Roe, C. A. and Hitchman, G. A. (2011) Testing the theory of morphic resonance using recognition for Chinese symbols: a failure to replicate. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.75(4), pp. 211-224. 0037-1475.
Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance suggests a means by which the thoughts or behaviours of a species contribute to a collective ‘morphogenetic field’ that can encourage future organisms to prefer those thoughts and behaviours that had been selected most frequently. Sheldrake has argued that an individual’s acquisition of language could thus be influenced by the morphic resonance of past speakers of that language, and this has enabled researchers to empirically test the theory using learning activities that involve a language unfamiliar to the participant. For example, Robbins and Roe (2010) gave participants a set of Chinese symbols to learn and found that they correctly recalled more genuine characters (for which a morphogenetic field would presumably exist) than imitative characters (for which one would not), as predicted by Sheldrake’s theory. However, potential shortcomings were identified within the experimental design, and so the current study was intended to replicate earlier findings with a more robust research design that used a more comprehensive system of randomising across participants. An opportunity sample of 101 participants were shown, in a randomised order, 8 genuine and 8 imitative characters. They then took part in a distractor task by playing ‘scissors-paper-stone’ against a computer opponent for 1 minute. Subsequently, participants were presented with symbols in pairs (one genuine and one imitative) matched for complexity and radical component (a key element of the character) and were asked to indicate if they recalled seeing either character at the presentation stage. For some trials, participants had previously seen one of the characters whereas in others, both symbols were novel. Participants correctly identified a similar number of real and imitative characters, whereas they exhibited more false memories for the imitative characters. Furthermore, the proposed relationships between the purported morphic resonance effect and transliminality and openness to experience were not supported. These findings fail to confirm those reported by Robbins and Roe (2010) and support an explanation in terms of methodological artifact