BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Almost caught up ...

This one had an interesting trajectory into my reading pile, as it was suggested to me in a critique of one of my book reviews by a regular reader of my blog. I'm still not sure exactly what point he was trying to make by suggesting I read this, but the description sounded interesting, the (used) price reasonable, and the author one of the more fascinating theorists out there, so I not only got a copy but put it close to the top of the to-be-read list.

Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home: And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals is by Rupert Sheldrake, whose A New Science of Life (which introduced the "hundredth monkey" meme, among other concepts) I'd read decades ago. Frankly, had this book not been by Sheldrake (or some other theorist of his standing), I probably wouldn't have picked it up, being not much of a "pet person" (and certainly not a "dog person"), but having this come from his research promised at least an interesting read!

To those not familiar with his work, Sheldrake has posited what he calls "morphic fields" which enable everything from ideas (monkeys washing sand off of food) to crystals (a new crystal structure is very hard to create in a lab the first time, but will become increasingly easier to synthesize as time passes) to attain an established reality. He uses the concept of these fields to explain many behaviors noted in animals (and, by extension, many less-studied aspects of humanity).

One of the things that Sheldrake suggests is unusual is how little research there has been into certain types of animal behavior, yet these very behaviors have a long history of "folk knowledge" and hearsay evidence. One of the most obvious, from the title, is how animals seem to know when their owner (or other person of interest to the pet) is coming home. I, personally, have a rather striking story along these lines, from many years back when I was still in the P.R. industry. I had been on one of my multi-week trips into a half a dozen or so cities, and my wife also had to be out of town during part of that. We had contacted a pet care group to come in to look in on and feed our old cat, Nikki. Now, due to a quirk in my schedule, I got back to Chicago a day early from one stop and did not have to head out until the next day, so I had a day home in the middle of the week. I was lying down on the couch reading, with Nikki curled up on my legs. I had no idea what the schedule was for the pet people, and, frankly, the thought of their coming never entered my mind, yet at one point Nikki stirred, sat up, looked around, an calmly walked over to our front door. Now, we live 40-some stories up in a downtown high-rise, so there is virtually zero likelihood that Nikki had heard, smelled, or seen anything that would indicate the the lady from the pet service was coming, but within 10 minutes of Nikki going to the door, I heard the key. Not only was this something that Nikki could not have mundanely sensed, but this was also not a "regular thing" which would have had an implied "scheduled time", so the only thing I can assume is that somehow Nikki "sensed" that somebody was coming to see her. The book is filled with such tales, involving cats, dogs, horses, birds, and various other types of critters.

Sheldrake suggests (and directs) certain experiments that can be done to put numbers to this behavior (several are detailed on his site), and describes other experiments that have been done with similar situations (dogs finding their way home, etc.).

One of the most fascinating parts of the book is when Sheldrake takes a look at well-known animal behavior that really doesn't have much of a scientific explanation, such as the sudden movements of schools of fish, or the tightly coordinated flight patterns of flocks of birds. He looks at the research that has been done on the particulars involved (how long a signal takes to get from a bird's eye to its brain, super slow-mo films of the group actions, etc.) and notes that the times involved in the necessary adjustments for the individuals in the group are many times shorter than any signal reception in the brain of that individual. Given these constraints, the concept that the fish or birds are moving "according to a field" (sort of like iron filings on a sheet of paper over a magnet) becomes an enticing possibility.

Of course, a lot of the book is about how animals and humans interact, and it is very interesting how some of the experiments show that it is not the action of going home that triggers the "waiting" in the pet, but the intention to go home on the part of the human. Sheldrake ran a series of experiments along this line, providing pet owners in the study with random signals that would tell them to go home (so the human had no preconceived notion) and observers (timed video tape) watching the pet's behavior. The resulting figures were extremely suggestive that the pet was picking up on the human's mental state ("time to go home") even if they were separated by substantial distances. Again, the concept that some sort of a connection exists there for which "regular science" does not have an adequate theory, which fits the over-all predictions of the wider sense of Sheldrake's "morphic fields".

Naturally enough, this does trail off into looking at "psychic" phenomena between humans, but once the plausibility of this sort of connection is established, it really does open the door to a lot of things making sense (including the much reported "psychic abilities" of such pre-modern people such as the Australian Aborigines and the African Bushmen).

On a personal note, I found the concept of the intent factor fascinating. As regular readers of my blogs know, a year or so back I plowed into a lot of the "intention" books (The Secret and many others), with very little respect for their theoretical underpinnings. However, in the months following reading all those books, I did manage to "fall into" a fairly ideal job situation, and reading Sheldrake's take on the factor of intent within the context of morphic fields made me reconsider just how "out there" that particular genre of "self help" books are!

Anyway, I highly recommend Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home (especially to "pet people") ... it's quite an amazing look at something that most folks "know" but nobody previously has been willing to take a substantive look at. This is still in print, and the paperback is very reasonably priced, were you looking at your local brick-and-mortar (though Amazon has it at 20% off cover). "Very good" copies are available for under a buck, however (well, before shipping) from the new/used guys, so you could have this for very little cash. It's an interesting, eye-opening read ... and I hope you decide to pick up a copy!

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Tags: book review
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