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January 2017

Animal Psi

The Psi Encyclopedia needs an entry on telepathy, and since I couldn’t immediately think of someone to write it, I thought I’d have a go myself. So I’ve been having a look through the literature. One particularly interesting read is Rupert Sheldrake’s Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals. I bought it when it came out in 1999 but it got ‘borrowed’ (I can’t complain, I’m a terrible borrower of other people’s books), and it was good to be reminded of the sheer variety of unexplained connections, and contexts in which they appear.

Perhaps the best known phenomenon, and the easiest to test, is the anticipatory behaviour shown by many dogs and cats to the return of a person they’re bonded with. There was a lot of public discussion about the famous Jaytee case, which I devoted several pages to in Randi’s Prize, but this is no anomalous outlier – it’s a very commonly described experience. Sheldrake collected 580 reports of dogs that know when their owners are coming home, and 359 of cats. This is a typical example:

I first noted Poppet showed restlessness, excitement, ears pricked up, tail wagging, wandering between front and back doors, and she developed a special type of bark which I always called ‘a yipping’ – and surely within minutes my mother arrived. No special times or routine to her visits, but Poppet’s reaction was always the same – morning, noon or night. I gradually got to notice that I could tell whether my mother was coming via the front or back door, as Poppet would position herself at the right one. I also noted that when the telephone rang, although Poppet would look at it, she did not particularly bother, but I always knew when my mother was on the phone, as Poppet appeared all excited standing by the phone and using her special ‘yipping’ call.

The obvious explanations are that the animal responds to a regular routine, or that it receives warning by sense of smell or hearing. But, as in this example, it happens when the returns are at irregular times. The case collection includes more than twenty cases of pets alerting the parents of young servicemen to their imminent (unannounced) arrival on leave, hours or even days in advance. Smell could not be the explanation over distances of more than a mile, and even then, the wind would need to be blowing in the right direction. In fact the anticipatory behaviour often starts when the owners are much further away. Dogs do not have particularly good hearing, and even if they could distinguish the sound of a particular vehicle approaching from a distance, it would not explain their awareness of a particular individual returning by public transport.

Cats’ hearing is exceptional. But the same applies. In one case, a cat that habitually responded to the return of his teenage owner was watched by the boy’s father one night when he was expected to arrive quite late. On three separate occasions a taxi stopped in front of the building, but the cat paid no attention to any of them. The father says, ‘Some time later, he jumped down and went to the door. Five minutes later I heard the taxi arrive in which my son was travelling.’

There are a few similar examples with other pets: parrots, horses, sheep and monkeys. There are also other types of connection, although less frequently reported and not easily testable. Pets who provide reassurance to people who are stressed or ill might simply be responding to changes they pick up, but there are cases of animals said to have prevented suicide by, for instance, alerting other family members with their frantic behaviour. Signs of stress have also been observed in pets coinciding with a death or accident at a distance of a person they are bonded with.

Many pet owners are convinced the animal can sense what they are thinking. For instance some guide-dog owners believe their animal picks up their thoughts about where they want to go. Here there is an obvious explanation: the dog responds to subtle body movements that give away their intention, and it would be hard to disprove this objectively. But the owners are quite aware of this, and discount it:

I am totally blind so I cannot see the dog, and I wouldn’t be sure about direction of travel. Under those conditions I wouldn’t be making any indication as to direction or stopping or starting. I am just walking along thinking, and that is why I started to believe he is picking up something other than visual cues or other physical indications.

I mentioned here some time ago a friend who lives alone with two cats, who was offered an opportunity to sell up and live abroad. An immediate concern was that a home would need to be found for the cats. The move was just an idea in her head, something that might or might not take place some time in the future – she made no actual preparations and did not change her routine. But the cats suddenly became frantic: they followed her around, mewing piteously and wouldn’t let her out of their sight. When a few days later she decided definitively not to leave, the cats resumed their normal behaviour. That’s a one off, but many owners are convinced there’s an ongoing telepathic connection. Cats in particular are notorious for disappearing on the day of a planned trip to the vet – even in the absence of obvious preparations like getting out the cat basket.

Experiments have been carried out that suggest telepathic connections between bonded animals, in situations where there is no channel for sensory communication. In one instance, a pair of horses who lived as close companions were separated and kept out of sight and hearing of each other. One was fed at irregular times which were found to coincide with times when the other became excited and demanded food. The same reaction occurred when one was taken out and exercised. Of 119 experiments, the results were positive in 68%. In control experiments, with horses who were hostile to each other, there was only one positive result out of 15.

A related topic is the connected behaviour of certain fish, birds and insects – flocks, swarms, colonies. There’s still no clear indication of how, for instance, blind termites go about building complex structures with nests up to ten feet high, complete with galleries, chambers and even ventilation shafts. In one experiment, termites repaired breaches made in their mounds from every side, making structures that joined perfectly, even though the insects did not come into contact, and could not see each other, being blind. Even so, it’s hard to suppose they weren’t aware of what the others were doing, by some means. So in a second experiment, the mound was dissected by a steel plate, ensuring that the builders on either side had no sensory awareness of those on the other. Yet when the steel plate was removed, the structures on one side were found to match exactly with those on the other.

What about flocks of birds, the famous starling ‘murmurations’? It’s natural to suppose that each responds to moves by its neighbour, but for waves to be coordinated purely by visual stimuli would mean birds being able to sense, notice and react to waves almost immediately, even those that come from directly behind them, having ‘practically continuous, unblinking, 360 degree visual attention’. But an experiment with flocks of dunlins, a wading shorebird, found that the waves took an average of 15 milliseconds to move from one bird to the next, while in the laboratory the fastest reaction found in a dunlin, in response to a flash of light, was 38 milliseconds.

As we know, Sheldrake looks to morphic fields to explain these and similar phenomena. He sees morphic fields extending ‘beyond the brain into the environment, linking us to the object of our perception and making us capable of affecting them through our intention and attention’. In the case of collective behaviour in large groups, each unit is responding to a kind of gestalt that is available to all, instinctually playing its part to bring a form into being.

Another phenomenon that interests me is the homing ability of animals, which is well documented but remains absolutely mysterious. In the 1930s, an experiment was carried out in Bavaria with a sheepdog named Max, who was taken in a closed van by a roundabout route to a place he’d never been to before, then released, and observed by trained observers stationed along the route he was expected to take home; he was also followed by cyclists.

Max scanned the landscape in various directions, as if taking his bearings. After several trials he began to concentrate on the direction of his home, looking resolutely homewards, and after half an hour he set off. He avoided going through woods, hid from passing cars and circumvented farmhouses and villages. After travelling for just over an hour, he came out on the familiar road into his village, and galloped home. The distance he covered was about six miles.

In a second trial from the same place he took a short cut and arrived home in 43 minutes. He appeared to make no use of sense of smell, since he did not sniff at the trees or ground or try to pick up a trail, which would in any case have been pointless.

Another dog was released in the city of Munich, three miles from her home.

When she was first released, she behaved very much as Max had done; she spent about 25 minutes taking her bearings, looking principally in the direction of her home, and then trotted off in the right direction. All went well until she encountered a frolicsome dog in the Tassiloplatz who led her astray. After some time she took her bearings again, and once more set off in a direct line towards her home. The journey took 93 minutes, including the time spent taking her bearings, playing and straying. The second time, six weeks later, from the same place, she took only five minutes to get her bearings, took the same route and arrived 37 minutes later. Like Max, she was not sniffing and could see no familiar sights.

The same researcher tried similar experiments with another dog, which all failed – again, a reminder that animals, like people, differ in their abilities. The owner of two huskies observed that one had excellent navigational skills, but it was impossible to tell by watching the confident way he trotted home what clues he was following. He didn’t seem to be navigating by landmarks, since he might take different routes. But this dog’s mate often got lost: to get home she simply parked herself on someone’s doorstep and waited for the homeowner to call the telephone number on her collar.

There are lots of theories about homing pigeons, and every so often new research is declared to have cracked the mystery. But nothing definitive. One recent experiment claimed to find they followed geographical features in the landscape like roads and railway lines. This might be a partial explanation, for birds who make the same regular journey. But in another experiment, cited by Sheldrake, birds fitted with frosted contact lenses still reached their destination, so they couldn’t have been relying on sight (although they tended to crash land when they arrived.). Recently, there have been confident declarations that the sense of smell is key, based on pigeons’ loss of homing ability after having the olfactory nerve severed. But other experiments cited by Sheldrake appeared to eliminate the sense of smell, and in any case, it would not necessarily explain the ability of pigeons to home from unfamiliar places.

The phenomenon of mass bird migrations might be explained by Sheldrake's idea of a collective memory in morphic fields:

Thus when a young cuckoo sets off from England to Africa it draws upon a collective memory of its ancestors. This memory, inherent in the morphic field of its migratory path, guides it as it goes, giving it a memory of directions in which to fly, and an instinctive recognition of landmarks, feeding grounds and resting places. This collective memory also enables it to recognise when it has arrived at its destination, the ancestral winter home.

Sheldrake concedes that with homing pigeons, navigation can be aided by using the sun’s position, and perhaps even a magnetic sense, to help keep their bearings and stay on course. But he adds, ‘Without the directional pull through the morphic field connecting them to their home, they would be lost’

It struck me, while reading about all of this, how extraordinary it is to have all these curious phenomena on our doorstep, so to speak, and yet to pay them so little attention. Going back to anticipatory behaviour, the implication of Sheldrake’s research is that as many as half of dogs display it, an astonishing number, if one considers we’re talking about something that science says is flat out impossible. The fact that the other half don’t doesn’t invalidate its existence. Some dogs might simply lack that kind of sensitivity, like most humans. (I watched out for it in my own dog – now sadly deceased – but didn’t see any suggestion of it, or any other psi connections). And there could be other reasons: in cases where the owner lives alone, and there is no one to observe the pet’s behaviour, or where the bond is not particularly strong, for instance.

Even if Sheldrake’s figures are an overestimate, taking into account the number of pet owning households (nearly half in the UK, two thirds in the US) the research indicates that tens, possibly hundreds of millions in the developed world have experience of telepathy through this phenomenon. And this is not a single event – it’s observed regularly, in some cases almost daily. This is perhaps one reason why so many people in surveys say they believe in telepathy – typically a third to half. It’s not because they’re naturally superstitious, or credulous, or ignorant of science (although, sure, some of them may be). It’s just that – quite reasonably – they trust the evidence of their own repeated experience in preference to remote abstractions about what is and is not possible in nature.

A related but equally curious mystery is the paucity of research in this area. Sheldrake mentions quite a few experiments, but most seemed to be one-offs, carried out by people who had a lot to do with animals, and wanted to test their observations, but typically weren’t followed up. If one day it’s considered to be in our interests to find out what’s going on, animals will be a rich field for scientific investigation.