Dispatches from the Border
Between Science and Spirituality
By John Horgan
Houghton Mifflin. 292 pp. $25
THE SENSE OF BEING STARED AT
And Other Aspects
Of the Extended Mind
By Rupert Sheldrake
Crown. 369 pp. $25
Science journalist John Horgan is no stranger to controversy. In his earlier books, The End of Science and The Undiscovered Mind, he dared to suggest the possibility that scientists might never solve the fundamental mysteries of life and the cosmos. For his apostasy, Horgan was lambasted by the scientific community, which is understandably reluctant to concede defeat (in general, it's a poor strategy for getting grants). Undeterred by the criticism -- or perhaps emboldened by it -- Horgan has once again embraced the unknowable. In Rational Mysticism, he profiles an eclectic group of scientists, philosophers and dabblers in psychedelic substances, all of whom are trying to explain the enlightened and altered states of mind associated with mystical experiences. It's a great read, full of amusing vignettes and thoughtful reflections.
Horgan covers considerable ground in the book, and while his narrative occasionally wobbles as he leaps from one profile to another, his skill at setting a scene more than compensates. He is particularly fascinated by mind-altering drugs, and he seeks out famous figures in the field, such as Albert Hoffman, the inventor of LSD, and Alexander Shulgin, the chemist who popularized Ecstasy. Horgan also undertakes his own experiments, ingesting the powerful hallucinogen ayahuasca, invitingly known as "vine of the dead." It leaves him retching and filled with existential dread as he glimpses a vision of his inevitable demise: "The flame of consciousness had flickered out in the eternally expanding cosmos, and it had reverted to dumb, blind, painless, meaningless matter, as it must."
Horgan wisely explores altered states of consciousness in a more vicarious fashion for the balance of the book, interviewing a number of psychologists and neurologists who speculate on the neurobiology of such states. We thus meet Susan Blackmore, a one-time parapsychologist turned skeptic, and Andrew Newberg, a self-described "neurotheologist" whose brain scans of meditating nuns marked an attempt to reveal the "biological basis for mysticism." Particularly hilarious is his sketch of Michael Persinger, a Canadian psychologist who developed the "God machine" to bombard people's brains with electromagnetic pulses in order to induce mystical states of consciousness. (Horgan test-drove the device but detected little change.)
He spends the balance of the book profiling mystics and philosophers of all stripes: traditional scholars of mysticism like Huston Smith; New Age guru Ken Wilber (one of Al Gore's favorite authors); James Austin, a neurologist, Buddhist and author of Zen and the Brain; shaman-turned-guru Terrence McKenna, whose ramblings resemble a kind of New Age performance art; and the charismatic transpersonal psychologist Stanislav Goff, whose ideas on reincarnation and extrasensory perception are pretty "out there," as these things go. And yet Horgan, for all his scientific leanings, admits to being attracted to mystical thinkers like Goff. "I cannot resist that sort of speculation myself," he writes, "and I find myself drawn to others who share my predilection."
Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that Rational Mysticism is less about the science of mysticism than about a search for the meaning of life. From the opening pages, in which Horgan gives a poignant account of a cherished pet's death, he is looking for answers to the classic questions about existence, the universe and the immortality of the mind. But readers seeking enlightenment will be disappointed. In the end, Horgan takes refuge in uncertainty, much as he did in his previous two books. Both science and mysticism, he concludes, end up unable to explain the really big questions; both "insist in their own ways that there is an irreducible mystery at the heart of things."
Perhaps. But readers looking for a somewhat different twist on the same set of questions would do well to consult biologist Rupert Sheldrake's The Sense of Being Stared At. Sheldrake is the exact opposite of Horgan. He argues that there are some pretty inexplicable things out there, but that it is just a matter of time before scientists recognize and explain them. By strange, though, Sheldrake doesn't mean life, the universe and all that. He's talking about really strange stuff -- telepathy, remote viewing and premonition. As he readily admits, research into subjects like these provokes automatic responses from what one early researcher termed "the scornfully skeptical and the eagerly superstitious."
Sheldrake doesn't count himself as either, though he is convinced that such phenomena do exist. But he doesn't see such things as "paranormal" or "supernatural," as many believers do. Rather, he writes that "they are normal and natural, part of our biological nature." Better yet, he has sought to prove this, performing a number of fairly rigorous experiments, accounts of which fill the book, along with more anecdotal accounts taken from thousands of interviews and questionnaires.
As the title would suggest, Sheldrake has examined the idea that people possess the ability to sense when someone or something is looking at them from behind. He and other researchers have performed tests in a variety of ways, and while the numbers aren't earth-shattering, he has gathered statistically significant evidence that people can sense another person's stare. Tests involving closed-circuit video cameras and mirrors yielded similar results.
Sheldrake outlines equally intriguing findings from studies of "telephone telepathy." Test subjects would receive a call at a given time from one of four different callers. The subjects knew the potential callers but had to guess which one was calling when the phone rang (the caller would be chosen at random). Simple guessing should have yielded a success rate of 25 percent, but Sheldrake reports that the proportion of correct guesses totaled 43 percent. Moreover, in many such tests, he found that people scored higher when called by a friend, relative or social intimate.
So what should we make of this? For his part, Sheldrake is convinced that existing explanations of how the mind works are seriously flawed. Researchers, he avers, need "to question the idea that all our experiences, all our perceptions and intentions, are indeed confined to the insides of our heads." Indeed, he argues that we should recognize that there may well be something called "the extended mind," bound together with other minds by perceptual fields. While he can only guess about the nature of those fields, he hopes that advances in physics and other disciplines will explain his curious results.
That may be. Certainly, there is enough to Sheldrake's research to suggest it deserves explanation. Explaining it might debunk it, or it might reveal a simple reason for the results. Or perhaps it might help lead to a more sophisticated explanation of how the mind works. Then again, there may be no explanation at all. *
Stephen Mihm is a science writer in Baltimore.