastlines. Would they have known what was about to happen? What I subsequently learned filled me with a deep sense of relief, gratitude, and respect for our wild relatives.

Yala National Park in Sri Lanka is home to at least two hundred elephants as well as a host of other large and small mammals. Its coastal boundary as well as several miles of inland reserve were devastated by the impact of the tsunami and yet, according to a senior official of the park, there was hardly a dead animal to be found. The elephants and other animals had moved to higher ground hours before the tsunami struck. Even if this report was not 100 percent accurate, clearly these animals knew of the imminent danger. How did they know? I will suggest that the elephants could feel it coming. It is known that these great pachyderms can pick up vibrations through their feet from sources over 124 miles away. They probably heard it coming as well, for they can pick up sounds way below and above the human limits. For the elephants, the alarm had been sounded and it would not surprise me that the other animals, if they hadn’t picked up the alarm themselves, simply joined the elephants on their trek to safety. From suricates to squirrels, baboons, leopards, and francolins, animals know the alarm calls of their neighbors.

But what about the Andaman islanders? Once again, to my great relief, I learned that there were no immediate casualties. Prior to the event that would have brought certain death to those living close to the shore, they, too, had moved to higher ground. How did they know? Did they also hear it coming or perhaps feel it through the soles of their feet? I doubt it. While it needs confirmation, I would suggest that one reason for their escape was that they watched the behavior of the birds and the land animals, both wild and domestic. As has been documented in the earthquake city of Santiago, Chile, the agitated behavior of the animals probably alerted the islanders to what was about to happen. Another reason is that these people belong to an oral culture. The stories and legends of their people are told again and again. Although the last serious tsunami in the region was in 1889, thanks to folklore they knew that as the ocean suddenly began to recede, a more than equal and opposite reaction was imminent. As for the animals, they either preempted the knowledge or confirmed what was about to transpire. Either way, these primal people paid attention to what was happening around them.

While it is sad, it should not be surprising to learn of the significant death toll on the islands of Nicobar, immediately south of the Andamans. These islands are tourist oriented. The shoreline animals and the traditional stories have been replaced by modern buildings, modern technology, and the news of the world. This is not the fault of technology, for modern technology is a significant part of the field of information. The December 26 tsunami was picked up by seismological instruments off the coast of Hawaii fifteen seconds after the earth-quake occurred. As far as we are aware, this is faster than the known capabilities of any animal. The problem was, no one knew quite what to do about it, who to warn, or how to relay the message. Human technology has to be seen and understood in an evolutionary light—how is it being used, where is it taking us and at what cost to our relationship with our wild nature? The great Nature poet, William Wordsworth answers this question in his poem “The world is too much with us”:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

What can we learn from these events at Yala and from the Andaman islands? Perhaps it is this: the animals are an extension of our eyes and ears and noses when we allow them to be. Weavers and herons know how high the rivers are going to rise when the rains come—the height of their nests above the impending water level will tell us. Hornbills regularly begin their nest building about ninety days before the first rains. The African titbabblers, mousebirds, and crombecks, on the other hand, complete theirs about a month before the season of rain. Ants are ancient weathermen too. I have often seen them carrying their eggs to higher ground when the barometer begins to fall.

To be attuned to the natural world is not only to deepen one’s awareness of the seasons and the rhythms of Nature, but to interpret and act upon the irregularities of Nature as well. It is to know that a midday howl of a hyena is never meaningless.

To rediscover ourselves in Nature, the idea of a mindfield is going to be an important one. And it is not new. To me, it is implicit in the bushman belief that all the animals say one thing. It is to see the Earth as does British chemist James Lovelock in his Gaia hypothesis (1972), as a living, self-regulating superorganism—a planet in touch with itself. From nitrogen fixing to photosynthesis and the organic interplay of countless micro- and macroorganisms, the idea of a superorganism is no mere metaphor. Far from being scientifically discredited, the idea has been a catalyst in bringing together the independent disciplines of microbiology, geography, geochemistry, evolutionary theory, and astrophysics. To make the notion livable, I want you to put on your poet’s cap. I want you to think molecular or, to be more precise, to think in particles. I want you to be mindful of the continual exchange of atoms, particles, and molecules around us. Everything in Nature is made up of atoms and particles, including the human mind, for it, too, is a part of Nature.

It is impossible to speak about the mind without speaking about the brain, for it raises some testing neurological as well as philosophical questions, for example, are brains and minds the same thing? If the brain is confined to the skull, does that mean that the mind is confined there too? If it is, then human consciousness has to be understood as a purely intracranial affair, purely genetic and therefore capable of developing independently of our external and internal environments. If not, then our minds need to be understood as being both a product and a function of what is internal and external to us. But where do we draw the line between our inner and outer environments? Perhaps there is no line at all.

Beginning with a brief review of what some biologists believe are the evolutionary origins of the brain, let’s examine some of the theories, evidence, and implications for the brain-mind-environment continuum. In chapter two we acknowledged the evolutionary significance of symbiosis—the living together of two or more organisms for mutual benefit. One of the examples involved the symbiotic intrusion a little over a billion years ago of the highly mobile, corkscrewlike spirochetes into their new single-cell hosts. Today there are several evolutionary biologists who, like Lynn Margulis of the University of Massachusetts in Boston, regard these spirochetes as the precursors of the interconnecting pathways in our brain. How did this come about? It is believed that a number of these so-called wrigglers, once inside the host cell, joined up end to end—an act of keeping in touch with each other. John Briggs and F. David Peat write:

Sacrificing their mobility, the spirochetes were trans-muted into brain cells where, eventually, they became packed together, essentially immobile in our skulls. However, it would appear that their formal identity has been retained. These transmuted bacteria are today the instruments of the most rapid transit feedback network in the history of our planet. In what would seem a flicker of electrical motion, they no longer spin through primeval mud but through the furthest reaches of space and time—as the lightning fast mobility of human thought.

Genetically specified and regulated by the action of specific chemicals known as neurotransmitters, the hard-wired pathways in the central nervous systems of reptiles, birds, and mammals are the ones that account for our basic emotional responses to the environment, our primary instincts or drives, our senses (sight, sound, and so forth), and our motor functioning. Called the pathway or channel systems, it is well known that when an individual suffers a stroke in which such a path-way is involved, the result is a loss of function of the target muscles or organs involved.

On the other hand, our inner state—the way we feel, interpret, experience, reflect upon, and modify our responses to the environment—appears not to be wired at all. Our inner state cannot be pinned down to any one or other pathway. Instead, in association with different neurotransmitters to those in the pathway or channel systems, the neurons responsible for our inner state act globally. In other words, the connections of these neurons interact and overlap with each other in what is aptly referred to as a field of influence. This brings us back to the brain-mind conundrum.

Very basically, there are those who say that the brain and the mind are the same thing and those who say they are not. Both theories, as we shall see, are flawed by the same problem, namely, we know that our neurons are active while we are thinking, but neither theory is able to explain exactly how our thoughts cause our neurons to start firing and vice versa. Either way, we cannot escape the fact that our minds are a reality upon which our brains and our bodies depend and that we are a mindful species, for as Solms and Turnbull remind us, our minds are “the part of nature that we ourselves occupy. It is us.”

The dualists, with whom the philosopher Descartes (1596-1650) is associated, believe in the dichotomy of mind and matter, body and soul, and, in this case, brain and mind. To them, the brain and the mind are not the same thing. They believe that mental and neural processes may interact or even co-occur (Descartes thought that the pineal gland was the point of interaction) but they are ultimately irreducible to one another. In other words, the mind has no substance or physical properties. It exists as a kind of ghost in the machine.

A classic example of dualist thinking is intrinsic to the notion that psychiatric conditions such as irritable bowels and bladders, phobias, obsessions, compulsions, panic episodes, anxiety neuroses, and depression, are, because they cannot be measured, “all in the mind.” In other words, the physical condition does not exist. Acknowledging that mental processes have an influence on bodily processes, they nevertheless maintain that the mind is an autonomous entity and that in certain conditions, all that is needed is that the patient get his or her mind “right.”

The monists on the other hand, with whom the Dutch philosopher Spinoza (1632-1677) is most closely associated, believe that the physical and mental are aspects of the same reality organized in different ways. In the way that the brain can be understood to be a function of the body, they see the mind as a second-order function of the brain. In other words, in the way that a magnetic field emerges from electric currents in a coil of wire, mind emerges from neural activity in the form of mental fields. “Mental” or “psychiatric” conditions are therefore not in the mind, they are in the “body-mind.” When viewed in an evolutionary light, this connection is significant, the reason being that many of the above-mentioned psychiatric conditions, because of their link to survival-oriented emotion pathways, may, at some level, have been appropriate or even adaptive. The roots of these conditions are therefore not necessarily pathological. Because of this, it is important to point out the potential survival function of these conditions (even though they have become maladaptive). This approach goes a long way toward relieving these patients of a sense of guilt and hopelessness about themselves.

While my leanings are very much toward the monist school, I am nevertheless not entirely convinced by the reductive argument—the mind being ultimately reducible to the properties of neurons (nerve cells). As important as the neurons are, to pin the mind to our neurons will inevitably take us to the level of the genes and to the premise that our brains and our minds are purely genetic in their origin. I appreciate the significance of the genetic push, but, in the same way that electrons are pulled into an electromagnetic field, what about the pull of the environment in the shaping of our bodies, brains, and minds?

One of the best examples I know confirming the notion of the environmental pull involves the natural history of stem cells. Stem cells are the nonspecific, embryonic precursors or ancestors of every functional cell in our body. What happens to them—their functional destiny—depends on the physiological environment into which they are pushed or pulled. In other words, for a stem cell to become a brain cell, it has to be nurtured within a brain cell environment. The genetic predisposition (the push) to become a brain cell is simply not enough. It also needs a pull. The same goes for liver cells, heart cells, muscle cells, and so on. At this stage, the process of stem cell differentiation is not entirely understood, but the medical implications are profound. By infusing stem cells into irreparably damaged tissue, new growth of healthy cells can, in theory, be initiated.

It would appear, then, that the brain-mind relationship is not only genetically primed, but environmentally nurtured as well, or, as Spinoza poetically put it, “mind and matter are a double aspect of a single substance.”


Two academics offer a compelling theory for the role of the environment in the ultimate structuring of our brains. They are Professor Judith Toronchuk of the Department of Psychology and Biology at Trinity Western University in British Columbia and George Ellis, professor of mathematics at the University of Cape Town, who won the prestigious Templeton Award in 2004 for his contributions to science and religion. To me, their thinking is a significant step toward the conventional support for a continuum of the waves, particles, and molecules of mind and matter. But first, some important biological background.

Every human being is made up of at least 10 trillion cells—more than the total number of stars in any known galaxy. The vast majority of these cells are neurons and their neuronal connections, a powerful reminder that we are a thinking, feeling, and sensory species. Every cell in our bodies has a nucleus. In each nucleus there are forty-six paired chromosomes (twenty-three from your father and twenty-three from your mother). Each chromosome is made up of packed helical strands of DNA, the carriers of our genes.

There are roughly 25,000 genes in every human cell. These genes are what we refer to as the human genome—the blueprint of the human animal. And as we now know, mammals of all species share more than 90 percent of our genome.

Ellis and Toronchuk believe that there are too few genes in the human genome to account for the disproportionately large number of nerve connections in our bodies. There are at least 10 billion such connections. They write:

Remembering that the information in the human genome has to cover the development of all other bodily structures as well as the brain, this is not a fraction of the information required to structure in detail any significant brain modules, let alone for the structuring of the brain as a whole.

Put simply, on the available information about how neuronal connections are established, it would appear that there are too few genes to account for the variety and complexity of these connections. What else then, other than our genes, could be the stimulus for the detailed structure of the neural connections? “Our environment,” they say. The question, of course, is not only how, but why?

Staying with Darwin’s principle of natural selection—organisms with characteristics that best fit them for survival are the ones that contribute most offspring to the next generation—they combine the ideas of neurobiologists Gerald Edelman and Jaak Panksepp to explain the brain-environment link. According to Edelman, our neurons with their connections are the structures that have best adapted to our environment and therefore they are the ones that account for the most numbers. This may sound rather simplistic, but remember that every functioning cell was at some stage in its early evolution an individual organism that, over millions of years of adaptation, became the cells that form the tissues, organs, and systems in the different plant and animal species on Earth today. The rules of natural selection apply not only to different species but to simple cells and their connections as well. In other words, without a dynamic environment there would be very little to adapt to and hence little need for the existing number, variety and complexity of neural connections. To me, this goes a long way toward explaining the why of the brain-environment link.

What about the how? This is where the invitation to think molecular or particular could help us. Think about it: every perception of an out-side event—hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching—is essentially the result of a disturbance in the particle field around us. Within the narrow parameters of human perception, we are not only sensitive to this disturbance but we are able to interpret and localize the source of it as well. In other words, in the same way that we consciously and unconsciously interpret the information given by our neurochemical systems and pathways, we also interpret the information transmitted along what could be described as particle pathways in the external environment. But there is more. Our perceptions, both internal and external, are always emotionally charged. Every interpretation of what is going on around us or within us is accompanied by a feeling. Our outer environment, therefore, is never merely a geographical setting. From positive to negative, every environmental encounter evokes a particular feeling—pleasure, awe, fascination, disappointment, sadness, fear, panic, disgust, anger, indifference, and so forth.

Drawing on Jaak Panksepp’s descriptions of the hard-wired primary emotion-command pathways in mammalian brains, Ellis and Toronchuk suggest that the large number of neural connections over and above those that are genetically primed are determined by our ongoing emotional responses to our inner and outer environments. Communicated via external particle pathways of light, sound, smell, and touch to the internal emotion pathways and centers of our brains, the outer environment, because it is a constant source of subjective, survival-oriented information, shapes our immune and endocrine systems. It is a switchboard of emotional triggers that sculpt and mould not only our behavior but the structure and function of our brains as well. Looked at in this light, our entire existence is dependent on this interaction with the environment. Our minds therefore exist to make sense not only of the neurochemical information of our bodies, but as a precondition for regulating and making sense of the waves and particles that connect us to the objects and events in the world around us. Poetically, if the eye looks, then the mind sees. If the ear hears, the mind listens. And it does so feelingly. Through mind, we can conjure an image of ourselves, we can turn objects into symbols and a life into a narrative. The mind, which includes a tiny, conscious portion known as the ego, has evolved not only to reach out into the world but to be receptive to that which is reaching for us.

The notion of a mindfield as an interplay of ideas, dreams, intentions, and like-mindedness is an echo of what archaeologist and excom-municated Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin courageously referred to as the noosphere in his 1959 book, The Phenomenon of Man. The noosphere is a thinking layer or a field of thought. He imagined it as a layer over and above the biosphere, emerging from the first moment that a living creature became aware that it was aware. It was a quantum leap of consciousness. Suddenly, there existed on Earth a creature who understood the concept of time, mortality, individuality, relationship, and belonging. According to Teilhard, from that moment, near the end of the Tertiary period—only a million and a half years ago—the world took a giant evolutionary step forward. Rilke would have said it took a step “out of its house.” From that moment, the world began to enter a new age. Better still, says Teilhard, it began to find its soul.

If that first acknowledgment of kinship, belonging, and home was the first conscious act of soul, then, to me, that first act of reaching out into a world beyond oneself, to an invisible world of possibilities and interlocking forces, was the first spiritual act. It was the beginning of a newfound awareness that, like the biological matrix from which it had evolved and from which it was imminent, sought to continue itself. The relationship between subject and object would change forever. It was the beginning of a field in which a collective consciousness would become increasingly prominent. Human thoughts, ideas, and intentions had not only taken wing, but they were destined to interact also. Poetically, the human animal had extended a long arm into the world.

In a brilliant piece of analysis, Karl Popper, in his account of the evolution of life, of man, and of civilizations, took a closer look at the interplay between subject and object. He proposed that we live in an objective world of material things such as sticks, stones, brains, and so on, and a subjective world of minds—an inner world of thoughts, feelings, and interpretations of the objective world. He then proposed a further world consisting of objective products of the mind, all of which shape or influence the existence of the living creature. Examples of this in the animal world, writes Bryan Magee, “are nests built by birds, honeycombs, spider webs, etc., all of these structures existing outside the body of the creature and which function to help the organism to solve its problems.” Some of these structures are abstract, such as the social organization of termites or the patterns of communication in different species.

The evolutionary significance of tangible and abstract creations in the human world, particularly those that are associated with the transformation of the physical environment (the wheel, modern technology, and medicines to name a few) is that they then acquire central importance in the environment to which we then have to adapt ourselves. In other words, we are drawn to and influenced by our creations. They become part of the field of influence. Such creations, said Popper, include abstract creations like language, ethics, law, philosophy, religion, the sciences, the arts, and institutions. Once “out there,” he wrote, “these structures, in the human world at least, can be examined, evaluated, criticized, revised and when wholly unexpected discoveries are made within them, revolutionized.” It is a world that refers to our entire intellectual heritage, including our cultural heritage, and, as Magee writes, “it is through our interaction with this world that we become selves,” or, if you like, we become truly human. Our creatureliness manifests itself. How else could this reflective interplay occur if not via the same field or particle pathways that inform us about everything in our environment?

Common to both Teilhard and Popper, as I see it, is the notion that the human psyche exists not only in here, so to speak, but out there as well. The psychological significance of this notion is profound. Unconfined to our skulls and to what is immediate, our geographical and cultural environment has become a dynamic extension of the psyche into which we project our autobiographical and collective selves. The world, in the process of human evolution, has become less of a stage and more of a mirror. It is an extension of a deep sense of belonging, for we identify with all manner of worldly creations, from animals and trees to people and places. And lest we forget, because we often don’t like what we see in ourselves, the world is also the target of our negative projections.


What follows are propositions from philosopher-scientists that deserve attention for one reason more than any other—they are exploring ideas that could transform the way we think about learning, intelligence, and consciousness. In their own way, they are exploring the notion of a mindfield. What is clear is that these theorists have a great love and respect for science.

The first of these theorists is botanist and author Rupert Sheldrake. Sheldrake has been interested in field theories for a long time. At Cambridge University in the 1980s, while doing research on the development of plants, he revisited the age-old question of how plants grow from simple embryos into the characteristic form of their species. How do the leaves of willows, palms, and roses take up their shapes, he asked? These were questions concerning the subject of morphogenesis (from the Greek morph, or “form,” and genesis, or “coming into being”), the coming into being of form—apparently one of the great unsolved mysteries of biology.

In the same way that Ellis and Toronchuk question the emphasis on the genetic influence in favor of environmental triggers in structuring our brains, Sheldrake, too, believes that it is too simplistic to attribute morphogenesis to mere genetic programming. He believes in specific, nongenetic morphic fields that include social and cultural fields, molecular, behavioral, and mental fields, and he thinks they all have one thing in common: they contribute toward the organization of the systems within that particular field. A good example of this is the amazing way that flocks of birds fly at high speeds without colliding with each other. Another example is the way that shoals of fish, when threatened, suddenly change direction like a single organism, scatter, and then reform. The dilemma is obvious. Is it sufficient to say that the genetic neurophysiology of birds and fish are such that they can selectively avoid midflight or midswim contact, or do they fly or shoal within a field of information and influence that shapes and patterns their flight or swim? Perhaps it is both.

Sheldrake is well aware of the skepticism he has evoked. He acknowledges that he does not know the origins of morphic fields or how they evolve, but through well-documented experiments on termite communication, pets who know when their owners are coming home, and the human sense of being stared at (see mirror neurons in chapter eight) he nevertheless believes these fields exist. They may be there as a matter of pure chance, or perhaps as a result of some inherent creativity in mind and Nature, he says, but they exist and, in true evolutionary style, they bring with them a kind of memory, a signature or a pattern of what has gone before. What is more, he writes, “once a new field or pattern of organization comes into being, then through repetition, this field becomes stronger. The same pattern becomes more likely again.” In the human realm, says Sheldrake, “this kind of collective memory is closely related to what C. G. Jung called the collective unconscious.”

Providing a scientific way of thinking about ends, purposes, goals, and intentions, mathematician René Thom, in a branch of mathematics called dynamics, has constructed mathematical models that support Sheldrake’s field theory. These models focus on what Thom calls attractors—a field of influence toward which biological systems are pulled or developed. Imagine an eddy spinning in a flowing river. Now imagine a group of eddies, some of them moving closely together, others coalescing. This image is a metaphor for the way attractors work. As in the notion of a mindfield, they are in the same river, the same process, they develop, they become different expressions of the same substance, they have a life and a death, they have influence and are in turn influenced by each other and by their surroundings. Is it too poetic to imagine that we live in a field in which eddies of like-mindedness are not only drawn to each other, but merge according to the intensity of the attraction? And what about an eddy as an individual life, eventually, upon death, returning to the substance from which it was formed? Or the realization that it is the substance (Nature) that is eternal and not the autobiographical self?

Another view of a mindfield is that of the scientist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene. He considers the possibility that we have given birth to a new and more rapid kind of evolution involving culture rather than chemicals. Genetics has genes, so culture, he believes, must have its own units of transmission. He calls these cultural units memes. Memes, he says, are thought processes—ideas, notions, images, fantasies, symbols, tunes, fashions, methodologies, strategies, philosophies that become part of a meme pool, infiltrating the thought processes of individuals who are either sensitive to or ready for them. They can be understood as projections of consciousness striving to continue their existence in a new creature. In Dawkins’s words, “they leap from brain to brain,” or as Sheldrake suggests, they are passed on not only from ancestors to their descendants, but move sideways from one group of organisms to another across gaps of space and time.

Lyall Watson, drawing on the principles of natural selection, sees memes as living structures capable of implanting themselves in another mind, like viruses that parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. He adds that they are then forced, as viruses are, to compete with one another in a truly Darwinian fashion. In other words, they compete for access to minds that will ensure their survival.

If natural selection does operate at the level of thought processes, then it is clear that fashions and philosophies, particularly those that come and go, are good examples of evolutionary cul-de-sacs. In a sense, we are porous to thought processes that are both conscious and unconscious, and the memes that survive and that are successful are the ones that are in the right place at the right time—the ones that fulfill our immediate as well as our long-term needs. They stand the test of time.


Deep in the left and right temporal lobes of our brains is a constellation or nucleus of highly sensitive nerve cells known as the amygdala, the Latin name for almond—a description of the shape of this constellation of cells. Thanks to the work of neurobiologist Paul Whalen and his colleagues, we now know that the amygdalae are able to detect emotionally charged situations, even if we are not aware that we are in that situation. What is more, if the situation or activity is one of fear or anger, the right-side amygdala is particularly active. The sensitivity of these nuclei, then, do not depend on selective attention to what is going on. Could this unconscious sensitivity to what is happening around us be the basis for what we often refer to as intuition or a gut feeling? To me, the following clinical findings point in this direction.

In medical terminology, there is a condition known as functional blindness. In these patients, the eyes as well as the optic pathways are intact. They are blind as a result of damage to the occipital region of the brain—the area responsible for the reception and interpretation of visual images. Although blind, these patients nevertheless pick up on the ambience or emotional state of their immediate surroundings. In these patients, not only do the amygdalae remain sensitive to emotion-charged images and situations, but so does another region—situated low and toward the middle of the frontal lobe—the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex. Unlike the amygdalae, this area appears to be crucial for discerning the emotional significance of the prevailing stimulus or situation—clearly, a more complex form of discernment. This is the key brain region for experiencing empathy, sympathy, and compassion, i.e., the sharing of feelings: the pain, the joy, and the circumstance of another. So, this is where our evolutionary antennae are hidden.

What is really important in these clinical findings is that, as neurologist Antonio Damasio puts it, “the barrier of blindness has been broken through.” In other words, in terms of our survival and of the power of the all-seeing eye, the retina is a secondary, more recent phenomenon than our internal antennae. Seeing, on its own, is not the precondition for believing. Feeling is.

But what about long-distance interactions? How can one explain the following story, told to me by one of my patients, a young woman in her midtwenties? Which parts of her brain were active in the unfolding of these events? The year before coming to see me she was living in England, thousands of miles from her home in South Africa. She began to experience frontal headaches and with them an increasing fear that her father was suffering from a malignant brain tumor. Repeated telephone calls to her home were met with the assurance that her father was in good health. Several weeks after the onset of the headaches and while her fears for her father were still present, her mother phoned her in London to tell her that her father was to undergo emergency surgery for a brain tumor. “My mother’s words, when she phoned to tell me,” she said, “could have been mine.”

What was I to say, for I was well aware that an important part of this young woman’s grieving process was to come to terms not only with her premonition, but with a deep-seated guilt that her father’s death may have had something to do with her own thought processes. “Every time I had these thoughts about him, I had to keep pushing them away. I didn’t want to tempt fate,” she said. But fate had already dealt its hand. The tumor, albeit asymptomatic, was already established when it was picked up by the daughter all those weeks before the diagnosis was made. Pablo Neruda touches on this mystery in the lines of his poem “And I Watch My Words”:

And I watch my words from a long way off.

They are more yours than mine.

They climb on my old suffering like ivy.

From children to adults, we all have death thoughts about siblings, spouses, and parents for which we often feel guilty, and we all, even the most hardened of us, have those uneasy moments when we believe that we are tempting fate. I don’t think that we need too much convincing to acknowledge that old biblical admonition that what we fear will come upon us. As irrational as it may seem, it is as if our negative thoughts and fears magnetize the field around us. But it works the other way too. We can put positive thoughts, images, and feelings into the field as well. What happens to these products of the mind? If the brain, the mind, and the environment are a continuum, then the logical answer is that they become part of an extended field of influence. Is it too much to imagine that they enter the mindfield where they are then picked up or rejected by other minds? Do we not attract like-mindedness?

An excellent example of an extended field of influence comes from the astonishing observations of macaque monkeys by Japanese scientists in the 1950s. What they observed was equivalent, in monkey terms, to the harnessing of fire. A young female macaque, a resident on one of a group of islands, was seen taking soil-covered plant bulbs to nearby seawater pools to clean them before eating them. As the human observers watched, this idea took root and spread, slowly at first but with gathering momentum until it became general practice not only throughout the entire island colony but on the surrounding islands as well. Lyall Watson calls this the hundredth-monkey phenomenon, meaning that it takes only a certain number of like-minded individuals to create an idea or an image that will find its way through the world.

Finally, can we share the field of another species? The answer to this question might not be that far off and the animal that could show us the way is our traditional best friend—the dog. In his research on epileptic patients who own dogs, Stephen Brown, a British neuropsychiatrist and specialist in epilepsy, has found that a significant percentage of the dogs in his study were able to detect an impending seizure in their owners anywhere between fifteen and forty-five minutes prior to the event. To communicate the impending event, the dogs would approach the owner and begin pawing or barking, or both. Another of his findings is that no particular breed is found to be better at sensing an oncoming seizure than any other. In all cases, however, probably because the dog owners were able to prepare themselves, the frequency of seizures were reduced. It is reported that many were able to abort the event altogether.

Considering the quality of life of patients suffering from epilepsy, these findings are hugely significant. The important question of course is how do they do it? Do they pick up cues from their human companions such as a change in body language, mood, or behavior? So far, we don’t know. What we know, however, is that patients suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy often experience what is medically referred to as an aura. This is a peculiar sensation or phenomenon that precedes and marks the onset of the seizure. For some, the aura could be one of entering a dream-like state or of becoming disoriented. Others may experience alterations in their sense of taste, hearing, or body movements. Then there are those patients who don’t experience an aura at all and yet the dogs still respond to the impending event. Could it be that the electrochemical event pre-ceding a seizure is not restricted to the brain but extends beyond it into a field to which our canine companions are sensitive?

In his fascinating book Dogs Who Know When Their Masters Are Coming Home, Sheldrake has convincingly shown that certain dogs, through distinctive and timely changes in their behavior and over considerable distances (nine to fifteen miles away) become instantly aware of the homecoming intentions of their owners. How else could this be possible if not through a field, which at present we may suspect, but which we know little about? And what intentions do we unwittingly communicate to animals, to plants, and to our human companions? I will address this question in chapter eight.


Modern physics reminds us that the interaction and influence of particles occurs in a quantum field that exists throughout space and where the speed or the timing of the influence of particles, one upon another, is instantaneous. According to Einstein’s 1905 special theory of relativity, the notion of separate particles having an instantaneous influence on each other was inconceivable. Also known as the law of local causes, this theory proposed that events in the universe happened at speeds that did not exceed the speed of light. However, after some exquisite mathematical reasoning, Einstein eventually challenged his own theory, and in 1935 he and his colleagues came up with a new proposal: “the change in the spin of one particle in a two-particle system would affect its twin simultaneously.” Absurd? No. In 1964, physicist John S. Bell proposed that there is an elemental oneness to the universe, a proposal that would become known as Bell’s theorem. He theorized that particles operate and influence each other within a field. His theory put a restraint on the belief that the influence of particles, one upon the other, is limited to the speed of light. But how could it be proved? In 1972, in an experiment involving photons, calcite crystals, and photomultiplier tubes, John Clauser of Berkeley University validated Bell’s theory. It was true—the quantum field was for real. Particles, over distances, do influence each other instantaneously, a validation of astrophysicist Arthur Eddington’s quip “When the electron vibrates, the universe shakes.” And what about that ancient poetic notion “Pick a flower, disturb a star?”

In his delightful book The Tao Of Physics, Fritjof Capra describes this field as “a continuous medium that is present everywhere in space.” He adds that “particles are merely condensations of the field; concentrations which come and go, thereby losing their individual character and dissolving into the underlying field.” We are living in a mindfield, and if this sounds ecological, then say yes quickly.


If thoughts, secrets, intuitions, and intent are indeed mobile, then synchronicity, the meaningful coincidences in our lives, will begin to make sense. Synchronicity describes events that do not appear to have any causal link, but because of the so-called coincidences of these events, they are linked, instead, by meaning. We all have experiences of such coincidences: we may be thinking of someone we haven’t heard from for a while and then the telephone rings; we pick it up to hear that person’s voice on the line. Or perhaps, somewhere in the wild, while thinking about a particular elephant, it suddenly appears from out of a thicket. We sometimes need a particular item, wondering where or how we might find it and then, inexplicably, it presents itself—exactly what was needed. We all have stories, incidents, and co-incidents when we say we just happened to have been in the right place at the right time. It is as if, however briefly, there is a palpable meeting between psyche and substance. The feeling is one of being immersed in a field of actions, interactions, and feedback. It is as if we have touched a potential that has been lost and if not, a gift of Nature that we are beginning to unwrap. It is an implacable sensing that everything in the universe is connected.

To illustrate what could be a link between the mobility of ideas and synchronicity, analytical psychologist Marie-Louis von Franz, in her essay “Science and the Unconscious,” draws attention to Darwin and his theory of the origin of the species:

Darwin had developed his theory in a lengthy essay, and in 1844 was busy expanding this into a major treatise when he received a manuscript from a young biologist unknown to him. The man was A. R. Wallace whose manuscript was a shorter but otherwise parallel exposition of Darwin’s theory. At the time, Wallace was in the Molucca Islands of the Malay Archipelago. He knew of Darwin as a naturalist, but had not the slightest idea of the kind of theoretical work on which Darwin was at the time engaged. In each case, a creative scientist had independently arrived at a hypothesis that was to change the entire development of biological science. Backed up later by documentary evidence, each had initially conceived of the hypothesis in an intuitive “flash.”

The logic of cause-and-effect thinking tells us that synchronicity is statistically improbable, and yet it happens time and again. What is striking is the way it promotes a sense of continuity, how it narrows the gap between our inner and our outer lives, and how it links subject and object. It can’t be pinned down or called upon at will, a reminder that it is not an ego skill such as memory or intellect, something to be measured or worked at. Rather, it is mercurial, experienced as something that happens to us unexpectedly, dramatically, and, sometimes, poetically.

But why should we be interested in this? Well, if we are interested in the human factor in Nature, then we need to be interested in everyday life and everyday people also. Meaning and the quest for it, as suggested, is a defining characteristic of the human animal. It is central to the goal of psychotherapy also—the task of trying to derive and to establish meaning out of our situations, our personal suffering, and our discontent.

In addition to living in a world of cause and effect, ours, by virtue of the importance of meaning, is also a world of correlation and affect. This is to say that the logical connections we make about our world are often incomplete until there has been an emotional connection as well. We are born patternmakers, linking the whirling patterns of fingerprints to the spiraling shapes of galaxies, and we do it because it feels right. We find elephant footprints and other animal images in cloud patterns and we are all experts at reading the signs of the times. We are superstitious even when we try not to be. Predictability and control are sides of the same coin. We say things come in threes, what goes around, comes around, and we warm to the alchemical admonition: as above, so below.

As irrational as it may seem, symbol formation and pattern making are part of our survival. We can’t help it. If we can’t find the connecting patterns, we tend to create them, and it does not matter that they do not obey the laws of cause and effect. We correlate because it is intrinsic to our search for meaning. “Whatever else the unconscious may be,” said Jung, “it is a natural phenomena which produces symbols and these symbols prove to be meaningful.” And then there is synchronicity—that occasional yet deep sense of being part of a field of meaning. What follows is a true story.

A friend of mine, a retired architect and long-distance runner, began feeling tired and short of breath during a sequence of early morning runs. At first he ignored the symptoms, putting them down to the summer heat and a lack of physical fitness. At the same time, the pump at the borehole on his property began to malfunction. Upon closer examination, he concluded that the water pipes leading from the pump had become corroded and clogged, increasing the pumping pres-sure on the machine. Instead of replacing the pipes, he made intermittent attempts to unclog them, providing temporary benefit to the pump and to the flow of water into a reservoir near the homestead.

He then began to notice that each time he went down to investigate the borehole, he would experience the strange shortness of breath that he had experienced while running. Two seemingly unconnected actions followed. Firstly, he had the pipes replaced with new ones, and secondly, he consulted his doctor about his symptoms. The visit to his doctor resulted in triple bypass surgery for advanced occlusion of his major coronary arteries. Upon returning home from the hospital, he took a walk through his garden. What he saw—the strong clear flow of water pumping out of the borehole into the reservoir—had a huge impact on him. In an instant, this highly educated, mechanically minded man ventured into the realms of the absurd—he linked the blocked pipes of the water system with his blocked arteries. Were the clogged pipes a reflection or a forewarning of his own cardiovascular condition? he asked of himself. I don’t have to tell you the answer to his question other than to say that for him, correlating the two seemingly separate events was inescapable, or at least necessary. It is likely that we would have done the same.

Another facet to this story, seen from a depth psychology perspecttive, addresses the difference between healing and fixing. This man, by virtue of the cause-and-effect nature of the surgical procedure, had every reason to regard himself as fixed. His sense of healing, on the other hand, came through the powerful synchronistic correlation between the conditions at the borehole and his own cardiovascular condition. To try and convince this rational man otherwise would be to waste one’s breath. Neither you nor I could have stopped him from adding depth to what was superficially an irrational association. He knows about irrationality, but he will never forget the profound sense of connection and meaning he gained from that man-machine interaction. It was as if they had spoken to each other. Sometimes irrationality has its own rationale.

A word of caution: I think we need to be careful of confusing synchronicity with the notion that every life incident is meant to be. Certain life events do not appear to have any meaning at all and it is up to us to decide whether or not to give them meaning. In other words, I disagree with those who support a deterministic view that everything from life-threatening illnesses to personal and collective tragedies are meant to be. How can we possibly believe that tidal waves, earthquakes, human poverty, starvation, AIDS , and man-made ecological crises are meant to be? We either give these tragedies meaning or not, and, with time, we usually do. Sometimes it is precisely what happens after the second act—the act of giving meaning to an event—that determines one’s openness to the events that are bound to follow. “Nothing has changed,” says the unknown poet, “except my attitude—so everything has changed.” On the other hand, even the skeptics among us, when we are honest, will admit that there have been certain events in our lives when the sense of meaning has been immediate and profound. There was no need for the second act. This is synchronicity.

To understand the deeper significance of synchronicity, I believe it is important that we remain open to the likelihood that it works both ways. Events not only happen to us—we also happen to them. In other words, I think we need to become more aware of our personal contributions and influence (conscious or unconscious) to events that

we tend to describe as synchronistic. Gary Zukav, in describing the observer effect in physics, offers a quantum perspective: “since particle-like behavior and wave-like behavior are the only properties that we ascribe to light, and since these properties are now recognized to belong not to light itself, but to our interaction with light, it would appear that light has no properties independent of us!” The observer happens to light and vice versa.

Ancient wisdom reminds us that this kind of thinking is not new, for, in its essence, it describes the traditional Nguni African notion of Umuntu…Ubuntu, which means “Because of you, I exist.” To me, our humanity is not defined by human fellowship alone but includes a subtle yet essential dependency on animals and landscape as well. The web or the field of life is inclusive not only of our immediate surroundings, our geology, and our biology, but of deep space and time also. Could synchronicity be another name for the language of this field? If it is, then we have little choice but to see what we call “mind” differently. It is to see it as existing not encased by a skull, but in an extended field for which we are in our own way accountable. We are responsible therefore not only for what we take from it, but for what we put into it.

To take on this responsibility is to take the notion of a mindfield seriously. It is to add another dimension to what it means to think molecular—intention. A bushman hunter describing the feeling of oneness that he has with his prey prior to the hunt is describing not only his intent, but the significance of that intent also—because somehow, his prey knows about it. D. H. Lawrence agrees with this notion when he writes that the fox is dead long before the hunter has pulled the trigger of his gun. It is as if the animal knows when it is being hunted, or, as Barry Lopez describes the imminent death of a moose in an encounter with a wolf, “it is engaged in a conversation of death. The moose, standing quite still, its eyes fixed on the grey hunter, knows what is going to happen next. It is an ancient contract.”

The Kalahari bushmen understand this contract. To them there is no hunt unless it is filled with intention, continuity, and connection. There is no hunt unless the prey and the prayer of the hunter become the same thing. Prayer can be seen as a poetic chemistry of intent, effective not so much in its calculating, acquisitive sense, but in a way that Saint Paul may have meant it in his letter to the Corinthians when he said we should “pray unceasingly.” To me, to pray unceasingly is to be continually mindful of the patterns of connections between all things, vigilant to one’s participation in a field of life. It is what Rumi meant when he said: “If you are not with us faithfully, then you are causing terrible damage, but if you are, then you are helping people you don’t know and have never seen.” The poet is asking us to hold the patterns of connection; to hold the chemistry. To pray unceasingly is to think molecular. It is to see the small things, including oneself, in the bigger picture. It means being able to look at a green leaf differently, to see the science and the poetry in it, to be aware that you and the leaf are linked. It is an invitation to experience the transformation process of photosynthesis at work—photons of light combining with molecules of carbon dioxide and water to provide not only the energy necessary for the growth and survival of the plant, but producing the life-giving molecules of oxygen that we breath in. It is to have a sense of privilege at being privy to the powerful yet delicate connection and interdependence between the chlorophyll molecules that produce oxygen and the hemoglobin molecules of red-blooded animals that bind it. It is to hold one’s breath and then to give it back again in the realization that the chlorophyll and hemoglobin molecules are almost identical. What makes them different is the presence of a single trace element in each molecule—magnesium in the former, giving plants their green coloring, and iron in the latter, the reason why blood is red.

Then there is that great and essential element—water. To think molecular is to see it differently and to salute it, for there is no other substance on Earth quite like it. It makes up more than 80 percent of our body mass—a reminder of our aquatic origins. Absurd? Not at all. Salute the salty signature of the sea in the intracellular compartments of our blood and that of the streams and the rivers in the extracellular flow. Feel the electricity of the bonding of those two hydrogen atoms and the one of oxygen that make up the molecules of water, each of them acting like a tiny magnet, and when you have done that, imagine not only the delicacy but the necessity of a molecular bond that lasts a crucial one-billionth of a second before unbonding and then rebonding again—it is what gives water its wetness.

In his hard-hitting poem “Elemental,” D. H. Lawrence has no problem seeing water and fire differently. Here are some lines:

I wish men would get back to their balance among the elements and be a bit more fiery, as incapable of telling lies as fire is.

I wish they would be true to their own variation, as water is, which goes through all the stages of steam and stream and ice without losing its head.

In summary, to acknowledge a mindfield is to be aware of the dance of atoms around us and within us and to have a sense of being in conversation with these invisible aspects of our existence. It is to give synchronicity a face that is both evolutionary and immediate. It is to wake up to the fact that we are creatures in a universe about which we know so little, that the vast fields of dark matter and dark energy are not out there in deep space, but that we are in it and of it and that each one of us can make a difference to the world in which we find ourselves. It is therefore, more than anything, an attitude: one that is open to choosing the hard path, the one that E. O. Wilson calls the path of “volitional evolution.” This is the difficult path of those who have decided to do something about their heredity and their fate and who are committed to playing their part faithfully.

Our task is to rediscover ourselves in Nature and the only way to do this, I believe, is to make the mindfield livable. Clearly, this is an individual choice. We either continue to believe that someone or something else will rescue us, show us the easy way, or even take the hard path on our behalf, or we choose the opposite—we take it upon ourselves. We take the hard path, each one of us, in our own way, and we take it gladly. And where or when does that path begin? It begins exactly where we are right now, when we look up to see the world as a mirror; when we discover that our sense of freedom and authenticity is linked to the well-being and authenticity of others—and that includes the animals, the trees, and the land. It begins when we are open to synchronicity without pretending to control it. This is what living in a mindfield is about.

Finally, does all of this imply that an ecological intelligence and one’s personal notions of God are mutually exclusive? If anything, surely, it is the opposite. To me, the creative forces of the universe are neither distant nor impersonal. Are we not, every one of us, living expressions of these forces? As Jacquetta Hawkes reminds us, we are hardly more cut off from Nature than is a naked flame from the surrounding exchange of gases and moisture that sustain it. It would appear that every living creature is united both inwardly and outwardly with the beginning of life.

However, let us not be victims of wishful thinking. Whilst it is impossible to participate in our own fate without a deep sense of awe and gratitude for the forces of creation and evolution, it is important that we accept the great indifference of Nature. It does not exist to punish or to bless us; it is neither cruel nor loving, but we, the human animal, can choose not to be indifferent. We can choose to reach out, to take care, and to love.