A Brief Introduction to Morphic Fields

Chad Jayadev Woodford
The Wisdom Revolution
11 min readDec 30, 2020

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In this post I am going to summarize the theory of morphic fields and formative causation, relying primarily on Rupert Sheldrake’s book The Presence of the Past. I am taking the time to explicate this theory because it so nicely ties together a few loose ends in modern science — like where the mind can be located and how genes works — while simultaneously inviting in the cosmology and wisdom of ancient yoga. In short, I think more people should know about it; it’s an exciting theory whose time seems to have come, after a century languishing in relative obscurity. Of course I will only scratch the surface in this relatively short post.

Rupert Sheldrake is a courageous and iconoclastic scientist (among a rare few whose TED talks have been banned), and the perfect champion for evangelizing this theory. His mission is truly scientific: the search for truth, rather than what seems to be the goal of most scientists today — to preserve the existing understanding of reality. What I love about Sheldrake is that he is one of many modern-day philosophers and scientists rejecting our mechanistic worldview. I am writing this post, in part, so that more people become aware of his genius.

I feel strongly that a lack of a holistic and meaningful cosmology is one of the root causes of all of our challenges as a humanity today. So, hearing Sheldrake say that, “the cosmos now seems more like a developing organism than an eternal machine” is both refreshing and comforting.

This theory of morphic resonance and morphic fields, which first arose in the early twentieth century, resonates deeply with me, and helps to fill out a picture of the universe where before there were gaps. More on this below.

Are the Laws of Nature Fixed?

Sheldrake begins his book with a provocative hypothesis: Why are we so sure about the existence of the so-called laws of nature, especially in their current incarnation as immutable and eternal? Given that most scientists share a materialist worldview, belief in something so intangible, eternal, and almost deified seems like a contradiction, or a paradox. At the very least, it leaves an enormous opening for questions about cosmology that most scientists forcefully ignore, beyond a general belief in the Big Bang Theory. As an alternative, Sheldrake suggests that perhaps these laws of nature are simply habits of nature that have developed gradually over long periods of time so as to seem like immutable laws. Perhaps they were not inherent in the cosmic period that preceded the Big Bang but emerged out of that evolutionary process over billions of years. If the universe was born in a primordial explosion fourteen billion years ago, could the “laws of the universe” also have evolved over time? After all, as Sheldrake points out, this idea of natural laws arose from the minds of men obsessed with the laws of man.

Although many people no longer believe in [. . .] God, his changeless laws have survived him to this day. But when we pause to consider the nature of these laws, they rapidly become mysterious. They govern matter and motion, but they are not themselves material nor do they move. They cannot be seen or weighed or touched; they lie beyond the realm of sense experience. They are potentially present everywhere and always. They have no physical source or origin. Indeed, even in the absence of God, they still share many of his traditional attributes. They are omnipresent, immutable, universal, and self-subsistent. Nothing can be hidden from them, nor lie beyond their power. (p. 18)

This idea that the entire universe is a nested, self-organizing system powered by habit rather than “laws” is our entry point into the broader theory of morphic fields, or what Sheldrake calls “formative causation.” This memory that nature appears to exhibit at both the micro and macro levels might be a feature of manifest reality as much as gravitational or electromagnetic fields. And, as we will see, ancient yogis shared this view that reality is a series of nested, self-organizing systems with infinite intelligence embedded at every layer.

A New Field

The theory of morphic resonance depends on the recognition of a new field, like the field of gravity or electromagnetic fields, which are “nonmaterial regions of influence.” Physicists agree that the gravitational field permeates the entire universe, curving around all matter within it. According to Albert Einstein, we do not explain fields in terms of matter. Instead, we understand matter in terms of energy within fields. Certainly it is possible that there are more fields than we have identified to date.

Morphic fields are similar. They curve around objects in space-time as “nonmaterial regions of influence extending in space and continuing in time.” These fields contain a memory for the object or system they organize: a plant, an animal, even an atom or a snowflake. As Sheldrake puts it in The Presence of the Past:

The process by which the past becomes present within morphic fields is called morphic resonance. Morphic resonance involves the transmission of formative causal influences through both space and time. The memory within the morphic fields is cumulative, and that is why all sorts of things become increasingly habitual through repetition. When such repetition has occurred on an astronomical scale over billions of years, as it has in the case of many kinds of atoms, molecules, and crystals, the nature of these things has become so deeply habitual that it is effectively changeless, or seemingly eternal. (p. 2)

This idea of a habitual universe in which everything, including the so-called laws of nature, is evolving was first put forth in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by philosophers like C.S. Pierce, Friedrich Nietzsche, and William James. Modern physics eventually came around to the idea of an evolutionary cosmology in the 1960s with the now widely-accepted Big Bang theory.

Einstein proposed that reality be regarded from the very beginning as constituted of fields. Particles are regions of intense fields that can move through space. The idea that they are separate and independently existent is, at best, “an abstraction furnishing a valid approximation only in a certain limited domain.” (p. 150)

But physicists generally haven’t taken this evolutionary idea as far as the laws of nature. According to most scientists today, only matter and emergent properties of matter are evolving.

One thing I love about morphic resonance and formative causation is that its worldview is consistent with the yogic worldview. They are two complementary approaches to understanding the world.

I also find the theory of formative causation exciting because it proffers an answer to the question about how the mind is related to the brain, supporting the yogic view that the brain is akin to a radio receiver for a mind that extends well beyond it, perhaps in its own morphic field. And, as we will see below, it may answer questions that genetic science has been unable to answer about evolution. Formative causation may even help us understand how consciousness (in the yogic sense) interacts with the relative field of reality.

What Are Morphic Fields?

The thrust of Sheldrake’s book is making the case for the existence of morphogenetic fields, which he has shortened to “morphic fields” since it’s easier to write and pronounce and serves to distinguish prior iterations of the theory from his more comprehensive theory (he later applies the theory to animal and human behavior, social and cultural systems, and mental activity, as we will see).

Sheldrake and others suggest that morphogenetic fields are as real as gravitational, electromagnetic, and quantum matter fields, and that every cell, organ, and organism has its own field, in a nested hierarchy of fields, which shape and organize all life forms. Recall that Sheldrake calls this theory “formative causation.”

The hypothesis of formative causation postulates that it depends on a kind of resonance, called morphic resonance. Morphic resonance takes place on the basis of similarity. The more similar an organism is to previous organisms, the greater their influence on it by morphic resonance. And the more such organisms there have been, the more powerful their cumulative influence. Thus a developing foxglove seedling, for example, is subject to morphic resonance from countless foxgloves that came before, and this resonance shapes and stabilizes its morphogenetic fields. (p. 120)

Formative causation requires a two-way flow of information: from fields to organisms and vice versa. Of course, this theory raises questions of time. How does the field of information persist through time? Sheldrake suggests that “the past [is] pressed up, so to speak, against the present and […] potentially present everywhere,” making the morphic influences of past organisms present to future similar organisms.

Morphic fields are, in short, fields of evolutionary information.

Another interesting orientation shift that arises from this theory of formative causation and morphic fields is that all matter is simply a material manifestation of the broader morphic field — so a rose is a manifestation of the rose field, a person a single manifestation of the human field. Like Einstein suggested, matter appears to be simply an emergent property of these larger fields that permeate both space and time.

Sheldrake suggest that there is also a certain self-resonance taking place, in which all organisms are simply recreating themselves based on the influence of their own past states. Be with that for a while.

Morphic Resonance and Repeatability

One reason we accept the laws of nature is that experiments are repeatable anywhere in the world, or presumably the universe. There seem to be intangible forces maintaining consistency of behavior and phenomena. But, as we now see, these could just as easily be explained by morphic fields as by laws of nature. Not only that but other phenomena heretofore unexplained can be included in this theory. If morphic fields and morphic resonance explains the inheritance of learned behavior and seeming non-local transmission of new behaviors almost instantaneously around the world, then we should be able to test this. At least one phenomenon appears to bear this out.

Newly synthesized chemical compounds are at first difficult to crystallize. It can take weeks or months for crystals to appear in a supersaturated solution. But once a new synthesized compound is crystallized, crystals appear more easily in laboratories across the world. Until formative causation was proposed as an explanation, the prevailing, materialist explanation for this was that roving male chemists with beards were inadvertently carrying seed crystals in their beards from site to site. How entertaining and creative the absurd lengths that materialists will go to to explain unexplained phenomena to avoid considering a new theory. Although this attempt to seek out materialist explanations is a worthy instinct in science, it should stop short of the fantastical or the farcical.

Scientists have also conducted experiments with varying degrees of success setting out to prove that a new learned behavior in a species of bird in one part of the world can be transmitted non-locally to, for example, birds halfway around the world. You can read more about these experiments in Sheldrake’s book.

Morphic Fields at the Species Level

Morphic resonance also operates at the level of a species, including the human species. You could say that human societies, cultures, and humanity as a whole have their own morphic fields in which a collective cultural memory can be stored over time that augments or transcends recorded memory. And these fields can transmit information instantaneously, in accordance with quantum physics, across country borders and continents. And, like other morphic fields, they are nested hierarchies of fields.

In light of morphic resonance, it’s entirely possible that groupthink is so pernicious precisely because it is undergirded by morphic resonance within a particular group. Likewise, myths, sacred rituals, and even scientific paradigms are shaped by morphic fields and maintained by morphic resonance. Ironically, it is this very morphic reinforcement that has kept formative causation from taking hold more broadly in the scientific community.

Formative causation and morphic fields theory resonates deeply with Carl Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious, a global or universally shared pool or field of unconscious archetypes that is comprised of all prior thought and experience from the history of humanity. In fact, the two theories go hand-in-hand.

Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious did not make sense in the context of the mechanistic theory of life; consequently, it was not taken seriously within orthodox science. But it makes good sense in the light of formative causation. By morphic resonance, structures of thought and experience that were common to many people in the past contribute to morphic fields. These fields contain the average forms of previous experience defined in terms of probability. This idea corresponds to Jung’s conception of archetypes as “innate psychic structures.” (p. 307)

It seems far more plausible for this collective unconscious to be maintained by fields than passed down through some kind of biological encoding in the brain. Do you see how beautiful and elegant this theory is?

Parallels with the Ancient Yogic Worldview

One way to describe the ancient yogic worldview is that manifest reality is comprised of a series of nested, self-organizing systems. All of matter and life is self-organizing, from the level of the galaxy all the way down to the cells of organisms. And morphic resonance is one way to describe the kind of memory field that would be necessary to enable such organization through time. It should be uncontroversial to say that nature is permeated at every level by an infinite intelligence. We don’t have to believe in any kind of external god to accept this.

Both yoga philosophy and the theory of formative causation view the world as a nested series of self-organizing systems, taking more of an Aristotelian view that all of nature is infused with intelligence, life and an immanent animating force, rather than there being some god or platonic realm of forms or laws driving matter from the outside. Morphic resonance works especially well with the classical Tantrik view that everything is made of consciousness, that all of manifest reality is a cosmic unity known as the Heart of Being. For a deeply fascinating scientific exploration and confirmation of this see the wonderful The Self-Aware Universe by Amit Goswami, another book I plan to summarize at some point.

The Revolutionary Power of Morphic Resonance

This new, morphic understanding of the power of collective cultural or societal fields is potentially revolutionary. It confirms the long-held yogic understanding that, because we are all part of a unitary whole, it is possible to influence positively those around you simply by expanding your own consciousness. Of course, as I will discuss in a forthcoming blog post, this is not an excuse for inaction. But it is a powerful reminder of our interconnectedness. It gives me hope that what appears to be a worsening momentum of dense consciousness across large swaths of society can be counteracted by individuals dedicated to lifting the collective vibration through both external and internal evolutionary work.

Conclusion

The advent of quantum mechanics at the turn of the century, and then the Big Bang theory in the 1960s, called into question the deterministic, mechanistic worldview, introducing spontaneity where once there was rote determinism and a “seething ocean of energy“ where once there was an empty void. Mindless matter was transformed into “a cosmic system of fields and energy.” In some sense, the story of twentieth century science has been one of its catching up with the insights and realizations of ancient yoga and other traditions.

In this post we have seen how a relatively new field theory can help explain everything from genetic inheritance to groupthink and Jung’s collective unconscious. We have also seen the ways in which formative causation is evocative of much of the ancient yogic worldview.

For me, this theory has helped put into more concrete terms the lived experience of seeing how a few individuals can positively influence a larger group. I will explore the topic of making a positive influence in a forthcoming post.

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Chad Jayadev Woodford
The Wisdom Revolution

Grad student in philosophy, cosmology and consciousness; yoga & meditation teacher, product manager, lawyer, writer. Tweeting @chd. bio.site/kriya