Roe, C. A. and Hitchman, G. A. (2011) Testing the theory of morphic resonance using recognition for Chinese symbols: a failure to replicate. Parapsychological Association 54th Annual Convention, Curitiba, Brazil, 18-21 August 2011. Curitiba, Brazil: Parapsychological Association.
Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance suggests a means by which the thoughts or behaviours of physically isolated members of species can converge in a manner that would not be expected by other forms of learning such as imitation. The proposed mechanism is via what is termed a ‘morphogenetic field’, a purported collective record of intra-species learning which subsequently shapes and stabilises the behaviours of future generations of organisms. In the human realm, Sheldrake has suggested that the acquisition of language should be influenced by the morphic resonance of past speakers of the language. Parapsychological tests of the theory have thereby typically consisted of learning activities involving a language unfamiliar to the participant. For example, Robbins and Roe presented participants with 10 Chinese symbols, 5 of which were genuine Mandarin Chinese characters whereas the other 5 were imitative symbols designed to appear authentic but having no meaning to Mandarin Chinese speakers. Participants were subsequently given a memory task in which they were asked to identify the symbols they had seen from a larger pool of 20 symbols (10 genuine, 10 imitative) containing all of the 10 originally presented. As predicted by the theory, participants were found to correctly recall more of the genuine characters compared with the imitative characters, and also exhibited more false memories of the genuine characters. Their bias towards recalling more genuine characters was also correlated with a measure of transliminality. However, potential shortcomings were identified within the experimental design. Most notably, as no methodical controls had been employed when contriving imitative symbols, it was possible that the genuine characters used in the study were in some way inherently more memorable than the imitative symbols which could alone account for the observed effects. The current study therefore attempted to replicate the findings of Robbins and Roe but drew upon a larger set of more systematically manipulated genuine and imitative characters, and used a more comprehensive system of randomising across participants. One hundred and one participants were shown, in a randomised order, 8 genuine and 8 imitative characters from one of three sets. 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 with each other for complexity and radical component (a key element of the character) and 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. Contrary to the previous study, participants correctly identified a similar number of real and imitative characters, whereas they exhibited more false memories for the imitative. Furthermore, the proposed relationships between the purported morphic resonance effect and transliminality and openness to experience were not supported. The enhanced experimental controls are thought to be the most salient explanation for the nullification of results