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Susan Blackmore is a well-known cognitive scientist, psychologist, lecturer and author. She has just written a textbook on consciousness. Rick Lewis asked her about her journey from parapsychology to the study of consciousness.
What experience originally led you to believe that consciousness could leave the body?
In my first term at Oxford when I was studying physiology and psychology, I was also running the Psychical Research Society, just because I had been faintly interested in paranormal phenomena, and I got sucked into an enormous enthusiasm for that whole area. Anyway, one night when we’d been having a ouija board session I was sitting in a friend’s room smoking some dope, listening to Grateful Dead, or Pink Floyd or something and I seemed to be galloping down a tunnel of leaves like a road, towards a bright light at the end, as if I was in a horsedrawn carriage. One of my friends said “Where are you Sue?” And that was a really important question. I thought “Where am I?”
Then everything cleared and I had a perfect view from up on the ceiling looking down and I could see myself sitting down below with my two friends and watch my own mouth opening and shutting saying “I’m on the ceiling.” I could see a silver cord coming out of my neck and coming up to me. My friends went on talking and I kept on talking and it went on for two and a half hours. It was a most extraordinary experience, which at the time I called astral projection. Subsequently I called it an ‘out of the body experience’, subsequently to that the whole idea of near death experiences was invented and I realised then I had had all the components except the life review — the tunnel, the light, the out of body experience, the decision to return, going to other worlds, complete loss of time and space.
Afterwards my conclusion was that my spirit had left my body and that therefore the reductionist materialist view must be overthrown. So I thought, “I’m going to prove my tutors are wrong and I’m going to become a parapsychologist.” It all started from there.
You experimented on the paranormal for some years, on out of body experiences, near-death experiences, psychokinesis. Was there a sudden moment when you concluded that it was all a red herring, or was that gradual?
It was pretty gradual. I couldn’t see a way to do experiments on out of body experiences immediately — it was too difficult. But I thought at least I could work on telepathy and clairvoyance and things that seemed to me to be related to it. So I took a PhD in parapsychology at Surrey University, and spent nearly five years doing hundreds of experiments which started with telepathy and clairvoyance and precognition. And I got no evidence of those phenomena at all. I was trying to prove a theory that telepathy was a form of memory, and that memory is not stored in the brain but is out there in the psychic realm. I did lots of experiments on telepathy and memory but never found any telepathy, and lots of experiments on psychokinesis, but never found any. So then I went on to tarot cards, because I still believed in them and I thought they would work. Then I went on to experiments with young children, did lots of experiments in playgroups and kindergartens.
Then I tried people who claimed special powers. Then I tried imagery for months. All of these things failed. Then I tried Ganzfeld, which is a very popular method in parapsychology, and that failed too.
Then people said that I was a psi-inhibitory experimenter, and that my lack of belief was preventing me getting results, which you could say was a complete cop-out, so my response was “I did used to believe and my results didn’t work then, and now I’m beginning to become sceptical as a result of that.”
Finally I found a way to experiment on out of body experiences, which is pretty difficult to do. For years I had an observation target in my kitchen. It had a five-digit number, a small object and a word, regularly changed, for anyone to come and visit. My idea was that getting an out of body experience in a laboratory is really difficult, but that when people were having them spontaneously they might come over to my kitchen and have a look at the target objects. Nobody ever got them right. Very few people ever claimed to be able to see them, but the ones who did got them wrong.
So gradually I began to think that maybe I was completely wrong and maybe the reductionist materialist view was right — well not exactly that, but that parapsychology was not the way to go.
There are kinds of experience which people have which remain unexplained and I want to understand it. But I think that parapsychology is a red herring if you want to understand some of the most profound mystical experiences or strange altered states of consciousness which people have.
What do you now think is going on when somebody has an out of body experience?
I think that such experiences depend on the illusion we have that there is someone inside our head. Dan Dennett calls this the Cartesian Theatre. Once you have that illusion it is not such a leap to having the idea that you are outside your head, looking from a different perspective. You construct that perspective from the information already available to you and it seems like you are looking at the room from a different angle. But you have simply shifted from one imaginary perspective to another.
I can see how this led you into the study of consciousness. You then lectured in psychology for ten years, giving courses on consciousness. Do you think that being a psychologist gives you a different set of tools with which to approach consciousness compared with those coming from a background in philosophy alone?
I think it is very interesting to see how philosophy and psychology are coming together. I go to lots of conferences which I don’t think existed even ten years ago at which philosophers and psychologists come together and at least share knowledge. Dan Dennett is my favourite example of a philosopher who actually uses psychology.
Different tools? Well, your response as a scientist, as opposed to a philosopher, to some question is always to think “what do I think is the answer and how can I test it?” That’s always been my way. I’m an experimenter at heart. I love thinking up “well if that’s true, then that follows from that, and how can I find out?” I think that is the difference between scientists and philosophers.
You have just written a textbook on consciousness, aimed at beginners and students. You warn in the introduction that “Studying consciousness will change your life.” You put this in a section headed “warning”. Why is that?
It definitely changes people’s lives. I say studying consciousness because this book is meant to be a book for teaching courses — it is a proper textbook. And people who teach and go on such courses will find their lives changing. Their consciousness changes, their ideas change. I know this because I’ve been teaching consciousness courses for twelve or thirteen years and I’ve seen it happen again and again.
So every year on my course I always used to say at the beginning “Don’t take this course unless you are prepared to be changed and have your life changed.” And always after a few weeks somebody would come to me and say:
“Waaa — you didn’t warn me!”
And I’d say:
“Oh yes I did — I did warn you.”
To take a philosophy example, since you are a philosophy magazine, I usually do mock ups of the tele-transporter experiment or the brain in a vat or something. You know, “will you go in a tele-transporter or not?” Then you really start to tear apart the notion of self and after a few months of studying consciousness you realise that you can’t actually believe in the inner self that you used to. And you can’t any more agree with your mum and dad who go to church every week and believe that their souls are going to survive after death, and you start getting into arguments about that.
I mean, it really threatens people’s sense of self, their identity in terms of their prior beliefs, and that can be quite traumatic for them.
When I am teaching these courses I get people every single week to do personal exercises. The first one is “Am I conscious now?” Are you conscious now?
Er, I believe so...
If you said that in my class, I’d pull you out and say “what do you mean by that?” I’m quite a beastly lecturer. As time goes on people realise that they always answer yes to that question. But were they conscious a moment before I asked the question? The students start to notice that they are not sure. So then they start thinking about the nature of ‘now’. Eventually they realise there is no now either.
This approach is very like the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. I don’t call it that until the very end, but it is a kind of secular way of saying that you can transform your consciousness by self-observation and by asking difficult questions and staring into the nature of questions such as “who am I, is there a now at all, is there a me at all?” Now that changes people.
In the book you summarize in a very clear and lively way the ideas of a whole range of thinkers about various aspects of the problem of consciousness. But what are your own current ideas on consciousness?
I don’t have a theory of consciousness now. I have had in the past, but each time I decided it was wrong. Doing five years in parapsychology and then having to change my mind about almost everything has made me good at letting go of theories. I think Dan Dennett is right that almost all the theories of consciousness we have today are basically forms of Cartesian materialism in disguise. If you ask, “What is in my consciousness now?”, and you think that there must be an answer, then you are a Cartesian materialist. You are still assuming that there is some part of you separate from your thoughts which owns your thoughts, which experiences them. Every time you ask yourself “Am I conscious now?”, it seems to me you draw a backwards story of what you must just have been thinking about. This gives you the illusion of a conscious self who was already there, but it is an illusion. The stream of consciousness and the person experiencing it are both illusions. The interesting question is then how and why are we so deluded?
What do you mean by the person being an illusion? You mean that I don’t exist?
No, an illusion is something that is not what it seems to be. If I seem to be a persisting self having a series of experiences I am wrong. Actually there are parallel, multiple streams that stop and start and join up. And the self is a verbal construction.
Anyway, these are the kinds of questions with which we wrestled in my consciousness classes. They are hard questions and the more you think about them the more intensely frustrating it can get. So I always think that if I can make my students scream, I’m doing a good job!