At Play in the Fields of the Mind: Personal Myths as Fields of Information

David Feinstein. The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology: Leading Edges in Theory, Research, and Practice. Editor: Kirk J Schneider, James F T Bugental, J Fraser Pierson. Sage Publications, 2001.

Mythological symbols touch and exhilarate centers of life beyond the reach of the vocabularies of reason and coercion.

— J. Campbell (Creative Mythology, 1968)

The recognition that personal myths shape individual behavior in a manner analogous to the way in which cultural myths influence social behavior has been gaining currency within psychology (Bagarozzi & Anderson, 1989; Feinstein, 1979, 1997; Gullestad, 1995; Hartocollis & Graham, 1991; Krippner, 1990, 1994; Larsen, 1976, 1990; Lukoff, 1997; McAdams, 1993). A comprehensive theory of human development based on the individual’s evolving mythology potently integrates the cultural and spiritual dimensions of experience into the biological and psychodynamic foundations of human behavior. Such a mythically informed psychology is decidedly humanistic. Specifically, this framework is capable of accommodating the farther and more noble “reaches of human nature” (Maslow, 1971) that conventional psychology has tended to neglect but humanistic psychology has tended to embrace, including scientifically slippery areas such as consciousness, values, love, identity, freedom, will, and self-transcendence.

Myth is grounded in the quintessential human ability to address the large questions of existence using symbolism and narrative. Whereas a myth—to be plausible for contemporary individuals—must be aligned with our capacity for rational thought, myth making is as much with us today as it was thousands of years ago. The symbolism of an individual’s guiding mythology can, in fact, be discerned using established psychological techniques for uncovering unconscious processes, including interviews, dream analysis, free association, structured fantasy, and projective instruments (Feinstein & Krippner, 1997; McAdams, 1993).

This chapter introduces and expands the personal mythology construct, suggesting that personal myths function not only as biochemically coded models of reality but also as fields of information—natural albeit nonvisible elements of the physical uni-verse—that affect consciousness and behavior. Just as some neurologists have proposed that “mental fields” complement brain activity in unifying experience and some biologists have proposed that “morphic fields” complement the action of the gene in giving form to an organism, this chapter develops the thesis that myth-carrying fields of information complement the physiological bases of consciousness in storing symbolic content and maintaining psychological habits.

The Nature of Personal Myths

Personal myths are organizing models that shape perception, understanding, and behavior. They emerge from four sources: biology, personal history, culture, and transcendent experiences (Feinstein, Krippner, & Granger, 1988). Comprised of postulates about oneself, one’s world, and the relationship between the two, personal myths are internalized models of reality that explain the external world, guide individual development, provide social direction, and address spiritual questions in a manner that is analogous to the way in which cultural myths carry out those functions for entire societies. These internalized guiding models address both immediate and eternal concerns, and they are both descriptive (furnishing explanations) and instructive (generating motivation).

As organizing models, personal myths are continually being compared to experience. When a mismatch is detected between an inner model and an experience, perceptions may be changed to match the model (Piaget’s [1977] assimilation), or the model may be changed to match the experience (Piaget’s accommodation). The evolution of internal models, a process that occurs largely outside the individual’s awareness, is a primary focus of psychotherapeutic intervention. By framing internal models as personal myths, the dynamic, “storied nature” (Sarbin, 1986) of human cognition comes to the foreground. In addition, recognizing the essential mythological nature of the psyche extends the boundaries of scientific language, allowing it to more readily incorporate the larger cultural and spiritual dimensions of human experience (Feinstein, 1997).

Like beliefs and attitudes, personal myths are rooted in the individual’s biochemistry. They are biochemically coded models of reality. This chapter considers evidence that biochemical theories of information storage and retrieval are not sufficient in themselves for explaining the way in which personal myths function. It develops the hypothesis that personal myths, in addition to their biochemical infrastructure, are embedded in fields that store information and maintain habits.

Fields of Information

A field is a domain of influence, presumed to exist in physical reality, that cannot be observed directly but that is inferred through its effects. Although they elude direct inspection, the four established fields of physics—gravitational fields, electromagnetic fields, strong quantum matter fields, and weak quantum matter fields—are known to exist because of phenomena that can be observed. They are understood as material albeit elusive forces in the physical universe.

Findings from several areas of science are converging to cause some investigators to postulate a variety of fields that are different in nature from the four established fields of physics but similar to one another in that each is conceived of as carrying information that influences consciousness and behavior. Neurologists, for example, have proposed that previously undetected fields may be involved in brain function. The ability of neurons to broadcast signals to one another was identified by Schuman and Madison (1994) at Stanford Medical School. Their “neural broadcasting” theory suggests that information can be transmitted from a single neuron to neighboring neurons that are not electrochemically connected by way of axon and dendrite. “The formation of synaptic changes previously thought to be restricted to synapses onto a single cell can also result in synaptic changes at nearby synapses” (p. 535). The investigators speculated that “the presence of synaptic activity may work in concert with other factors” (p. 535), and it is entirely plausible that these unidentified “other factors” involve the influence of neural fields. Lipet (1994), another prominent neurologist, has in fact hypothesized a mental field “which is produced by, but is biologically distinct from, brain activity” (p. 119). It is formulated as a “testable field theory of mind-brain interaction.” These mental fields “cannot be observed directly by external physical means” (p. 121), and their properties differ significantly from those of any currently known physical field in dimensions, such as their ability to alter neuron function and to unify subjective experience.

Physicists have been discussing correspondences between consciousness and quantum fields for well over half a century (Bohm, 1951; Edington, 1929). Penrose (1994), for example, holds that many of the brain’s capacities can best be explained by postulating that consciousness operates according to the principles of quantum mechanics. Although quantum theories of consciousness might place many difficult questions about the brain and the mind into a compelling new context (Friedman, 1994; Wolf, 1994; Zohar & Marshall, 1994), the question of whether parts of the brain small enough to be governed by the laws of quantum mechanics could be complex enough to exert a discrete influence on consciousness remained unanswered.

Hameroff (1994), an anesthesiologist, proposed that the microtubule is the brain component that operates at the quantum level while affecting consciousness. A microtubule is composed of long, thin, hollow tubes of protein about one 10-millionth of an inch in diameter that form meshlike networks throughout each cell. A single electron sliding back and forth along the microtubule’s length determines the microtubule’s configuration and function. Significantly, the action of anesthetics, such as ether and halothane, is that they temporarily incapacitate the microtubules, turning off consciousness with minimal disruption to other brain functions. Because microtubules are small enough to operate according to quantum principles and are directly involved with consciousness, Hameroff holds that they are the link between consciousness and quantum mechanics.

According to Hameroff (for a rebuttal that highlights existing controversies, see Grush & Churchland, 1995),

Quantum field theory describes the underlying reality of everything in the universe (including consciousness) as consisting of three components: the vacuum, space, and time. A “field of fields” which contains no particles, the vacuum gives rise to quantum wave/particles as excitations or energy fluctuations within it. (Hameroff, 1994, p. 103)

Tiller (1993), a physicist in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Stanford University, surveyed a set of anomalous phenomena, such as remote viewing experiments and the feats of remarkable strength sometimes exhibited by hypnosis participants, and also postulated a domain of subtle energy emerging from the quantum vacuum state. The quantum vacuum also is the basis of a fifth physical field as formulated by Laszlo (1995), a systems theorist, to account for the transmission of information beyond the limits of space and time as understood in electromagnetic and gravitational fields and beyond the microprocesses governed by strong and weak quantum matter fields. Laszlo argued that the quantum vacuum functions as an “information-rich” (p. 28) holographic field that would allow a thought to be simultaneously available at distant locations.

In addition to these complementary theories emerging from neurology, physics, anes-thesiology, and systems theory, engineers (Jahn & Dunne, 1989), biologists (Sheldrake, 1988; Weiss, 1939), physiologists (Hunt, 1995), neuroanatomists (Burr, 1972), physicians (Gerber, 1996), psychologists (Gallo, 1998; Larson, 1987), and non-traditional healers (Eden, 1999) have postulated the existence of information fields that might influence consciousness and behavior based on findings from within their respective disciplines. Beyond such scientific speculation, a number of time-honored traditions in both the East and the West refer to a more subtle counterpart to the material body, referred to variously as the “aura,” “subtle body,” “pranic body,” or “etheric body.” I next consider the empirical evidence that has bearing on the question of whether these ancient terms and concepts, as well as the more contemporary ones, might refer to fields of information that influence consciousness and behavior.

Six Anomalies in Search of a Theory

Because fields cannot be directly measured through existing physical instrumentation, they are inferred by their apparent effects on what can be observed. The inference that a field is operating must meet the basic criterion that there is not a more parsimonious, nonreductionistic explanation for a set of empirically observed phenomena.

A range of anomalies about consciousness and behavior would be parsimoniously and nonreductionistically explained if a field of information is inferred. For example, it now is documented, under controlled conditions, that focused visualization by one person about a second person, any distance away and unaware of the first person, may measurably influence the second person’s electrodermal activity (Braud, 1992). Such anomalies are flash points in the natural world where observations elude conventional scientific understanding, where empirical data contradict the culture’s dominating mythology, and where this understanding and mythology are challenged to expand. Following is a survey of anomalies that have a substantial empirical basis and that no longer would be considered anomalies if previously undetected fields that affect consciousness were shown to carry information over distance.

Effects of Human Activity on Distant Mechanical Devices

An enduring enigma in quantum mechanics is that if two paired photons are separated, regardless of the distance that might come between them, a change in one appears to create a simultaneous change in the other (quantum coherence). These distant effects at the nuclear level are difficult to explain, but they are no more mysterious than the accumulation of evidence that human thought and activity can, from a distance, influence mechanical devices.

Numerous anecdotes describing how an old clock stopped at the moment its owner died, for example, have been documented (Cano, 1996). Several meticulously designed studies have demonstrated that certain individuals, by focusing their attention, can reliably influence mechanical systems such as random number generators (Jahn & Dunne, 1989). Researchers in the School of Engineering at Princeton University found that the output of random event generators also was affected when the devices were simply placed in the presence of an organized group of people. The effect was strongest during periods when a group’s attention was focused, when a group’s cohesion was high, and when a group’s members were sharing a common emotional experience. In experiments at 10 separate gatherings ranging from business meetings, to scientific research conferences, to ritual religious events, the effect of a group’s collective behavior, although slight, was so consistent that the odds against its having occurred by chance were about 5,000 to 1. The researchers concluded, “If sustained over more extensive experiments, such effects could add credence to the concept of a consciousness‘field’ as an agency for creating order in random physical processes” (Nelson, Bradish, Dobyns, Dunne, & Jahn, 1996, p. 111). At least a dozen other studies of interactions between fields and consciousness lend support to these findings (cited in Radin, 1997).

Distant Effects of Visualization, Prayer, and Meditation

Numerous laboratory experiments have demonstrated that some people can mentally influence the growth of plants, fungi, and bacteria (Benor, 1993). Experimental participants, after being instructed in how to use visualization to inhibit the breakdown of red blood cells in a test tube located in a different room, achieved statistically significant results in their efforts to slow the rate of cell deterioration (Braud, 1990). Well-controlled studies also have demonstrated, at an extraordinarily high significance level (2.6 × 10-14), that some people can, through the use of calming or activating imagery, influence the relaxation or anxiety levels of targeted individuals, unawares and in other locations, as gauged by spontaneous changes in their electrodermal activity (Braud, 1992).

Numerous investigations support the efficacy of prayer in physical recovery (Dossey, 1993). Of 131 studies that calculated probability values of the effects of prayer on healing published up to 1993, 77 reported statistical significance—56 at the .01 level and 21 at the .05 level (Benor, 1993).

Groups of people meditating together appear to have positively affected nearby nonmeditators with whom they have had no physical contact. For example, a series of well-designed and replicated, albeit still controversial, large-scale studies showed that crime rates decreased significantly in cities where transcendental meditation was being practiced by an infusion of meditators, as compared to crime rates in matched control cities (Dillbeck, Cavanaugh, Glenn, Orme-Johson, & Mittlefehldt, 1987) and that other quality-of-life indicators improved as well (Assimakis & Dillbeck, 1995).

Prodigies and Savants

Prodigies such as Mozart, who composed elegant symphonies while a child, and instances of the idio-savant, as portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the film Rain Man, also are among the psychological anomalies that could be explained by the existence of information fields. At least 100 savants with prodigious mental abilities were documented during the past century (Treffert, 1989). A boy diagnosed as illiterate and ineducable, and with a conversational vocabulary of some 58 words, could accurately answer inquiries as to the population of every major city and town in the United States; its distance from the largest city in its state; the names, number of rooms, and locations of its leading hotels; and statistics on thousands of mountains and rivers (Treffert, 1989). A well-known blind musical savant could “repeat, on the piano, a complex piece heard only once, in a perfect mirroring, including every emotional nuance of expression” (Pearce, 1992, p. 4). During World War II, the British government employed two mathematical savants to serve, essentially, as computers (p. 4).

Although attempts have been made to explain the special abilities of the prodigy and the savant within conventional frameworks—including favorable genetic quirks, highly specialized neurological pathways, and unusually efficient information processing strategies—these explanations raise more questions than they answer (Treffert, 1989). Some investigators have speculated that prodigies, savants, and others with exceptional abilities are tuning into existing fields of information (Laszlo, 1995; Moss, 1974; Pearce, 1992).

Inspiration that seems to be derived from beyond oneself is well recognized in the study of creativity. The German word Einfal refers to a sudden and spontaneous intuition leading to a conceptual or aesthetic breakthrough (Laszlo, 1995, p. 130; see also Chapter 11, by Arons & Richards, this volume). Individuals such as Mozart, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare were distinguished for remarkable creative perceptions apparently “falling” into their awareness. Laszlo reflected that, in addition to such giants,

Sometimes, otherwise entirely unremarkable individuals display astonishing, seemingly inborn, capacities in specific fields, especially in music and in mathematics. To call such individuals “gifted” and their achievements “works of genius” is not to explain their abilities but [rather] only to label them. An explanation involves answering questions regarding the origins of their unusual accomplishments. Are they possessors of a specially fortunate combination of genes? Or, did they receive their gifts from a higher source? (p. 130)

Systematic Investigations of Telepathy

Many stories exist that purport spontaneous telepathic communication between people with emotional or genetic ties, particularly under conditions of crisis or trauma. How can a twin know her sister is in danger some 1,000 miles away? Why would a woman wake up with a shock in the middle of the night at the moment her husband has just died in a plane crash? What causes a father to dream about his daughter’s terror while at that very moment she is fending off an attacker? Although an abundance of anecdotal reports, observations by anthropologists studying indigenous cultures, and sophisticated laboratory studies provide substantial evidence for the existence of telepathy (Laszlo, 1995, pp. 88-90), a physical basis for it has not been established. Still, the evidence is compelling.

Here is a single dramatic example. In 1970, Jerry Garcia asked Stanley Krippner, a personal friend and leading parapsychology researcher, whether Krippner thought that the Grateful Dead’s music could boost the transmission of telepathic messages. At 11:30 p.m. on February 19, 1971, some 2,000 concert fans, in various music and otherwise-induced nonordinary states of consciousness, at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York, participated in a pilot study. They attempted to transmit an image to Malcolm Bessent, a “sensitive” who was sleeping in a dream research laboratory some 50 miles away. The randomly selected image of Scralian’s painting The Seven Spinal Chakras was projected from a slide onto the theater screen while the band played on. The audience members were told that they were taking part in an ESP experiment and were instructed to “try using your ESP to‘send’ this picture to Malcolm Bessent,” who was sleeping “at the Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn” (where Krippner was the director of the Dream Research Laboratory). The painting, which was shown for about 15 minutes, depicts a man in a lotus position with all seven chakras—the energy centers along the spine and head—illuminated. The ground the man is sitting on is not depicted in the painting. Bessent’s dream report that night included an image of a man “suspended in mid-air,” thoughts about “a spinal column,” and an interest in “using natural energy” (Krippner, 1975, pp. 90-93).

Although rigorous experimental procedures were observed, most psychologists are not impressed with such stories. Only 34% of the psychologists responding to a survey of 1,100 college professors said they believed that ESP is an established fact or a likely possibility. This low percentage contrasts with 55% of those in the natural sciences; 66% of other social scientists; and 77% of those in the humanities, art, and education who reported that belief. On the other side of the spectrum, an equal percentage of psychologists—34%—declared ESP to be an impossibility, as contrasted with 3% of the natural scientists and none of the 166 professors in the other social sciences (Wagner & Monnet, 1979). An American Psychologist article used the Maimonides Medical Center’s 10-year research program demonstrating dream telepathy as the case study in tracing the systematic bias, in professional psychological organs, against anomalous observations such as ESP (Child, 1985). Child (1985) concluded that, although the Maimonides research is “widely known and greatly respected” among scientists active in parapsychology, the experiments have received no mention in reviews to which they are clearly pertinent or have been condemned based on entirely erroneous assertions. “Insofar as psychologists are guided by these reviews,” Child observed, “they are prevented from gaining accurate information about research” that might significantly affect their world-view (p. 1219). Although this trend may be changing, discussions of parapsychological research still are being de facto excluded from most mainstream psychological journals and textbooks.

Nonetheless, research in parapsychology, partly because it is so exposed to attack, often is conducted with more meticulous experimental standards than is research on less controversial topics, and evidence supporting parapsychological phenomena continues to mount (Bem & Honorton, 1994; Radin, 1997: Targ & Katra, 1998). Findings that do not conform to established paradigms (i.e., that buck the prevailing mythology), however, are systematically relegated to the purgatory of scientific investigation. In short, if the evidence supporting the enigmatic “information transfer” produced by the Maimonides research and in other well-designed parapsychology experiments fell within a conventional area of investigation, then the burden of proof would be on those wanting to discredit the reality of the phenomenon.

Similarities in Myths and Symbols Across Cultures

A debate persists among archaeologists regarding whether curious similarities in sculpture, painting, and architecture (Schuster & Carpenter, 1996) are “transmitted” by travelers or, because of shared genetic coding within the human nervous system, are independently generated by different societies. In addition to the similar figures and symbols found by archaeologists across cultures, parallel myths in societies that had no knowledge of one another are well documented in the works of comparative mythologists such as Campbell, Cassirer, Eliade, Frazer, Graves, and Lévi-Strauss (Bierlein, 1994). Symbols such as the “great earth mother,” the “eternal child,” the “hero’s journey,” the “man-dala,” and the “shadow” frequently appear worldwide in classical myths and historical artwork as well as in contemporary Western literature, drama, and film productions. Jung (1934/1968a), who spoke of these universal symbols as archetypes, believed that they represent structures within the psyche that unfold according to an inborn maturational plan determining the essential form and developmental path of consciousness.

Although the role of archetypes in human experience generally has been discounted in mainstream scientific circles, the idea has prevailed, in part because researchers in disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology, ethology, and linguistics keep rediscovering the concept and renaming it in their own terms (Stevens, 1993). Most recently, evolutionary psychologists have been making a case for the “evolved deep structure of the psyche” (Slavin & Kriegman, 1992, p. 68). Beyond the well-established innate structures underlying linguistic abilities, a “complex preexisting psychic architecture … regulates many of our key interactions with the world and guides the process of organizing experience” (p. 69). The human mind, from this perspective, “consists of a set of evolved information-processing mechanisms instantiated in the human nervous system [that are] functionally specialized to produce behavior that solves particular adaptive problems such as mate selection, language acquisition, family relations, and cooperation” (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992, p. 24). Some anthropologists, in fact, take the position that, across cultures, “once one gets behind the surface manifestations, the uniformity of human social arrangements is remarkable” (Fox, 1989, p. 34).

Although the expression of any innate behavior in humans varies so greatly from one person to the next and from one culture to another that the existence of universals still is debatable (Brown, 1991), prototypes of the archetype are common in the animal kingdom and may shed light on underlying mechanisms. For example, when a wooden model of a flying hawk is pulled over the head of a newly hatched chick, the chick will crouch down and emit cries of alarm. Even if the next 10 generations never are exposed to a hawk, the moment a real or wooden hawk comes into view, the chick’s descendants still will cringe (Stevens, 1982). Using this response to illustrate the concept of the archetype, Stevens (1982) concluded, “The‘predator archetype’ had lain dormant in the‘collective unconscious’ of these birds” (p. 48) for generations.

The counterargument to the position that the appearance of similar archetypal symbolism across cultures is inherited from past ages is summarized by Wilber (1995). Archetypes can be seen as “secondary byproducts of cognitive structures which themselves are similar wherever they appear and which, in interpreting a common physical world, generate common motifs” (p. 220). Thus, the commonalities found in disparate cultures, such as the hero’s journey, the great earth mother, and parallel representations of birth, death, and rebirth, can be explained not as inherited imagery but rather as products of similar neurological structures spontaneously encoding common features of human experience (e.g., cycles of the seasons, infant’s extended dependence on the mother, mating, food procurement).

Although this spontaneous generation of imagery and adaptational strategies no doubt accounts for some of the thematic parallels across cultures, the more specific and complex the parallel images, the more likely that other influences are involved. The finch’s response to a highly specific shape it never has encountered, or the honeybee’s complex communication dance, clearly invites explanations that presuppose an inherited rather than spontaneously generated response set. For humans, the immense number of variables that must be tracked in trying to settle the controversy obscures the underlying processes, but people who have been observed in clinical settings or while in nonordinary states of consciousness provide a natural laboratory for further considering the question.

Parallel Symbolism Found in Psychotherapy and in Nonordinary States of Consciousness

Jung was not the only psychiatrist of his era to speculate about inherited imagery. Freud also was impressed by his observation that individuals in therapy kept reproducing essentially similar themes. Freud (1924/1953) wondered,

How is it to be explained that the same phantasies are always formed with the same content? I have an answer to this which I know will seem to you very daring. I believe that these primal phantasies … are a phylogenetic possession. In them, the individual … stretches out to the experiences of the ages. (p. 380)

Campbell, who examined the hero’s journey in depth, also noted his “amazement” on reading of Perry’s (1976) work with psychosis and discovering that sometimes “the imagery of schizophrenic fantasy perfectly matches that of the mythological hero journey” (Campbell, 1972, p. 208) as Campbell had outlined it more than two decades earlier.

Contemporary consciousness research corroborates these impressions. Consider, for example, the following extraordinary but carefully documented observations by Grof (1992) based on his extensive clinical research using psychedelic substances and breath-oriented psychotherapeutic techniques:

It has been remarkable to find that people raised in one culture, or belonging to a particular race, are not limited to the archetypes of that culture or race. In our research, we have seen, for example, that white, urban, middle-class Americans can have meaningful encounters while in nonordinary states of consciousness with such legendary heroes as the Polynesian Maui or Shango, the Bantu god of sex and war. Over the years, I have, on many occasions, witnessed European and American women who became the Hindu Goddess Kali, taking on the traditional facial expressions of that figure, with the tongue[s] stretched far out of their mouth[s], even though they had no previous knowledge about that figure. Conversely, during workshops in Japan and India, we witnessed several participants, born and raised in those traditions, who had powerful identifications with Christ….

It is particularly interesting to note that in many cases, where people had no previous knowledge of certain mythological figures, they were not only able to experience them accurately and with great detail, but they [also] were able to draw pictures with details that perfectly matched ancient descriptions of those figures. (p. 161)

Repetitive symbols and themes also have been identified in both large-scale (Hall & Norby, 1972) and cross-cultural (Griffith, Miyagi, & Tago, 1958) dream studies. For example, Hall and Norby (1972), in a content analysis of more than 50,000 dreams, identified “typical dreams” that “express the shared concerns, preoccupations, and interests of all dreamers. They may be said to constitute the universal constants of the human psyche” (p. 35). Stevens (1993) concluded from such findings that dreams are “the means by which the entire behavioral repertoire of the species is integrated with the recent experience of the individual, thus promoting its capacity to survive the demands and exigencies of the following day” (p. 24). This hypothesis, he noted, is in close accord with the “ethological view that dreaming sleep is necessary for an animal to update its strategies for survival by integrating the ethogram (the total behavior repertoire of the species encoded in the brain) with the recent experience of the individual” (p. 37).

Are the common images and themes found among cultures widely separated by time and space, as well as in the fantasies and dreams of individuals, precoded genetic proclivities? Evolutionary psychologists believe that “content-specific information-processing mechanisms,” produced by natural selection, “generate some of the particular content of human culture including certain behaviors, artifacts, and linguistically transmitted representations” (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992, p. 24). The manner by which genes might govern such content-specific symbolism, however, is unmapped and unknown. According to some biologists, in fact, attributing to genes the instinctive cooperative behavior of honeybees, no less the parallel symbolism found in human cultures, still is more a matter of faith than a matter of fact. Sheldrake (1988), for example, argued, “The role of genes is inevitably overrated, and properties are projected onto them that go far beyond their known chemical roles” (p. 158).

The Hypothesis to Which the Six Anomalies Lead

This line of reasoning suggests that genes are supplemented by other mechanisms in organizing certain inherited psychological characteristics and behavioral patterns. The debate distills down to the tension between parsimony and reductionism. Parallel symbolism has been documented across diverse psyches as well as unrelated societies. Some (e.g., Neher, 1996) believe that, to the extent that parallel symbolism is conclusively documented, a parsimonious explanation for it will be found in genetics. Others (e.g., Sheldrake, 1988) believe that it is blatantly reductionistic to suggest that DNA can actually encode the immense folio of specific, complex mythological figures and motifs that spontaneously appear in dreams, nonordinary states, and artistic and other cultural expressions. Jung, who initially believed that archetypes are genetically coded, later came to the conclusion that genes alone cannot explain the range of parallel symbolism he had observed in his lifetime (Jung, 1952/1968b). But if not genetic coding, then what mechanisms might account for such parallels? A number of investigators have proposed a field of information explanation for the archetype (Feinstein, 2000; Laszlo, 1995; Laughlin, 1996). Could informational fields—repositories of images independent of the central nervous system—influence an individual’s “spontaneously generated” thought and behavior?

Several features are shared by reports of (a) human activity influencing mechanical devices from a distance; (b) distant effects of visualization, prayer, and meditation on consciousness, healing, and even the activity of blood cells in test tubes; (c) the extraordinary mental abilities of prodigies and savants; (d) systematic investigations of telepathy; (e) similarities in myths and symbols across cultures; and (f) the parallel symbolism observed in clinical situations and in nonordinary states of consciousness:

  • Evidence suggesting the existence of each of these phenomena, although not always unequivocal, has been accumulating.
  • Each seems to involve the procurement of information in a manner whose mechanisms are difficult to explain in terms of known physiological structures.
  • The effects observed are consistent with a field of information hypothesis.

Sheldrake’s Morphic Field Hypothesis

Various field theories and related models have intrigued modern consciousness researchers, from neuropsychologist Pribram’s (1971) holographic brain to nuclear physicist Bohm’s (1980) holographic universe. The one that seems formulated in a manner that offers the greatest explanatory power relative to my own observations about a structure-field complementarity in the personal myth is Sheldrake’s (1981, 1988) controversial hypothesis of the morphic field.

Sheldrake, who holds a doctorate in biochemistry from Cambridge University and was a Rosenheim research fellow of the Royal Society and a Frank Knox fellow at Harvard University, believes that every natural system—atom, molecule, crystal, living organism, society, custom, habit of mind— is associated with a field of information or a morphic field that interacts with observable matter. Morphic fields organize the structure of natural systems as well as their patterns of activity. Sheldrake (1988) indicated that morphic fields “are physically real in the sense that gravitational, electromagnetic, and quantum matter fields are physically real” (pp. 107-108). His formulations have earned his work both favorable comparisons with Darwin and the suggestion, in an editorial of the prominent journal Nature, that by being so facile in presenting such a misleading theory, this may be a “book for burning” (Editorial, 1981, p. 245).

For Sheldrake, every living system and every unit of the physical world, from the molecule to the mind, has its own unique field, an inherent vibration that holds information about the system’s potential form and behavior, analogous to genetic information. Such fields store and transmit information from one generation to the next. Each field attracts the system with which it is associated toward its mature form, and it arouses behavior in that system. The morphic field of the tadpole encodes the physical form and instinctive behavior of the mature frog. According to Sheldrake, it is the field, as well as the gene, that stores at least some of the information for the complex patterns that comprise a system’s form.

Sheldrake (1988) has described morphic fields as purposive, goal-directed “attrac-tors” (his use of the term is akin to its use in dynamic systems theory) that guide “the systems under their influence toward characteristic patterns of organization” (p. 101). Sheldrake’s hypothesis also is consistent with the view emerging from modern physics (Sheldrake & Bohm, 1982). In quantum theory, every subatomic particle has its own field, and Sheldrake (1988) indicated that “morphic fields may indeed be comparable in status to quantum matter fields” (p. 119) while postulating that morphic fields also influence larger systems than the microsystems governed by quantum fields. Sheldrake’s notion of a parallel between morphic fields and quantum fields, which is consistent with the hypotheses of Hameroff (1994), Laszlo (1995), and Tiller (1993) that nature’s “fifth field” emerges from the quantum vacuum, could account for several properties that Sheldrake attributes to the morphic field. For example, morphic fields appear to be “nonlocal,” possessing the quantum property where an effect is instantaneous and unaffected by distance.

Morphic fields purportedly provide information that is transmitted through resonance or attunement rather than an exchange of energy where one entity gains what the other expends. Not only does Sheldrake (1988) believe that morphic fields guide the development of a member of a species toward its mature form, he suggests that morphic fields themselves evolve in the process. Because the laws of nature operate independently of what they govern, Sheldrake challenges the Platonic notion that nature’s laws are fixed and eternal, pointing out that this assumption presumes that the laws governing the formation of sugar crystals, for example, existed before “the first sugar molecules arose anywhere in the universe. Indeed, they existed before there was a universe at all” (p. 11). Sheldrake asserts, instead, that the morphic fields that hold the organizing principles of the physical universe themselves evolve. “Not only does the world evolve in space and time, but these immanent organizing principles themselves evolve. (p. 313) … We find ourselves in an evolving universe whose organizing principles are evolving with it” (p. 316).

Mythic Fields

My core thesis is that mythic fields are a subset of Sheldrake’s morphic fields. They become established when new patterns of understanding and motivation are initiated and repeated. Once established, they tend to maintain the psychological habits that typify the individual—the person’s characteristic forms of emotion, thought, and behavior. The influence is bidirectional; field follows form and form follows field. Psychophysiological forms and mythic fields are linked by resonance. Sheldrake (1988) explained that “characteristic rhythmic patterns of activity within the nervous system” (p. 151) may enter into resonance with a morphic field. Interestingly, when a group of neurons becomes linked through mental activity, the neurons themselves behave like a “field” (Pearce, 1992, p. 16), with all the cells vibrating as a single frequency or “phase-coherent oscillation” (Edelman, 1992, p. 95). The individual’s mythic field presumably resonates with these neurons in a process of mutual influence.

Adults in nonordinary states of consciousness (induced, e.g., by abreaction, hypnosis, or psychedelics) sometimes have the sense of reliving their own births or even prenatal events, including details about which they never had been informed (e.g., an attempted abortion). In some instances, idiosyncratic details subsequently have been verified with parents or by other means, suggesting that the memories were accurate (Chamberlain, 1990; Cheek, 1980). When such experiences occur in clinical settings, striking parallels have on occasion been observed between the circumstances of the birth and patterns in the person’s life (Grof, 1985). However, the cerebral cortex of the newborn, lacking the needed myelin sheaths on its neurons, is not well enough developed to code such experiences (Grof, 1985). Thus, memories of one’s birth or of prenatal events—if their accuracy is confirmed in cases where the details recalled had not previously been available to the person—would be another anomaly that could be explained by the existence of information fields that code experience.

In my own formulation, I first conceived of the mythic field as a subtle form of energy that exists within the dimensions of Newtonian space-time. More recently, in trying to account for the anomalies described earlier, I have come to believe that mythic fields sometimes must embody properties that are associated with quantum fields such as nonlocality.

Even without visual or auditory cues, a sensitive individual often can detect changes in another person’s mythic field, experienced as an altered “energy” or “vibration” (e.g., “Before I even pulled into the driveway, I could feel that he was angry”). People who work in the “new” discipline of energy medicine are particularly attuned to this realm. The following is excerpted from an interview I conducted with my partner, Donna Eden, a mind/body healer known for her ability to see and feel the body’s energies and, based on what she sees and feels, to identify physical problems in a manner that reliably corresponds with medical diagnoses. She described the way in which she experiences what I refer to as personal myths and personal fields of information:

In shifting from one myth into another, the vibration of the person’s field changes and the field’s colors change. When a person is under emotional stress, the energy tends to take on the stamp of an old myth that is oriented toward emotional or physical survival, usually some version of fight or flight. When one of these survival-oriented myths is activated, I see its energy originating in the root chakra. The old myth sits like a fountain in the root chakra, with the field that comes out from this fountain surrounding the person’s body.

At other times, the old myth quiets down. While I can still see its energy, I can also see the energy of other myths come in. When a new myth has become more than an idea and has begun to take a stable physical form, it begins to infiltrate the auric bands, changing some of their colors. Its energy will be less dense and move more quickly than the energy of the old myth. As a new myth begins to take hold, at first it looks faint to me, but with time it becomes more distinct.

What you call the conflict between an old myth and an emerging myth often isn’t so much that the two fight one another but [rather] that the old myth is simply fighting for its survival. When a myth doesn’t work anymore, a point is reached where its energy gets very murky. I can see the energy of an old myth doing all it can to hold on, like hot tar. If it gets stuck that way for a long period, physical illness often follows. (personal interview, February 28, 1995)

A small body of evidence suggesting a relationship between subtle vibrational patterns in the body and disease states is, in fact, accumulating (Hunt, 1995), and the paradigm underlying energy medicine (Eden, 1999; Gerber, 1996) complements the line of reasoning presented here.

Clinical Implications: Shift the Field, Change the Myth

More than half a century ago, May (1939/1989) observed, “Both the counselor and the counselee are taken out of themselves and become merged in a common psychic entity. The emotions and will of each become part of this new psychic entity” (p. 67). One of May’s students, Larson (1987), a psychologist who has studied this “new psychic entity,” described a striking incident from her own clinical work:

A new client entered my office for the first appointment. I spontaneously began experiencing very subtle unusual sensations in my own lower torso. Prior to this appointment, I had completed a deep relaxation exercise, so I was quite aware when the subtle tingly sensations began. I first reflected inwardly, trying to discover the source of the mysterious sensations. I asked myself if the new client reminded me of someone I had previously known. I searched myself to ascertain if my own personal memories were related to the tingly sensations. Then I bracketed the experience, noting it, watching it, and reflecting further upon it. Finally, my curiosity was overpowering. At a seemingly appropriate point, I described my experience to the young woman client and asked if my experience had some meaning for her. The young woman immediately replied, “Oh yes, I have cancer of the cervix, and I’ve been having chemotherapy there.” (p. 323)

Investigating this phenomenon, which she termed psychotherapeutic resonance, Larson found that many therapists report a momentary merging of the boundary between themselves and a client that, in its intensity, exceeds empathy and rapport (see also Sterling & Bugental, 1993, on the “meld” experience of therapist with client). In psychotherapeutic resonance, the therapist evidences immediate nonverbal understanding of feelings that the client has not acknowledged, the therapist may directly experience physical sensations that the client is experiencing, and the therapist and client become synchronized in even tiny movement patterns. Is the therapist unconsciously tuning into a subtle field of information carried by the client?

Early in my career, I had the good fortune of observing firsthand the therapeutic mastery of Milton Erickson, Alexander Lowen, Peg Mayo, Carl Rogers, and Virginia Satir. I often was present when one of these gifted clinicians would provide a demonstration for trainees. Their skills sometimes seemed uncanny. How did they know what a person needed? I would study transcriptions of their clinical work, hoping to discern their secrets. The most interesting pattern I could detect was their ability to offer a creative and unexpected intervention at the moment of therapeutic opportunity, impossible to acquire by studying transcripts and often quite different from their trademark techniques, yet strikingly attuned, plausibly through resonance, to the client’s unique needs. I have witnessed Rogers being decidedly directive (e.g., “Steven, I don’t think you should marry her”), Satir cutting to the core of a psychodynamic conflict with no reference to the person’s family or family of origin, and Lowen getting to the heart of a problem with no mention of the person’s posture or bodily tensions. I wondered, if their interventions were not based on their established clinical approach, then to what were they attuning themselves? I have come to think of this elusive “what” as the client’s mythic field. I believe, in fact, that many effective therapists are high in psychotherapeutic resonance, able to spontaneously attune themselves to a client’s field, accurately obtaining information that is not transmitted through even the most subtle sensory cues.

Many phenomena that are difficult to account for in psychotherapy, such as the enormous power of projective identification (e.g., a seasoned child psychiatrist observing that she knows she is dealing with a victim of child abuse when she experiences an irrational “impulse to abuse the child” [cited in Gabbard, 1994, p. 71]) have been attributed to subtle sensory cues. I would reverse the argument; wherever subliminal sensory cues are the explanation of last resort, consider the possibility that a field of information also is involved. I myself have learned, when in a clinical situation and unsure about what I should do next, to quiet my inner chatter, shift my attention to the field that the client brings into the room, and allow it to inform my responses. This often results in the subjective experience that I am tuning into a normally imperceptible atmosphere carried by the client. After consciously shifting my attention to the client’s hypothetical field, new understanding and interventions may come in a flash. Such moments of insight sometimes seem to tap into information about the client to which I do not have any apparent access but that subsequently is confirmed (see also the second chapter by Schneider [Chapter 23] in this volume). Whether shifting my attention to the client’s field is a way of actually attuning myself to a dimension of the clinical situation that transcends sensory cues or is just a helpful bit of self-deception, I believe that the maneuver makes me a better therapist.

Focused imagery that brings a person into the past to rework early emotional distress and trauma can be designed to mimic some of the healing functions of dreams and to help transform the psychodynamic bedrock of a dysfunctional myth. A man was able to trace his abusive impulses toward his son back to his own experiences of abuse. He was guided to visualize himself as a child in his primal drama with his own father. In this rendition, however, his adult self also was there. The adult self persuaded the father to shower his son with the love and emotional support that the father at some level—buried beneath his own conflicts— held but did not express. (In extreme cases, the person’s fantasy might have to eliminate the parent altogether and have the adult self provide the parenting directly. In any case, coming to a productive scenario is a significant piece of the therapeutic work.) In the presence of that imagined emotional support, he could sense a shift, the genesis of the field that might have existed if he actually had received the love being fantasized. This is a procedure for deep transformation that I call rewriting history through the emotionally corrective daydream. A daily ritual to strengthen the father’s new personal myth, and the field associated with it, might project him into an imagined future where he is living from a guiding myth that supports constructive responses to his son at the moments of greatest stress. Because repetition increases the strength of a field (according to Sheldrake, 1988), by frequently evoking in his imagination the sensations and images associated with his new myth, the father presumably can increase the habit strength of this fledgling myth until it becomes readily accessible.

Based on preliminary clinical observations (Feinstein & Krippner, 1997), therapeutic rituals for directly embedding a new mythology can be designed around the presumed influence on mythic fields on each of the following:

  • Setting an intention to initiate constructive change
  • Imagery journeys to the past that psychodynamically rework dysfunctional myths
  • Imagery journeys that seed the future with a more constructive guiding mythology
  • Visualizing the qualities of this new myth
  • Shifting internal speech to support the new myth
  • Behavioral rehearsal to anchor the new myth


The evidence for telepathy, the distant effects of visualization, and the other anomalies summarized in this chapter suggests that consciousness is not just an epiphenomenon emerging from biochemical events any more than the evening news originates only in the television set. The news is produced by both the television set (a “bottom-up” influence) and the television signal (a “top-down” influence). Personal myths also are produced by bottom-up and top-down influences. Neurons, like the television components, exert a bottom-up influence, from the brain up to the developing story. Fields of information, like the television signals, exert their influence from the top down to the developing story. Neurons and fields seem to operate in tandem like the television set and the signal. Personal myths reflect both the brain and the field, just like the television program is a reflection of both the television set and the signal. Personal myths, as biochemically coded organizing models, exert a bottom-up influence on -consciousness and behavior. Personal myths, as fields of information, exert a top-down influence.

The hypothesis that mythic fields influence feelings, thoughts, and behavior, if supported, would hold far-reaching implications. Although we know with relative certainty that Lamarck was wrong to believe that a person’s experiences create biological changes that are then passed along through the genes, the possibility that those experiences create changes in a field of information that is part of the child’s intellectual “amniotic fluid” gives a new twist to Lamarckian interpretations. An understanding of the way in which mythic fields act on the psyche would make it possible to tailor more proficiently, for desired change, techniques that use ritual, visualization, focused intention, and behavioral enactments. An understanding of the more subtle physical realms that influence mental structures also would provide a stronger empirical foundation for investigating the higher mental processes that have long been the concern of humanistic psychologists. More dramatically, the idea that fields of information affect consciousness would augment our understanding of collective myth making, suggesting in fact a physical infrastructure for the fashionable idea that a “global brain” (Russell, 1995) now is emerging.

Given that experimental evidence has linked mental activity with nonlocal fields of information, it is not a huge leap to postulate that, just as two aligned magnets form a shared field, an idea that is held by many people would exist in concert with a collective field of information. Such a collective field presumably would intensify if the numbers holding the idea increased, as when an image is multiplied by way of satellite (Feinstein, Mortifee, & Krippner, 1998). With electronic communications media, we are in fact able to interact more consciously than ever before with the fields that underlie our collective thoughts, to recognize them as tangible albeit subtle entities, and to open to novel approaches for participating in their evolution.