Research interests include memes, evolutionary theory, consciousness, and meditation.
Science & Religion
Psychologist and Writer (UK)
Susan Blackmore is a British psychologist, freelance writer and lecturer, and is best known for her book The Meme Machine. She is author of over sixty academic articles and eighty book contributions.
Her books have been translated into more than 20 other languages and include Dying to Live: Near-death experiences, (1993), Conversations on Consciousness (2005), Zen and the Art of Consciousness (2011), Seeing Myself: The new science of out-of-body experiences (2017) and Consciousness: An Introduction (third edition due 2017).
In 1973, Susan Blackmore graduated from St Hilda's College, Oxford, with a BA (Hons) degree in psychology and physiology. In 1980, she earned a PhD in parapsychology from the same university; her doctoral thesis was entitled "Extrasensory Perception as a Cognitive Process." In the 1980s, Blackmore conducted psychokinesis experiments to see if her baby daughter, Emily, could influence a random number generator. The experiments were mentioned in the book to accompany the TV series Arthur C. Clarke's World Of Strange Powers. After spending time in research on parapsychology and the paranormal, her attitude towards the field moved from belief to scepticism. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly CSICOP) and in 1991, was awarded the CSICOP Distinguished Skeptic Award.
Blackmore taught at the University of the West of England in Bristol until 2001 and is now Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth. Her research interests include memes, evolutionary theory, consciousness, and meditation.
Positive Scepticism: The new science of out-of-body experiences.
At its worst, scepticism is just debunking – showing other people that their explanations for apparently mysterious phenomena are wrong; at its best scepticism rejects such wrong explanations not by debunking but by providing better ones. Recent research on out-of-body experiences (OBEs) is a great example of the latter.
An out-of-body experience (OBE) is when you seem to perceive the world from a location outside your physical body. This neutral definition means that if you seem to be outside your body then it is, by definition, an OBE. This leaves open for investigation the big question – does something leave the body? If so, what is it (a soul, a spirit, an astral body, an etheric double)? If not, how can these vivid and sometimes life-changing experiences be explained?
When I had a dramatic OBE in 1970 the only explanations around were in terms of astral projection. In the following decade some psychological explanations were developed, including my own, but they could not really explain OBEs in detail. This meant that the media could always trivialise theories into two opposing camps. Either OBEs are (1) ‘real’ actual journeys (i.e. exciting, spiritual, enlightening, worthwhile), or (2) ‘just illusions’, ‘mere dreams’ or ‘only hallucinations’ (i.e. uninteresting and of no value at all); they expected ‘sceptics’ like myself to debunk OBEs in this way and I struggled to make people realise that they are life-changing and important experiences even if nothing does leave the body.
Now we know that the truth is far more interesting than either extreme. In 2002, Swiss neurosurgeon Olaf Blanke accidentally induced an OBE by stimulating the right temporoparietal junction in a patient with epilepsy, and since then research has leapt ahead. This brain area constructs our body schema: a detailed and constantly updated model of our body oriented in space, and contributes to three aspects of self-modelling – our point of view, sense of embodiment and ownership. These have been independently manipulated using virtual reality to induce full body illusions that share many features of naturally occurring OBEs.
At last the OBE has gone from being a weird, fringe topic loved by the media but shunned by serious scientists and philosophers, to one that is actively contributing to our understanding of the nature of self and consciousness. This is an example of how scepticism can be of positive use to people who have strange experiences and want to understand them.