is an influential psychologist who was formerly a parapsychologist.
On 22 September 2010 Pete Moore spent an animated few hours at her house in deepest Devon.
Photography: Andrew Firth
You began your academic career in psychical research as a result of an experience you had yourself, is that right?
Yes. It was my first term at Oxford. I’d gone there to study physiology and psychology but I was interested in psychic phenomena, so I joined the Psychical Research Society and we used to do all sorts of things.
One evening, after a ouija board session, I went up to a friend’s room and we were smoking dope – this is 1970 – and listening to Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd or something. And suddenly I found myself going down a narrow road through a tunnel of trees towards a bright light. I remember a great whirring noise, but I could still hear the music and my friend Vicky asking me, ‘Would you like some coffee?’ – and I couldn’t answer.
The other guy who was there, Kevin, said: ‘Where are you?’ He could see that something was happening, and I – ‘Where am I? Where am I?’ – you know, I’m trying to think. And it was as though everything became clear and I was looking down at us sat there and I said, ‘Oh my God, I’m on the ceiling!’ – and I could see my mouth down there making the words. Then I seemed to travel off across Oxford, over the roofs of the colleges, across the sea to Europe – all over the place.
The whole thing lasted more than two hours. At the time, [Raymond] Moody hadn’t yet written his famous book,1Life after Life, first published in 1975 so I didn’t realise that what I had gone through was a classic near-death experience.
How did the experience end?
I tried to get back to my body but instead seemed to go inside and get smaller and smaller. And then I expanded until I seemed to become one with the universe. Any sense of a separate self completely left me – I was everything that was. Time and space ceased to exist in any ordinary sense. At some point I wondered if this was all there was. I thought, ‘It can’t be’ – and at that I seemed to climb up through a mass of clouds or something into a vast space, in which I was being observed by something. Something kind. And that was the end of that.
Those few hours 40 years ago are still driving – I wouldn’t say everything I do, but my intellectual quest, my spiritual quest, the way I live my life. They were absolutely crucial
That experience seemed more vivid and more real than anything I had ever experienced in normal waking life, and it really made me want to know what was going on. I assumed that my soul had left my body; I thought it proved that we are more than our bodies, that there is life after death, a whole lot of things. And I decided I was going to devote my life to parapsychology, to proving to all my closed-minded lecturers that they were wrong and ‘there is more in heaven and earth’ and all that. Imagine me in my hippy clothes, getting carried away: ‘I know the truth and everybody else is wrong!’
Does that experience still influence you today?
Oh, in a way those few hours 40 years ago are still driving – I wouldn’t say everything I do, but my intellectual quest. My spiritual quest. The way I live my life. That experience was absolutely crucial.
Had your upbringing been religious in any way?
My mother was quite a committed Christian – C of E, which was normal in the Fifties. My dad was never particularly keen, but he certainly believed in life after death and some sort of idea of God, I suppose.
Did you agree more with your mum or your dad?
Oh, I had wonderful arguments with my mother. It’s terribly hard to remember – although I have written a diary every day since I was 13 – but I certainly had an atheist phase in my teens and another in my twenties.
I also went to a Methodist boarding school. Wretched, wretched, wretched years I spent there – absolutely miserable! We had to go to church twice on Sundays and once on normal days, but the only purpose for the chapel, as far as I was concerned, was as a place where you could go and cry without anybody discovering you. But it does mean I have a pretty fair Christian education. I can still almost recite the communion service by heart.
How does one do research into the paranormal?
Oh, there are lots of ways. The simplest kinds of experiments are on various kinds of extrasensory perception: telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition. When I was doing my PhD, I was lucky enough to be asked to teach parapsychology to more than 100 students and I used them as my subjects. Typically, I would have one person in a faraway building looking at one of (let’s say) five pictures and all the people back in the lecture theatre would have to guess which one they were looking at.
Did you establish any kind of connection?
No, never. For my PhD alone I did more than 30 quite large-scale experiments, some of them with hundreds of subjects, some with young children, some with twins, some with people who claimed a special connection with each other – and everything just fell to chance.
Is absence of evidence the same as evidence of absence?
It’s a good question, and no, it’s not, they’re different – which is why I kept going for so long doing the experiments. I slept in loads of haunted houses where no one had dared to sleep for 20 years, I investigated poltergeists, I visited mediums and spiritualists and psychics, I trained as a witch and learnt to read Tarot cards, I got a crystal ball and the I Ching, and I kept thinking: Somewhere there has got to be something. I was obsessed.
Most people have lots of odd experiences they don’t talk about – because they don’t really have the words for them, because they’re embarrassed, sometimes because they’re absolutely terrified
Eventually, after several years, there came a point when I thought: ‘I don’t think there are any paranormal phenomena.’ It was a really difficult admission. I mean, to have thrown myself – everything that I was – into proving these things to be true and then find that they’re not… I then became rather a sceptic.
But then I thought: Well, I did have this amazing experience and I should try to understand it in some other way. And that led to a whole new phase of my life.
Do you regret the time you devoted to parapsychology?
No, absolutely not. One of the things I researched was why people believe in the paranormal, and that led to all sorts of interesting work on out-of-the-body experiences, alien-abduction experiences, sleep paralysis…
Most people have lots of odd experiences they don’t talk about, partly because they don’t really have the words for them, partly because they’re embarrassed – and sometimes because they’re absolutely terrified.
Some people do talk about them, perhaps, and call them ‘spiritual experiences’.
Yes, but then what do you mean by ‘spiritual’? Because I consider that I have a spiritual life, I am on some sort of spiritual path; but I don’t believe in spirits and I don’t believe in God and I don’t believe in life after death. So, what am I talking about? Spirituality without spirit?
That brings us to Zen Buddhism…
Of all the things I tried in my youth, Zen meditation was the only one I really stuck with, and eventually I became a serious student. I have meditated every day for over 20 years, I have been on many, many intensive retreats; I have a Zen teacher, who has been very helpful, and I have trained with other Zen masters as well.
I’m not a Buddhist: I have not signed up to anything or taken any vows. Zen training entails practising being mindful in everyday life – not wandering off into thoughts of the past, or what you want or don’t want and all of that stuff. And it involves very, very simple meditation: basically you sit down, shut up, don’t think and look into the mind as it arises.
It means becoming acquainted with all the foibles of your own mind – which include wonderful things, terrifying things, things that make you angry, regrets, hopes… And you find as you practise that you’re constantly clinging onto these things or else pushing them away – you know, ‘I don’t want that thought, I want this one.’ And all of these things in Zen are considered to be traps that lead you into constructing a false idea of yourself. Really, there isn’t a thing called ‘the self’, and a lot of it is about getting used to that idea and letting go of everything. Which can be a lifetime’s work.
Is there any empirical evidence that supports Zen?
In a very broad sense. I love one of the Buddha’s fundamental teachings, which is ‘dependent arising’: the idea that everything that happens – including one’s own actions – happens because of what happened before. This was a stunning thing to be saying two-and-a-half thousand years ago, when most people believed that spirits of various kinds ran the world, or that gods intervened or whatever. But of course that is how we now know it to be: the law of cause and effect is just physics. So, this is a really, to me, encouraging commonality between basic science and Buddhism.
(What amazes me is how there can be scientists who are Christians or Muslims. I mean, I just don’t get it.)
Could you be accused of cherrypicking from Zen?
‘I’ am just a story built by a brain – and the brain changes all the time. We take the self to be a permanent thing, but it is impermanent like everything else
Yes, I suppose I could be. I mean, take reincarnation. One of the central insights that the Buddha had under the Bodhi tree was that, like everything else, the self arises and falls away and arises and falls away. Well, if that’s true, there can’t be reincarnation in the popular sense of, you know, when you die you will be reborn as a frog or whatever. I mean, what is the ‘you’? This is the problem. If I have understood the Buddhist teaching at all – and it’s difficult, so I might not have – it’s that the self is not something that continues, even in one life. I’m not the same self that I was 20 years ago, or even a few minutes ago at the start of this interview.
Putting it in neuroscientific terms, the brain is constantly building up a story about itself, so ‘I’ am just a story built by a brain – and the brain changes all the time. Suddenly it switches attention and a different self arises. We take the self to be a permanent thing, but it is impermanent like everything else.
Isn’t it strange that a materialist who believes that we are nothing but active atoms –
I don’t call myself a materialist. I would say I’m some kind of monist, but I don’t know what kind. I am not saying that all the world is material and there’s nothing else, and I am not saying that all the world is thought and there’s nothing else. Neither of those works.
So, you’re not a ‘nothing-butterer’?
People always say I am, but no, I just think – there are many, many reasons dualism doesn’t work. If you follow Descartes and you believe in a separate mind and a separate body, how do they relate to each other? You can’t explain in that way what needs to be explained: how it is that we are conscious, how I can be aware of the colour of those beautiful trees out there.
And this is one of many reasons that I find Zen so encouraging, because non-duality is right at the heart of it. Indeed, although very often in Zen one is taught that there is no path and nowhere to go, that when you reach enlightenment you will realise that it just is how it always was, nevertheless they still say one can realise – make real – non-duality.
And this makes such a lot of sense to me, because sitting in meditation, particularly on a solitary retreat up in the Welsh mountains, it’s relatively easy to drop into a state in which self and other become one. Not in the dramatic way that I first experienced it, but in a more natural way – it just seems obvious that the self is not separate from the world. Which I think is fundamental.
A lot of Christians would reject dualism, too…
But if you believe in another world, a world inhabited by angels, the world to which we go after death, you’ve got a problem. I think it is totally wrong to say: Here’s this material world that we see, but all around us are other realms and higher vibrations and all of that stuff.
Not all Christians take those ideas literally.
But why be a Christian, then? Doesn’t being a Christian mean actually believing that [the Bible] was written by God, even though it is riddled with inconsistencies and actually has vile things in it? If you don’t believe this obvious rubbish – and I know lots of people who call themselves Christians and don’t – in what sense are you a Christian? It’s so dishonest!
You sometimes seem to feel angry at religion.
Yes. Well, I do! I do!
In the Guardian recently,2theguardian.com you wrote that religion is costly and harmful because it demands a lot of time. But Zen meditation seems to demand quite a lot of your time. Why is that a good use of time but praying is not?
Oh, good question! I do ask that myself. I go on a retreat where you are cut off from the world completely for a week, you’re not allowed to speak, your identity is essentially taken away from you, because you wear very simple clothes, you don’t look at anybody and they’re not supposed to look at you. It’s very similar to brainwashing and so I’m thinking: ‘Uh-oh, that’s really bad.’
But let me say something about that Guardian piece. I have for a long time, in following [Richard] Dawkins’ work and writing about memes, thought of religions as viruses of the mind. Now, I know it’s only a metaphor, but if it means anything it means that religions are damaging and are ‘selfishly’ using human bodies and brains to get themselves copied – for their own advantage, not for ours or the advantage of our genes. However, I recently went to a conference and heard a lot of evidence that was new to me – and overwhelming – that showed that, in the three ways that matter, being religious actually has positive effects.
I’d already read quite a lot of research that said that people claim to be happier and healthier if they’re religious. There’s also a lot of new evidence now that people are more co-operative and altruistic, even if only to the in group. And, finally, the overwhelming evidence is that religious people have more children – and not in just one religion, or just one country or just one age, but all over the place.
So, I’ve made a shift from saying that religions are viruses of the mind to saying that religion is costly and damaging – no question! – and untruthful but it works. The cost is worth paying from the gene’s point of view. So, we have a situation in which untruthful ideas are thriving, and will go on thriving, because they have all these positive effects on people. I find that extremely uncomfortable.
I wish that some Christians or Muslims or whatever would be a bit more honest and say: ‘Given that the idea of God doesn’t make sense’ – I mean, we got here by evolution and we have no ultimate purpose – ‘what else is available?’ Why don’t you join those of us who are atheists who would love to develop a spirituality without spirit: something that encourages us to try to understand the world in ways that are not purely materialist and self-centred but take one beyond oneself, a way of growing as human beings in empathy and compassion and openness and awareness and self-awareness which doesn’t need to involve ludicrous ideas such as that God created us for a purpose. We have these spiritual yearnings, but I think religion holds us back.
Dawkins talks about the harm the fundamentalists do, but I agree with Sam Harris3The US author of the best-seller The End of Faith: Religion, terror, and the future of reason (2004) and Letter to a Christian Nation (2006) that nice, liberal religious people are as much of a problem, because they are saying that faith (which means believing in something even if there isn’t any evidence for it) is a good thing. Of course, even as a scientist you’ve got to have faith – for example, that the basic laws of physics are not going to change tomorrow. But I think that’s very different from the faith you get in religion, which says almost ‘It’s good to believe something without evidence.’
But I think that most of my anger comes from the wickedness and cruelty promulgated by religion – particularly by Catholicism at the moment.
But wickedness and cruelty are not unique to religion –
No, indeed. Maybe I’m just a really angry person.
Sometimes you come across as an angry person; at other times you come across as really warm.
Well, you can be warm and angry, can’t you? I admit to being passionate.
You have said several times that we have no purpose…
It seems to me that, as far as I can tell, the universe has no ultimate purpose – it’s pointless. We are here just because it so happens the laws of physics are the way they are and evolution is inevitable given the way it is.
OK, if I really, really took all this on board and saw everything as just empty stuff happening, nothing more important than anything else, how would I then behave? I think I just would respond this way
In that case, why are you so passionate about things?
I just am a passionate person.
But are you also pointless?
You were so indignant when [Pope Benedict XVI] came to Britain, because of all the things the Roman Catholic Church has done to people. But so what, if those people are pointless, too?
Indeed. I suppose one could simply say I’m not enlightened. OK, if I really, really, really took all this on board and saw everything as just empty stuff happening, nothing more important than anything else, how would I then behave? I think, given that I am an ordinary human being with a brain and emotions – and dead parents and alive children and all the other things that make up my life – I just would respond this way.
I know that ultimately there’s no point to it, I know that all that I do is simply because I have invented some temporary purpose for doing things; but when I see somebody suffering, I want to help. When I see somebody being horrible, I want to shout at them. I mean, these are just natural human responses, aren’t they?
Let’s talk about consciousness.
Ah, the great mystery! It is a great mystery. It is a phenomenally great mystery as far as science is concerned. That’s why it’s so exciting.
So, where does it reside?
It’s a mystery! The mystery is about dualism. It appears to be the case that there is a physical world – I can hit it and feel it, I can hit you and you will agree that you felt it. There is undoubtedly my experience of the delightful turquoise colour of your socks, and I know enough about how the brain works to know that other people looking at those socks will call them ‘green’ and others will call them ‘blue’, because we all have different visual systems. Private subjective experiences seem to be a very different kind of thing from the physical world.
Look inside the skull and what have you got? You’ve got a brain made of billions of neurons, and all those neurons are doing is shunting electrical impulses and little molecules of chemicals here and there, back and forth. That’s all they’re doing. How can that be, or give rise to, or be responsible for – I don’t even know what the right word is! – the experience of that turquoise?
That is the mystery and it’s all around us. I cannot honestly deny that I seem to be having an experience of turquoise. There seems to be a me over here and there seems to be a sock over there. Nor can I deny that if we chop open a brain in the lab we will see all these neurons and everything. But these two things seem completely incommensurable.
So, if we don’t have a spirit but we’re more than a mass of molecules…?
I don’t know. There’s something fundamental that we don’t understand about the universe that gives rise to this dualism. It seems to me that the self is an illusion. Consciousness seems to be all sorts of things we know it can’t be. So, I think the question that is pushing me now is something like: How do these illusions come about? Why is it that a brain and a body in a world like this give rise to all these false intuitions about what’s going on?
We are coming to understand more and more how the brain makes its decisions – and there’s less and less room for a self or a soul or any other kind of magical thing in there
I am not my body, I’m something that inhabits my body. I am something separate from the world – over here, experiencing the world over there. We make that fundamental break between self and the world very early on in life – and think of other people as being like that, too. And also that I have free will. The normal, everyday idea of free will is that somehow my consciousness, my mind, my spirit, whatever you think it is, can choose to do things regardless, not as an inevitable consequence of events in the brain but in some kind of magical way. That’s another one of these interlinked illusions.
Can we get any empirical evidence either way?
There is plenty of evidence that suggests that, for example, in many supposedly free decisions the brain has made up its mind before the person is aware that they have decided what to do. And we are coming to understand more and more how the brain makes its decisions – and, as time goes on, there’s less and less room for a self or a soul or any other kind of magical thing in there.
But, as we were saying about the paranormal, if you are looking for some magic in the brain and you don’t immediately find it, that doesn’t prove it’s not there.
Let’s talk about memes. Is meme theory itself a meme?
Yes. The idea of memes is simply that all of the masses and masses of information that makes up our culture is competing to get itself copied, using our brains. Memes can be words, songs, stories, designs, scientific theories, monetary systems, technologies, religions or just ways of doing things. Normally, we think that we design our culture for our own benefit. The memetic way of looking at it is that we are participants in a huge evolutionary process. And things succeed in being copied for all sorts of different reasons – and this is where ‘viruses of the mind’ comes in, because bad things can succeed because they trick you, just as good things can fail because people don’t realise that they’re good.
So, atheism, too, would be a meme?
Yeah. But some ‘memeplexes’ contain instructions to copy them – you know, ‘Go and spread the good news of Jesus!’ So, memeplexes like that do better than others not because they’re better for you, not because they’re truer, not because they make you happier or for any other reason than that they are packaged in such a way that they encourage their bearers to spread them.
So, the fact that the Church of England has far more members than the British Humanist Society…
Humanism does not include the instruction ‘You must try and make everybody else be humanists.’ It teaches freedom of thought and tolerance of different ideas, which isn’t terribly successful as a meme. Humanists are kind of nice and laid-back, whereas people who are infected with Christianity become Christianity-spreading meme-machines.
At present, meme theory is not a successful meme, is it?
No. The term is becoming more common, but there are no departments of memetics, and very few books on it. On the whole, scientists don’t like the word ‘memes’.
Why do you think that is?
Sometimes, I think, people feel that it would be harder to get published. Sometimes, I think, people have simply not understood. I think it’s partly because they’re frightened of the potential consequences. I mean, if you push memetics far enough you see all of us as little copying machines doing our best to copy the memes we think are good for us but actually being tricked endlessly by ones that aren’t and floundering in this massive overload of memes. And it suggests that our selves are part of this whole thing: they are memeplexes constructed within the brain to create an illusion of self. And all of these ideas are a bit unsettling.
Above all, it’s terribly hard to think of ways of testing this kind of theory. I don’t think it’s untestable, but I think it’s a bit like evolutionary theory a hundred years ago. And we haven’t yet found what it can be useful for, though I think somebody will. But, you know, I’ll just have to wait and see. I have been wrong so many times before, I can easily be wrong again.
You have shown a willingness to change your mind –
You have to do that in science.
What would it take to convince you there was a God?
Well, I suppose if he looked in the window and looked like the traditional picture of God and went, ‘Hello. I’m here,’ that would convince me.
I suppose it is possible that something might come out of cosmology or physics that suggested that this world could not have come about without some kind of weird thing. But what sort of weird thing? I wouldn’t just go – as an awful lot of people do – ‘Oh, it’s God,’ end of story. That’s a vacuous thought.
This edit was originally published in the November 2010 issue of Third Way.
Susan Blackmore was born in 1951 and educated at Queenswood School. She studied psychology and physiology at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, and then gained her master’s degree and, in 1980, a doctorate in parapsychology at Surrey University.
She began lecturing in psychology in 1974, first at North East London Polytechnic (now the University of East London), then at Surrey and at Thames Polytechnic (now the University of Greenwich).
From 1980 to ’88, she was visiting research fellow at the Brain and Perception Laboratory at Bristol University. She then ran the university’s behavioural sciences course for a year, and then lectured at Bath University for a year and at Bristol until 1991.
From 1992, she was senior lecturer and then (from 1998) reader in psychology at the University of the West of England. She gave up this post in 2002 to concentrate on writing about consciousness.
She is the author of over 60 academic articles.
Her books include Beyond the Body (1982); Dying to Live (1993); Test Your Psychic Powers, with Adam Hart-Davis (1995); the autobiographical In Search of the Light (1996); The Meme Machine (1999), which has been translated into 15 other languages; Consciousness: An introduction (2003; 2nd edn 2010); Consciousness (for OUP’s popular series of ‘very short introductions’) and Conversations on Consciousness (both 2005); and Ten Zen Questions (2009).
She blogs for the Guardian and Psychology Today, and is a frequent contributor to radio and television, from Newsnight to The One Show. In 1994, she made ‘Close Encounters’ for BBC2’s Horizon, and in 2001 she presented The Cleverest Ape in the World on Channel 4. In 2003, she won the ‘boffins special’ of BBC2’s The Weakest Link.
She has a daughter and son from her first marriage, and married again.
Up-to-date as at 1 October 2010