Teen Skepchick Interview: Dr Susan Blackmore, Part 2
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.
This is the second half of an interview with psychologist Dr Susan Blackmore. Read Part 1 here.
What’s the most compelling evidence for a paranormal realm that you ever encountered in your studies?
Before I went to Cambridge, it was definitely the Ganzfeld experiment. Then that was blown out of the water. I suppose to begin with I saw the out-of-body experience as powerful evidence but when I began to study it and did experiments and so on, I decided that it wasn’t a paranormal experience- just a really, really interesting one.
It’s a very powerful experience, just not necessarily a paranormal one.
Exactly. I sometimes think that some of the amazing claims of the spiritualist mediums; if only those were true they would be amazing, but I have no reason to believe that they are. Just occasionally amazing coincidences happen and I think “Maybe! Could it possibly be?” but then I realise no, it couldn’t. Now I look back, and I can’t think of anything that now seems to me to potentially be evidence for the paranormal.
Every time I met something that looked like it, I went and investigated it. The problem is that investigating one of these claims is such hard work- usually, not always. Sometimes you find out straight away what’s going on. But usually it’s really hard work. I got to the point, about ten years ago- a bit more than ten years ago- when I thought, “I just can’t bear this any more. I don’t want to do it any more. I will go into every investigation now thinking that I won’t find anything”- and that’s not a healthy way to go into it. Also, there was the depressing feeling that I didn’t want to spend the hours and days and weeks and all the time that it took to really thoroughly investigate something.
Somebody might come close to death, they say they floated out of their body, they’ve seen something in the corner of the hospital that nobody could possibly have known about, and they come back and tell this. Then we would have to go there, interview the people in the hospital, find this corner, see whether anybody was told the story independently before the claim got out… It just takes forever, and that was the reason why I did a big statement in 2000 saying that I was giving up parapsychology.
Before that point, do you feel as though your paranormal belief changed with age?
I would say it began when I was a teenager. When I was a teenager, it was just this interesting new thing. Then when I had that out-of-body experience it went to my total belief in it, 100%, nobody could have told me I was wrong. Then gradually, it got less and less. There were times when I was sceptical and said that it absolutely couldn’t exist, then I would remind myself “No amount of not finding things can prove they don’t exist”. I eventually settled into where I am now, really, which is that everything I know about the world suggests there are no paranormal phenomena. It’s not absolutely impossible; occasionally I read something and I think “Woo! Could it be true?” and I think that’s how it should be. You should have enough of an open mind that if there really was some compelling evidence you would go and look for it.
You have to take into account new evidence as well. I can understand why things like that can be exciting if they look promising.
I used to get loads of letters and emails and things from people accusing me of not having an open mind and asking why I didn’t investigate this or that. The answer is, as a scientist- particularly as you get older- you realise that you haven’t got infinite life. You have only got limited time, and energy, and lab space, and help, and money, and all the other things that it takes to do experiments. You only have a very limited amount of that. You have to make decisions about what is worth doing in your lifetime. I came to the conclusion that going on devoting my energy to parapsychology was a waste of time. If someone should come up with something really amazing, that people have done properly and I have no reason to believe is just more of the same, then I might be prepared to go back and have another go. Like I said, it’s such hard work and is so demoralising that it would have to be something really spectacular to make me do that now.
You’re obviously a sceptic of paranormal activity now, but do you consider yourself a sceptic in the wider sense?
Certainly in religious terms, I am an atheist. I don’t see that that could change. I think the concept of God is just impossible. Unless you’re talking about Einstein’s God, as in the totality of the universe and that kind of thing- okay, fine, but nothing religious.
I have a very strong spiritual leaning, which has led me into many things. That was part of my pursuit of the paranormal, because I was endlessly fascinated by states of mind and the nature of self- I have been practising Zen for more than 30 years, and meditating every day for 25 years. I do it in a non-religious way. I see it as learning about your own mind. I don’t have a better word to describe it than a ‘spiritual’ path, but I don’t actually believe in spirits or anything.
Do you see it as a kind of relaxation?
Oh, no. It’s enquiry. If you relax it’s in order to relax the mind from the business of the day in order to see clearly your own mind. Now I see my out-of-body experience as being a mystical experience, or a spiritual experience; not one going to another world or involving spirits or anything, but in the classic sense, how I felt one with the universe and all of that. I think, in some way, we are all at one with the universe. We aren’t separate; we’re made of physical stuff like everything else. That kind of insight I believe is a genuine insight. Meditating every day is part of trying to loosen up the illusion that we are a separate self, and that we have to live in our own heads. That to me is an important part of my life. When I was deeply involved in the sceptical movement, a lot of people didn’t like that.
I can imagine. At times, even the sceptical movement can come across as close-minded- especially to something that appears on the surface to be spiritual; they can be judgmental.
Absolutely they can, and I had real trouble with that in the 80s and early 90s. One time I was on the executive council of CSICOP- it doesn’t exist any more, there’s now the Centre for Inquiry or whatever. I was also on the council for the Society for Psychical Research; as far as I know I am the only person who has ever been on both of those at the same time- or ever. I felt as though they both ought to be friends! They’re both trying to do the same thing. The sceptics claim to be open minded investigating claims of the paranormal, and the psychic researchers claim to be investigating claims of the paranormal, but they hated each other. I was in trouble from both sides. Eventually it got too much for me, but for many years I tried to broker some sort of connection between the two organisations.
To go on with your question about in what other ways I am sceptical, there are some things like astrology, for example, that I am absolutely sceptical of. There have been so, so many experiments- and because the claims of astrology are quite clear, you can refute them and show them to be false. It’s not like looking for paranormal phenomena.
It’s not a vague, undefined thing. They’re stating what they’re looking for, so you can disprove it.
Exactly. So I’m quite- I hope not entirely dogmatic- but I’m very sure about that. Homeopathy too, which I just think is terrible. But other things, there are all sorts of other alternative therapies that I’m pretty open minded about because it’s just an evidence question and we don’t have the evidence yet. What other things are there to be sceptical about…? I guess, that’s mostly it.
How would you talk to people, particularly friends, about the paranormal when you’re a sceptic and they’re not, without causing an argument or offending them?
That’s so, so difficult and it’s one of the reasons I got out of parapsychology- even though there were many reasons. I found myself getting so angry- I mean, incandescent with fury. I can still do it, not that I mean to do it. I was over in Amsterdam talking about my book on Zen, back in February, and I just felt this awful rage. And then a few months ago I was doing this whole weekend course with some hypnotherapists and I actually- this woman was going on and on about this ghost- I actually flung myself on the ground and beat my fists on the ground and said “I cant bear it!” I was so angry. It’s one of the reasons I got out; if you’re going to be that angry then you’re not any good to anybody.
It can be very frustrating trying to convince people- or even just get your point across as a sceptic.
It’s horrendous. I know. I think that’s a really good question, but I’m not a very good person to ask because on the whole, I’m not very good at it.
It’s certainly not an easy question to answer.
But it’s a very important question! What I would say is to stick to your guns, in the sense of it’s all too easy to be sucked over into going “Yes, of course, well, maybe!” The best thing is to gently say “What about evidence?” or “What would change your mind if you’re so sure?” If they can’t answer that then there’s no point going on arguing about it. You can help people to think a bit more scientifically. Let’s say someone has had an out-of-body experience, or a near-death experience, or an amazing vision or an apparition, I would say that my advice would be to concentrate on their experience itself, not on their theories about it.
It’s quite often sleep paralysis. It’s classic! People have sleep paralysis and they’re sure it’s this ghost or succubus there. Concentrate on the experience. That is what I found with a huge number of people who believe in the paranormal. They’ve had an experience they can’t explain, like I did. We know how to explain out-of-body experiences and sleep paralysis and all of these things. If you can do justice to that experience and help them describe it to you, and say “That’s interesting, it sounds like it could be this, which scientifically means this…” you can kind of deflect them from saying that it proves the paranormal. Ultimately, if they’re stubborn, all I can do is scream and throw things around the room, then I go away feeling awful. So don’t follow my lead.
You said that as a teenager you were interested in becoming a doctor. How do you think your original plans compare to your life now and your jobs now?
I’m really glad I didn’t become a doctor. Really glad. All of my life, whenever anything went wrong, I had to suffer my mum saying “If you were a doctor it would have all been all right!” I have friends who are doctors, and I just know that that life wouldn’t have suited me. I have learnt more about myself as my life has gone on, and fundamentally I have an enquiring nature and want to find out what’s going on. Most of a doctor’s life is not doing that- medicine isn’t doing science. In medicine you learn to apply things, deal with people and try to understand their illnesses and make them better. Frankly, in all my studies of psychology, I was never interested in psychotherapy or making people better, or about the problems they have. I don’t think I would have been a good doctor because I’m not really interested in people.
I’m interested in fundamental questions about the nature of life. Finding things out; understanding the deepest mysteries. What is consciousness? What is the mind? Why are we here, what is it all about, what does it mean to be ‘aware’? Those kinds of questions. How on Earth did the brain do it? How did we evolve to have such amazing brains. I also need a hell of a lot of sleep, and doctors don’t get that. I look back on my peculiar winding route and think “How wonderful that I have been able to live in a society that is rich enough to be able to support people who want to spend their lives in open inquiry, trying to understand the nature of the universe. I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve been able to make a living out of trying to understand the universe. So I’m very happy with it, even though there were periods when my kids were young when I thought that I would never be able to earn a living let alone do anything really useful. I’m very pleased that this is the way it came out. I must emphasise that this isn’t like a career where you say “This is what I’m going to do” and do it. Nor did I ever design where I was going next. At every stage in my life it was always “What do I want to find out next? How am I going to do it?”
What general tips or advice can you offer to a teenager or young person about developing their scepticism?
Follow your desire to learn. If there’s something that you want to find out, pursue that. Other people will tell you, this is interesting or that is interesting- whatever. What will give you the greatest pleasure and what you will do best is the thing that drives you, that you don’t quite understand or that you want to understand. Be true to your own curiosity. It’s like A-level students who are saying “What should I choose to do at university? What career should I have?” My advice is always that if you do what you or your parents think will turn out best, there’s no guarantee. If you follow what you want to do or find out, then you will always work harder at it because you are driven from the inside to want to learn. If you work harder at something you’ll do better and therefore you’ll have a much better time of it and end up doing something worthwhile. It requires some courage. If you don’t have that kind of courage, go and do something safe. If you feel courageous and curious then that would be my advice.
Thanks once more for the amazing interview, Dr Blackmore!