The dogmatic belief that the mind is limited to the brain is severely impeding discoveries in psychology and consciousness studies. The vast majority of funding in neuroscience is dedicated to doing more brain scans. I think that’s a waste of effort, because the brain doesn’t do most of the things science says it does. We’ve never found physical evidence of a memory inside our brains, and scientists have spent decades looking. Neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield claimed to stimulate memories by putting electrodes in the brain, but even if we could evoke memories through brain stimulation, it still wouldn’t prove that the memories are stored there. Are the programs we see on TV stored in the remote control?

Probably the dogma that affects people the most in their everyday lives is the one that says mechanistic medicine — surgery and drugs — is the only kind that works. The National Institutes of Health spends more than $30 billion a year on research, and almost all that money goes into mechanistic medicine. Other forms of therapy, some of which work well, are ignored or dismissed as having a placebo effect. But a lot of medical results are due to a placebo effect! That alone tells us that expectation and belief play a huge role in healing.

Leviton: The bedrock of all scientific dogmas seems to be the idea that if you can’t measure it, it can be ignored.

Sheldrake: I don’t say that exactly, because, after all, morphic resonance can be measured. Psychic phenomena like telepathy can be measured. For example, I’ve researched telephone telepathy: the sense of knowing who’s going to call. Many scientists say these phenomena are coincidences or can’t possibly exist, but these same scientists often accept that there are multiple universes, for which there’s not one shred of evidence.

Leviton: There’s no experiment that can test string theory’s proposition of millions of universes?

Sheldrake: No. About 80 percent of theoretical physicists are engaged in string-theory research, and some of them find this untestability quite disturbing. Lee Smolin, author of The Trouble with Physics, thinks the field has gotten lost in webs of theoretical speculation.

Everything I’m proposing can be measured. My theory makes predictions and tests them. Cosmologists postulate quadrillions of universes they’ve never observed.

Leviton: In Science Set Free you say that without all the dogmas, science would be “freer, more interesting, and more fun.” Is it important for science to be fun?

Sheldrake: My friend Rick Ingrasci has a slogan: “If you want to change the world, throw a better party.” We want kids to be interested in science, but we present it as a lot of facts they have to learn to pass exams. If science were more fun, it would be more attractive to students and to taxpayers who pay for grants. And it could be more interesting for scientists themselves. At the moment it’s dreary — mostly writing grant proposals instead of doing research. As funding is cut, fewer and fewer projects are approved, and scientists spend more and more time on the grant process, which is quite political. Journal articles are all subject to anonymous peer review, so critics can be as nasty as they like and crush any new line of thought. If you want a grant or a postdoctoral position, you have to do what you’re told and suck up to the influential people. It’s not a popular system.

Just this morning I had an e-mail from a colleague who’d written a paper on developmental biology and had it rejected by a journal on extraordinarily dogmatic grounds. This colleague, who argued for a more holistic approach, was called “mystical” by one of the referees, who also wrote, “To quote Sheldrake is bizarre.” And this is an eminent biologist saying this, a gatekeeper for a leading professional journal. It is frustrating that this kind of blinkered approach still determines what gets published, which grants get funded, and what students are taught.

Leviton: When you’ve had in-person debates with skeptics, you’ve found your opponents aren’t familiar with your work and aren’t really interested in seeing your test results or evidence.

Sheldrake: They’re blind not just to my work but to any work that opposes the orthodox view. There are thousands of papers about telepathy. When I published my first book, A New Science of Life, in 1981, I thought it might take ten years for attitudes to change in biology. Now, more than thirty years later, I think they’re finally beginning to shift. Mainstream science is less confident than before. But there are still deep-seated habits of thought to overcome. My own theory describes how powerful habits are, so it’s some consolation that this opposition in the scientific community is proof of the power of habit.

What I think will finally move science away from materialism isn’t necessarily evidence and reason — because those have been tried for a long time — but a kind of crisis. The present system will fall apart. Biology’s failure to explain how heritability works should have serious implications. The Human Genome Project has failed to deliver. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been poured down the drain. A report by the Harvard Business School says there’s never been a larger money-losing scheme devised by humans. There are a few niche products that came out of it, but the tremendous optimism about biotechnology is gone.

Leviton: Because you’ve not had billions of dollars in research grants thrown at you, you’ve enlisted average people around the world to conduct experiments, especially through your book Seven Experiments That Could Change the World: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Revolutionary Science.

Sheldrake: Yes, I wrote that book partly because I couldn’t get grants to do my research, but also because I was raised in the British tradition of string-and-sealing-wax science. At Cambridge I shared a lab with a biochemist named Robin Hill, who discovered the “Hill reaction” in photosynthesis. Hill was eccentric. He made his own apparatus and did his measurements with a hand spectroscope. Here was this eminent scientist who’d made one of the great advances in twentieth-century biochemistry, and he spent less on equipment and supplies in a year than the average graduate student in our department. I was impressed by his ability to work inexpensively. Also, when I worked in India, I learned from my colleagues there the potential of low-cost research.

In the nineteenth century, when science was at its freest, many leading scientists, including Charles Darwin, didn’t have government grants or academic posts. They were not dependent on committees; they just did what they wanted to.

For my book I tried to devise paradigm-shattering experiments in physics, chemistry, and biology that could be done on ten dollars or less. The aim was to say to readers, “You can play a part in scientific research; it won’t cost a lot of money and could make a big difference.” It was hugely successful.

Leviton: What were some of the experiments?

Sheldrake: One was on dogs. Many dog owners claim their animals know when a member of the household is about to come home, and the dogs show their anticipation by waiting at a door or window. We investigated a dog named Jaytee in more than a hundred videotaped experiments. His owner, Pam, traveled at least seven kilometers away and then returned home at randomly selected times. Jaytee was at the window 4 percent of the time during her absence but 55 percent of the time when she was returning. (The dog’s behavior was scored by a third party who didn’t know the nature of the experiment.) Jaytee’s anticipatory behavior usually began shortly before Pam headed back — in other words, closer to the time when Pam decided to come home rather than when she was already in the car. We did control experiments in which Pam did not return at all, and Jaytee did not begin to spend more time at the window, wondering where she was, the way some people expected he might. We concluded that dog and owner might have had a telepathic connection. We also tested a Rhodesian Ridgeback named Kane and found similar results: in nine out of ten trials the dog spent the most time at the window when his owner was on the way back.

To test telephone telepathy, I recruited subjects who said they frequently knew who was calling before answering the phone. I asked them for the names and telephone numbers of four people they knew well. The subjects were filmed alone in a room with an ordinary telephone — no caller ID, and no cellphones or computers present. My researchers selected one of the four possible callers at random. We called the selected person and told him or her to phone the subject within the next few minutes. Before answering the ring, the subjects had to say to the camera who they thought was calling. Statistically, guesses should have been right only 25 percent of the time, but the average success rate was 45 percent. These results have been replicated at universities in Holland, Germany, and elsewhere. In some tests we included two familiar callers and two people the subjects had never met, whom we identified to them by name only. The success rate for unfamiliar callers was nearly the same as chance, whereas with familiar callers it was 52 percent. This supports the idea that telepathy occurs more between people who are bonded than it does between strangers.

The present system will fall apart. Biology’s failure to explain how heritability works should have serious implications. The Human Genome Project has failed to deliver. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been poured down the drain.

Leviton: You like to hear about how people experience the world, which is sometimes dismissed as “anecdotal evidence.”

Sheldrake: Yes, I respect it precisely because it’s their experience. If it were their theory, I’d have less respect. Science is supposed to be empirical — which means “based on experience” — so the last thing I want to do is reject experience. Every science has to start from natural history, which involves describing what we perceive with our senses. In many branches of science the natural history was done centuries ago, but in the realm of psychic research it’s still in progress. It’s as if we started on a new phase of science in the late twentieth century.

If you read Darwin’s The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, you’ll find the whole book is based on the anecdotal experiences of rose growers, chicken breeders, and pigeon fanciers. Darwin compiled this information by talking to men and women about what they’d observed. He also spoke to explorers and travelers, who gave reports from different parts of the world. That, not laboratory science, was the rich soil in which his work grew. There were very few lab experiments even in On the Origin of Species. Yet no one would say Darwin didn’t do real science; he’s one of the iconic figures of modern biology.

That’s why I collected all these stories and built up these databases. One or two anecdotes about animal telepathy don’t mean much, but if you have hundreds of people saying largely the same thing independently of each other, it tells you something. If nothing else, it gives you a natural history of people’s beliefs. I still have to do experiments to see if what people describe is really what’s happening or whether there’s some simpler explanation. But I always start from people’s experience. That’s how empirical science works. Doctors don’t start from theories of diseases; they start from people getting sick.

On my website I have a number of experiments people can run in only a few minutes to test their own abilities in telephone telepathy or audio anticipation — in which you try to guess what sound you will hear next — or joint attention, which means trying to tell whether someone else is looking at the same picture you are.

There are also staring studies. The feeling of being watched is a fascinating phenomenon. In surveys, between 70 and 97 percent of adults and children report the experience of knowing they are being stared at, or of making someone turn around by looking at them. Martial artists, security guards, private detectives, military snipers, celebrity photographers, and hunters all report this phenomenon and learn not to look too intently or for too long at their targets, because it tends to alert them. And it appears some people can cultivate this sensitivity as well. It’s easy to see how this might be part of natural selection for animals, since being able to sense a predator stalking you would be a competitive advantage.

The largest experiment on the sense of being stared at began in 1995 at the Science Center NEMO in Amsterdam. More than eighteen thousand pairs of people have taken part, and the results are statistically very significant. Many people are even able to tell if someone is watching them from a distant location through a closed-circuit camera.

Leviton: Telepathy experiments are usually described as “paranormal research,” which is a put-down in the scientific community.

Sheldrake: Skeptics lump telepathy and precognition in with vampires and UFOs, but that’s ridiculous once you look at the facts. More than 80 percent of people have had the experience of thinking about someone who then calls. That’s not paranormal at all; it’s normal, in the sense that it happens every day. Skeptics say, “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof,” but if I show them the experimental results, they want more. They won’t believe it until it’s been published in Nature and approved by experts. Until then, they keep moving the goal posts.

I say the skeptics are making the extraordinary claim that 80 percent of the population are mistaken about their own experience. I ask skeptics where their extraordinary evidence is for that belief. They have none at all, except for talk about the fallibility of human judgment.

Leviton: Materialists believe that the universe has no purpose, direction, or reason for existing. How do you see it?

Sheldrake: In nature most things have goals and purposes. Plants grow toward the light and send seeds out. Birds build nests. The purpose of living organisms in general is survival and reproduction. The idea that there’s no purpose in nature is a result of the machine metaphor. Machines have no purposes of their own, only the purposes imposed upon them by humans.

Leviton: And the purposes of humans, to a materialist, are just the result of chemical and electrical activity in the brain?

Sheldrake: There’s a split within materialism. There are some materialists who take the view that nature is purposeless, and the only thing that matters is winning and survival. A famous atheist in the eighteenth century was the Marquis de Sade, who said that if there’s no God, then there’s only one rule of nature: The strong live. If you’re that kind of materialist, morality is for the weak. But most materialists are secular humanists, who, although they reject the Judeo-Christian idea of God, have adopted a system of morality that resembles religious ethics: teachings such as we should be nice to other people, we should provide equal opportunity, and we should look out for the downtrodden and oppressed. But the secular humanists can’t justify this scientifically; they have to justify it in the name of common decency or something like that.

More than 80 percent of people have had the experience of thinking about someone who then calls. That’s not paranormal at all; it’s normal, in the sense that it happens every day.

Leviton: But don’t they also say that those beliefs are just generated by chemical and electrical activity?

Sheldrake: They should say that, but they don’t. They think their ethical beliefs are freely adopted. They make an exception for themselves. The whole system is self-contradictory.

Leviton: The comedian and outspoken atheist Ricky Gervais writes, “Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows, and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence.”

Sheldrake: Gervais can believe that only because he knows so little about science. It’s an idealized vision promoted by science popularizers and atheists like Richard Dawkins, who want to cast science in the best possible light. I’m not saying scientists are worse than other people, but they’re not necessarily better. The idea that scientists have risen above the world of conflict and selfishness to this amazingly objective status is naive and serves the purpose of science as a social movement.

Leviton: Science is conducted by people, so it has the same problems as every other human endeavor.

Sheldrake: Yes, including personal rivalries, fraud, the use of rhetoric, ambitious people getting more funding than less ambitious people, and social prestige. I like the idea of science as an objective activity by which people seek truth, but I won’t pretend that’s the way it always is.

Leviton: You spend quite a bit of time in Science Set Free examining the pharmaceutical and medical industries, including practices like the marketing of drugs for purposes they weren’t designed for. How can we move away from surgery and drugs and toward other healthcare approaches?

Sheldrake: It’s hard to know. There’s an inherent corruption in the system. All modern democracies have become a means for mediating powerful lobbying interests. It’s a crisis that goes beyond pharmaceuticals and requires major political reform.

But one answer would be to have a healthcare system that is fact-led and evidence-based, but that also allows all forms of treatment to compete on a level playing field, instead of granting all the funds and prestige and subsidies to mechanistic medicine and forcing other types of medicine to survive outside the system, based on what patients can afford to pay. We could have a much more effective healthcare system if we integrated all the various approaches.

Leviton: Brain-scan research is showing that systems like hearing and sight are far more complicated than previously thought, and brain activity in general is more mysterious. In trying to nail down exactly how the senses work, researchers are getting farther away the harder they look.

Sheldrake: Yes, what appeared straightforward turns out to be quite complicated. In hearing, there’s a “cocktail party” effect: you can hear one conversation and tune out the others. For people wearing hearing aids, one of the biggest problems is that everything is amplified. You lose that selectivity.

How do we decide what to hear? Brain scanning and psychology have come up with few satisfying answers. In the end, attempts to understand the mind in terms of the brain aren’t going to be satisfying. Our brains are very important but are not the source of all thought. Thoughts come through them.

Leviton: Holistic physician Deepak Chopra says, “Believing is seeing.”

Sheldrake: We interpret everything; our minds are selecting and interpreting all the time, not just making photographic copies of reality. Materialism is not based on facts so much as on faith.

Cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett believes that artificial intelligence is coming, and that it will soon be possible to build a robot with all the necessary human attributes, including consciousness. But that’s a faith-based position, like believing that the end of the world is nigh or that aliens exist. Of course, science has made huge advances, and things once thought impossible are now possible. But if you’ve been walking along a road in Scotland and it’s about to lead you over a cliff, the argument that the road’s gotten you this far isn’t a good reason for carrying on.

I’m out to show how much materialism depends on dogmatic assumptions and how little it depends on genuine science. I believe that if some of my arguments are allowed to work their way through the scientific system, it will become freer and more fun. The machine theory is brilliant for making machines. Most of the triumphs of modern science are engineering triumphs: computers, jet planes, surgery. But it’s not very successful at analyzing how we live our lives, how we see ourselves, or how our ecosystems work. I think we need a new kind of science for that.