The Japanese monkey, Macaca Fuscata, had been observed in the wild for a period of over 30 years. In 1952, on the island of Koshima, scientists were providing monkeys with sweet potatoes dropped in the sand. The monkey liked the taste of the raw sweet potatoes, but they found the dirt unpleasant, so they ignored the potatoes and ate other vegetables.
An 18-month-old female named Imo discovered she could solve the problem by washing the potatoes in a nearby stream. She taught this trick to her mother. Her playmates also learned this new way and they taught their mothers too.
This cultural innovation was gradually picked up by various monkeys before the eyes of the scientists. Between 1952 and 1958 all the young monkeys learned to wash the sandy sweet potatoes to make them more palatable. Only the parents who imitated their children learned this social improvement. Other adults kept eating the dirty sweet potatoes and paid no attention to what the other monkeys were doing.
Then something startling took place. In the autumn of 1958, a certain number of Koshima monkeys were washing sweet potatoes — the exact number is not known. Let us suppose that when the sun rose one morning there were 99 monkeys on Koshima Island who had learned to wash their sweet potatoes. Let’s further suppose that later that morning, the hundredth monkey learned to wash potatoes.
Then an extraordinary event occurred. By that evening almost everyone in the tribe was washing sweet potatoes before eating them. The added energy of this hundredth monkey somehow created an ideological breakthrough.
But wait, something even more surprising happened. The scientists discovered that the behavior of washing the sweet potatoes then jumped over the sea. Colonies of monkeys on other islands and the mainland troop of monkeys at Takasakiyama began washing their sweet potatoes. All the monkeys everywhere suddenly realized how to make the potatoes palatable by washing them.
Incredibly, it seems, when a certain critical number achieves an awareness, this new awareness may be communicated from mind to mind. Although the exact number may vary, this Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon means that when only a limited number of people know of a new way, it may remain the conscious property of these people. But there is a point at which if only one more person tunes-in to a new awareness, a field is strengthened so that this awareness is picked up by almost everyone.
The central idea is that when enough individuals in a population adopt a new idea or behavior, there occurs an ideological breakthrough that allows this new awareness to be communicated directly from mind to mind without the connection of external experience and then all individuals in the population spontaneously adopt it. “It may be that when enough of us hold something to be true, it becomes true for everyone.”
This seems to confirm the concept of Carl Jung’s collective unconscious, and the parallel stories from biologists’ morphogenetic fields. Archetypes, patterns, or fields that are themselves without mass or energy, could shape the individual manifestations of mass and energy. The more widespread these fields are, the greater their influence on the physical level of reality.
Is it too much of an imaginative strain to interpret significant events in history as the result of spontaneous transmission of ideas? Could this, for example, explain the fall of the Roman Empire when its citizens became rampantly corrupt? Karl Marx’s overthrow of the Czar when the Russians lost faith in the integrity of their government? The rise of Adolph Hitler when the Germans lost their belief in democratic reforms? The defeatism exhibited by the French in WWII when the French soldiers no longer respected their generals? Is this what happened during the Viet Nam war? In the beginning of the war there was almost universal support for the war, but over time opposition to the war grew to the point when suddenly the population almost spontaneously began to demand an end to the war.
Is it possible that if enough of us think just the right thought based on peace instead of war that, magically, world peace would become a reality? Just a thought.
(Michael Michalko is the author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses; and Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck. His new book Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work has just been released. http://www.creativethinking.net)