Teen Skepchick Interview: Dr Susan Blackmore, Part 1

This post is part of the Teen Skepchick Interviews series, where TS writers talk with amazing women scientists and skeptics about life, the universe, and everything.

We interviewed Dr Blackmore largely because of her work in the field of parapsychology; the scientific study of all things paranormal. The interview charts her movement from belief to scepticism; and her admirable quest for evidence in the field.


Who you are and what do you do?

I’m Sue Blackmore, a psychologist- you might say more of a neuroscientist, because psychologists normally deal with real people, which I don’t. I study the mind, and the brain. I’m a visiting professor at the University of Plymouth, and otherwise a freelance writer, broadcaster… whatever!

Sounds like a great career!

I never used to think of it as a career; I’ve always rather hated the idea of “having a career”. But now I’m nearly sixty, looking back, I guess you could call it a career.

You’re a psychologist- what initially drew you to psychology?

Well, it’s quite odd really. When I was doing my A-levels at school, I thought I wanted to do medicine. But then I realised that I didn’t want to do medicine and spend my life helping sick people and it was all a terrible mistake, and I freaked out and turned down all of my places at medical school. My parents were absolutely furious, and said, “You can’t waste the next year, you have to take the Oxbridge exam” – which doesn’t exist any more, but did then – “and see if you can get into Oxford.”

I love biology, but my biology teachers at that time told me “Biology is finished, we’ve done it all.” Can you believe what they would say now? But this was the early sixties, and we were yet to see the impact of the whole genetic revolution. Anyway, they said that the science of the future is psychology, and I think that that was very good advice. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do having given up medicine, so I thought “Okay,” and I went to Oxford and did physiology and psychology, and loved it.
I was thrilled and excited to be in Oxford. At school I always felt out of place. I always felt people didn’t like me, and that I didn’t fit in, and I was the cleverest in the class and was laughed at for being clever. But when I went to Oxford, I was completely normal. I was surrounded by people who were much cleverer than me- I was okay, but for the first time in my life I felt at ease. I enjoyed myself and I loved my course. But then, in my first term, I had this dramatic out-of-body experience, and that’s why I got into this non-career, if you can call it that.

You’re also an ex-parapsychologist; how would you define parapsychology for a teen audience?

The scientific study of claims of the paranormal. I would define the paranormal as parapsychologists do, to cover four phenomena; telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis and precognition. If you study all of those things scientifically, then that’s parapsychology. Some people might say they’re a parapsychologist because they’re a tarot reader, but they’re not. It’s the scientific study of these things, just like biology is the scientific study of the biosphere and chemistry is the scientific study of chemicals. It’s the scientific study of paranormal phenomena. The difference now is that I don’t think paranormal phenomena exist. That doesn’t stop there being a scientific study to look for them or to see what they are and whether they do exist.

What made you progress to parapsychology from psychology?

Mostly the out-of-body experience in my first term. It was amazingly dramatic. I was burning the candle at both ends- it was my first term and I was excited by everything. I was working hard, and playing hard, and not getting enough sleep. I joined and then ran the university students’ psychical research society- The Oxford University Society for Psychical Research. I was interested in so many different things, I joined all kinds of societies; but this one I got particularly interested in. We had a lot of psychics and mediums coming to give lectures and we did ouija board stuff, and all of that.

One night, we did this ouija board -which I would honestly say is a stupid thing to do. Not because it’s attracting spirits but because you’re messing with your own mind and it’s not really a sensible thing to do; but we did that. I was sitting around afterwards, very tired and in a slightly spacey frame of mind- we smoked some dope, listened to music, and I just started going down this tunnel towards a bright light.

A friend of mine who was sat there said, “Where are you Sue?” And I kind of thought, “Well, where am I? I’m in a tunnel and I’m going towards a light, but I can’t be, I must be in my room.” As I thought all that, it all because clear and it was as though I was looking down from the ceiling on the room below. That went on for two hours, and it seemed to me at the time like I had travelled all over the place. I went to the Mediterranean and visited some islands, and I went to New York, and I travelled around Oxford and looked at things so I could check the next day whether they were right. It was so intense- so realistic, so vivid, that I couldn’t forget about it.

Two things struck me really. One was that there was nothing in my psychology degree that I was learning that was telling me what this could be, and two, I leapt to all of these beliefs like that proves there’s an astral body- I had heard about astral projection- it proves life after death, it proves that I have a spirit or a soul that can leave the body. I just assumed all of those things were true. I was eighteen or nineteen, and it seemed true to me. That laid the seed for me to want to find out more, so I carried on with the psychical research society and organising lectures and learnt quite a lot about it, so that by the end of my degree I thought, “That’s the way I want to go; that’s what I want to study. I want to prove to all of my close-minded lecturers in Oxford that they’re wrong, and the mind is not confined to the brain, and there’s more beyond.”

It’s a fascinating experience, and I know that it’s something that not many people go through so I can see why you wanted to study it more.

I really did, and my lecturers were saying, “You’re a bright student, you should go and do a PhD in something sensible. You could have a proper career ahead of you, but if you go and do parapsychology you’ll be burning your bridges and you’ll never be able to study anything serious ever again!” And I said I don’t care. It’s what I want to find out about.
At the end of the day, it was your choice to make.

Yeah, but it was a dangerous choice. Lots of people tried to put me off. The only serious parapsychologist in the country at the time tried to put me off. He said “Do you realise that if you do this, you’ll never be taken seriously by academics?” But I really, really didn’t care. I wanted to find out – I was a true scientist in the sense that I really wanted to know the answers- is there a soul, is there a spirit? If so, how does it work? What’s going on in our minds? That’s why I was absolutely determined to become a parapsychologist and I found a way to do it. I funded myself through a PhD, which was very rare at the time. I got a part-time job, and I began my PhD. I couldn’t immediately start researching out-of-body experiences, as it initially seemed too difficult. So I started doing experiments on telepathy, clairvoyance and so on, but I didn’t find any evidence of these paranormal phenomena, so I began to see the beginnings of becoming a sceptic. Gradually, as I thought more, and studied more, and did more experiments, I became even more sceptical. It was the evidence that made me sceptical.

Was it more a lack of evidence?

Yes, it was mostly the lack of evidence that changed my mind, but a lack of evidence on its’ own isn’t proof that it doesn’t exist. It was important that it was combined with other reasons. For example, I had my own theories on the relationship between telepathy and memory, and I thought that telepathy was really a kind of memory, and we’re all remembering things from the great psychic ether out there that connects us all- that sort of thing. I discovered that that was not a new theory- I thought I had invented it myself- but I discovered that lots of other people had similar theories in the past and they simply don’t work. When you pursue the idea, it falls to pieces, so that was another nail in the coffin. So were things like- I did lots of investigations of haunted houses and poltergeists and my experience all the time was that the deeper you delve into something, the more likely you are to find out that it was either wishful thinking, or actual mistakes someone has made, or occasionally -not very often- outright fraud.

What did attaining your PhD in parapsychology involve?

The British PhD system is fantastic, it’s slightly different now but very different from the American one. In Britain when you do a PhD you basically spend three years -or often more than that- doing research of your own supervised by a professor- but it’s basically your own research. You write it all up in a thesis at the end of the years of research you’ve done, and that’s all that I did. My supervisor knew next to nothing about parapsychology, but he did know about experimental design and statistics and so on, so to some extent he could help me with that. I learnt from other people, and from reading and so on, and I did lots and lots of experiments.

I did something like twenty experiments on telepathy and clairvoyance and some studies of tarot cards. Some of the experiments involved looking for telepathy in young children, because people said that young children are more psychic. Really what happened was I started with simple experiments, using other students as my subjects; trying to see if they could transmit a word or a picture using telepathy, but that didn’t work. So I tried other things. Some people said “If you relax them or train them in imagery, it’ll work better,” so I tried that and it didn’t make any difference.

Then people said that I should put them in the Ganzfeld -that’s a type of experiment when you put half ping-pong balls over people’s eyes and shine a red light on them so that all they see is a homogeneous pink, Then you have a kind of whooshing, white noise in their ears and get them very relaxed. There’ll be someone in another room looking at a picture, and the person in the Ganzfeld has to just talk; it’s half dream like because you just lie there saying “Oh I see this or that…” And then afterwards, you have to choose which of several pictures it was. I did laborious experiments using Ganzfeld, and they didn’t work. Then I thought, “I’ve learned to read tarot cards,” and that seemed to me to work, so I did that. I was always trying to turn another corner- trying to turn over another leaf, or whatever metaphor you like. Always people would say that I had done it wrong, and I needed to do this differently, and I went to playgroups and did experiments with three and four year old children, and always the results came out not significant.

I then had to write up all of those experiments, and subsequently published most of them. In terms of getting the PhD, I wrote this ‘book’, my thesis, with all the experiments in and my conclusions, and doubts, and everything else. To get the PhD you have to do the research, but you don’t have to get fantastic results. The point of a PhD is to prove that you have gone through training, that you’ve done experiments properly and that you’ve learnt something, and all those experiments that got negative results were sufficient to prove that I had really tackled the subject and done my best, and learnt a lot as I went along, even though at the end I had never found anything.

Was the teaching -although you mentioned it was more guidance- of the course generally sceptical?

I didn’t have any teaching at all. Typically in a PhD in Britain you don’t have any teaching, you’re just left to your own devices. As I said, it has slightly changed- we are talking forty years ago. You might now be required to attend statistics courses or go to certain lectures, but on the whole a PhD is done purely of your own accord. You get on with it yourself, you’re guided- you’ll have other colleagues around so you can talk to people, and you’re expected to submit reports to your supervisor as an indication of what you’ve done, but there’s no real teaching done. In America it’s different, in America if you do a PhD you have quite a lot of lectures and things you have to go to, but not in Britain.
What did your work in parapsychology involve?

I got my PhD, which I was thrilled about. I then got a call from the Netherlands, where there was at that time a thriving parapsychology lab. They said they had a little bit of money left over from a grant- enough for me to go there for four months and work in their lab, so I went there. That was fantastic, and I did some more experiments on Ganzfeld. The Ganzfeld research really bothered me and I desperately wanted to find out why another researcher, called Carl Sargent, at Cambridge University, was getting positive results when I wasn’t.

I got a tiny bit of money from the Society for Psychical Research to go to Cambridge and to visit his lab to try and find out if perhaps he was doing something different from me, which is why his experiments worked. I’m afraid to say that I found out that he was – I believe- cheating. That was the most traumatic experience for me; it was absolutely horrendous, because I had respected him as a colleague and friend and it was awful for me. I was too young- nowadays I might have a better way to get through that, but I just found it so hard- I didn’t know who to turn to, and the people I did turn to… I didn’t want to publicise it because I thought “I can’t accuse somebody of fraud unless I’m absolutely sure.” It was awful. Many years later we finally published what I thought, and he published saying that it absolutely wasn’t true and that I was writing sceptical fairy tales. That was one thing that happened.

Then I went off to the Netherlands for four months, and I didn’t have any money- I was married by then. I was trying to scrape a living doing odd evening classes. I started teaching evening classes in parapsychology and earned a tiny bit of money that way; I scraped along. Then I was asked to write a book on out-of-body experiences because the Society for Psychical Research was having its 100th anniversary in 1982, and so in 1981 they said that they wanted to have some books to celebrate their centenary. They asked me to write one on out-of-body experiences because I had given lectures on that- and that was my beginning of becoming a writer. I was thrilled to be asked, so I started to write that book- I finished it just before my daughter was born. In fact, I was actually writing the last bit when I went into labour with her! That was published in 1982 and I managed somehow- I had two children, one in 1982 and one in 1984- to do a little bit of research on the side whilst bringing up my kids.

My husband was a lecturer in the university in Bristol, but it was a very, very uncertain time. I had no confidence. If I look back now, and I think to then, when I was in my late twenties or around thirty, if I had known what would happen in the future I wouldn’t have been so frightened. Then, I had no idea that I would end up writing books that had done quite well, or being quite well-known. I wouldn’t mind so much knowing that I only had enough money to scrape along, because I wanted to do it. So I kept writing things, I did a little bit of research on my own- I did surveys on out-of-body experiences, I interviewed people who had been near death; I did all sorts of things like that. I can remember putting my kids in the playpen and sitting at my typewriter- no computers then- typing things and trying to look after the kids at the same time, and so I bumbled along, really.
I sometimes find that other women are quite encouraged by this. I didn’t have a full time job, I didn’t go the standard career path at all- I didn’t go into university and work my way through all that competitive system. I just did the science I wanted to do because I really wanted to know the answers- and eventually I thought “I had better get a job.” Then, at the University of the West of England- all the polytechnics were turning into universities, and I got a job there. It was the only time in my life I ever had a job, which was for ten years there. As soon as I could, I stopped again and went back to being freelance which I much prefer.

As this interview was very long- but also very awesome- it will be published in two halves. The second half will be posted next Thursday.

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  1. June 23, 2011 at 8:09 pm —

    Can’t wait for the second half!

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